The decision of Elana Maryles Sztokman, a long-time leading figure in US and Israeli Orthodox Jewish feminism to train as a Reform Rabbi provoked an outcry. In this remarkably candid essay, by turns lyrical and confessional, at once a moving story of a personal odyssey and a clear-sighted political mediation on her changing understanding of the proper relationship between Judaism and feminism, she explains why she feels today that ‘far from throwing away my heritage, for the first time in my life I am fully embracing it.’
Orthodoxy, my unrequited love
When I was growing up in modern-Orthodox Brooklyn, New York, one of my favourite activities would be listening to my father practicing his layning, chanting the Torah portion. Early on Shabbat mornings, he would sit at the kitchen table with his cup of tea, and the melodies of the text – the trop – would flow up the stairs into my room, like an aroma of ancient parchment, the letters floating up as if they were in a Chagall painting, landing squarely in my heart and mind, where they would take hold.
Every Shabbat morning, long after my father went to shul, I would get dressed in my fancy yet modest clothes with the accompanying high heels and make-up, make my way down Avenue J, and take my place on the other side of the mechitzah, the partition, along with all the other women, where we would listen to the men conduct the service. The Torah reading was always a highlight for me. I love text and I love music, and the interaction of the two as they find expression in trop, would always fill my young soul with history, meaning and connection. I learned the meanings of the musical symbols on my own, by osmosis, from behind the partition, without knowing what they were called. To this day, after years of layning, I’m still not sure which symbol is a ‘pashta’ and which is a ‘zarcha,’ but I can look at a symbol and sing its tune. That is learning to layn from listening along in the women’s section.
But mine was to be an unrequited love, destined to end with loneliness and tears. After all, what life is there for an Orthodox woman who loves layning, or singing, or leading prayer? An Orthodox man of those qualities is celebrated and cherished while an Orthodox woman is lost. As one of four daughters, I knew what was expected of me, and it was not to chant Torah or to stand on the bima, singing in public, or even to give a speech during services. Certainly, I was expected to get an education and a driver’s licence – and stay sweet, perky, and most of all, thin. Even working was considered okay, as long as I didn’t become one of those ‘career women’ who put their job ahead of their family. My assigned role in life, as was drummed into me from time immemorial, was to be a wife and a mother, to serve, to birth, to run a household, to smile and look pretty. Everything else was incidental.
And that is quite a cruel thing to do to a person. You train them to fall in love with something – an entire culture and lifestyle, so rich and all-consuming – and then you never let them truly embrace the object of their love. Women are to observe and enable, cheerlead from the stands, but never to join in, never to be the players, never to talk directly to God. It is a crippling love.
While the extent of this discrimination varies – some Orthodox girls are encouraged to pursue advanced degrees and work; some Orthodox women are encouraged in various kinds of leadership; some have husbands who are full partners in the kitchen; occasionally you might meet an Orthodox woman who is comfortable with her body – nevertheless all Orthodox women live within the confines of defined gender expectations. The mechitzah tells the story clearly: women are the penultimate ‘other,’ the outsiders. When a woman walks into an Orthodox shul or Orthodox society, she is first and foremost designated as Female.
How Orthodox women respond, or don’t respond
This can be quite the predicament. On the one hand, Orthodoxy is your love, your identity, your home, and your life. On the other hand, it is a place of pain. What is an Orthodox woman to do with these conflicting experiences? For most Orthodox women, there are three potential responses, although that is not the entire story.
The first, and possibly most popular response is to live with it, or even to embrace it. These are many women for whom the system works. They are happy with their family, shul, friends and lifestyle. They like the women’s section, they prefer being ‘The Woman’ over being ‘The Man,’ they enjoy placing family at the centre and allowing their identity to revolve around what that entails – getting married to men, becoming mothers and grandmothers, getting their children married off. They may even have jobs that they like, and in all likelihood, they have enough money to support a robust Orthodox lifestyle. They are satisfied, and they may not look too hard at the conflicts. For some women, there is some cognitive dissonance involved in making this work. But not looking too closely at the implications of all of this is comfortable. They may even actively promote this, as many Lubavitch women do, or ‘Jew in the City’ does, telling the world how amazing the status of women in Judaism is.
I tried this for a while, until it stopped working for me.
After my second child was born, I stopped covering my hair, a watershed moment for me, in which I allowed myself to start talking back to my culture. I finally asked myself not what the Jewish community needed from me, but what I needed for myself. That was a radical act. Even just suggesting that I have desires, wants, and longings was antithetical to everything I was taught about being a religious woman. And thus I embarked on the second path: resistance.
The second possible response to being an Orthodox woman is to push back. It is a kind of waking up, a decision to be honest, and a willingness to face one’s real feelings. This may entail getting angry, trying different solutions, and joining up with Orthodox feminists. It is a hard path to be on, sure, but in many ways can be more satisfying than acceptance. Resistance, even when it is frustrating and disappointing, can be freeing.
