Optimistic Israel

Can a Religious Feminist Have a Sense of Humor?

An Israeli Facebook group, פדלחושית, can be translated as "I am a religious feminist and I do not have a sense of humor."

Why would a group define itself by rejecting its sense of humor? Well, at this particular moment, Jewish religious feminists do not have much patience or humor left when it comes to being marginalized and excluded from the public space, especially from leadership and full expression in the religious public space.

Religious feminists are out of patience, and we don’t think the current situation is funny at all. We want to debate, struggle and think about our religious roles and responsibilities as both feminists and religious people. We want to read Torah, put on tefilin and talitot, lead services or even give a dvar Torah in an Orthodox synagogue. Some of us want to be rabbis, too. We want to know as much as male rabbis know and be equally recognized for our knowledge. Further, we want this to happen now, so that our granddaughters will not need such a support group.

This Facebook support group has over 10,000 members. While the group is important for all feminists who care about religion in their life, it’s especially important to Israeli Orthodox women who are trying to navigate the difficult waters of identity as feminists and followers of halakhah. It’s important for these feminists who are also path-breakers in a country that in many ways is defined by rigid definitions of religion and by a set of boundaries between social and religious groups. For too long in Israel, “Judaism” has been defined primarily as “Orthodox Judaism.” Orthodox feminists are challenged when seeking equality in religious obligations and roles. They want the freedom to divorce when necessary, the freedom to stop domestic abuse, the freedom to go to a mikveh that is respectful and pleasant, the freedom to be religious leaders, and the desire not just to have a voice, but for that voice to be heard.

One of the most daring and inspiring paths to religious leadership for women is to be part of the rabbinate. There is a small but important group of Orthodox women (both in the US and in Israel) who have invested in the same course of study that confers to men the title of rabbi in the Orthodox community. A number of inspiring male rabbis in both countries are committed to support, guide and teach these women, even at a cost to their own professional status. However, despite women’s knowledge and training, many rabbinic authorities in Orthodox communities will not recognize women in formal roles of leadership. And if the Orthodox community doesn’t recognize women as rabbis, they are not recognized by the Israeli State as rabbis, even though Reform and Conservative women rabbis are now being recognized by Israel.

This is the case for Rabba Devorah Evron, one of the first Orthodox women in Israel to take the title of "rabba." In July 2015, Rabba Evron—director of the Elga Stulman Women’s Institute for Jewish Studies, “Nigun Nashim” at HaMidrasha—finished all the exams for the rabbinate. However, she is not recognized for her accomplishment in the same way her male colleagues are. “We always fall through the cracks,” she says.

Orthodox feminists like Rabba Evron have fallen through the cracks in the recent Kotel decision, too. Because of their commitment to halakha, Evron and other feminists want to pray and lead prayers in a space dedicated to women only. Some women are satisfied with the new hard-won Kotel solution and will be happy to lead services in a mixed gendered place. However, those whose religious conviction obligates them to pray with women only, but whose social consciousness requires them to seek equality and freedom, feel like a door has been closed for them.

Ironically the door was closed on them, in part, by liberal Jewish movements in Israel with support of their counterparts in the US. These movements have been seeking religious recognition in many life areas, including a space to pray in the Kotel. The decision to grant them mixed-gender spaces and control over religious norms is a huge symbolic and practical gain that can not be taken lightly. Yet it leaves out the feminist needs of the Orthodox women – who for the last 27 years struggled to obtain a dignified and separate prayer space with their liberal feminist sisters in the women’s section. This means the win for “egalitarian” spaces is a loss for Orthodox feminists. In our Reconstructionist commitment to religious pluralism, we believe we need to create space for everyone. This is why the plight of Orthodox feminists matters so much to us.

Now, Rabba Evron and her feminist Orthodox colleagues are at the forefront of looking for ways of creating a new reality, one in which halakha is learned and taken very seriously and leaders  have the courage to take it apart, build it anew, and adapt to the time, situation and place in which the halakhic situation is being taken. Rabba Evron and her colleagues do not advocate for chaos. There are boundaries that are important to them, but they also understand they are part of a larger world in which women’s roles and leadership are recognized and respected. 

For the sake of future generations of daughters and granddaughters—and for the sake of promoting and defending a truly democratic vision of religious pluralism like we enjoy in the USlet's find a way to extend a helping and supporting hand so that these shut doors can open.

Maybe once those doors are opened, we religious feminists will rediscover our sense of humor.

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