I attended the JOFA conference, a decision that was met with mixed reactions.
When fellow peers began to ask me if I would be attending, I started to question the hesitations I’d had with attending the full day conference. What would be so un-halachic? Why did I hold such a grudge against the organization? Why did I assume I would never be associated with it without ever attending lectures and speaking to attendees there? So I went, covering the event for the YU Observer, and was interested in hearing from certain speakers who address religious issues within the Israeli Supreme Court and the abuse of power by the Rabbanut.
Some friends encouraged me to attend. Others questioned my motives: what good it would do? We have already fought the fight, what more do you want? I was told that my intentions for going were just another part of the liberal mentalities permeating my courses at college. These comments, along with my own hesitations with the associations made with the organization, made me hesitate to attend. I was nervous to be depicted as too progressive, someone that had pushed too far. Somehow, it would be assumed that I cared less for Halacha, the religious texts, the values. That I would be contributing to the growing efforts to abandon the practices and revolutionize the modern religious world in a destructive direction.
After leaving the conference with a diligent, overtired and overworked brain, I can assert that nothing is further from the truth.
To say the least, these comments were indicative of how people perceive such conferences, a faulty perception that permeates the Orthodox mainstream community. Many may prefer to deny this then face the weight of this reality but what I realized on the subway home from the conference was that I would no longer feel apologetic about attending the conference. I knew that I had connected with many women from different walks of life, who were connected to their religious identity and wanted more. They wanted to take action, to study more texts, to understand the complexities of religious ordination and judicial systems. I sat in sessions discussing the Agunah crisis and spoke with former Agunot. This shift of speaking directly with those impacted by such laws was a game changer for me. I have taken the course on the Jewish Marriage and Divorce with Rabbi Saul Berman and studied intensively the Biblical, Talmudic and modern writings. But speak to a woman who has experienced these issues firsthand and you understand that these laws are not limited to the pages of the Talmud. Rather, they jump out at you: they come alive, breathing fire. You begin to see that this is part of an ongoing process, a matter that must be discussed and must be reformed.
I use the words “progress” and “reform” with great trepidation. I recognize the deep fear that some Orthodox have of these terms, their connotations and associations. Immediately, I am thrown back to my tenth grade Jewish History class, where the teacher claimed the works of reformers brought about the Orthodox demise and caused many pogroms. The Orthodox existence depends on the continued practice of traditions and passing of the laws to the future generations. This means that anything that may echo a shift in said laws or practices will infuriate many and be deemed as inappropriate actions taken by those who care less for the system and more for the chance to undermine the Orthodox world.
This, again, is so far from the truth.
I have spent my entire life in the Yeshiva system; both Modern Orthodox and right wing institutions alike. I have never heard such passionate discussion of traditions, of values, of practices, and, yes, of Halacha. I sat in rooms filled with women (and men) discussing matters that are dramatically affecting the religious communities in the States, Israel and across the globe: matters that transcend denominations within the broader affiliated community. Women were speaking from experience, having taken active roles to ensure there was access to the laws and practices, while also maintaining personal welfare. Women from organizations like Chochmat Nashim, Kolech, ImaKadima and many others. Women participated on panels, their head coverings and skirts feeling natural as they spoke about the efforts they were taking to protect the rights of Jewish women and assist them in meeting their needs.
One Ultra-Orthodox woman spoke about the current crisis in the lack of awareness regarding preventive medicine and the direct inhibition of such education and advertising in her community, leaving her community vulnerable, with the highest rates of mortality from cancers. Another spoke about the vanishing women, from medical advisements to religious magazines. She asked the audience how there could be a Jewish family without a Jewish woman. The ramifications from such messages are detrimental; when you speak to members of the community who are still ingrained in the system but working within to improve it, you can understand that this so-called radical way of thinking is only fitting for our people. We are the keepers of the text. Each one of us. It is not limited to those choosing the quieter, more blindly obedient path, or to those who choose to balance their religious studies with secular works, or those who wish to revamp the entire system.
Speak to these women and see how dedicated they are to working together, to helping one another solve dilemmas. Yes, they value the traditions and the halachic practice; that is precisely what they are defending.. They have dedicated their lives to activism, not to have sensationalism thrown upon them, but for the positive change they hope to bring. They work tirelessly because they are not constrained to the simplistic textual study and psalm passages, though they have mastered that too. They want more for the women of their communities and for the whole Jewish community.