Sisterhood Blog

Rabbi Sperber at JOFA: Confront Halacha's Male Bias

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Early Sunday morning, I shlepped my tired self through the rain — taking the subway up to Columbia University — to cover the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. At the end of a long day, I came away energized.

At the First International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy back in 1997, there was something electric in the air, and that same electricity was apparent on Sunday.

To be sure, the current imbroglio — see this story for the background and this story for an update — over what roles women with the same training as rabbis get may play in Orthodox institutions and what they can be called was a galvanizing issue. JOFA founder Blu Greenberg told me, afterward, that there were lots of last-minute registrations, likely a result.

But there was also a sense that more than 1,000 people came because they were hungry for community, felt like they had no other place where subjects like gender roles in Orthodoxy could be discussed, where women’s leadership in Orthodox Judaism could be examined from many angles and where feminism is not a dirty word, but rather a positive value.

And there were lots of young people who came; many who spoke with me in interviews of consciously imbuing their relationships with egalitarian values. It was great to see a 27-year-old bearded rabbi wearing a large knit kippah expertly wrap his newborn son into a baby sling and put him on his chest while he and his wife — she had her hair covered and wore a skirt, but also had a small hoop piercing her eyebrow — talked about the modern Orthodoxy that they are trying to live.

The conflict over Orthodox women’s religious leadership dominated the conference. Stepping outside a session on “Rediscovering Mikvah,” perhaps the very first Orthodox woman ever ordained a rabbi spoke with The Sisterhood.

Reb Mimi Feigelson received her rabbinic ordination 16 years ago from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, when she was living in Jerusalem. Feigelson, an expansive thinker and innovative teacher of Torah is a chasid who currently teaches at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.

Asked what she thought of the current fighting, she said, “I’m sad, and I think God is crying, because not only is it not kavod [honoring] to generations of women’s learning, it’s not kavod to God’s vision of the world.”

Though there were sessions on gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews, and on women writing Torah scrolls, the most radical statements at the conference came from the mouth of the rabbi there who appeared to be the most traditional: Rabbi Daniel Sperber. He is a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and a prolific author on subjects ranging from Jewish law to customs to history.

Rabbi Sperber, who wrote the psak, or Jewish legal ruling, in support of women’s rabbinic ordination which permitted Rabbi Avi Weiss last year to ordain Rabba Sara Hurwitz said, in an interview, that “there is no halachic reason that women shouldn’t be able to give spiritual and legal guidance.”

In a session he led titled “Why the Rambam Was Wrong: Female Leadership,” he said something which sounded unusual, coming from a black-suited, long-bearded traditional rabbi. “We have not been willing to confront the basic male bias in halacha,” he said. “The halacha is skewed because it was formulated by males.

“One should confront the basic issue of deconstructing halacha and reconstructing it in a totally egalitarian fashion,” he said, in a soft but firm British-accent. The auditorium where he spoke was packed with women and men.

Of the current debacle surrounding the issue, with other Orthodox rabbis and organizations denying his view, he said, “In the Orthodox establishment, any innovation is threatening.” “There is nothing as flexible as halacha. It is only by virtue of the flexibility of halacha that Jews have been able to follow in the way of Torah and mitzvoth for thousands of years,” he said.

He described Jewish law as an “Etz Chayyim,” a tree of life, with “the stem of tradition and branching out of opinions.”

“New leaves should be [in] our time, and part of your world,” he said.


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