Contemporary Orthodox Jewish women practice traditions that have existed for thousands of years. Yet a small but vocal minority calling themselves Orthodox feminists are confronting issues of inequality within Judaism of the 21st century. Several prominent Jewish women such as Blu Greenberg, Rachel Adler, and Judith Plaskow are promoting dialogues that they hope will lead to transformations for women.
The Jewish bible consists of the Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch, and Prophets and Writings. The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussion that pertains to Jewish law, ethics, custom, and history. The Talmud includes the Mishnah, written around 200 C.E., and is considered to be the first written compilation of Jewish oral law and legal opinions and debates. Also part of the Talmud is the Gemara, written around 500 C.E., which includes a discussion of the Mishnah and the wisdom of rabbis and also expounds upon the Torah. Throughout these works, women are encouraged to be modest, submissive, and maintain forbearance in a world in which they must know their place.
The Halakah is a body of religious law that includes 613 Mitzvot, or commandments, as well as laws revealed in the Talmud and written by rabbis. Customs and traditions are included in Halakah that are considered to be divinely inspired. The Mitzvot, which are given in the Torah, include 365 prohibitions and 248 positive obligations.
In these religious commandments, a woman is exempted from any time-bound obligations because she must always be available to take care of her family's needs and responsibilities. Women are also excused from many Mitzvot because they do not face all the temptations that men face in their professional and personal lives. Women, by their nature, represent sensuality and seductiveness for men. Therefore, because of these distractions, men must be controlled by more rules than women are. Thus, it is believed that women complement their husbands but basically have fundamentally different roles. Consequently, women have traditionally been discouraged from study beyond the pragmatic aspects of the Torah that relate to how a woman should run her home.
With the belief that the Torah as well as the oral law was revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai, Orthodox Jews feel that their practices are divinely inspired. Thus, any discussions about changes or revisions are extremely difficult to initiate. Issues that are prominent among feminists include women's exemption from the minyan, or the quorum of 10 or more adult males (including 13-year-old boys who have had a bar mitzvah) for daily prayer. The ramifications of not accepting women are great because, for example, in order to say the mourner's prayer for a deceased mother or father, a minyan must be present. Therefore, a woman has to request that a man says the prayer for her deceased parent.
Other issues are the exemption from time-bound commandments, the inability to initiate divorce, and the limited leadership positions in the synagogue. Women cannot be rabbis because that would contradict Jewish law. Women are allowed to read the Torah but are not permitted to do so in front of a congregation during a religious service.
One of the most controversial issues is the agunah, women who have not received an official divorce from their husbands because either the husband's whereabouts are not known or he refuses to grant her a “get,” an official bill of divorce that releases her from the marriage. The agunah are women who cannot remarry or find if they do without a “get,” that their subsequent marriage will not be recognized and children of the new marriage will be referred to as bastards. In order to get around these requirements, feminists and others are proposing several solutions. They try to prove that the woman didn't consent to the original marriage, or groups try to force the recalcitrant husband to issue the “get” either by revoking any professional licenses he has or sometimes even putting him in jail. Advocates for change are also trying to promote specific life-cycle rituals for girls as well as legal rights for women in religious courts, where often a woman's testimony is not accepted even on such personal matters as divorce.
Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi's wife, founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in 1997. Since she is a believer in the divinity of Jewish law, she seeks changes that will be acceptable within the confines of Orthodox Judaism. She wants to stay within the bounds of Halakah. Her view is that some Halakah are based on customs and thus there is a possibility for reinterpretation. And if a hierarchy serves no religious function, perhaps change is possible. She particularly resents the laws surrounding menstrual purity and impurity and the labeling of the woman a niddah, a menstruating woman, which is often a metaphor for moral impurity and debasement.
Judith Plaskow is fighting for women's ordination and new Jewish rituals such as Rosh Chodesh, a celebration of the beginning of each month in the Jewish calendar. She also disagrees with the maleness of God, so often labeled Father of Mercy, Father in Heaven, and King of all Kings. She proposes a degendering of God as well as a recovery of women's history and a resurrection of women's celebrations and symbols that are embedded in the goddess tradition. Rachel Adler would also like to transform the prayers and enrich the words with feminine imagery.
Opposition to these changes abounds. Traditionalists claim that Greenberg, Plaskow, and Adler are undermining the family, destroying the beauty of female modesty, and mixing the sexual roles. But mainly these women are promoting a political agenda for Orthodox Judaism whose very value is the maintenance of roles, rules, and laws for thousands of years. Change, however slowly, seems inevitable.
Feminist Theology, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Women in.
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