This post is part of a series discussing the 2013 Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) 8th International Conference of Feminism and Orthodoxy. You can read my notes on this session here.
I had the privilege to attend the 2013 JOFA Conference. I really enjoyed the experience, and learned a lot about diverse topics. I will be posting my impressions of every session I attended. Here’s the first one!
The first session I attended was the Opening Plenary. JOFA President Judy Heicklen and VP Bat Sheva Marcus opened the conference. They were followed by Ronnie Becher, founding JOFA member; Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School; Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, an inaugural graduate of Yeshivat Maharat and Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment at Congregation Sha'ar Hashomayim; and Leah Sarna, a philosophy major at Yale. Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon also joined the plenary.
Although Calderon was sort of an add-on, I didn’t mind her inclusion at all. It was an honor to hear such a distinguished politician who is so dedicated to the betterment of Israeli society and women’s status. Although she could have been serious and solemn, she spoke in a relatable manner, peppering humor and personal anecdotes throughout her speech. Calderon’s presence was important, because it showed that Orthodox feminism does not just improve the status of Orthodox women; it helps members of every Jewish denomination.
The Jewish feminist blogosphere has been squeeing over Leah Sarna’s speech, which can be watched here. I hadn’t known that she would be speaking beforehand, so I was happily surprised to see a fellow undergrad at the podium. It was good to see that JOFA is making space for younger women and men to enter the conversation and bring their thoughts and ideas to the organization.
I found Sarna’s speech interesting, although I doubt that her call for equal religious expectations for girls and boys will be followed through on in the near future. The only way the community will start to expect girls to show up at Shahrit (morning prayers) – and the only way girls will actually drag themselves out of bed before 7 AM – is if they have a halakhic obligation to do so. As the mainstream Orthodox interpretation of halakha does not include women’s participation in minyan (prayer quorum) as a religious obligation, very few would demand girls’ attendance at Shahrit. Consequently, Sarna was basically asking for a complete overhaul of the halakhic system. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing; however, I don’t know if this was what she was trying to say, or if the implication was accidental. Either way, although I don’t think it’ll happen on a systemic level anytime soon, I do agree that we should start from the bottom up and encourage increased participation in Jewish ritual for our daughters (as well as our sons).
However, this encouragement should not stem from a desire for equality, but rather a desire for a better connection to God and Judaism. I really appreciated Rabbi Lopatin’s emphasis on the fact that when we advocate for women’s leadership and feminist goals within the religious sphere, we’re not doing it solely for the sake of equality; we’re doing it in order to “transform…the shul [synagogue] into a mikdash me’at [small Temple].” This hearkens to my oft-repeated line, one that I said in this video (link here), that we have to fit feminism into halakha (Jewish law) and not the other way around.
Rabbi Lopatin wasn’t the only speaker at the plenary who made it clear how dedicated JOFA and its adherents are to keeping and maintaining the integrity of halakha (Jewish law). Each speaker underscored the import of upholding halakhic imperatives. “We are about that chain of tradition,” Ronnie Becher said.
I found that the most powerful moment was when Maharat Finegold shared a story linking the past to the present. She said that when she spoke at a senior community center about being a maharat, a woman told her that she had lived next door to Sarah Schenirer, the creator of the Bais Yaakov movement, in 1920s Krakow. “Now that I meet you, I say sheh’hehiyanu,” the woman said. As a graduate of a Bais Yaakov-type school who also supports Yeshivat Maharat, I have to admit that it never occurred to me to connect the two movements. Although I don’t know if Sarah Schenirer would have approved of the idea of women entering the clergy, Maharat Finegold was right when she said that “Yeshivat Maharat is the evolution of women’s learning.”
The plenary intended to showcase speakers from each generation of the Orthodox feminist fight. It was really interesting to hear such distinct voices in sequence like that. It's also a sign of the times: ageism is part of the past. Women and men from every generation have to metaphorically hold hands and work together, drawing from our varied experiences. If we don't, we are lost.