Sisterhood Blog

Rabbi Sperber at JOFA: Confront Halacha's Male Bias

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sara Hurwitz, Daniel Sperber, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, JOFA

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.