Sisterhood Blog

Those Limelight-Seeking Orthodox Feminists

By Frimet Goldberger

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It’s probably because I’m female — and Orthodox to boot — that, much as I try, I find it hard to relate to Jewish men who feel religiously unfulfilled unless they keep the center stage to themselves, and the women out of their club.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, the high-profile Haredi spokesman for Agudath Israel, implies in this humble-braggy and borderline sexist Forward post, that Orthodox women with spiritual wants that include more egalitarianism — especially in communal settings like synagogues — only seek to be in the limelight. This, he claims, he cannot relate to because “I just don’t like being on display.” Additionally, his wife and daughters “never looked to the synagogue for validation and fulfillment.”

Ladies, go find your validation and fulfillment elsewhere and leave this center stage for the men. Even the off-center stage belongs to men. Heck, every stage in Jewish life outside of the kitchen and the labor and delivery room belongs to men. It is just how it is. Blame Eve.

Why would you desire to rock the boat, anyway? To wrap those tefillin around your hands and place that black box on your head? Why would you want to lead services when you can pray comfortably from behind the mechitzah, alone in your thoughts? Why would you need to be front and center in order to have a satisfying synagogue experience? What a powerful experience it is to daven individually, Rabbi Shafran says, instead of with a minyan. It is just you and Hashem, and no one else. You can be left alone to connect with the Divine in a way that the Jewish men, stuck in the limelight, will never be able to.

“Still and all,” he continues, “I know that there are many Jewish women who are very different from me and my wife and our daughters, women who feel a need to attend services regularly and even to lead them. Although I consider Halacha and traditional Jewish custom sacrosanct, Judaism also demands of me to not judge others until I ‘stand in their place,’ and that applies no less here than anywhere.”

How fair of you not to judge, Rabbi Shafran.

I, for one, don’t go to shul that often, so I don’t have a huge personal stake in any changes, but when I do go, I sometimes feel uncomfortable. I recall a conversation I had with the Forward’s Editor-in-Chief, Jane Eisner, after Rosh Hashanah last year. She spoke about the egalitarian services she attends and sometimes leads, and I could not help but wonder how different my synagogue experience would be if I were able to be an essential part of it. Do I wish to join the Conservative movement? Not really. I love observing Shabbat to its fullest and embrace the Orthodox culture and its rich traditions. But I do believe there is room for flexibility and change within its realm, and making peace with women taking on public roles is central to that change.

A good model for his perception of Jewish life, Rabbi Shafran writes, is a band making music. “If the members of the mutual enterprise are producing the best music they can as a team, they will celebrate their own roles, not fancy those of their bandmates.”

Again, stay in the kitchen and off our stage, ladies. Bake the cakes and don’t begrudge us having our cake and eating it too. The Jewish life is most productive when both genders keep to their preordained roles and don’t covet that of the superior gender.

Or, as I see it, a good model for Jewish life is not making sweeping decisions for others based on one’s own preferences. Another good model for Jewish life is to accept that, in 2014, Orthodox gender roles are becoming increasingly fluid. It is certainly unfair to suggest that anyone who desires to take on a leading role is “identifying prominence with meaningfulness,” or hungry for the limelight.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m just seeking the limelight for arguing that Jewish traditional roles can be “updated,” without being completely ignored. But consider this, Rabbi Shafran, “a meaningful Jewish life is in fact not about particular roles but about how well we fulfill them.” Those aren’t my words; they’re yours.


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