Rabbi Josh Yuter presents his framework for understanding the controversial topic of Egalitarianism in Judaism, using Biblical and Rabbinic Laws to define the parameters of the Torah’s ethical imperatives.
The paradox of JOFA is not “Orthodox Feminist” but “Jewish Alliance”
It’s not just for feminists anymore…
It’s for… Singles, Halachacists, Hopefuls, Parents, Visionaries, Intellectuals, Students, Artists, Questioners, LGBT, Challengers…
The 2013 8th International JOFA Conference is for you.
Ignoring for a moment my initial snark about going to a feminist conference to pick up women, the marketing language employed is actually quite intriguing. After all, since the “F” in JOFA stands for “Feminist” it does seem odd that JOFA would so blatantly be expanding its target demographic to the point of even diminishing the importance of “Feminist.”
I do have a conjecture, which if true, would make this year’s conference particularly fascinating. Specifically, most of the stated goals of JOFA have either been accomplished or have been taken over by other organizations. Women’s participation in the synagogue not only continues to grow, but it is becoming more normalized in the Modern Orthodox world as opposed to an anomalous fringe. Furthermore, with the newly ordained Maharats, Jewish women are now assuming formal religious leadership positions within Orthodox synagogues and communities. With these advancements over the past 10 years, it would be interesting to see how JOFA answers the question “what next?” After all, simply advocating for “more of the same” is hardly a way to energize one’s base, let alone attract the next generation of woman, many of whom cannot appreciate how much needed to be done by others to provide what they take for granted.
My sense is by expanding beyond the limits of “Feminism” JOFA can attract not only this new generation of feminists (men and women) but also those who for various reasons are uncomfortable or disenchanted with “feminism” and its implications or those who think that the feminist movement has done all it can within the confines of “Orthodoxy.”
At any rate, I personally am looking forward to attending the conference – if nothing else than to see for myself where Orthodox Feminism may be heading in light of its successes.
When my parents made aliyah this past summer I had to clean boxes of papers, articles, and documents I had collected over the years. One of the gems I dug up was the following letter my father wrote Robert Gordis in resigning from the Rabbinical Assembly and leaving Conservative Judaism.
This letter may be of academic interest to a historian, religious sociologist, or even fans of my father. Others may find useful comparisons or contrasts with the current state of liberal Orthodox Judaisms. For myself, it represents a salient moment in the life of the person who has imparted to me most of my Torah and approach to Judaism and life. I would also venture to say that this letter is so indicative of my father’s hadracha that if one keeps the essence of the logical argument while substituting names and institutions, this letter could be reprinted by him today. My father has told me privately that he patterned his letter after Abraham Joshua Heschel’s own letter of resignation.
With my father’s permission I am publishing his letter of resignation from the Rabbinical Assembly and his disaffiliation from Conservative Judaism.
In his 100th podcast Rabbi Yuter discusses the controversial group “Women of the Wall” and its implications for Halakhah and Israeli society.
The opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect those of any individual or organization.
This past week the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), voted on whether or not women ought to be admitted to the organization. This was not the first time the IRF considered such a proposition. In 2008, before the advent of “Maharat” or “Rabba“, the IRF recognized that women have been functioning as religious leaders within Orthodox Judaism. In Israel women serve as “To’anot Beit Din” – advocates for women in religious courts and “Yoatzot Halakha” – halakhic consultants regarding family purity. Even without formal titles women serve as Torah educators alongside men and several synagogues employ women in some religious capacity. In fact the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), under Orthodox Union (OU), sends married couples to college campuses across the country with the expectation that the wife serves the campus Jewish community alongside her rabbinic husband. Regardless of the semantics of titles – or lack thereof – Jewish women assume professional roles similar to those performed by male rabbinic counterparts and thus should not be excluded from conversations affecting the Jewish community at large based solely on gender.
When I was first confronted with this question I supported the theoretical inclusion of women into the group, even if it meant removing “Rabbinic” adjective from the organization’s name. I even submitted to a subcommittee my own proposal defining criteria for women to be treated as rabbinic colleagues given that no comparable title existed at the time.1 And yet despite my earlier positions and after hearing passionate arguments in favor of admitting women, when the IRF finally voted on including women, I voted “no”. My decision may appear at first glance to be inconsistent, dishonest, or indicative of intimidation from opposition. On the contrary, as I will explain in this essay my principles remain intact. My position is not based on the identity politics of gender but on what I perceive to be the role and function of rabbinic leadership in Judaism.
One of the most important distinctions to make as a Rabbi is the distinction between halakha or Jewish law, and public policy. The difference is that Jewish Law, defined in terms of obligations and prohibitions, is binding on all Jews at all times. Decisions of Jewish Policy on the other hand are subjective, usually in the hands of community leaders. As such, these decisions cannot be imposed on every Jewish community since not only is there no such authoritative body, but each community will have its own needs and appropriate practices and customs.
