For the last 14 years, I have been leading a Sunday morning discussion group with our Bnai/Bnot Mitzvah. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Every year, I devote one of the Sunday morning sessions to exploring the kids’ thoughts and feelings about the changing roles of girls and women within Judaism generally, and within Orthodoxy in particular. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking session, but this year’s was exceptional.
The items that I (literally) put on the table for discussion each year include women dancing with a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, women leading their own zimmun, reciting Kiddush for the family on Friday night, learning Gemara in school, delivering Divrai Torah in shul, and becoming rabbis. I always emphasize that the point of the session is thoughtful discussion, not the reaching of any particular conclusion. I do my level best to keep my own feelings out of the proceedings, while challenging the kids to think deeply about their positions on this or that contemporary innovation. In past years, the kids took the direction of distinguishing between the practices that they were “comfortable” with from those which “felt wrong” to them. This year, their whole approach was different.
Rather than wanting to focus on the details of particular practices, they drove the discussion in the direction of overarching principles. The ideals that emerged as being most important to them were equality in educational opportunities, and freedom to pursue one’s passions, including the passion to be a religious teacher / leader. The kids talked about according respect to all, and recognizing the dignity of men and women alike. It was obvious to them that the only criteria that ought be relevant – even for the rabbinate - are the talent and capacity to do the job. I was blown away. The majority of the kids in the group attend self-described “centrist” Orthodox day schools, and haven’t grown up in families in which feminism is a value per se. They are tomorrow’s Orthodox kids on campus – halachik commitment runs in their veins - and then, with God’s help, they’ll be the rank and file members of Orthodox shuls.
What’s changed? A few things, I think:
(1) This is the first wave of kids who were born and raised in our shul, and who thus take it for granted that the pulpit is open to women (and girls celebrating Bat Mitzvah), and that women do hakafot in the same way that men do. These girls have all attended numerous Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Women’s Tefilla, and have seen their fathers and mothers alike take leadership positions in all facets of shul governance.
(2) By the time this group of kids arrived in middle school, Mishna and Gemara had already taken firm hold in the girls’ curriculum. (In historical terms this is a new development in most of our LA Orthodox schools, but what do these kids know from history??)
(3) They are very aware of the many women who have achieved prominent positions in US government (I’m sure they can’t name the last California Senator who was male), and their lives are filled with women who have accomplished impressively in every professional field.
If this year’s class is not a fluke – and I think it’s not - then it provides an inspiring testament to the power of quiet perseverance, the patient pursuit of a communal vision, and the fact that over time, communal norms can really change. I have no illusions as to the likelihood that some will soon wrangle with the halachik limitations on women’s participation in public tefilla, but I’m confident that they will be equipped to sort those issues out in a productive way.
So hang in there Morethodox communities. The future is bright.