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JOFA conference this weekend and ten years ago

The JOFA conference (JOFA's 10th Anniversary International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy, V'Chai BaHem: Passion and Possibility) is taking place this coming weekend, from Saturday night through Sunday evening. You can register at the door. (You could also register online, but that probably ends at some point before the conference, and may have ended already.)


Saturday evening, February 10 (23 Shevat)
Low Rotunda at Columbia University, 535 W. 116th St. (between Broadway & Amsterdam)
7:45 pm wine and cheese tasting
8:30 pm Phyllis Chesler and Michael Steinhardt duke it out, with Dr. Adena Berkowitz moderating
then GOLEM [link opens a page that plays music] and a dessert reception

Sunday, February 11 (23 Shevat)
Lerner Hall at Columbia University (2920 Broadway at 115th St.)
8:00 am to 6:00 pm
Shacharit, breakfast, and registration from 8-9 am
Speakers include Tova Hartman, Rabbi Dov Linzer, Dr. Tamar Ross, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Devorah Zlochower, and others.

More details here.


I recently came across some things that I wrote after going to the very first JOFA conference ten years ago. Some of what I wrote is embarrassingly harsh and even antithetical to what I believe today. I really was a little mouthpiece for Modern Orthodoxy when I was 17. I'm cringing as I reread it. Other parts are a bit, well, nauseatingly earnest, but I think that's okay given my age at the time. If 17-year-olds can't have a monopoly on the truth, who can?

Luckily, things have changed a lot in the past ten years. For one thing, I graduated high school, spent a summer at Drisha, spent a year studying in Israel, went to college, left college, returned to college, graduated, was unemployed, got a job, moved to a new city, moved again within the new city, and got another job. For another, other people did lots of stuff, too. The upshot is that I no longer write such embarrassing things. (Hopefully! We'll see how I feel in another ten years. Maybe this will all be cringe-worthy then.)

Some of the more palateable things I wrote in February 1997 after the first JOFA conference are below. Elipses indicate things that I wrote that are currently too mortifying to include or things that were unnecessarily wordy. I didn't change any words.


Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy: A Commentary
February 1997

Evaulating halacha from a feminist perspective was NOT the point of the conference. The point was to discuss how to allow women to fulfill their potential within the much-respected walls of halacha....

I don't think that this is something to be afraid of. When there are more women who know Torah and express their love for it, there will be more teachers and poskot who teach Torah and more Jews who grow to love and understand Torah. When there are more women who feel a strong connection to G-d and davening through women's tefilla groups, there will be more people in "mixed" shuls....When there are more women who feel that Judaism respects them, there will be more women willing to be mikablot ol malchut shamayim. What's there to be afraid of? I think that if some of the rabbis opposed to the women's movement spoke to more of the women involved, they would realize that so many participants are in this for kavod Hashem and kavod haTorah and not for their own kavod....They're in it for the entire Jewish people, to unlock the potential of thousands of women.

Sure, some women are involved with the movement out of a sense of indignation, anger, resentment, or frustration. It can be frustrating to realize that women, no matter how many there are, can never form a halachic community. It can be discouraging to constantly be told that learning Torah is not a mitzvah for women (and thus, it is better left to men). It can feel belittling to come across mitzvot in which "nashim, avadim, and k'tanim" [women, slaves, and minors] are grouped together as the un-obligated. (We sometimes get grouped with the androgynous folks also.)

However, it can be fulfilling to sit in class and quietly explain a sugya of Gemara to the guy who's sitting behind me. It can be uplifting to daven with 300 other women, all of whom are davening ferverently though no minyan is present. It can be inspiring to learn Gemara from a scholarly woman.

Learning is one of the main things that connects me to G-d and to other Jews. I'm not always motivated to learn, because I can be lazy, but when I don't learn, I feel a discernable void. When someone tells me a halachic opinion, I feel the need to look it up and see the words for myself. That's what I think the key to all this is. Open all of the gates of Torah learning to all women, and they will be happy. Or, at least I will be.

