Orthodox women are present today in places from which, for centuries, they were barred: in religious courts as legal advocates for wives; in halls of Torah study as scholars and decisors of Jewish law; in synagogues as board members and presidents and even, in a few, as readers of Torah.
Now, as their intellectual contributions are being increasingly, if cautiously, embraced by the Orthodox establishment, these women are starting to confront the many problematic, if not negative, messages they say they have long received about their physical presence in Orthodox spaces outside the home.
Young women are taught in school to be extremely conscious of their dress and speech lest the men they meet become sexually tempted. Likewise, women are taught to keep their voices low in synagogue so men are not distracted by the sounds of their prayers and songs.
The result has been, according to several speakers at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, held in Manhattan last Saturday night through Monday, a bifurcation of Orthodox women’s body and soul, and an objectification of females as little but sources of potential male sin.
Examining the implications of tzniut, or modesty, in terms of religion, sexuality, self-image and public policy was, along with the Orthodox basis for women serving as Torah readers, the focus of several sessions at the JOFA gathering, which was attended by about 1,000 people.
For too many Orthodox women, "their mouths move but their voices are not heard," said Idana Goldberg, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and JOFA’s conference program co-chair, in a speech Saturday night. "Too many women stand in the sanctuary but are made to feel invisible and unwanted. Too many Jewish women are not making creative, productive contributions to Jewish life because they have been silenced and excluded from positions of authority," she said.
JOFA president Blu Greenberg, in her opening address, called for traditional notions of modesty to be re-conceived not "as a one-sided modesty meter with women under wraps, but as a gender-inclusive standard of the way a Jew walks through life."
Conference participants and attendees said that they were struck by how intense the discussion of modesty was.
"This issue burst forth," said Arlene Agus, who co-led a workshop on "Feeling Invisible: The Psychological Ramifications of Tzniut."
"I didn’t expect it to be so powerful the first time it was publicly discussed. The body is the new frontier for Orthodox feminists. We achieved access in all the central areas of external life, and are now turning inward with great force," she said in an interview.
While a girl attending the Young Israel synagogue in Borough Park, "on the women’s side we were singing our hearts out," said Agus, an adult educator.
Four decades later, social expectations have so changed that a woman praying in full voice is almost never heard in an Orthodox synagogue, even to say Amen. "The culture against kol isha [the voice of a woman] has really taken hold as a veil of silence," she said.
"Women themselves are inhibited in their prayers," Agus added, "which means they are more influenced by the presence of men than by the presence of God."
The Orthodox notion of modesty, which theoretically applies to men and women equally, has been zealously misused, with potentially disastrous consequences: like the meteoric rise of life-threatening eating disorders in the religious community, said Tova Hartman Halbertal in her plenary address on the psychological ramifications of tzniut.
"Orthodox society seems intent on muffling our daughters’ voices under layers of clothes and sexual guilt," said Hartman Halbertal, who lectures at Hebrew University on topics including gender and Jewish education, adolescent psychology and sexuality.
Orthodoxy’s recent "swelling discourse" about tzniut is a reaction to the surrounding secular culture, she said, in which women in music videos are frequently seen gyrating like strippers, and appear nearly nude in advertisements of every sort.
Tzniut (a topic addressed more in a secular culture focused on women’s sexuality) is seen as "an act of resistance, and a vehicle for profound self-actualization," she said, which is fine," except for the fact that "tzniut is so often wielded as a response to the questions Jewish women ask."
Women are taught not to question rabbis, or any man, because "it’s not tzanua," she said.
But despite efforts to keep them under wraps and out of sight, she said, "our religious girls are not covered or protected from the pervasive sexualization of women’s bodies."
Hartman Halbertal cited reports from Orthodox mothers that their young adult daughters "put off shidduch dates [meeting potential husbands] for three months to go on starvation diets."
Modesty has also been one of the primary reasons that women have been excluded from positions of leadership in the Orthodox world, even in non-religious positions like that of synagogue president.
The technical basis has been a commentary by Maimonides on a midrash that said that the community can appoint "a king, but not a queen." Maimonides said that women may not serve in positions of authority.
The chief interpreter of Jewish law for centrist Orthodox Jews, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ruled that women may serve up to the position of synagogue vice president.
But six years ago, in Englewood, N.J.’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, the board of directors decided that the best person for the shul presidency happened to be a woman.
At first the rabbi, Shmuel Goldin, said it wasn’t possible, he related in a JOFA conference session "Sharing Power, Sharing Control." But when the board insisted she was the best person for the job, he turned for advice to Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of the Beit Din of America, the religious court connected with centrist Orthodoxy’s Rabbinical Council of America.
Rabbi Schwartz ruled that a woman may serve as synagogue president since the post is not anything like that of a queen or king, who can rule by fiat. In fact synagogue presidents cannot independently sell the congregation’s building or even write a check for a significant sum without having it counter-signed.
So a woman did serve as Ahavath Torah’s president for three years, and since then several other centrist Orthodox congregations have done the same.
That is just one of the many things which have changed for Orthodox women in the 30 years since the first international conference on women and Judaism took place, said Blu Greenberg, JOFA’s president, in her main address.
When she proposed at the 1973 conference that a "women’s kollel," or center of Torah study, be created, the audience laughed, she related. But today there are many, all over the world, including Manhattan’s Drisha Institute, which certifies women as decisors of certain areas of Jewish law after several years of intensive study.
Now there are many things that didn’t exist then, though they are far from universally embraced in the Orthodox world: female Torah scholars, women’s prayer groups, women reciting the mourner’s Kaddish and blessing over wine, Torah scrolls carried to the women’s section of synagogues so they can get close to it and dance with it, on Simchat Torah. Now in some places, mothers’ names are included on tombstones and mentioned at circumcisions and bar mitzvahs. Daughters are welcomed with ceremonies of their own, said Greenberg.
Still, she said, much remains to be worked out, including a "global solution to the agunah crisis." That issue was the focus of a major session on Monday, at which agunah activists reported on developments and, in a closed session with rabbis, discussed potential future steps.
What Greenberg described as Orthodox feminism’s "repositioning of the role and responsibilities of women" has also impacted men.
Rabbi Aaron Frank, principal of Judaic studies at Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh Day School, noted that "the increase in feminist awareness is something that men are finding very challenging." He cited as an example that "many men are open to women’s study in theory. But when it impedes on their study (when one parent needs to stay home to take care of their children and it’s the woman who has a Tuesday-night Torah study session) it’s much more of a problem."
Tova Hartman Halbertal urged a reconsideration of tzniut for its benefits to both genders.
"We are all languishing under the same disfiguring cultural gaze," she said. "As upholders of the Torah we must strive to recover. We must create a world where women and men inhabit God’s earth together, creating a holy community: together."