If the above seems like an oversimplification, I refer you to my personal hashkafa series, however it should suffice for today’s post. I recently received an email from The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) responding to a recent statement by the Orthodox Union (OU) on the issue of women leading Kabbalat Shabbat services for men. The OU’s statement is simple enough:
With regard to the matter of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat services before an audience of men and women, the position of the Orthodox Union is that such practice is improper and constitutes an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.
JOFA’s responded in the form of an article by Dr. Debby Koren, available as a PDF here. From the introduction, we notice that Dr. Koren misses the crucial distinction between Jewish Law and Jewish Policy:
Thus it was disquieting to see a recent statement issued by the Orthodox Union as to the impropriety of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat when men are present, and interesting to note that the statement did not include any halakhic discussion or analysis. What are the possible reasons that it would be considered improper for a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services with men present, and for such a practice (in the words of the Orthodox Union) to “constitute an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition”? We address a number of possible concerns below.
Dr. Koren correctly notes that the OU did not include any “halakhic discussion or analysis.” This lacuna is of not only true, but necessary for two important and related reasons. The first is that that OU is itself not a halakhic body, nor to my knowledge does it ever claim to be. Rather, it is the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) which is responsible for determining matters of Jewish Law for the OU. Secondly, the OU’s statement did not employ the objective legal language of “assur” forbidden, but rather that it was “improper” and “unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.” These statements are inherently subjective viewpoints relating to Jewish Policy, not Jewish Law. In fact, even RCA member R. Michael J. Broyde’s detailed analysis never claimed women leading Kabbalat Shabbat was “forbidden”, but rather concluded that it was a point of confusion. In other words, at no point did the RCA or OU issue a statement regarding Jewish Law, but rather Jewish Policy.
Practically speaking the ramifications are less halakhic than they are social. Even assuming an Orthodox approach to Jewish Law, one could easily justify permitting women to parts of the service for men, as Dr. Koren does in her article. However while the OU does not represent all of Orthodox Judaism, it does represent a non-trivial subset. The OU is not the arbiter of what is considered “Orthodox” but rather what is acceptable for its networked organization of synagogues. As such, the OU is free to set whatever policies it wishes for its member synagogues, and if a community wishes to be a part of this organization it has to consider the interests of the greater membership. Thus any synagogue may allow a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat and still be considered “Orthodox”, but it will have to accept the consequence of not being an OU member community.
This is where the distinction of Jewish Law vs. Jewish Policy becomes essential for meaningful dialogue. Dr. Koren’s article, however valid her arguments, is ultimately irrelevant for a discussion regarding inherently subjective organizational public policy.
The recent controversy surrounding orthodox women rabbis has reignited the general debates of gender discrimination in Orthodox Judaism. Jewish law precludes women from participating in many communal functions such as counting in a minyan or serving as witnesses. Since no such law or statute prohibits women from being ordained as rabbis or rabbinic figures – either in the classical or modern sense of the term – it is understandable if some women view their exclusion from leadership positions as a form of institutional misogyny.
However Jewish society has discriminated against both men and women in leadership positions for generations, often with the communal complicity of self-identified feminists. I am referring here to the expectations and demands of the Rabbi’s wife, better known as The Rebbitzen.
The classic cliche of Jews arguing has recently been joined in with a new cliche of calls for dialogue and conversation. Too often these “conversations” turn into venting sessions for individuals to speak their mind for the indulgent purpose of “putting things out there” and rarely are participants interested in an exchange of ideas.
Given how these forums usually turn out, Sunday’s Town Hall meeting at Mt. Sinai was a welcome departure from the norm, largely due to the rational and emotional sincerity of all the participants.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Kohelet 9:17)
Like all Jewish communities Washington Heights has its share of internal controversies, but rarely do they become publicized. Most discussions on the Maalotwashington message board did not get circulated and at times they were moderated when the discussion happened to get out of hand. In the rare instances that a significant problem arose, we have usually been able to achieve some resolution or at least mutual understanding and do so with minimal fanfare.
But as the community continues to grow and the transient community constantly changes, the internal dynamics will naturally have to adapt. Having more people in the community means more ideas and opinions among the congregation, but fewer outlets for an individual to express them. In Washington Heights this can be particularly frustrating since the community is ideologically diverse (relatively) there are more opinions and perspectives which would be ignored or in some cases suppressed. From the other point of view, it is likely that an established community would have confronted many of the “new” issues at some point and would not wish to repeatedly revisit old arguments every few years given the high turnover of members. The mutual question at hand then becomes how can individuals express themselves, and in turn, how does the community respond.
The past few weeks have been unusually eventful with a heated debate over women speaking in the synagogue and the formation of a new “progressive” minyan. While both could be considered controversial to varying degrees, the discussions surrounding them demonstrate different examples of expression within a religious community.