It is undoubtedly the case that orthodox Judaism discriminates against women--they are not ‘equal,’ they cannot divorce their husbands, and they can be trapped when the husband will not divorce them, though he is technically free to remarry. In orthodox communities women do not lead the services, although in the United States at least that is beginning to change.
- Guest Voices
For Jewish women, slow but genuine progress
It was something of a surprise, therefore, to find the Jewish community in Britain electing Laura Marks as its senior vice president of the Board of Deputies, the representative organization for Jews in the United Kingdom. Laura’s support must have come from many people who were not Reform, Liberal or Conservative Jews, nor others outside the orthodox majority. She got a huge vote, and she got it in the wake of having chaired the Commission on Women in Jewish Leadership, which was set up to see why women were so invisible in Jewish organizations. She argued that she “set up a commission, but it became a movement . . . So many commissions operate without other people even knowing they are happening. Others generate interest in their topic. That’s what we have done . . . This is not the end of the process but the beginning.”
She is clearly not an orthodox Jew. Indeed, she prides herself on her Reform Jewish status, where equality for women is a given, intellectually speaking, but not always carried out in fact. But she has by very careful analysis of how women are asked to play roles within the Jewish community, from religious to secular, from organizational to simple volunteering, made a powerful case for change. And she has also made it clear that the problem is not a generational one, and that Jewish students’ organizations are just as unlikely to pick a woman president as old fashioned synagogues or social institutions!
But without doubt her own background, where equality was a given, where she was free to read from the Torah (five books of Moses, a role not given to women in orthodox synagogues) and hold her own in debate strengthened her for her task. As a result, she has become a recognized leader and people listen to her. They do not always agree- men and women alike. But they do listen.
And so it is possible to argue that, from a background within that section of Judaism that does promote women’s equality and which welcomes me as a Senior Rabbi, there has come a leadership that is reaching out to the whole community. We are seeing it with Laura Marks. We are seeing it with girls in orthodox synagogues complaining that they are not encouraged to learn sufficiently to be Jewishly competent, and we are seeing it with women gradually taking their places on the boards of synagogues, not just in the kitchen--and that includes the very orthodox!
All of this is progress, slow but genuine. It comes because the leadership of women who are not orthodox has made those who are uncomfortable and angry. And, without stridency, they have made their views felt, and they are becoming more visible. The battle is not over yet. But the progress so far is considerable. And that has to be good for women.
Julia Neuberger is Senior Rabbi, West London Synagogue, independent member, House of Lords, social justice campaigner and broadcaster.