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The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

Features thousands of biographic and thematic essays on Jewish women around the world. Learn more

Blu Greenberg

b. January 21, 1936

by Alice Shalvi and Shulamit Peck, updated by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Last updated December 17, 2021

Activist, writer, and founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Blu Greenberg.

In Brief

Blu Greenberg grew up in a traditional Orthodox household that helped cement her love and commitment to Jewish law. As she grew, so did a growing dissatisfaction with women’s place in traditional Judaism. Her motto, “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” led her to examine ways that women can have greater roles within Jewish law; her book On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition inspired a generation of people to embrace being both Orthodox and feminist. Through the founding of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) she carved out the path for Orthodox women to become rabbis and explore greater participation in ritual. Through the creation of the International Beit Din (IBD), she has helped many agunot, women trapped in unwanted marriages.

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.

Family and Education

A renowned “teacher of teachers,” Greenberg’s scholarly father, Sam Genauer, was born in Czernovitz, Austro-Hungary, in 1906, and brought to the United States at the age of two. He obtained a BA at Yeshiva University and in 1933 was ordained at its Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical College. That same year, he married Sylvia Genser, who was born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1913. After graduating from Seward Park High School, she went to work as a legal secretary to help her family financially during the Depression.  

Immediately after Rabbi Genauer’s  ordination, the couple moved to Seattle, where Sam joined his family’s clothing business and Sylvia attended the University of Washington. 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 Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.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 professor at Yeshiva University (1959-1972) and a pulpit rabbi in Riverdale, New York (1965-1972) and who is known for his creative theology 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.

Gradual Feminist Awakening

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when, as she put it, “even the term Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsBat 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. Like many other women of her generation, there were only isolated moments of feminist awakening. During her junior year in college,  she was one of three students at Yeshiva University’s Teacher Institute for  Women awarded a scholarship to study in Israel. Greenberg fervently wished to extend her stay to study further with her great and famous  Bible teacher, Nechama Liebowitz. 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 she returned home, yet not without the awareness that had she been a young man wanting to do the same with a beloved teacher, every encouragement would have been forthcoming.

Other incidents began accumulating in her consciousness. When a beloved uncle died, only his  male grandchildren were allowed to accompany the casket out of the synagogue. When her father gave her sons a reward for special parts they had taken in a service, her daughter, age eight, protested that it wasn’t fair, and Greenberg’s ten-year-old son retorted, “Well, so what—you can’t do anything in the synagogue!” Very slowly, over the course of ten years, an uncomfortable dissatisfaction began to brew in her soul. “Influenced by secular feminists and then by the agenda and activity of women of the liberal Jewish denominations,” Greenberg said, “I was challenged by the work of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist women activists.  I did not become one of them, a liberal Jew, but their equality agendas for the most part seemed to me to be quite just and proper.”

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 respected Jewish tradition but at the same time recognized the inequalities that adversely affect women in that tradition, she addressed the 500 women who attended the conference.

Developing Orthodox Feminism

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 2000 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.

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 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’s book  How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (1983) demonstrates her combination of upholding both feminist and traditional values. The book explains practices and rituals of traditional Judaism, from holidays to keeping a Term used for ritually untainted food according to the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws).kosher home, interspersed with personal anecdotes about her family. To this day, the book is used as a resource by those who want to learn more about Judaism, including converts. Greenberg wrote the book in the wake of being criticized by the Orthodox community for what was considered her radical perspective in On Women and Judaism. he book reestablished her commitment and love for the Orthodox community of which she felt completely a part. In her words, she did not want to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” and this book confirmed her feeling of being  continuously centered within the Orthodox community. 

The Ordination of Women

Greenberg’s perspective on women as clergy also reflects her simultaneous embrace of tradition and feminism. In 1984, in an article that appeared in the periodical Judaism she stated that “in her lifetime women would be rabbis.” After reading this essay, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, her husband, quipped that if women were to become rabbis in their lifetime, then they would surely live forever. In 1990, at a presentation to the Scholars Circle at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education created by Rabbi David Silber, Greenberg stated this premonition yet again, and her idea was rejected as too radical, not only by the faculty but by the learned female students as well. In 2000, she was invited again to this same forum, this time as part of a panel  with Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Silber. This time, the response was far more hopeful.

This optimism drove women seeking leadership roles to look to Greenberg to help them navigate the Orthodox community as they carved out leadership roles for themselves. In 2008, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Sara Hurwitz, who had heard Greenberg’s prediction while at Drisha, recruited her to  foster support for Hurwitz’s ordination and title. Greenberg hosted a series of focus groups from a cross-section of the Jewish community, men and women from across the denominational spectrum, to determine the most appropriate title for ordained Orthodox women. Having her involved in the process that led up to Rabba Sara’s ordination, as well as a key participant in the ordination celebration, was appropriate, as the ordination of female leaders was the manifestation of much of what Greenberg had been promoting since that first National Jewish Women’s Conference in 1973.

