by the Forward

Orthodox Women Should Thank Feminists Who Came Before — But They Won't

I’ll begin by saying this. I’m really excited at the idea that Modern Orthodox women leaders, some of them friends of mine, are getting support pouring in from all corners of the Jewish world. Well, maybe not all, but many. This includes the CCAR, the umbrella organization for Reform rabbis. It is truly inspiring.

So why do I feel so frustrated?

One of my earliest memories is of my mother coming home from a meeting when our Conservative synagogue was debating whether to allow women to open the Torah ark. After hearing all the halachic arguments in favor of women taking on this supposedly controversial practice, a male congregant responded, and I may be paraphrasing here, “I don’t know anything about halacha, but seeing a woman on the bimah makes me physically sick.”

Well, then, who can argue with that? I went to a Conservative day school where girls were not permitted to lead daily services. Many girls had Friday night bat mitzvah celebrations where they read a haftarah without blessings and never got anywhere near a Torah scroll. I was “named” in synagogue on Shabbat morning, mother and baby at home while my father had an aliyah and a perfunctory blessing. Clearly, that man at the meeting was expressing what must have been a powerful and prevailing sentiment.

Then, people began to push back. My parents left that congregation, having been among its most prominent members, with a letter to the board explaining that they had had enough of the unequal treatment of women. My mother, along with a friend, and I, along with a classmate, circulated petitions at school to push for egalitarian prayer. At the same time, the Jewish Theological Seminary made a decision to ordain women.

Though it sounds as though this process moved forward in a straight, linear fashion, it did not. When I arrived at school after my bat mitzvah, tallit and tefillin in hand, I was not greeted with open arms. Every day was a struggle, as I tried to ignore the sneers and openly hostile comments that greeted me. Despite my intentions, sometimes dressing myself in my religious garb seemed to strip me of my essential “femaleness” in the eyes of others. And sometimes in my own eyes as well.

The struggle was hard, bruising. I was called shrill. And pushy. And hysterical. And ignorant of Torah. Often I got only minimal support from those in my own movement. I don’t recall anyone writing an op-ed voicing solidarity.

Orthodox friends, even theoretical allies, explained with eyes rolling that change does not happen with agitation. That it needs to happen organically. As though one day we would all wake up and with one voice proclaim that all along the Creator had intended for women to be equal to men in all things. And until then, it was best to wait, politely, behind the curtain.

So it comes as no surprise that the “progressive” wing of Orthodoxy is moving in this direction as well. But they did not come up with these ideas on their own. They had been watching, for more than a generation, to see if the sky would fall if Jewish women were given their rightful place among the people. Whether they admit it or not, they read Conservative responsa and did their own investigating on the shoulders of those halachic decisions.

There was no “organic” change. But even among movements that cling tenaciously to the oral law, one thing is certain. When it becomes clear that the way we understand Torah is causing suffering to those who love it, who order their lives around it, the legal solutions are suddenly revealed a whole lot more quickly.

I understand that admitting that they took inspiration, and maybe even more, from the liberal movements, is the third rail in Modern and Open Orthodoxy. And being called “Conservative” is the kiss of death. Just know that even if you don’t say thank you, we know you did not start this revolution alone.

The one time I got acknowledgement from someone in Orthodoxy was very powerful for me. A family friend, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, had died, and we were paying a shiva call. As we were preparing to leave, his daughter took me aside. She told me she had something for me. That her father had saved something in a special file, and she was certain he would want me to have it.

She emerged from his study with a folder filled with papers. The tab on the side said “women rabbis.” Inside were hundreds of sheets. The entire discussion in Conservative Judaism, from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, from the Rabbinical Assembly. An analysis spanning decades. I could almost see him smiling at me, a twinkle in his eye. It will have to be enough.

Leah Bieler is a writer with an M.A. in Talmud. She lives in Massachusetts.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


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