Sisterhood Blog

Women Leaving Orthodoxy

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

The recent Rabbinical Council of America decision to exclude women from the rabbinate brought to mind the 2004 film Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage,” a documentary about women stuck in the divorce process in Israel.

There is one particularly heart-wrenching scene that has been playing over in my mind recently. “Rachel,” a 30-something Orthodox mother of four who tried to get a divorce from her philandering husband for more than five years, had enough. “He is living with another woman!” she screamed at the apathetic judges, right before they kicked her out of the courtroom. “He has a new family, he has moved on with his life, and you cannot do anything to help me?” The court staff violently removed her, as she wailed down the hallway. “Stay away from this religion,” she cried. “This religion is terrible.”

Rachel, a radio producer for an ultra-Orthodox radio station, wearing an elegant sheitel and modern but appropriately Orthodox clothes, is smart, savvy and put together, calm under pressure and able to manage a powerful career and busy family as a single mother. In other words, she was perfectly ultra- Orthodox until that point. She, like other smart religious women, was betrayed by the system that she dedicated her life to. The rabbinate caused her to come undone. Rachel hasn’t just come undone, but she is done with Orthodoxy. In fact, all the women who were documented during the making of this film underwent the same transformation: they start out religious, and they end up walking away.

The women who are leaving Orthodoxy are a vibrant group. They are not “off the derech,” or path, as patronizing outreach educators like to call it. Rather, they are smart, competent, accomplished women, who look around at the lay of the land in Orthodoxy and say to themselves, there is nothing here for a woman like me. Smart, passionate, independent-minded women have no place in Orthodoxy. Like the neurosurgeon who is not even allowed to make a speech in her synagogue. “I have done everything they told me to do,” told me, pointing out her hat and skirt, “and I am just a non-person. It’s like I don’t exist.”

The most amazing women are most vehemently trounced by Orthodoxy. They are met with brick walls, entrenched chauvinism, small-mindedness and dismissiveness. At the recent meeting in which the RCA unanimously decided not to support women serving in rabbinic roles – with or without a title, they wrote – Heschel Schachter called the issue “yehareg v’al ya’avor, do or die, akin to the prohibitions against idolatry and murder. Meaning, if someone holds a gun to your head and says, ordain women or die, Schachter told the RCA conference, you should be willing to give up your life. They all voted in agreement with him.

A Cross-currents column claims that “there is wall-to-wall agreement that such a decision is not a good idea … near-unanimity.” The voices of protest by women, by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, by Kolech, by petitioners, by supporters of women’s rights and dignity, are wiped out with a swift swipe of the pen. The RCA has systematically slammed the door on women, the same exact way that the Beit Din slammed its doors on Rachel.

The story of great women leaving Orthodoxy is going to be one of the most important elements in the next generation of Jewish identity. The rabbinic establishment’s abuse of women is sending women walking. Thus far, such women are mostly invisible and alone. They do not necessarily know of one another’s existence. But that might be about to change.

I have decided to dedicate my next research project to this matter. My doctorate was about the identities of adolescent Orthodox girls, and my post-doctorate was about Orthodox men. Now I am turning my attention to a group of people whose stories are begging to be told: adult women who are leaving Orthodoxy. Not college students experimenting with identity, but adult women who have dedicated their lives to Orthodoxy and then turned away from the system. I want to know who they are, what drives them, what their negotiations are, and overall what they are going through. It is a story of Jewish life and a story of women, and it is time to start talking about this.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: JOFA, Maharat, Mekudeshet, Orthodoxy, RCA, Rabba, Rabbinical Council of America, Sara Hurwitz

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!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • 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.