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Kindred Spirits

Imagine, if you will, the loneliness of spending most of your life believing that your needs, your feelings, and your ideas are invalidated by those powers you most respect and feel most obligated to obey. Imagine too, hiding, ignoring, or simply trying to talk yourself out of how you feel and what you want. Or simply pretending that it doesn’t matter, when, oh, it does. It matters more than anything else. Then imagine suddenly walking into a room filled with hundreds and hundreds of kindred spirits.

Such was my experience at the opening session of “To Be a Jewish Woman, The First International Conference in Israel” held in the Ramada Renaissance Hotel on July 14 and 15 in Jerusalem.

As I looked over the approximately 650 wonderful women who filled the vast ballroom, I saw heads of lovely silver hair, heads covered with colorful head scarfs, with wigs, with hats, and with no head covering at all. But there was one thing all of them did have in common: a commitment to Jewish religious law (Halacha) and a commitment to finding a way to live within that law as full and equal members.

To paraphrase Freud: “What do religious women want?” Judging objectively from the numerous speakers, it boils down to the following: Equality of opportunity. The chance to fully develop spiritual lives through all avenues, including those that have always been optional to women under Jewish law, but outlawed by social norms. Women want to learn Torah, and to have their learning respected and acknowledged and consulted. They want to have the choice of donning tallith and teffilin, of dancing with a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, of reading the Torah portion at a women’s minyan, or giving the Shabbat sermon in front of the whole congregation. Women want the insulting patriarchial bias of prayers like “Thank you, O Lord, for not making me a woman” acknowledged and amended. They don’t want apologetics for the misogynistic statements in Jewish sources. They want the blow recognized as a blow.

Women want to contribute to Jewish communal life and to have their contribution accepted and respected. They want to be allowed to decide what it is they want to give. Instead of preparing the shabbat cake for kiddush, they want to be allowed to prepare Biblical or Talmudic commentary.

Then, of course, there are those terrible problems and injustices that desperately need Halachic answers: woman chained to men who extort thousands of dollars to grant them religious divorce decrees, without which they can never remarry.. Women want the rabbinical establishment to stop dragging its feet. To show some initiative. Some courage. They want the rabbis to hate injustice as much as G-d does, and to do something to correct it.

Although this was not the first conference on religious women I attended in Israel, it had the wonderful feeling of a movement that has gone from the edges of the establishment to its heart, with no intention of moving on until its needs are met.

It was also heartening to hear the rabbis and men of letters who spoke so passionately and with such understanding and compassion for the plight of the religious Jewish woman who finds herself a victim to an insensitive male establishment that has no real understanding of women’s needs, and those small things that hurt her so deeply — whether it be an insulting prayer, or being at a first-graders ceremony where the boys are given kippot, and the girls hair bows.

Men like Rabbi Shumel Sirat, former Chief Rabbi of France (who sent his inspiring remarks by fax), Professor Moshe Kaveh President of Bar Ilan University, Professor Yehudah Gellman of Ben Gurion University of the Negev — were all admirable in their lucid presentation of the problems facing women loyal to Jewish halacha.

The courageous, intelligent women speakers, including chairperson Ms. Chana Kehat and Ms. Rivka Lubitch, Ms. Brenda Bacon and Ms.Susan Weiss, were an inspiration.

I believe that in a hundred years, all the things for which religious women are fighting so hard today, will be commonplace. For this is the way the Orthodox world changes, from within, when pressures become too strong to hide or ignore. Goodness, commonsense and justice will prevail. Everyone will benefit, especially the men, who will share their lives with wives and daughters who are happier, more complete and accomplished human beings. The organizers of the conference, the newly founded Religious Women’s Forum, are at the forefront of a movement that cannot be turned back. May they and their wonderful work be blessed.

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