There was an exciting energy at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. Speakers in both the plenary and individual sessions, such as emerging star Lisa Schlaff, made far-reaching statements and bold suggestions about issues ranging from marriage and sexuality to halachic ingenuity. Participants responded in kind with creativity and courage, revealing what seems to be a powerful consensus that Orthodoxy is in the midst of a major overhaul from the ground up.
The fact that conference participants expressed full and enthusiastic support for Orthodox women rabbis offers some sense of the disconnect between this grassroots community and the formal leadership of Modern Orthodoxy. It suggests, as did many of my encounters at the conference, that Modern Orthodox decision-makers are out of touch with the lived experiences of their constituents. Nowhere was this disconnect more apparent than in Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s plenary lecture. As she was called to the stage as “Rabba,” the entire room stood and cheered. This was clearly a place where the Rabbinical Council of America’s pronouncements were irrelevant at best, where Hurwitz was and is Rabbi.
However, as Hurwitz spoke, she revealed that while the audience was ready to take on the RCA, she is not.
Refusing to use words such as “clergy,” “ordination,” “semikhah,” or even “rabba,” Hurwitz spoke about the idea that “women will be spiritual leaders.” She explained that the evasion of these terms was in order to placate others, to avoid unnecessarily offending or provoking, to acknowledge that perhaps “people are not ready” for the title. It is hardly surprising that at the end of her speech, only a small handful of people stood for her. I could see from my seat towards the back that the people who were gripped by the urge to stand as “Rabba” was introduced lost that urge by the time the talk was over. Hurwitz had a constituency, and she let them go.
To claim that Orthodox women will be spiritual leaders is absurd, and even insulting. Women are spiritual leaders. Reb Mimi Feigelson, for example, who received Orthodox ordination from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 1990s and was listed on the program as “Reb,” has effectively been the Rebbe of Yakar in Jerusalem for two decades. Rabbi Haviva Ner David received Orthodox ordination from Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky several years ago after a prolonged and public struggle; she goes and goes by Rabbi Haviva. Dina Najman is already spiritual leader of a congregation on the Upper West Side, Rachel Kohl Finegold serves as programming and ritual director of a synagogue in Chicago, and other women trailblazers are acting in rabbinic roles with or without the title. Dvora Zlochower, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, was effectively acting as rebbe at Drisha for many years. There are others like her around the world — Orthodox women running communities and offering counseling and without a doubt functioning as “spiritual leaders”. So for Hurwitz to stand up there and talk about “my own journey” and claim that women will be spiritual leaders is retrograde and dismissive of the women who came before her. Women are already leaders, some already have titles and many are capable of doing their work without paying any heed to archaic groups such as the RCA.
The next generation of modern Orthodoxy does not know or care about the RCA. Professor and sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has shown in her research, young Jews are more concerned about genuine spirituality — connection and community — than they are with petty inter-denominational politics and hollow affiliations. As one rabbi in the “Men and masculinity” lunch session said, “The reason why the RCA does not want women rabbis has nothing to do with halacha. The RCA is just another men’s club, where men get together to socialize and feel powerful, and the idea of a woman joining their club would just ruin the whole thing. Like every other men’s club, the second a woman walks in, the whole group collapses.”
Indeed, it is clear that for many people at the conference, the RCA is clearly an irrelevant boys’ club that bears little if any influence on religious life. There was really very little anger about RCA pronouncements at the JOFA conference, because, unlike Hurwitz, most people simply did not care.
When I think about arguments such as “People are not ready” for women rabbis, which I cannot help but wonder, when did I — and all of the people in the room — stop being “people”? There is an entire community out there, growing by the minute, who are seeking out a different kind of Orthodoxy, one based on humanity, compassion, and a basic sense of right and wrong. We are the people who have been talking about issues such as agunah for a long time and have come to realize that justice for women will only happen when women are in positions of power and authority. We are “people”, too, and we are ready for change.
Religious life based on empty obedience to authority, especially top-down self-designated Orthodox authority, is an outmoded model. The JOFA conference was a fantastic gathering of people who are seeking meaningful experience, spiritual connection and a religious life that they can explain and justify in real human terms. Anything less is just a thing of the past. Change is already here.