Story-ideas-1011172

Feminists don’t burn bras, but demand Torah

  • Geoff mugshot
Orthodox women must make a call, writes Geoff Sifrin. Mention the word “feminism” and many people think of militant women in the 1950s burning their bras and aggressively attacking the male-dominated establishment for treating females as inferiors in education, careers, and so on.
by Geoff Sifrin | Aug 05, 2015

TAKING ISSUE

A different kind of feminist spoke at Limmud last Sunday. Just as committed as the secular feminists of old, but married to a rabbi and the mother of four children, Dina Brawer is advocating for increasing women’s participation in the Orthodox religious realm - reading from the Torah, for example, or giving learned halachic opinions. And becoming rabbis.

Brawer was a rebbetzen for over a decade in London. She is now studying for smicha - rabbinic ordination - at Yeshivat Maharat in New York and represents the New York-based Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (Jofa). She was recently recognised by The Jewish Chronicle in London as one of the “Power 100 List” of most influential figures in UK Jewry.

Predictably, Orthodox feminism faces stiff opposition in the Orthodox establishment. There are typically three arguments made, says Brawer. Firstly, that feminism is a “foreign import” from secular culture, not an authentic Jewish value, and doesn’t belong in Orthodox Judaism. Secondly, that it is the slippery slope: “If we allow this,” say its opposers, “what will it lead to? Little by little, we will lose all our traditional values and religion will not be what it is now.” Thirdly, many rabbis tell women wanting equality: “You have misunderstood; women are very important in Judaism - they are central to the home, they are akeret habayit.”

Brawer counters each point: “If we look back to the Torah, when G-d created Adam and Eve, they were created in G-d’s own image - equally in G-d’s image. So already we have the notion of equality in the Torah.”

Regarding the “slippery slope” argument, it is asking the wrong question, she says. “Maybe it is actually the beginning of the ramp up rather than the slippery slope down.” Greater women’s participation will not destroy religion. On the contrary, it might increase their religious practice and bring them closer to G-d.

When it comes to women as the mainstay of the home, Brawer says there is roughly a 12-year gap between the time women biologically become adults, and get married and set up their own home.

Many contemporary women don’t get married at all, and even for married women, when their children leave home they still want to find purpose and fulfilment. The akeret habayit concept doesn’t cater for them. Furthermore, even as the mainstay of the home, women have a large influence on their children, husbands, and extended families. Therefore, “we must ensure we invest in women so they are educated and inspired, and can in turn invest in their own children and grandchildren. If the woman feels marginalised, how is she going to be a good akeret habayit?

“Secular feminism has brought women unlimited opportunities for secular education, careers, and so on,” she says. “Yet when it comes to the Jewish religious space, women have limited choices. So the talents of 50 per cent of our population are poured into matters outside the religious community. We lose all that potential for enriching our ritual space. Rather than seeing it as a threat, we must invite women’s participation.”

What strategy does Orthodox feminism advocate? Torah study, for one thing. Brawer quotes a book by Prof Tamar Ross called “Expanding the Palace of Torah”, which documents how women’s Torah education became more advanced in the last 25 years - women now study at the same high level as boys and men at yeshivot such as Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.

In this process, the teachers - still predominantly male - have been exposed to a different way of thinking and different questions, because the women came in with fresh eyes. So Torah study has become better for everyone.

Women have become yoatzot halacha (halachic advisers), particularly on the laws of nida (ritual purity) and the mikveh. Previously, only men answered the questions, which arguably often made women so uncomfortable that they were willing to forego this mitzvah altogether.

The yoatzot halacha understand the women’s point of view better and can find empathetic solutions, therefore more women can now observe the rules of mikveh.

For example, she explained to the mixed audience at Limmud that it is not well known that halachically women are permitted to immerse in the mikveh on their own - some women want this because they don’t like being naked in front of others. Previously, male rabbis dismissed their concerns: “What’s the big deal?” It took women to explain that although men might not mind going to the mikveh as a group, women sometimes have a problem.

Another example involves reciting kaddish. When a man is bereaved in the UK and South Africa, he is usually invited to the shul by the rabbi to say kaddish, and if necessary he will get help in reading it, etc. But when a woman is bereaved, most shuls will not invite her. If she specifically asks the rabbi, he might allow it, but she will get little support beyond that.

“Why shouldn’t women be encouraged to say kaddish, as an opportunity for greater spiritual growth and engagement, rather than seeing it as a threat?” asks Brawer.

There is a fear among some Orthodox rabbis that if anything is changed, Orthodoxy will no longer be authentic. They argue: “If it was good enough for our parents, grandparents, and going all the way back, why should it not be good enough for this generation?”

Much of this resistance derives not from halachic issues, says Brawer, but from the fear of becoming too close to the liberal Jewish movements. But the truth is that Orthodoxy itself is something new, and arose as a reaction to the Reform movement. “We are now in a different Judaism than it was 200 years ago. Judaism is constantly changing. The most Orthodox Jewish life today is nothing like the traditional Jewish life as it was lived a couple of hundred years back.”

Brawer emphasises that Orthodox feminists are committed to halacha. “We don’t just say that times have changed and we scrap that. But there is a lot of flexibility within halacha. There is no halachic reason for women not to touch or carry a Sefer Torah, for example. Maimonides says even a non-Jew can touch a Sefer Torah. It cannot be made impure. And the Talmud itself talks about women being called up to read from the Torah.

“Educate yourselves!” Brawer urges women. “Halacha has been democratised in the social media age. There is so much material available online. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance website [jofa.org] provides many halachic answers. Then, go back and be able to talk about it with your religious leadership.”

The bra-burning feminists of the 1950s could not have predicted the kind of feminism that Brawer represents. But the underlying motivation is the same. Religions must find the way to integrate the modern view of people as equal in value. It takes pioneers like her to break the new ground.

 

Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. 3 Colin 05 Aug
    Impossible to prove, but it's almost guaranteed that her grandchildren will not be observant at all.
  2. 2 Naomi Voss 10 Aug
    Dina Brawer represents JOFA,which was started many years ago by Blu Greenberg. I have met Blu Greenberg's granddaughter. Yes, she is observant.  
  3. 1 Laurie Kurs 14 Aug
    While I am a radical feminist - but with very frum "leanings"...my Judaism is merely "leaning" as I have always felt invisible and merely an appendage to "ortho" Judaism.  I did not hide my discomfort of the role I was relegated to  from my daughter.

    For those concerned about the next generation....as always - they will follow their neshamas...with little regard to what WE tell them.  

    My daughter chose the frum life IN SPITE of her mothers feminist views....

    I am the proud bubbe of her 7 frum children!! 

Comment

  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
       
    Toolbar's wrapper 
     
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
      
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.
       
 

Follow us on

Newsletter