Women Rabbis and the "Tree of Life", Reflections on the JOFA Conference, March 14, 2010
Women Rabbis and the "Tree of Life": Reflections on the JOFA Conference, March 14, 2010
By Ronda Angel Arking
(Ronda Angel Arking is Managing Editor of Conversations, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. She is also a Literature and Language Arts Curriculum Developer, graduate student in Biblical Literature, mother, and active member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, MD.)
Halakha, as a flexible legal system, is like a tree. It is solid and rooted in tradition, and its trunk is strong and supportive. From the trunk of halakha, branches sprout in all directions, allowing for maximum growth, depending on the direction of the sun, the available nutrients, and so forth. From each branch, some left-facing, some right-facing, some wavering in the breeze, grow multitudes of leaves. And as the seasons change, old leaves fall off, and new leaves replace them. The new leaves may look like their predecessors-but they are not identical.
This metaphor was presented by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber at the annual JOFA conference, which took place on March 14, 2010. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance hosts an annual conference in New York, and offers regional conferences periodically as well. The JOFA conference is a place to learn about and discuss women's issues in the Orthodox world-but the agendas are not limited to women alone, but speak to gender issues that have implications on the future of halakhic decision-making and ethical religious practice-for women, men, and children alike. As Daniel Sperber asserted on Sunday, "I am not a feminist; I am a halakhist." And any halakhic decision, especially regarding gender, needs to take into account the world in which we live today in a rational, fearless way. The "slippery slope" argument is an emotional crutch on which many Orthodox Jews lean in order to avoid the discomfort and uncertainty that changing halakhic decisions can bring. However, we are standing at a precipice of new roles and a new "Orthodox world order," where women can play greater and greater roles in ritual life.
The ordination and congregational role of Sara Hurwitz, or Rabba Sara, was at the heart of the conference, as were discussions of ways to increase women's roles in the synagogue in general. The optimism and positive energy in the air were palpable, as we explored the ever-changing roles of women within religious life. One speaker noticed, after filling out a yeshiva recommendation for one of her Talmud students, that the form was to be filled out "by the student's rebbe." After her initial peeved reaction-why does this yeshiva require a male rebbe to write a recommendation?-she realized: her student naturally viewed her as his rebbe. The process of self-identification as a rebbe, rabbi, or Rabba, is still awkward in the hearts and minds of many Orthodox women, even though they do in fact play these roles in the lives of those they touch. As seasons change, old leaves fall off, and new leaves emerge-leaves that look similar to the old ones, but are in fact new growth, new cells, new ideas.
Scholars, writers, and leaders, including Tamar Ross, Blu Greenberg, Dov Linzer, Tova Mirvis, and Dina Najman, shared their ideas and ideals with over 800 conference participants throughout the day. We studied Torah, Midrash, Jewish literature, halakha, social justice, and ritual life. We heard the voices of middle school, high school, and college students, who had their own tracks. We sang niggunim with Reb Mimi Feigelson, who was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi 15 years ago, but felt the need to keep her title a secret for years. We socialized with like-minded, sincere, and hopeful friends and colleagues-and we shared a vision and dream of a multi-faceted, rational, ethical, and progressive Orthodox Judaism. Our branches spread in every direction, but we are all committed to the trunk that supports us, the stem of Torah, halakha, and yir'at shamayim.