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Women Leaving Orthodoxy

The recent Rabbinical Council of America decision to exclude women from the rabbinate brought to mind the 2004 film Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage,” a documentary about women stuck in the divorce process in Israel.

There is one particularly heart-wrenching scene that has been playing over in my mind recently. “Rachel,” a 30-something Orthodox mother of four who tried to get a divorce from her philandering husband for more than five years, had enough. “He is living with another woman!” she screamed at the apathetic judges, right before they kicked her out of the courtroom. “He has a new family, he has moved on with his life, and you cannot do anything to help me?” The court staff violently removed her, as she wailed down the hallway. “Stay away from this religion,” she cried. “This religion is terrible.”

Rachel, a radio producer for an ultra-Orthodox radio station, wearing an elegant sheitel and modern but appropriately Orthodox clothes, is smart, savvy and put together, calm under pressure and able to manage a powerful career and busy family as a single mother. In other words, she was perfectly ultra- Orthodox until that point. She, like other smart religious women, was betrayed by the system that she dedicated her life to. The rabbinate caused her to come undone. Rachel hasn’t just come undone, but she is done with Orthodoxy. In fact, all the women who were documented during the making of this film underwent the same transformation: they start out religious, and they end up walking away.

The women who are leaving Orthodoxy are a vibrant group. They are not “off the derech,” or path, as patronizing outreach educators like to call it. Rather, they are smart, competent, accomplished women, who look around at the lay of the land in Orthodoxy and say to themselves, there is nothing here for a woman like me. Smart, passionate, independent-minded women have no place in Orthodoxy. Like the neurosurgeon who is not even allowed to make a speech in her synagogue. “I have done everything they told me to do,” told me, pointing out her hat and skirt, “and I am just a non-person. It’s like I don’t exist.”

The most amazing women are most vehemently trounced by Orthodoxy. They are met with brick walls, entrenched chauvinism, small-mindedness and dismissiveness. At the recent meeting in which the RCA unanimously decided not to support women serving in rabbinic roles – with or without a title, they wrote – Heschel Schachter called the issue “yehareg v’al ya’avor, do or die, akin to the prohibitions against idolatry and murder. Meaning, if someone holds a gun to your head and says, ordain women or die, Schachter told the RCA conference, you should be willing to give up your life. They all voted in agreement with him.

A Cross-currents column claims that “there is wall-to-wall agreement that such a decision is not a good idea … near-unanimity.” The voices of protest by women, by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, by Kolech, by petitioners, by supporters of women’s rights and dignity, are wiped out with a swift swipe of the pen. The RCA has systematically slammed the door on women, the same exact way that the Beit Din slammed its doors on Rachel.

The story of great women leaving Orthodoxy is going to be one of the most important elements in the next generation of Jewish identity. The rabbinic establishment’s abuse of women is sending women walking. Thus far, such women are mostly invisible and alone. They do not necessarily know of one another’s existence. But that might be about to change.

I have decided to dedicate my next research project to this matter. My doctorate was about the identities of adolescent Orthodox girls, and my post-doctorate was about Orthodox men. Now I am turning my attention to a group of people whose stories are begging to be told: adult women who are leaving Orthodoxy. Not college students experimenting with identity, but adult women who have dedicated their lives to Orthodoxy and then turned away from the system. I want to know who they are, what drives them, what their negotiations are, and overall what they are going through. It is a story of Jewish life and a story of women, and it is time to start talking about this.


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