Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blogging the JOFA Conference: Opening Plenary

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.


  1. > This is not necessarily a good or bad thing

    It's actually quite a bad thing. The next step after universal halachic obligations for both genders is universally optional halachic obligations. First you create an obligation where none exists, for example women now have to go to shul. Meanwhile most guys would rather not be there and since there is no minyan police once you have a situation where women are showing up and being counted (because let's face it, if they're coming that's what the expectation will be) then the men will drop away. We are, after all, lazy bums at heart.
    Then someone will point out the obvious: if you can replace a system where men and women have different sets of obligations with one where they don't, why can't you then create a third system in which obligations are optional, in other words you only count to minyan if you accept the obligations regardless of gender but you don't have to accept them and can place yourself in second-class status by choice?
    The problem is that outside of JOFA and YCT no one believes that this new push for gender-free equality is motivated by anothing other than secular liberalism. The system isn't broken unless you declare that secular standards decide whether it is or not.

  2. Wow, where to start with this comment? I'll try to deal with one statement at time

    * You write: Men are lazy, therefore women should not be included in synagogue ritual. So first of all, let's hope that you're wrong about all men hating shul b/c if that is the case then we should just cancel the whole thing now.... But let's assume that there are some men who on a certain level resent having so much responsibility and obligation -- we should be dealing with THAT and creating some dialogue about men's experiences with religion rather than randomly attacking and excluding women. Whether or not the community starts working on men's disaffection, women are saying that they DO want to be more included. Men's disaffection and women's desire to be more included are two separate phenomena. Maybe men should be trying to learn from women rather than preaching this kind of drivel to them....Maybe including more women would actually make the shul experience more meaningful, more sincere, more community and family-centric rather than an exclusive, rote-repetitive, men's club kind of experience. Maybe men who DON'T like shul should be engaging with women who DO like shul to try and find out what makes shul a meaningful experience.

    * You write about the so-called "risk" that including women will creates a system in which people only count for minyan if they accept the obligation -- well, this is an argument that has been leveled at women for many years with no parallel line given to men. It's only women whose inclusion is ever contingent upon how many mitzvot they are believed to have fulfilled. It's only women whose "sincerity" is watched and measured this way -- usually by men reluctant to include them. Men get a free pass, no matter what they do. Men will pull a random Jewish man off the street to count for a minyan -- no questions asked -- while telling the woman who is standing patiently among nine men at 7:AM that she doesn't count in a minyan b/c she doesn't take her obligation seriously enough. This double-standard fallacious connection between obligation and inclusion is just another red herring to put women down and keep women out. It's only women who are told to do more before they receive the "right" to be included. Men have never been held to any such standard

    * You write that outside of JOFA and YCT "nobody" is interested in this. Again, this is just another rhetorical device to make pro-women Orthodox Jews feel marginalized, like they are just "nobody", not part of "mainstream". Who is "mainstream" and who is "marginal" is of course a completely subjective assessment. But ultimately I think history will eventually show who here holds the moral high ground, and whose ideas are connected to the true enduring essence of Torah. Those seeking a life of compassion, sincerity, inclusion, and women's voice may seem like some insignificant fringe to people like you. But there is an essential goodness and truth driving all this that is being seen and recognized by more and more people every day. It is not motivated merely by "secular liberalism" (though why liberalism is automatically pasnisht to you remains a strange question).

    The drive for women's inclusion is motivated by a deep spiritual and religious desire to express Torah and reach God.

    There is a profound and powerful truth in this movement that isn't going away any time soon.

  3. Look at the experience of the Reform and Conservatives when they embraced egalitarianism. A small group of women eagerly embraced it, the majority didn't care because, like the guys, they had no interested in going out in the freezing cold at 6:45 every morning. Meanwhile men stopped attending services because, well let's face it, if they didn't need them for a minyan because the women would be there, why go. It's now so bad that the Reformers are trying to figure out male-friendly programs to attract men back to their "temples" but they haven't come up with a way to do that without inpinging on their "feminist-first" idelogy.
    Shul is not about community activities, affirmation and being "family centric". That's called church. Shul is about davening to God. Period. The presence of women on the other side of the mechitzah is certainly welcome but it has to be about the davening.
    And yes, men get a free pass. We have an obligation to be there. The Talmud says that the person who is commanded and does is on a higher level because the person who isn't commanded doesn't have a yetzer hara telling her not to do the activity. My level of sincerity doesn't affect my obligation to be there but if a woman is taking on an obligation she has no real responsibility towards then yes, there's going to be a gut check at the door. It's no different than if a man decides to start putting on both sets of tefillin in the morning. Not just anyone can do it and if you want to join the club you have to meet certain criteria.
    Finally, history is littered with the memories of people who thought they had the high ground when it came to morals, goodness and truth. We just ignored them and kept on going.

  4. I've never heard a frum man say that he won't say a perek of Tehillim because women say Tehillim. Tehillim do not lose their status in men's eyes just because women have taken them on as a special form of expression.

    Why should that be true of tefilah, tefillin or Torah reading? Sure, in the secular world, when women begin to do something, it loses value in men's eyes. But isn't the frum world different? Aren't women bnot melachim? Shouldn't women's interest in something *raise* its status in men's eyes? Aren't women naturally inclined towards G-d and spirituality? Or is that all a cover-up for what people really think about women?

    The Conservative and Reform movements are indeed more influenced by secular culture than Orthodoxy. Sometimes, IMHO, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it's a bad thing. The end result in the Conservative movement is that no one wants to be obligated. It feels unfair to boys in day school that they have to do something and the girls get a pass. Obligation is an honor in Jewish culture but not in secular culture.

    If I had my way, the Conservative movement (where I daaven) would also switch to partnership minyanim because I personally think that roughly equal numbers of men and women are important to represent a holy community in prayer. That would make it terribly difficult to get a daily minyan at most Conservative shuls. But to my mind, it would be ideal.

    The fact that many men have bailed on shul and relegated religious observance to women in the liberal movements is indeed a problem. But the answer to the problem does not lie with Jewish women. I really do not think that Jewish men choose to sleep in or marry non-Jews because of Jewish women.

    Jewish men are having their own specific cultural conflict with secular values. The idea of answering to a higher authority is not popular in the secular world. The idea of not marrying who you want, ditto. The idea that being a man means to focus on study, prayer, family and community rather than on sports and sex is not popular.

    This is a serious issue for liberal Jewish men. I agree that they need support. But this is an issue between men and G-d. It is an issue where Jewish men need to talk to each other. It's not something women can solve by being more or less active religiously. Men need to address this issue for themselves.