Some days it feels like modern orthodoxy is disappearing, like the contours that once defined a vision for a compassionate and worldly traditional Jewish life are fading into a mass of religious extremism.
Or perhaps it’s just been a bad month. A few weeks ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis, including many who have been identified with modern Orthodoxy for most of their careers, came out with a scathing public attack against Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum, and newly appointed YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. His sin? Daring to engage in a public dialogue with non-Orthodox rabbis about what challenges Jewish leadership. I call this the cooties phenomenon of Orthodox life – as if by sitting down with non-Orthodox rabbis, the Orthodox rabbi risks getting contaminated by cooties and having his entire religious identity ruined.
Last week Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, head of the rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of the UK condemned the Golders Green United Synagogue for passing the Torah into the women’s section during Shabbat services, calling the practice “Reform-influenced”.
And then there was the Bnei Akiva incident. On the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, the Bnei Akiva educational stream in Israel – once the bastion of modern Orthodoxy – announced that it would be sending its ulpana high school girls to the kotel to protest against Women of the Wall. This came as a great shock, especially to many WOW-supporting parents in the ulpana system. Where I live in Modi’in, down the street from the local ulpana, many of my neighbors were furious that their daughters were being used as political pawns, without even discussing it with the girls or with the parents. As one woman – a former ulpana student, now a teacher – told me, “In the ulpana, there is no longer such a thing as developing your own political opinions. They’ll put up a sign that says, ‘Protest today, buses leaving at 12:00’, and nobody even bothers to ask what the protest is for. It’s assumed everyone will have the same opinion, whatever that is.” (In the end, Bnei Akiva cancelled the plans at the last second, but the damage had been done.)
The disappearance of modern Orthodoxy in both Israel and America has arguably been happening gradually over the past generation, but it seems to be at a breaking point today. Rabbis show an increasing cowardice in the face of radical ideas, constantly worried about the approval of some kind of invisible ‘they’. Ultra-Orthodoxy in the meantime has become more radical, more mindless and obsessive in observance, more trapped in a group-think that dominates everything from one’s socks to one’s tablecloths, and every breath and thought in between. If this is the culture that modern Orthodoxy looks to for some kind of approval or validation, it’s no wonder that modern Orthodoxy is in trouble. As if, the more “right wing” one is, the more “authentic” one is. As long as this narrative remains in place, modern Orthodoxy acting spinelessly and caving in to an ultra-Orthodox radicalism that is perceived as closer to some kind of truth, then modern Orthodoxy will continue to fade into oblivion.
One of the groups that has consistently resisted this encroaching radicalism, and tirelessly fights for a passionate vision of civil moderation is the Orthodox feminist movement. The women – and men – who have dedicated their lives and spirits to protecting women’s places in religious life are the spiritual warriors of our generation. We continue to put forth an alternative vision for Orthodoxy, one that does not see “stricter” or more “radical” as more “authentic” but actually views compassion and gender equity as foundational elements of Torah. We are not looking to proponents of radical Orthodoxy for approval. In fact, I would argue that there are elements of ultra-Orthodoxy that are patently “off the derech”, so far removed from Torah as to be almost unrecognizable.
The fight for women’s rights in Orthodoxy is not just about women, and it’s not just about rights. It’s about constructing a vision for a Jewish society that values both adherence to Torah and the perpetuation of a spirit of humanity and compassion. This vision is becoming increasingly vital to the health of the Orthodox community. The feminists are literally on the frontlines of the battle to create a community that can actually consider itself a light to the nations, a community that is not afraid of cooties but is afraid of what will happen to us when we stop appreciating that all humans were created in the Divine image.
Since its inception, JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) has been a key force in promoting a compassionate Orthodoxy. I’m proud to say that at the upcoming JOFA conference, Rabbi Lopatin will be a keynote speaker. Several other Wexner alumni are also on the roster, which you can see here. I invite all of you to attend: December 7-8 at John Jay College in NYC. Details can be found here.
The JOFA conference is at a vital moment for strengthening and maintaining a vision of Judaism that is loyal to both tradition and human relationships. I invite you to be part of it.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in women’s studies) and co-author with Dr. Chaya Gorsetman of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools. She lives in Modi’in, Israel, and works in New York City. For more information about The upcoming JOFA Conference click here.