Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Orthodox Jewish Feminists — An Oxymoron?

Dec. 20, 2013

By Robyn Shames

I have always believed, and still do believe, that Jewish Law has within it the ability to adapt to almost every situation and provide just and humane solutions to every crisis. This is how I have been able to work toward justice for agunot as executive director of ICAR — The International Coalition for Agunah Rights — for the past 10 years. I know that there are systemic solutions that would remove this ultimate power, to withhold a divorce, from the husband, thus creating a more gender equal Jewish marriage and divorce.

Our sages, throughout history have shown their creativity in so many aspects of Jewish life, and in the past, even on this particular issue, but it seems that in recent years, the rabbinical establishment has chosen to see women, even Orthodox women, as their enemy and not their equal counterpart, and thus feel no pressure to solve this issue.

Why are women seen as the enemy of religion? Why are women's demands to take part in their religious rituals — be it in the synagogue, becoming of age (the Bat Mitzvah), under the wedding canopy or at the time of divorce — seen as an attack on religion rather than as an honest plea to be seen as a valued member of their own religion? One would think that religious leaders in this day and age would want to embrace anyone looking to become a more committed Jew — "even" a woman.

ICAR and women's organizations that promote change within the confines of Jewish Law are often vilified by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment. We are told that we are looking to bring ruin upon the Jewish people and the Jewish family. Any change to the old order is immediately not only suspicious, but evil. How can I still consider myself Orthodox?

Perhaps the way forward is by encouraging dedicated and learned Orthodox women to take a new look at age-old rituals, laws and texts so that they can reinterpret them through a gender-friendly lens, thus granting women a religious justification for their internal yearning to be a full member in their own religion and to partake in its rites. Meanwhile, all of us activists cannot lose faith, and must continue the Sisyphean task of making small steps forward, notwithstanding the stalwart opposition of the religious establishment.

Indeed, many do believe that Orthodox Judaism and feminism cannot coexist and that they have to choose between them but I still do not agree. I can't allow myself to believe that this is true, as I am not willing to eliminate core values, beliefs that are integral to who I am and who I want to be.

But, I have a confession — I am finding it ever more difficult to categorize myself as an "Orthodox Jewish Feminist" even though it has been a major component in both my personal and professional life for many years. I am even questioning if such a creature can even exist.

Robyn Shames is executive director of ICAR, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (Jerusalem). Active in Orthodox feminist causes, she is a member of Shira Hadasha synagogue in Jerusalem. Shames is an attorney by profession and a social activist by inclination. Born in Montreal, Canada, she immigrated to Israel in 1971.