....I thought it was wonderful. There were no hellfire and brimstone speeches from the pulpit about taking power or mitzvot away from men, abandoning young children in favor of careers, or ripping down the walls of yeshivot worldwide. Rabbinic condemnation of halachically-acceptable, though perhaps untraditional, activities simply drives women away from tradition. Rabbinic approval of halachically-acceptable methods of religious expression draws more women to tradition.


Self-Empowerment of Traditional Jewish Women
February 1997

Bat Sheva Marcus spoke about traditional women and self-empowerment at the end of the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, in NYC, on February 17th, 1997. After explaining that changes need to take place in the home, shul, and community at large, she went on explain why these changes need to take place, why women need to shift from the sides to the center of Jewish life. Some women, she said, feel uncomfortable doing these "progressive" things. Some women don't want to learn halacha, don't want to daven regularly, don't want to make kiddush or give divrei Torah. These women, Ms. Marcus said, should empower themselves anyway. She said that they should do it for themselves and do it for their children, so that their children see women as religious beings and religious role-models.

What she said really affected me....I thought about my own life, and I realized that...my father has really been my religious role model for mitzvot aseh shehazman gramman....My father is always in the middle of learning something, even when he's not actually sitting and learning. He learns parshat hashavuah on weekday nights...and mishnayot on Friday night. He's had chavrusas since I was born, and found a way to learn on some kind of semi-regular basis even in the midst of the greatest family turmoils. When my father and his chavrusas had a siyum when I was little, they bought halva and lots of other good food so that more people would come and share in their siyum, and I learned something about learning and the celebration of learning. The message sent was that even if it takes you years to finish a masechet (it takes them years), it's a worthwhile endeavor....My father used to daven shacharit at home when I was little, and I remember, long before I knew how to read, wearing a blanket, holding a siddur, and standing next to him. That was what one did. One got up in the morning and davened.

I wish that I could have learned those things from my mother. Obviously, I learned things of equal importance from my mother, who is an eishet chayil of the highest caliber. She has done countless other things that have taught me so much of what I know about giving of oneself and interacting with other people. But she didn't teach me how to learn or daven, arguably two of the most important ways we have of relating to G-d.

I used to go to shul with my father and sit next to him in the men's section....When I was eight or nine, I moved into the women's section. Actually, for about a year when I was in fourth grade, I stopped going to shul on Shabbos entirely. I didn't really know why; I just knew that I hated going. When I started going again, I didn't mind sitting in the women's section, except on Simchat Torah. My mother had always said that Simchat Torah was her least favorite holiday, and I never understood why until I was banished from the men's section. I began to hate it also. All the women did was open the mechitza and stand and watch the men singing and dancing with the Torah, expressing their religious spirits while their mothers, daughters, wivess and sisters watched from the sides. I disliked Simchat Torah until last year, when I went to Brandeis, where the female students dance with a sefer Torah also.

They offered me the Torah, and I declined the honor. First of all, I was afraid that I would drop it, and second of all, it seemed an honor that I didn't deserve. I've never actually seen a sefer Torah close up, I mean, seen the klaf with the letters on it. When I was discussing [feminism and halacha] with a guy in my class, I mentioned that in passing and he (bless his heart) said, "Okay, let's go to the shul and take a Torah out of the aron and you'll see it." I said no thanks. I'm not sure why. I would have felt uncomfortable, despite all my feminists rantings and the fact that part of me really wanted to. Maybe if he made the offer again today, I'd be more willing than I was in September.

This summer...I was offered the honor of making hamotzi on Friday night [for peers and teachers]. I flatly refused to do it. In all of these cases, I knew that it wasn't an issue of it being assur or mutar. My own mother has made hamotzi for my family since my parents got married, and it never seemed at all unnatural or wrong for my mother to be doing it. I think that I felt that if I did it [this summer], it would be making a statement about feminism and halacha and tradition that I didn't necessarily want to make. I should never have felt that way! Making hamotzi for a group should never have to be anything more or less than a statement of thanks to G-d for all that he has blessed us with! Why should women doing something that they have a chiyuv to do be a political statement?

