March 12, 1998
The evening following the final session of theSecond International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, I attendeda small family dinner and celebrated the wedding of a SatmarChassidic couple. Among the guests were men with long curledpayot (it'spronounced "payyes" there), and some wearing shtreimels (the fur hat worn bysome Chassidic men). All of the women's heads were covered with wigs,and some even wore a small pillbox hat atop it, according to thedecree of their respective rabbis. The women were elegantly (butmodestly) attired in unrevealing clothing and were segregated fromtheir men by tall walls. While the men sang joyously, the womengossiped. When the men rose to dance, most of the women werevicariously reveled by staring at them through the cracks in thewall. (Of course, it is forbidden for the men to watch the womendance, and not one single male deigned to take even a quick"peek.")
The contrast between the ideas expressed anddebated at the conference just a few hours earlier and the interestsof those 60 Chassidic family members at the dinner could not possiblyhave been greater. What could the Orthodox feminists offer thefervently Orthodox?
Indeed, I discovered that only one person at thedinner had even heard of the conference, and she was under themisconception that the reason for the event was because women wantedto change the Torah.
Wishing to debunk that fallacy, I wondered how Icould possibly communicate to these women the concerns of those 2,000attendees at the conference. When I finally told them of thefeminists' concerns about the agunah issue (the fate of a womanunable to obtain a Jewish divorce unless she accedes to the demands,including extortion, of her husband), I saw a glimpse of recognitionon the faces of these Chassidic women. It was obvious that they, too,suffer from this indignity.
When I mentioned the issues of domestic violencediscussed at the conference, the women at the dinner told me shockingstories of incest, pederasty, and sexual and physical abuse of thewomen in their own insular community -- the very heart of Boro Parkand Williamsburg. Now we were speaking a common language.
Indeed, the conference did address issues ofgender bias in the language of prayers and traditional texts, thehalacha of women's tefillah (prayer) groups, the expansion of women'sroles in the synagogues, et al. But these concepts were as foreign toChassidic women as a visit from a Martian.
Similarly, the subjects covering Talmudiceducation for high school girls would have been useless in the Satmarcommunity, where the girls' schools do not even allow textual studyof the Pentateuch and the Commentaries, let alone the Talmud. Thesessions on rabbinic ordination of women and the eliminating of kolisha (women's singing voices, which Orthodox men may not hear) wouldbe equally alien to such fervently Orthodox women.
But the sessions on domestic violence and theplenary conference on the agunah would have been lauded -- notnecessarily because all would agree on the solutions proposed, butbecause all women in the Orthodox world can identify with theseconcerns, whether or not they wear a wig, cover their arms, or danceat segregated celebrations.
The commonalities, rather than the differences ofideology, were the central focus of the conference. There was trulysomething for everyone. The standing-room-only sessions attested tothe success of the endeavor. The attendance doubled from last year'sconference, which further proved that the identification of feminismwith Orthodoxy was no longer perceived as an oxymoron.
Has the concept of feminist Orthodoxy reached thelevel of the mainstream? It is highly unlikely that Chassidic womenor traditionalist Orthodox women will ever embrace that terminologyand adopt it as their own. But feminism, in and of itself, iscertainly not defined equally in the world. Traditional women'ssightline-impaired Orthodox synagogues may alienate some ModernOrthodox women, yet, to others, this type of separation creates asource of spiritual comfort. While some are offended by the sexistlanguage in prayers, others embrace it purely for its rich tradition.While some demand acknowledgment of women's roles in the tradition byadding the mother's name during various celebrations or honors,others are content to accept the status quo.
However, the impatience with rabbinicfoot-dragging on the resolution of the agunah problem, and thefrustration with rabbis insensitive to the plight of battered womenis a uniting force that fuels the movement.
As further attestation to the success of theconference, mainstream Orthodox rabbis, not previously identifiedwith the feminist cause, spoke at the conference and discredited someof the many myths of meta-halacha. One couldn't help but laugh when arabbi described how a synagogue, during the middle of this century,was forbidden by its rabbi to use electricity (on the weekdays)because electricity had never been used in his grandfather'ssynagogue.
It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that allthe goals set at last year's conference had been achieved. But theprogress made was tangible and substantial. Women's voices arebeginning to be heard in the search for halachic solutions to variousproblems affecting women. Two Modern Orthodox synagogues have hiredfemale "congregational interns," whose job descriptions closely mimicthose of an assistant rabbi as counselor and teacher (one of themeven gives sermons from the pulpit). For the first time in Israel, agroup of women are about to receive certification to interpret thelaw (to become a posek) in the area of Niddah (ritual purity) -- awelcome innovation to women who are reluctant to address these highlyprivate issues to a male rabbi.
But the most significant progress reported hasbeen the single new solution to the agunah issue. Rabbi EmanuelRackman, whose courage to withstand the enormous rabbinic oppositionwas lauded even by those who disagreed with him, described themethods used by his year-old beit din -- of annulling the marriage onfraud grounds, thus eliminating the husband's power to extort for aget (Jewish divorce). Not surprisingly, this beit din has beensubjected to enormous criticism, and there has been no other beitdin, to date, to follow suit. (As one fervently Orthodox rabbi wasreputed to privately admit, if they freed all women who were beatenby their husbands, there would be too many divorces.)
The most vocal opponents in the fervently Orthodoxrabbinic community were invited, but refused to attend theconference.
The forum did provide the opposing voices of twoModern Orthodox rabbis. One feared the "annulment" solution, claimingthat it would place all marriages in jeopardy. Instead, he lauded theJerusalem beit din, which reputedly freed "tens" of women a year bythreatening to jail or withhold drivers' licenses from recalcitranthusbands. (Of course, this rabbi neglected to mention that theestimated 5,000-plus agunot in Israel would have to wait as long as500 years for their freedom at the pace of the Jerusalem beit din.)Another rabbi's objections to the annulment solution was his concernthat this "quick" progress, without the "process" of enlisting thesupport of many other Orthodox rabbis, is doomed to failure. But whatappears to rabbis as being too hasty in resolving painful women'sissues is seen as slow motion to Orthodox feminists.
If there could be a short summation of thistwo-day conference, it would be the urgent need for Orthodoxfeminists to repair the world (tikkun olam) -- so that 51 percent ofthe Orthodox population (that is, the women) is not shoved silentlyinto the realm of passivity in the face of oppression; so that womenwho wish to pray in a tallit and read the Torah at the Western Wallmay do so; so that religious women scholars will be taken equallyseriously with their male counterparts in areas of education,interpretation of halacha, and spiritual quest; so that Jewish lawwould no longer sanction a man's right to withhold the get or allowhim to extort his wife for a Jewish divorce; so that the limits ofhalacha are stretched to ensure that Orthodox women need not feelthey are more valued contributors to the secular world than they areto the religious one.
Finally, it was perceived that only the feministOrthodox appeared to have the courage and the ability to reach out tothose on the religious right and the religious left, and they're theones who appeared to be the torchbearers for tikkun olam between theOrthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Whether thesegoals are attainable in the near future, or indeed ever, willprobably be the subject of the next International Conference onFeminism and Orthodoxy.
Alexandra Leichter is a family law attorney inBeverly Hills and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood VillageSynagogue.