Kindred Spirits (July 16,
by Naomi Ragen
Imagine, if you will, the loneliness of spending most of your life
believing that your needs, your feelings, and your ideas are invalidated by those powers
you most respect and feel most obligated to obey. Imagine too, hiding, ignoring, or simply
trying to talk yourself out of how you feel and what you want. Or simply pretending that
it doesnt matter, when, oh, it does. It matters more than anything else. Then
imagine suddenly walking into a room filled with hundreds and hundreds of kindred spirits.
Such was my experience at the opening session of "To Be a Jewish Woman, The First
International Conference in Israel" held in the Ramada Renaissance Hotel on July 14
and 15 in Jerusalem.
As I looked over the approximately 650 wonderful women who filled the vast ballroom, I
saw heads of lovely silver hair, heads covered with colorful headscarfs, with wigs, with
hats, and with no headcovering at all. But there was one thing all of them did have in
common: a commitment to Jewish religious law (Halacha) and a commitment to
finding a way to live within that law as full and equal members.
To paraphrase Freud: "What do religious women want?" Judging objectively from
the numerous speakers, it boils down to the following: Equality of opportunity. The chance
to fully develop spiritual lives through all avenues, including those that have always
been optional to women under Jewish law, but outlawed by social norms. Women want to learn
Torah, and to have their learning respected and acknowledged and consulted. They want to
have the choice of donning tallith and teffilin, of dancing with a Sefer
Torah on Simchat Torah, of reading the Torah portion at a women's minyan, or
giving the Shabbat sermon in front of the whole congregation. Women want the insulting
patriarchial bias of prayers like "Thank you, O Lord, for not making me a woman"
acknowledged and amended. They dont want apologetics for the misogynistic statements
in Jewish sources. They want the blow recognized as a blow.
Women want to contribute to Jewish communal life and to have their contribution
accepted and respected. They want to be allowed to decide what it is they want to give.
Instead of preparing the shabbat cake for kiddush, they want to be allowed to prepare
Biblical or Talmudic commentary.
Then, of course, there are those terrible problems and injustices that desperately need
Halachic answers: woman chained to men who extort thousands of dollars to grant them
religious divorce decrees, without which they can never remarry.. Women want the
rabbinical establishment to stop dragging its feet. To show some initiative. Some courage.
They want the rabbis to hate injustice as much as G-d does, and to do something to correct
Although this was not the first conference on religious women I attended in Israel, it
had the wonderful feeling of a movement that has gone from the edges of the establishment
to its heart, with no intention of moving on until its needs are met.
It was also heartening to hear the rabbis and men of letters who spoke so passionately
and with such understanding and compassion for the plight of the religious Jewish woman
who finds herself a victim to an insensitive male establishment that has no real
understanding of womens needs, and those small things that hurt her so deeply --
whether it be an insulting prayer, or being at a first-graders ceremony where the boys are
given kippot, and the girls hair bows.
Men like Rabbi Shumel Sirat, former Chief Rabbi of France (who sent his inspiring
remarks by fax), Professor Moshe Kaveh President of Bar Ilan University, Professor Yehudah
Gellman of Ben Gurion University of the Negev -- were all admirable in their lucid
presentation of the problems facing women loyal to Jewish halacha.
The courageous, intelligent women speakers, including chairperson Ms. Chana Kehat and
Ms. Rivka Lubitch, Ms. Brenda Bacon and Ms.Susan Weiss, were an inspiration.
I believe that in a hundred years, all the things for which religious women are
fighting so hard today, will be commonplace. For this is the way the Orthodox world
changes, from within, when pressures become too strong to hide or ignore. Goodness,
commonsense and justice will prevail. Everyone will benefit, especially the men, who will
share their lives with wives and daughters who are happier, more complete and accomplished
human beings. The organizers of the conference, the newly founded Religious Womens
Forum, are at the forefront of a movement that cannot be turned back. May they and their
wonderful work be blessed.