I don't want my sons and daughters to grow up with that mentality. I don't want them to grow up being uncomfortable when a woman makes kiddush for them, or be embarrassed when they see women wearing talitot, or think that women who dance with sifrei Torah may not deserve the honor. I want my daughters and my sons to know that learning is something that both men and women should do on a regular basis. I don't want them to expect women to be on the sidelines as I have come to.

If I do end up fighting for the right for women to do progressive things, it won't be because I'm a feminist. It will be because I want to see a time when women aren't embarrassed or afraid to worship G-d as he wishes to be worshipped, with joy and openness. I want to see a time when batei midrash are set up for women equal to the ones set up for men, or acceptance of the fact that women will be learning in the beit midrash with men. I learn in the [shul] beit midrash every Shabbat afternoon between mincha and ma'ariv, and a female friend of mine does also, and once when I wasn't there, a man came over to her and asked her what she was doing there. He said that men could not learn while she was there, and just as she would not daven with men, she should not learn in the same room as men. My reply to him would have been to give women a place to learn.

One day, I walked out of the beit midrash carrying a mishna, and a sheitl-wearing woman who was standing outside asked me if I'd been learning in there. When I replied in the affirmative, she asked me if I could get her a Artscroll Masechet Ta'anit. So I walked in there and came out with her gemara. She was apparently too uncomfortable walking in there among the men. Why should she be embarrassed to be getting a sefer to learn from? Maybe I'm just brazen ("pritzut" comes to mind) and totally insensitive to the issues of tsniut, but I think that cultural changes can occur, well within the firm walls of halacha, which will serve to strengthen the Jewish people.

I think that the fact that women don't make kiddush or hamotzi when they could, that they don't clamor for entrance to batei midrashot or funds to start their own, and that they don't dance joyfully with the Torah on Simchat Torah leads to their objectification. By this, I mean the assumption that a woman learning in a beit midrash is going to be seen as a sexual object, and thus a distraction, rather than a Jew who is, quietly and in her own way, learning Torah to achieve d'vekut with her Creator.


I'll see you on Sunday!

UPDATED to add: The things I wrote in 1997 were my opinion then, not my opinion now. One major change is that learning was the be all and end all of Judaism for me when I was an adolescent. That is no longer the case. Also, see comments and note that my mother did learn regularly when I was a child, I just didn't know that she did.

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Thank you for your compliments. I, personally, have never wanted to take on more mitzvot because I have always felt, as a wife and mother, that I had more than enough on my plate. It is hard to do it all as well as we'd like. When I felt I had time do to more, I took on part time jobs, to help with family finances. Although I don't have a head for Talmud, I HAVE moved from participatory shiurim in Torah to preparing shiurim in Navi. I call that progress.
Just as you didn't know that Imma learned regularly when you were growing up, I'm afraid you have overestimated how regularly I learned. I always felt guilty about not learning more, but it was hard to learn regularly, with a demanding job and demanding family, not to mention lots of demanding hobbies. I hardly ever learned the parsha on weekdays. I did go to Don Brand's gemara shiur on Sunday mornings at Young Israel for 8 years, until he made aliyah. On the relatively rare days when I left work early enough to go to mincha at Young Israel during the week, I went to the Mishna Brura shiur between mincha and maariv. And, as you noted, I had my gemara chavrusa which met theoretically once a week, but only when all three of us could make it, which is one reason why it took several years to finish a masechta. I did a little better on Shabbat, I think. I did learn Mishnayot on Friday nights, as you said, when I was not too tired. (When I was too tired, I fell asleep over Mishnayot instead of learning them.) And I went to Rev. Loketch's shiur between mincha and maariv on Shabbat afternoons, at Young Israel, for a number of years. That's about it.

I guess it is a good thing that you thought I was learning more than I was, and were inspired by it to learn regularly yourself. Now that you know the truth, I hope you are motivated primarily by love of learning, rather than by my example, and won't stop!
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