The originator of an apt and now famous dictum—“Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way
The originator of an apt and now famous dictum—“Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way”—Blu Greenberg (née Genauer) is a traditionally observant Jewish woman who has become a prime voice for feminism as applied to Orthodox Judaism.
A renowned “teacher of teachers,” Greenberg’s scholarly father, Sam Genauer, who was born in Czernovitz, Austro-Hungary in 1906, was brought to the United States at the age of two. He obtained a B.A. at Yeshiva University and in 1933 was ordained at its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical College. His homemaker wife, Sylvia (née Gensar), whom he married in 1933, was born in the Lower East Side of New York in 1913 and attended Seward Park High School and the University of Washington. Immediately after his ordination the couple moved to Seattle, where Genauer managed his family’s clothing business. It was there that their three daughters were born: Judy (Brickman) in 1934, Blu on January 21, 1936 and Rena (Schlaff) in 1938. The family returned to New York when Blu was in the fifth grade.
Greenberg was raised in a loving traditional home and grew up content with her role as a “good Jewish daughter.” As she states in her seminal book On Women and Judaism (1981), she “had a fine Jewish education, the best a girl could have.” This meant that she was exposed to all Jewish learning, with the exception of Talmud studies. Greenberg’s father took even more interest in her Jewish studies than in her secular studies. The personal dignity his study sessions afforded her may have contributed to her later development as a seminal Jewish feminist.
In 1957 Blu married Irving (Yitz) Greenberg (b. Brooklyn, 1933), a rabbi and communal leader who served as a pulpit rabbi in Riverdale, New York, from 1965 to 1972 and who is known for his liberal outlook and innovative Jewish social activity. The latter included founding CLAL (1973), an organization devoted to the Jewish education of leaders in the American Jewish community, and the Jewish Life Network (1995). A devoted couple who are mutually supportive of each other’s work, they had five children: Moshe (b. 1961), David (b. 1963), Deborah (b. 1964), Jonathan (J. J., 1965–2002) and Judith (b. 1967), two of whom now live in Israel.
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when, as she put it, “even the term Bat Mitzvah was off-limits in Orthodoxy,” Greenberg did not particularly question the male-preferential context of her Orthodox affiliation. The surprise is that she came to question it at all. It was only as a young student at Brooklyn College, where she received a B.A. in political science in 1958, that an uncomfortable dissatisfaction began to brew in her soul. Studying with Nehama Leibowitz in Israel during her junior year in college, when she was one of three students at Yeshiva University’s Teacher Institute for Jewish Women who were permitted to study abroad, Greenberg fervently wished to extend her stay to study further with the great Bible teacher. But when her parents (and most of her friends) protested, she realized “that it wasn’t the sort of thing a nice orthodox Jewish girl would do” (On Women 26) and returned home, all the time aware that had she been a young man wanting to do the same kind of thing, every encouragement would have been forthcoming.
Other incidents began accumulating in her consciousness. When a beloved uncle died, only the male grandchildren were allowed to accompany the casket out of the synagogue. When a grandfather gave her sons a reward for special parts they had taken in a service, her daughter, age eight, said it wasn’t fair, and Greenberg’s ten-year-old son retorted, “Well, so what—you can’t do anything in the synagogue!”
The personal turning point came in 1973, when Greenberg was invited to give the opening address at the First National Jewish Women’s Conference, an event that, in retrospect, may be seen as a catalyst in Jewish female communal life in the United States. With a unique point of view that respects Jewish tradition but at the same time recognizes the inequalities that adversely affect women in that tradition, she addressed the five hundred women who attended the conference.
Since that time, Greenberg—a gentle, generous, serene yet forceful and persuasive woman—has done a great deal of learning and teaching, becoming a highly-respected leader and sought-after speaker not only in the United States, but worldwide. In 1997 she founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), after the overwhelming response to the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy held in New York City—the first of its kind—made clear the tremendous need for an organization that did not view “feminism” and “Orthodoxy” as inherently contradictory. Over two thousand people attended the following year, when Greenberg chaired the second Judaism and Feminism gathering in New York City. Though she no longer serves as its chairwoman, she continues to guide JOFA and its conferences in exploring ways to reconcile the principles of feminism with the observance of Jewish law. She is actively involved in developing a Gender and Orthodoxy curriculum designed for use in Jewish schools in the United States.
Greenberg’s theoretical position stems from the belief that women have the same potential as men “whether in the realm of spirit, word, or deed” (On Women 39); a belief that the tradition which she respects and upholds is too strong to be in danger from women’s experimentation in the spheres of religious responsibilities, rights and rituals; a belief that women must take charge of their own destinies in this as in other areas rather than waiting for men to act on their behalf; and a belief that a woman’s self-realization must underlie all her roles—loving, nurturing, parenting and career—each to be chosen with regard for her womanhood, selfhood and Jewish identity.
Greenberg, who holds an M.A. in clinical psychology from City University of New York and an M.S. in Jewish history from Yeshiva University, has long been passionately involved in both religious and political dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian women, and between various ethnic groups. She has served on the boards of many organizations including EDAH, the Covenant Foundation, Project Kesher and U.S. Israel Women to Women. She previously served as chair of the American Jewish Committee Petschek National Jewish Family Center, president of the Jewish Book Council of America, chair of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies Commission on Synagogue Relations and co-founder and first chair of the Federation Task Force on Jewish Women. She is a member of the inter-denominational Jewish Women’s Dialogue of the American Jewish Committee and co-founder of the Riverdale Forum. She serves on the editorial board of Hadassah Magazine, the advisory board of Lilith, the Jewish Student Press Service and the International Research Institute on Jewish Women.
Inter-religious dialogue has been a long-term and steady passion of hers. Active in ecumenical circles, Blu was a founding member of Women of Faith (Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue, 1980–1992) and the Dialogue Project (Jewish and Palestinian women, 1989–1994). She has participated in the work of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding and the Inter-Religious Friendship Group. She has been a participant in many interfaith and inter-ethnic enterprises, including the Jewish Tibetan Encounter in Dharamsala (1990) and several consultations of the World Council of Churches. She serves as co-chair of the Global Women’s Peace Initiative of Women Religious Leaders and is a member of the Women’s Multi-religious Networks of the Harvard Pluralism Project.
A participant in Bill Moyers’s Genesis series and a consultant to the Dreamworks film, The Prince of Egypt, Greenberg is also a religious advisor to Channel 13’s Religion and Ethics News Weekly. She taught religious studies at the College of Mount St. Vincent from 1969–1976 and has lectured at Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
Widely respected, admired and beloved, Greenberg may be perceived as a model of those who seek peace and pursue it.
On Women and Judaism (1981); How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (1983); Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust (1994).
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