Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot


With strident calls for action and threats of “taking to the streets” if the issue is not soon resolved, participants in the 10th anniversary conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) ratcheted up the rhetoric around the plight of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious bill of divorce.

“Let this be the last JOFA conference where we need to ask if there’s a halachic heter [permissive legal ruling] for agunot,” Tova Hartman, founder of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem, told the approximately 1,000 people, mostly women, who attended a conference earlier this month in New York City. “The time has come to stop kvetching.”

The rhetoric on agunot contrasted sharply from that on other topics at the conference, where a sense of confidence bordering on the triumphant prevailed, owing to the substantial progress made in the decade since JOFA’s founding.

Women today serve as congregational heads, spiritual leaders and advisers on matters of religious law. They have greater access to rigorous textual study that once was the domain of men. And their participation in public prayer is on the rise with the growth of so-called “partnership minyanim,” in which women take on some leadership roles — including reading the Torah and leading certain prayers — in an otherwise typical Orthodox service.

Other issues, like marking a girl’s bat mitzvah, have fallen off the agenda entirely now that such celebrations are par for the course in Orthodox congregations.

“It is a slow and gradual progress,” JOFA Executive Director Robin Bodner said. “There is definitely progress. There is definitely change.”

Hartman electrified the conference with her talk of civil disobedience and the creation of alternative religious courts to address the plight of agunot, who under Jewish law are forbidden to remarry until their husbands have “released” them from marriage with a get, or religious bill of divorce.

In the worst cases, husbands have refused to grant religious divorces to their wives for years, sometimes issuing the documents only in exchange for sizable ransoms.

In the United States, various rabbinic courts and civil laws provide some recourse. In New York, state law requires spouses to remove all religious barriers to remarriage before a civil divorce is granted; a similar law is under consideration in Maryland.

In Israel, marriage remains under the purview of rabbinic courts that have the power to enforce their rulings. The problem, agunot advocates say, is that those powers are rarely used by judges, all of them male and drawn mostly from the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox.

An international rabbinic conference on the topic, the first of its kind, was scheduled for last November by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. It was canceled at the last minute, however, reportedly due to pressure from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an Ashkenazi rabbi widely considered the most authoritative figure in the fervently Orthodox world.

“It’s time that we in the Modern Orthodox world challenge the power of a handful of extremist Charedi rabbis,” Sharon Finkel Shenhav, the only woman serving on Israel’s commission to appoint religious judges, said at the conference.

Shenhav said the ultra-Orthodox, also known as haredim, control the courts only because “we let them.”

One possible halachic solution, the so-called “tripartite” solution, would have couples sign a prenuptial agreement stipulating that the marriage is dissolved if a husband and wife voluntarily live apart for a certain amount of time.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the American-born chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, argued for that option in an address to a standing-room only crowd at the convention.

While some accused the rabbinic courts of outright corruption, Riskin said the principal obstacle to resolving the issue is the courts’ preoccupation with “what they think is the purity of Israel as over and against the plight of the agunah.”

The tripartite solution is nearly airtight from a halachic standpoint, Riskin said, but it would only affect future marriages and would have little impact on existing agunot. Even so, he’s under no illusions that the idea will be enacted.

“If it does not work, then I believe we will have no choice but to establish alternative batei din,” or rabbinic courts, he said.

JOFA plans to take ads in Jewish media demanding action on agunot from the Orthodox rabbinate. The ads, which call the situation an “injustice” and a “disgrace,” would be timed to coincide with the Fast of Esther, which falls this year on March 1.

“If the community rose up, ultimately that’s how things are changed,” Bodner said. “We need to keep pushing for this change. We’re going to do it. Somehow, some way.”

Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?


When Sharon Stein Merkin attended a Modern Orthodox religious day school in Los Angeles, she didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara, the Oral law, because her school, like most in the 1980s and ’90s, didn’t teach women Talmud.

But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.

“I wasn’t as disturbed that I didn’t learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn’t have a historical background,” she said.

“My friends who graduated with me didn’t even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara,” she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law:

The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.

After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. “If they don’t agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of Jewish learning,” she told them. Although they listened, they didn’t make any changes.

The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, “Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?” sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.”

The study of Talmud isn’t the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.

Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.

The conference will focus on enriching girls’ education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women’s contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.

But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.

Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there “Nashim Datan Kalot,” a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.

“We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.

Although he declined to speak in particular about his school’s curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. “It’s been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women’s mind,” he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as “not the most productive use of a women’s time.”

At Korobkin’s own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.

“Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics,” he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women’s minds aren’t made for Talmud study. “If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud,” he said.

While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools –Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy — have put Talmud into the girls’ programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)

“When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.

Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.

“As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there’s no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key,” Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.

“It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today’s society that’s important,” he said. “It’s not an issue of being equal — it’s an issue of giving them what they deserve.”