Advocate for Agunot

In addition to supporting Orthodox female rabbis, Greenberg is most known for her advocacy for agunot, Orthodox women trapped in marriages because their husbands refuse to give them a Writ of (religious) divorcegett, or a writ [bill] of divorce. In fact Greenberg’s foundational statement “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way” was actually derived from her study of ancient rabbinic law concerning agunot. As Greenberg wrote in On Judaism about the need for rabbis to find a solution that limits the husband’s and expands the wife’s rights: “to say their [the rabbinic community of today] hands are tied, or to say they can resolve an individual problem but not find a global solution, is to deny their collective responsibility. Worse, it bespeaks a lack of rabbinic will to find a halakhic way” (p. 142).  Greenberg began advocating for systemic change in the 1970s after meeting agunot and hearing their stories. Although listening to individual stories made her feel despondent, she was not one to let issues go unresolved. In a July 2019 interview with TC Jew Folk reflecting on her career, Greenberg said, “I’ve been on a very long journey but I’ve never left home. I still wholly identify as an Orthodox Jew, but I know that women’s status in ritual, learning and leadership is all very different today. Yet the area that hasn’t changed significantly is the issue of women and divorce. That’s the area that keeps me working hard.”

Greenberg helped create the International Beit Din (IBD), a religious court established in the United States to find systemic The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic methods to help resolve the crisis. The IBD grew out of the Agunah Summit, held in June 2013 at New York University Law School and co-convened by NYU’s Tikvah Center for Law and Civilization and JOFA. The goal of the IBD is not only to advocate for agunot, but to systematically eradicate the problem of irgun altogether. Their mandate is to implement the many halakhic loopholes that tradition offers but that are either not known to rabbis or are not yet normative practices. To that end, Greenberg has expanded the IBD’s mandate to include educating communal rabbis on lesser known halakhic solutions and loopholes that can help free agunot. To date the IBD has helped over 180 women find their freedom from unwanted marriage.

Achievements and Affiliations

Greenberg, who holds a BA in political science from Brooklyn College, a BRE [religious education] from Yeshiva University Teachers Institute for Women, an MA in clinical psychology from City University of New York, and an MS in Jewish history from Yeshiva University, has been passionately involved in both religious and political dialogue for the past 50 years. An avid Zionist, Greenberg made Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.aliyah with her husband in 2017 and spends part of each year in America and part in Jerusalem. 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 was 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 and the advisory boards of Lilith, the Jewish Student Press Service, and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Inter-religious dialogue has been a long-term and steady passion of Greenberg’s. Active in ecumenical circles, Greenberg 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 served as co-chair of the Global Women’s Peace Initiative of Women Religious Leaders and was 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 also served as 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 to 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.

SELECTED WORKS BY BLU GREENBERG

Books

On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981,

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1994.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. New York: Pitspopany Press, 1997.

Selected Articles

“Abortion: We Need Halachic Creativity.” Sh’ma, November 15, 1974.

“Abortion: A Challenge to Halakhah.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought (Spring 1976).

“Beyond “Woman of Valor”: How an Orthodox Woman Evolved into a Fervent Feminist.” Lilith, Spring-Summer 1982.

“Confrontation and Change: Women and the Jewish Tradition.” In Women of Faith in Dialogue, edited by V. R. Mollenkott. New York: Crossroad, 1987.

“Equality in Judaism,” Hadassah Magazine, December 1973.

“Female Sexuality and Bodily Functions in the Jewish Tradition.” In Women, Religion, and Sexuality, edited by J. Becher. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

“Feminism, Jewish Orthodoxy, and Human Rights: Strange Bedfellows?” In Religion and Human Rights, edited by Carrie Gustafson and Peter Juviller. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.

“The Feminist Revolution in Orthodox Judaism in America.” In Divisions between Traditionalism and Liberalism in the American Jewish Community: Cleft or Chasm, edited by Michael Shapiro, 55–78. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1991.

“Hear, O Israel: Law and Love in Deuteronomy.” In Preaching Biblical Texts: Expositions by Jewish and Christian Scholars, ed. by Herman E. Schaalman and Frederick C. Holmgren. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

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How to cite this page

Shalvi, Alice and Shulamit Peck and Sara Hurwitz. "Blu Greenberg." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 17 December 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/greenberg-blu>.