By Abigail Radoskowitz
Civilized discourse and the creative exchange of ideas set the tone for the First International Conference of the Religious Women’s Forum, held July 14-15 in Jerusalem.
The 1000 halakhically committed women and 150 men who participated were encouraged by the changes that have already taken place in the Modern Orthodox landscape in Israel. These changes include the growing number of young women engaged in advanced Torah and Talmud learning and the new concern with ritual and ceremony focusing on women, such as the birth of a daughter and the bat mitzvah. Another innovation has been the emergence of women as the majority among rabbinic court advocates, a religious profession that only five years ago had been closed to them.
Rivka Lubitch, one of the many exceptionally poised and erudite women who presented at the Conference, observed, however, that while the first generation of women involved in Jewish learning might have been satisfied with the increased level of learning alone, the next generation will demand greater involvement in the performance of mitzvot.
Bar-Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh stressed that statutory changes far more revolutionary than any envisioned today have been made in the past, and many mandated by the Torah were suspended as economic and social circumstances changed. Rabbi ReneSamuel Sirat, the former Chief Rabbi of France, noted that a woman’s status, even regarding divorce laws, was higher in the time of the Bible, and even in the time of the Talmud than it is today.
Divorce is the one part of halakha which has not responded to a changing situation, Dr. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari pointed out in her pained description of the halakhic status of women in marriage. This issue brought one of the only acrimonious notes to the two-day proceedings, when many in the audience protested Rabbi Yehuda Henkin’s objections to Dr. Halperin-Kaddari’s presentation. Yet Rabbi Henkin then proceeded to predict that it would not be long before the masses of women learning on the highest level would be producing poskot and morot halacha (arbiters). Chilling confirmation of Dr. Halperin-Kaddari’s description was the poignant presentation by a young haredi divorcee of the contemporary abuse of divorce laws and of the abasement of women by haredi society, and particularly by its media.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin provided an example of creative halakhic feminism in action, proposing that both men and women add the other’s blessing to his/her morning blessing, thus maintaining the halakhic integrity of the text, yet enabling both sexes to express pride in the form in which God created them.
Neither proposals as far-reaching as Prof. Yehuda Gellman’s for supplementing Torah readings with feminist texts, nor warnings by various speakers of the challenges posed by Orthodox feminism and the social price advanced textual learning might exact, diminished the courteous reception accorded by an audience representing a broader range than might be expected on the Orthodox spectrum.