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Creating a powerful path for women in orthodoxy

  • NechamaBarash
Rebbetzin Nechama Goldman Barash – who is winging her way to our shores for Limmud next weekend – has spent much of her adult life working for women’s rights in Orthodox Judaism.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 26, 2018

“I’m a feminist, and I grew up believing strongly that women have a role to play,” says Barash. “Outside Judaism, the momentum gained by the feminist movement is considerable. Inside, it appears far more limited as there are defined roles, structures and practices in place. However, the place of women within Judaism is progressing, and people are realising it.”

While she believes tradition is the essence and structure of Judaism, she won’t accept arguments aimed at protecting it against movements of the modern age that are well founded, measured and comprehensive. She insists that attempts to defend tradition by invoking “the slippery slope” arguments are not only poor, but these attempts shut down an engaging and oftentimes necessary conversation.

Barash made aliya from Philadelphia, and after an initial stint as a freelance writer in bio-tech issues, she studied for three years at Matan’s Advanced Talmud Institute and completed a Master’s degree in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University.

Despite never having contemplated a teaching career, she realised that she had much to contribute to the discussion of the role of women in Judaism. She also realised that she could ensure women were afforded access to discussions of which they were never a part.

“I grew up in a frum home, but whatever texts my father studied with my brother, he would study with me,” she explains. “There was no limitation where my education and role as a woman was concerned. I suppose this gave me the confidence to give voice to an issue that Jewish women face and help them engage in new ways.”

To this end, Barash took up teaching at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She teaches Rabbinic Literature, Women and Judaism, Medical Ethics and other such subjects.

To further enhance her learning, she also enrolled in the Nishmat institute’s ground-breaking Yoatzot Halacha programme, a halachic studies programme for women that includes in-depth study of Hilchot Niddah (laws around women’s purity), as well as supplementary studies in women’s medicine and halacha.

Her learning, she says, enables her to bring something unique to the subject of women in Judaism: “I felt I could offer a different approach to the topic, both as a feminist and an educator. The increasing value placed on the education of women in the last 30 years empowers me.

“This move is transformative for both communal and educative spaces in Judaism. We are now witnessing women entering spaces such as rabbinic courts and playing active roles there. There are new dimensions being offered to women.”

However, delays and setbacks do still occur. “The expression ‘three steps forward, one step back’ is very accurate in this area,” she says. “When certain people take a step back and look at women’s progress, they say, ‘Wow, women have got too far! We need to slow it down a little.’ This was illustrated when the Orthodox Union issued its report against the ordination of female rabbis. Various motivations lie behind such arguments, and they range from pure fear to stigma.”

Judaism is not unique where the upheaval caused by the growing role of women is concerned, says Barash. According to her, all traditional faiths are experiencing the same issues, and expressing concern over changes they face. “Gender binary is an indisputable part of Judaism,” she says. “It’s hard to ignore it when discussing an issue like this. Judaism defines certain roles for certain people.

“I’m less angry about the issue today than I was 30 years ago,” she laughs. “We can’t overlook the fact that the place of women has improved drastically in education, but we cannot forget that we must consider a future goal before we get there.”

The journey for women’s enfranchisement is fraught with frustration, she explains. One of the issues she identifies is that of the Aguna, a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is “anchored” to her marriage (most commonly when her husband is missing or lost) and cannot be issued with a divorce document from her husband.

“The shuls are not doing enough to address these real issues,” says Barash. “The discussions have been clamped down on and no reforms are being considered. Of course, it’s a delicate matter as we don’t want to gain the support of women while losing men. Both men and women need to be involved, working together to improve circumstances and realities.

“It’s sad to me that I represent something so astonishing to people outside the US and Israel,” she adds. “The mission I pursue is unheard of in many places, and other countries are extremely slow in moving forward. While progress is not uniform everywhere, things are still moving, and the world is making steps towards a different future.”

The key to achieving this, says Barash, is to increase education amongst women. “The more educated women are, the better they are equipped to fight for their seat at the table. The process begins at the level of teaching, and both men and women need to engage.”

Barash has yet to encounter marked resistance to her pursuit, receiving largely positive feedback from both men and women. She explains that she is cautiously optimistic about the future progress of the movement, and stresses that people must realise when certain battles are worth fighting or have been lost.

One of these is the battle of rabbinic ordination for women. “It was obvious to me that the movement would head in this direction,” she says. “Of course, if you open the door to Talmud and then to halacha, ordination will have to follow. In truth, the battle over ordination is now irrelevant – it has been lost. Screaming and kicking won’t help, and neither will arguments about it being a slippery slope to becoming reform.

“Of course, this change does need to be carried out with the halachic restrictions borne in mind. Women cannot be counted in a minyan, nor read from the Torah in shul. But if people want to challenge it, they need to use genuine arguments, not excuses. Are they taking it up because of a pure reaction, or are they driven by fear or an agenda?

“Arguing that we ‘just can’t’ or that we are ‘spiralling downwards’ try to shut down the discussion. There is no problem with the concept of a woman rabbi, and this discussion needs to involve proper arguments if people want to discuss it.”

What matters most to Barash, however, is the new status women have achieved within Judaism. She concludes: “Women are today considered addresses for questions that they would never have been asked 30 years ago, not just regarding matters of sexuality. They are approached for opinions on halacha, kashrut, Shabbat and religious counselling – avenues never open to them before, and because of education, they have an opportunity to share in these roles and offer informed guidance.”

  • Nechama Goldman Barash will be presenting sessions and talking on panels at Limmud SA next week. Limmud JHB takes place from 3 to 5 August, Limmud Durban is on 9 August and Limmud Cape Town takes place from 9 to 12 August.

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