JOFA: Beyond Belief - Part 1
Today we are excited to publish the first installment of a three-part series on JOFA and Orthodox Feminism, posting weekly. After covering the JOFA conference for the Jewish Week, Susan Reimer-Torn found she had many timely questions to explore about the state and vision of Orthodox Feminism today. Her conversations with author and JOFA executive director Elana Sztokman confirmed that much needs to be shared about the conflicts, values, tensions, and goals of Orthodox Feminism. Elana's views, both as a thought leader and an organizational executive, illuminate dark corners and sound an inclusive note for all Jewish women interested in innovation and inclusiveness, regardless of religious affiliation.
Susan Reimer-Torn: What is the fundamental premise of Orthodox feminism?
Elana Sztokman: Orthodox feminism is a movement aimed at maximizing women’s ritual inclusion and leadership as much as possible within the bounds of halakhah (Jewish law).
SRT: You mention “the bounds of halakhah” and I have to stop you there. Much of the halakha regarding women legitimizes exclusion. So if a form of exclusion is halakhic, is it ipso facto legitimate?
ES: There is a lot more room for women’s inclusion within halakhah than is currently practiced in many places. For example, issues such as women serving on synagogue boards, women teaching the congregation, women giving sermons, even women making announcements—these are practices that really have few if any halakhic obstacles and yet are not practiced widely enough in Orthodox life. We have a long way to go in order to maximize women’s inclusion in areas where there is no real halakhic issue before even getting to that question of areas where there may be more debate.
SRT: How often is minhag (social custom) erroneously cited as halakhah in order to legitimize and retain male power and prestige?
ES: That’s really the core of the problem in many issues. Barring women from making announcements in shul (synagogue), for example, is just a convention. Even take for example the issue of women being called up for an aliyah (honor) at Torah reading. The Talmud (rabbinic law) is very clear that this is about custom and not law. But that’s a reality that many Orthodox Jews still find difficult to wrap their heads around because it seems to negate everything that we were brought up to believe to be true. If the Talmud says that it’s okay for women to do it, why don’t more Orthodox shuls do it? This creates a lot of internal conflict for some people and can be very distressing and a real source of conflict for some people. It’s hard for us to believe that practices we were taught as “the way things must be” really are not that way at all. It’s very confronting. But the fact is, we are talking about custom.
SRT: What to do when halakhah erects a roadblock to further inclusion? (I’m thinking of the Maharat [ordained Orthodox woman] who accepts the professional obligation to assure a minyan [prayer quorum] while she herself cannot be counted.)
ES: The Orthodox feminist movement as a whole has not yet begun to really address the issue of women counting in a minyan. Personally, I hope that this will be on the horizon for communal discourse in the coming years. But we’re not quite there yet. (That’s my own personal opinion, not an official JOFA position.) We have a lot of work still ahead of us.
SRT: Will the opinions of women poskot (arbiters of religious law) immediately count equally with those of male poskim?
ES: I hope so. They should. Women who study and learn the same way men do, and pass the same tests and master the some materials, should have their authority valued just as much as that of men.
SRT: Judith Heicklen, JOFA president, recently cited a critique that Orthodox feminists overdo “asking male rabbis for permission.” How much is too much? (Or, do you agree and if so, what can be done to address this “good girl” complex?
ES: This is a constant debate and dilemma among Orthodox feminists. We want legitimacy, we want to be accepted, we want to be viewed as equal members of the community. But in order to do that, we have to gain approval from an institution which by default excludes us and views us as unfit—that is, the rabbinate. It’s a huge catch-22. The only real answer to this dilemma is of course to open up the gates of religious leadership to women. Until women are included in those ranks, it will make it very difficult for Orthodox women to have a healthy relationship with our leadership.