Orthodox Feminism

A mechitza (barrier between men and women) in an Orthodox synagogue

A lot of people leave Orthodoxy because of the sexism. Honestly, it’s really hard to stay. Being a teenager with friends who are all forming their identities, I struggle with this a lot. Many of my friends are leaving the movement because they are tired of tirelessly fighting, enduring, and never being equal. Several years ago, Neshama Carlebach very publicly left the Orthodox movement for the Reform one. She left because when she tried to share her voice, she was silenced. The public nature of her departure caused a storm of criticism against the movement. In a thoughtful and articulate JWA article that was published at the time (late 2013) the author defends Orthodoxy’s efforts to include women. Organizations like JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) are making a difference and are trying to create a more open community. The article also points out that no movement is free from sexism. The real danger of pointing to Orthodoxy as the token sexist movement of Judaism is that it allows people to look away from gender problems in the other movements.

This article really spoke to me. I, too, often fall into the trap of calling Modern Orthodoxy sexist. The sexism is what consumes my energy and attention, but the face of Modern Orthodoxy is really changing for the better. And it’s partially because of the strong Orthodox feminist community. Jewish feminism is different than Orthodox feminism. For us, Judith Plaskow didn’t break the glass ceiling. Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Blu Greenberg did. I’ve come to realize that, although there is full gender equality in the more liberal branches of Judaism, egalitarianism doesn’t necessarily equal feminism. The mechitza (barrier between men and women) is a clear mark of inequality. Inequality in other communities is harder to see, but it’s still there. One example of this is that female Rabbis earn less than male Rabbi’s. This sexism isn’t as easy to see as the mechitza but it’s still there.

When I started engaging in dialogue with Jews of other denominations, it came as an unwelcome surprise to me that there are many Jews in the more liberal movements who don’t care about the revolutionary gender equality that exists in their synagogues. Recently, in one of my Judaic’s classes, we went around and said if we included the matriarchs in our silent prayer service, (traditionally just the patriarchs are mentioned). One Orthodox girl said no, one Conservative boy said yes, and then one Conservative boy said no. The class was curious about the Conservative boy who said no and asked him why. He said he felt no need to include the matriarchs because to him they didn’t matter. He further explained that he personally would not be comfortable having a female Rabbi and his congregation felt the same way. Obviously this boy and his synagogue do not represent the Conservative movement as a whole at all but seeing that this kind of sexism exists in a movement which has the freedom to pursue gender equality is disturbing.

The conviction I have in my identity as an Orthodox feminist is because of the community of Orthodox feminists that exists.  While not all people who pray in synagogues with gender equality are feminists, everyone who cares about ordaining Orthodox women most likely identifies as a feminist, and that’s huge. Neshama Carelbach left Orthodoxy to find equality. And that’s okay. But I’m staying because there is a community to work with me to create equality. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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Yes, one very good point. How do you make change happen if you walk away.

How to cite this page

Bickel, Rana. "Orthodox Feminism." 12 February 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/orthodox-feminism>.

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