Called to the Torah: Navigating Feminism and Jewish Law in Modern Orthodox Communities

Author: Kashmira Mohamed Zagor is an undergraduate student studying anthropology and English literature at the University of Melbourne. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She tweets from @kashmira_mz.

In March 2020, Netflix premiered Unorthodox, a series about a young Jewish woman fleeing the oppressive conditions in her Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox community, in search of a life that allows her to thrive as a modern woman. The series received wide acclaim, praised for its representation of “a woman’s escape from a society she finds suffocating and unsustaining.” In popular media, this narrative is common: the only way to be a modern, feminist woman is to leave the community. But this is a one-dimensional portrait that is deeply problematic. In reality, there is a growing movement of women who are navigating the intersection of their identities as both feminists and observant Orthodox women.

On paper, Orthodoxy and feminism appear incompatible: the former espouses patriarchal values which the latter strives to resist. Whilst many branches of Judaism have embraced egalitarianism, contemporary Orthodox interpretations and applications of Jewish law (halakha) remain faithful to traditional gender roles. Those wishing to diverge have little flexibility, leading Yael Israel-Cohen, author of Between Feminism and Orthodox Judaism (2012), to write “egalitarianism… is arguably the most pressing issue that Orthodoxy faces in the modern era.”

It’s an issue that fits within broader debates surrounding religion and women’s agency – and problems with making secular-based assumptions about religious women’s lives. Israel-Cohen writes that there is a tendency within secular discourse to use the position of women within religious societies as the “litmus test of its general orientation and ideological positioning.” Researchers working with religious communities have been grappling with this problem for some time – and their work has been a useful addition to the conversation.

Saba Mahmood approaches the topic of power and agency in her seminal ethnography Politics of Piety (2004), which critiques secular feminism’s failure to consider the actions of Muslim women to be subversive in their own right. Similarly, Lila Abu-Lughod has worked extensively on the problems which arise when secular rights-based discourses are used to reinforce the perception that Muslim women are ‘victims.’ Her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013) turns the discourse on its head by exposing how “the standard Western vocabulary of oppression, choice, and freedom is too blunt to describe these women’s lives.”

Ayala Fader’s ethnographic work Mitzvah Girls (2009) reveals similar dynamics at play when it comes to secular assumptions about Hasidic communities. She explores how Brooklyn-based Hasidic women and girls navigate secular and religious expectations in their everyday lives, contending that the barriers between the two are far more blurred than is widely perceived. Fader’s work reveals how these women have the freedom to choose how to engage with the secular world and, in turn, how to make sense of their own identities.

These works suggest that there is often one-sided thinking when it comes to what constitutes empowerment and oppression. This is in part due to what Israel-Cohen describes as the “deep hostilities that have festered among secular feminists towards religion as a patriarchal and oppressive system.” Her work with Orthodox Jews in Israel dismantles the idea that feminism is universally understood and experienced in the same way.  In doing so, she sheds light on the subversive acts of resistance being performed by Orthodox women within their communities.

All of these critical examples highlight the urgent need for nuanced, culturally grounded explorations of how women understand their own identities and their relationship to feminism. Within some Orthodox Jewish communities, this exploration is already underway. In fact, feminism and Orthodox Judaism have a surprisingly lengthy history. American activist Blu Greenberg – arguably the “founder of Orthodox Jewish feminism” – has led the charge for change since the 1970s, when she established The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She famously declared that “where there was a rabbinic will, there was a halakhic way,” setting the tone for many others to reinterpret the halakha using a more generous and progressive feminist framework.

What Greenberg and subsequent activists recognised was the dissonance between the expectations of Orthodox women in the synagogue space and other social spheres within the community. Israel-Cohen writes: “while modern Orthodox society has embraced the notion of women’s equality in achieving their educational and career potential, in religious life, women lack such equality.

The synagogue – a deeply symbolic cultural space – is thus a place where feminist congregants are increasingly seeking equality. These women wish to read from the Torah (a sacred text within Judaism) during services, typically something only men are allowed to do. Orthodox feminists argue that there exist halakhic (relating to Jewish law) grounds which justify women engaging in this ritual; there is simply a lack of rabbinical willingness to interpret the law in this way. This issue bleeds into the broader debate over whether Orthodox women can be ordained as rabbis. In non-Orthodox Judaism, female ordination is already widely practiced, and while there have been instances of female ordination within the Modern Orthodox community, it remains highly contentious.

In response, a number of Orthodox women in the United States have begun hosting their own services, to support women in leadership positions within the boundaries of their understanding of halakha. Hadas Fruchter, founder of an Orthodox synagogue in Philadelphia, insists her services are “fully in line with Jewish law in terms of Modern Orthodox understanding.” For these women, there is no need to break from halakha in order for women to receive equal standing to men. They believe the law already supports equality.

The Shira Hadasha congregation in Israel is similar. Established in 2002, this congregation encourages women by drawing upon every halakhic provision of female leadership available. Other adjustments also make the service more inclusive ­– whereas a traditional Modern Orthodox service requires ten men to begin worship (minyan), Shira Hadasha insists on a minyan of both ten men and ten women. During services, the mechitza (partition) – which often divides the room in such a way that women have less access to the service – evenly splits men and women, supporting accessibility for all.

These adjustments actively resist hegemonic interpretations of halakha: women who attend these services value their Orthodox and their feminist identities, and do not believe one should be compromised over the other. Female-led services can inspire a new discursive angle within Modern Orthodoxy by demonstrating to the broader community that gender inequality should not be accepted without question.

Orthodox feminists are also fighting for other issues: the agunah (chained) refers to a woman who is unable to be granted a divorce under halakha without the permission of her husband, which JOFA considers to be “one of the greatest crises in the Orthodox world today.” They continue to seek a systemic, rabbinical effort to revise the issue.

Naturally, there remain obstacles. Many Modern Orthodox communities disapprove of proposed feminist revisions, making women hesitant to voice their concerns. But the Orthodox feminist movement should be celebrated for making visible issues previously rendered invisible under traditional interpretations of halakha. These women do not wish to leave their communities in search of equality. Rather, they see a way for change to take place from within. In doing so, they also challenge secular assumptions about what it means to be an empowered, feminist woman.

None of this is to say that women should be dissuaded from leaving their community if they find the conditions to be fundamentally oppressive or abusive. But the work being done by feminist women to reshape the halakhic system should also be given public weight and attention. For if they are successful in their pursuits, perhaps fewer women will feel that their only choice is to leave.

[Hebrew text‘ by Tanner Mardis is sourced via Unsplash]

[Synagogue‘ is sourced via]

[Partition Shira Hadasha‘ is sourced via Shira Hadasha Melbourne]

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