Orthodox Jewish feminism (also known as Orthodox feminism amongst Jews) is a movement in Orthodox Judaism which seeks to further the cause of a more egalitarian approach to Jewish practice[1] within the bounds of Jewish Law. The major organizations of this movement is the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in North America, and Women of the Wall (WOW) and its affiliates in Israel and internationally, known as ICWOW - The International Committee for Women of the Wall.

The movement relies on liberal interpretations of Jewish Law, by both modern and classical rabbinic scholars, taking advantage of the lack of universal consensus on legal interpretations amongst rabbis in different eras.


Orthodox feminists, using historical precedents and aforementioned legal interpretations,[clarification needed] allow the practice of ritual in manners that more traditional or conservative interpretations consider as befitting only to men. Many of the practices of Orthodox feminists are held to be controversial because of their different approach to the every day routine of most Orthodox Jews.[2] Several specific rituals and practices are of particular concern:

Fighting for Agunot

Agunot are women who have asked for a divorce, or who have been left by their husband, and the husband refuses to grant a get. A get is a Jewish certificate of divorce required for the woman to be able to remarry. Recalcitrant husbands are pressured by society to grant the get to the wife who is stuck in limbo, not with a husband, and unable to remarry.

Orthodox feminists make a priority of fighting on the behalf of agunot, and the "agunah crisis"[3]. Many fight in organizations specifically for this purpose, and some work independently.

Interaction with The Torah

Kissing the Torah scroll with a siddur, hand, or directly with the lips, during Shabbath, Yom Tob, services is a convention found in many Modern Orthodox congregations as well as non-Orthodox ones. While many may take it for granted as an integral part of worship services, it is not practiced in some 'Black Hat', and all Haredi and Chassidic congregations. Dancing with the Torah and having hakafoth (circuits) around the sanctuary on Simhath Torath is another way in which many Orthodox Jews interact with the Torah which is an especially important ritual in feminist circles. These are some reasons why this act has special meaning in Orthodox feminist circles[4]

Participation in Zimmunim

One of the most prevalent, and perhaps least controversial practices of Orthodox feminists, even done by some women outside of the movement, is the participation in a women's zimmun. The women's zimmun takes place when less than three men have eaten together, but where three or more women have eaten together. A zimmun is a formal call to prayer said before the communal recitation of Birkath Hamazon. One formula for the women's zimun is the exact same formula as the zimmun of men, but substituting 'chaverot' (Hebrew: friends (f.)) for the word 'rabotai' (Hebrew: gentlemen) in the beginning of the invitation, thus femminizing the call.

Use of Prayer Shawls

In Orthodox feminism, the donning of a Taleth is not seen as the wearing of a man's garment, neither is it seen as an affront to the community. These reasons coupled with historical precedents, such as the donning of Taletoth by Rashi's daughters in popular legend, and permission by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein among others, make the wearing of Prayer Shawls by women common in Orthodox feminists circles[5][6].

Use of Tefillin

Citing Talmudic and later sources[7], Orthodox feminists allow the laying of Tefillin by women.


Orthodox Jewish feminists participate in a number of organized and informal activities which both demonstrate their commitment to their values as both feminists and as Orthodox Jews.

Holding conferences[8] of various kinds is a major activity that Orthodox Jewish feminists use to educate, show recognition, and strengthen the movement. JOFA organizes conferences for its members and the public drawing crowds from both North America, and internationally. As well, some Orthodox feminists participate in partnership minyanim and other independent minyanim[9] where they feel comfortable and are permitted to practice Judaism in their unique way. This phenomenon was the topic of discussion of Mechhon Hadar, a conference about independent minyanim[10].

Communal Leadership

A new office in some synagogues, particularly of the Open Orthodox movement is allowing women to serve as synagogue or congregational interns, a position traditionally held by men only[11].

Spiritual Leadership

The Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, ordains, Orthodox women rabbis[12]. Blu Greenberg advocates for women to ascend to the Orthodox rabbinate. Mimi Feigelson is a rabbi who was a student of Shlomo Carlebach who was ordained after his death. She doesn't use the term 'rabbi' in reference to herself out of respect for Orthodox social structure[13]. Eveline Goodman-Thau, a rabbi in Israel, was ordained in 2000.

Haviva Ner-David has the equivalent of Orthodox ordination, but teaches at a Conservative yeshiva.

Sarah Hurwitz is the Mahara"t of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. She has the full training of a rabbi. This title is an acronym for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit: A halakhic spiritual and torah leader. According to Rabbi Avi Weiss, she is a full member of the clergy. A MaHaRaT has functions as spiritual leader, gives pastoral care, and leads life cycle events, as well as having authority to teach Torah. She has the authority to answer questions of Jewish Law[14][15].

In some communities, a spiritual leadership position is held by a woman[16]. Dina Najman is ראש קהילה Rosh Kehila (Hebrew: Head of Community) of Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE) on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Sharona Margolin Halickman a Madricha Ruchanit or Spiritual Mentor of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale[17][18].

Notes and references

  1. Beliefnet Orthodox, Feminist, and Proud of It Judaism's Orthodox feminist movement has succeeded in opening doors for women committed both to Jewish law and gender equality
  2. Edah: The Courage to be modern and Orthodox 'Women’s Zimmun and Whether Men [Who Are Present] Must Leave'
  3. Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot
  4. My Jewish Learning: Orthodox Feminism For The 21st Century - A founder of the Orthodox feminist movement discusses issues confronting the movement now and in the future By Blu Greenberg.
  5. See Wikipedia: Tallit 5.2 Women
  6. JOFA Links on the wearing of prayer shawls by women.
  7. See Wikipedia: Tefillin: Who Lays Tefillin
  8. HighBeam Research Gen Xers Take Orthodox Feminist Reins: Modesty, mikveh and sex; New generation makes its own experience the focus at conference
  9. ZEEK DIY Judaism: A Roundtable on the Independent Minyan Phenomenon
  10. Mechon Hadar
  11. Unusual but Not Unorthodox; 2 Synagogues Hire Women to assis Rabbis - A NY Times Article about female congregational interns.
  12. Jerusalem Post article on the ordination of women rabbis of all denomination.
  13. Jewish Virtual Library: A History of Women's Ordination as Rabbis
  14. Hebrew Institute of Riverdale - About Us.
  15. The Jewish Week Article about Mahara"t Sarah Hurwitz
  16. An Orthodox Jewish Woman, and Soon, a Spiritual Leader NY Times article about a woman Rosh Kehila
  17. Who is the Madricha Ruchanit ?The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale's (HIR) website explains the role of a Madricha Ruchanit.
  18. HIR page on Sharona Margolin Halickman

External links


  • Hartman, Tova, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: Resistance and Accommodation. Brandeis, Lebanon, New Hampshire, 2008

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