On Orthodoxy and Feminism: JOFA Conference Reflections

By: Miriam Zami  |  February 3, 2017


A few years ago, I was discussing my newfound identity as a feminist with a friend of mine. We debated the function of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, an organization dedicated to advancing change regarding gender issues in the Orthodox community: my friend contended that the name itself is a paradox in terms. She felt that “Orthodox” and “feminist” are inherently contradictory. Orthodoxy implies stagnation, a straightforward stance against the danger of change. Feminism on the other hand, he explained, is a movement built on the principles of the anti-establishment progress. I hesitantly argued the contrary using my very existence as evidence: I am Orthodox and I am feminist, so the two must be able to be coexist. I learned over the next few years that coexistence of multiple identities does not necessitate their harmony. Cognitive dissonance is a very strong force.

I attended my first JOFA Conference last Sunday. I sat in an auditorium in Columbia University’s Lerner Hall among over a thousand other women and men, as we listened to opening remarks given by pioneers of the Orthodox feminist movement. Despite the many differences that set us apart from one another—some conspicuous, others not—we were all gathered for the same purpose: to support the advancement of women in the Orthodox world. In various sessions throughout the day, we heard from scholars, teachers, innovators, and rabbis—the established and the shunned—about what this advancement looks like and where it’s going.

Each session was stimulating and provocative, encouraging us to consider our individual and mutual responsibilities regarding the place of women in Orthodoxy. What does it mean to have learned women with semikha in mainstream Orthodoxy? Why is there a necessity for that at all? Will the p’sak of women differ from that of men? How are gender roles in Orthodox families evolving? Should we move beyond the divisive labels of denominations? These were just a few of the thought-provoking subjects circulating during the conference.

Institutions like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, SAR Academy, Mechon Hadar, and Drisha Institute were well represented among both presenters and attendees, along with Israel-based institutions such as Midreshet Lindenbaum, Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Pardes Institute, among others.

There was, however, one glaring absence among Orthodox institutions: Yeshiva University. With the single exception of Dr. Aaron Koller, there were no current professors, rabbis, or affiliates of YU that took a public role in the conference.

YU was an undeniable player in the rise of feminism in Modern Orthodoxy. The morning after the conference, the Lehrhaus published an article detailing the rise and fall of feminism in the Modern Orthodox world, and essentially featured the YU community as representative of the Modern Orthodox community. The article displayed at its head the famous photograph of Rav Soloveitchik teaching the first women’s Gemara class in Stern in 1977—the photograph under which I sat in the Beit Midrash all semester, whose essence I hoped I could evoke as I prepared Gemara for my morning shiur. YU was integral in planting the seeds for the growth of a feminist Modern Orthodoxy, a mission whose end has been redefined by organizations such as JOFA to include barrier-breaking ideas like women’s ordination. And YU was only able to be so fundamental in advancing women’s roles in the Modern Orthodox world because of what it is as an institution: YU was founded as, and still is, the symbol of American Modern Orthodoxy.

I am not asking why YU has abandoned its roots of revolutionizing women’s role in Modern Orthodoxy. This is neither a plea for YU to be more involved with JOFA, or even to take a more public stance on issue of feminism and Orthodoxy. Nor do I wish to chastise JOFA—or, for that matter, institutions ordaining women—for claiming rights to a tradition that is the progenitor of YU. I only wonder if the absence of YU from the JOFA conference is indicative of a greater schism breaking up the American Modern Orthodox world. After all, YU’s absence is arguably a proxy for the already existent divisiveness between RIETS and YCT, the RCA and the IRF, ‘Centrist’ Orthodoxy and ‘Open’ Orthodoxy (essentially, Washington Heights and Riverdale).

Maybe the notion of Orthodox women rabbis is a paradox, if YU is the standard at which we measure. Or maybe Orthodoxy has been pulled by democratic force from the hegemony of YU and has become whatever meaning it is imbued with. Either way, the Orthodox umbrella is widening, and perhaps the label is even attempting to cover too much, with the risk of breaking.

I attend YU, and am deeply proud of it. I am a religious feminist, and I support organizations like JOFA, who spur on change. While part of me wishes the two worlds could overlap more, I am not begging YU to compromise its principles, nor will I admonish actions taken by JOFA. And the reason why is the very same notion that left me in pain after hearing my friend’s chiding remarks: I am living a life of cognitive dissonance. I am pretending that it all fits neatly into a superbly crafted puzzle—Orthodoxy and feminism, the religious world I’m in and the world I yearn it to be, belief in women who cover their hair with a scarf and those who cover it with a kippa.

There is a dissonance among the pieces of my identities, spaces that prevent them from fitting properly. However, I also believe that I am not the only one bearing the burden of an unsettled identity. I recognize that we are all tasked with finding the beauty held in that space between the jagged pieces. For amidst the despondent reports that Modern Orthodoxy is breaking, that space is where the future of Judaism lies.