This resistance-from-within was a wonderful place for me for a long time. There I made my spiritual home, along with many other amazing women who dedicate their lives to expanding the opportunities for Jewish women and to create new models for what it is to be a religious woman. I helped build shuls and women’s prayer groups, conducted research, wrote books, spoke at conferences, worked as a professional and as a volunteer in many organisations, and turned my identity from Orthodox into Orthodox feminist.
These collective efforts have created real change in many places. Women are now in positions of leadership; they are getting titles such as ‘Maharat’ and ‘Rabba’ and in the rare occasion possibly even ‘Rabbi’. Women are active and learning, making headlines and making changes. This is an exciting place to be, and I certainly understand its charm. For many women, this is the right place, and I fully respect and understand that path. I was there for a long time. Until it stopped working for me, too.
There is also the third option, which is the least spoken about, and that is to leave – to walk away from Jewish life altogether. I know many women who have left – quietly and without much fanfare. They stop going to synagogue, and then stop keeping Shabbat or stop going to the mikveh. Or in some cases, they keep up the outer appearances but quietly go onto Facebook on Shabbat. In an article I wrote for Lilith earlier this year about women who have stopped going to synagogue, I discovered many women who have chosen to walk away from communal Jewish life, in many cases because the gender dynamics are too painful.
It is an invisible and undocumented exodus. There is no organisation for these women. There is no research study that has counted how many women have left Orthodoxy because of gender issues. Nobody knows. All I have is anecdotal evidence – lots of it. I am collecting stories from women who have quietly left. But they are hard to quantify, and often hard to find.
And this is the fate of women who leave religion. They are not seen or missed in the places that they walked away from, and they are not particularly welcomed or counted in the places that they go to. Patriarchy is everywhere. And even in all these debates and discussions about Reform versus Orthodox, the reality that many women are silently dropping out is not on anyone’s radar.
I chose this path for a while. Some of my experiences within Orthodoxy – even within the Orthodox feminist movement – left me so crushed and battered that I wanted to have nothing to do with Orthodoxy or with Judaism at all. I studied yoga and meditation with intensity, I avoided synagogue even on Yom Kippur, and I simply sought out spirituality elsewhere.
But after a few years of this kind of freedom, I had to face the truth within myself: I actually wanted Jewish belonging. Although I was not prepared to go back to Orthodoxy – my scars and bruises, particularly from interactions with Orthodox rabbis, left me with a certainty about this; Orthodox politics have a brutality to them that perhaps only someone who writes publicly about gender issues can really understand – nevertheless, I found myself longing for something else that Orthodoxy had offered. It was a lifestyle that includes something that perhaps I had been looking for all along. And it sounded a lot like the Torah trop.
It was then that I opened a fourth door, one that I had never allowed myself to notice before. It was always cast as completely out of bounds, like Simba’s elephant graveyard. And yet, there it was, in front of my eyes all along. And that was, joining the Reform movement.
Getting to the ethical core
After more than four decades living as an Orthodox Jew, including two decades fighting for feminist change within Orthodoxy, I have decided to become a Reform rabbi. Of course, for some in Orthodox circles, this makes me a heretic, or worse. Outsiders sometimes do not appreciate the animus towards the Reform tradition. In November, Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Aviner wrote in the religious Zionist Srugim magazine that ‘the Reform movement is a movement of traitors – in its German past, in contemporary America, and in the future that it is plotting for our country. Judaism is of no interest to them, just a few general human values’. Similarly, American Orthodox writer Rabbi Moshe Grylak penned an editorial in the Orthodox Mishpacha Magazine in September, which claimed that ‘the leaders of the Reform movement are trying to poison the souls of their congregants’. He followed up with a second editorial depicting the early Reform movement as having ‘persecuted the small remnant of Jews in their communities who clung to their faith in the Torah … [t]hey joined forces with their local governments to stamp out every remaining kehillah of the Orthodox minority … silenced every voice raised in opposition … [and] squelched every attempt to live by the Torah and its commandments’. A cousin of mine, a popular Orthodox blogger, embraced some of these views in a series of posts in which he claimed that I am an embarrassment to my ancestors who ‘dedicated their lives to fighting Reform’.
Of course, the Reform movement is not the enemy of Judaism. It is not a group of Neo-Nazis trying to kill off Jews or force men to cut off their side-curls, as some over-excited Orthodox rabbis claim. It is a movement of Jews who read Torah not only as a prohibition against working on Shabbat but, more importantly, as a guideline for human interactions, based first and foremost on the values of compassion and care. ‘Ve’ahavta l’reacha kamocha,’ for example, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ has long been viewed as the primary commandment, even though it is ignored or pooh-poohed in so much of Jewish life in favour of strict readings of obscure or tangential ritual issues. Reform Judaism is not seeking to destroy Torah, but rather to highlight its ethical core. That is no less authentic than Orthodoxy, and arguably even truer.
Reform rabbis are deeply engaged in Jewish history, identity, ritual, peoplehood, thought, and even halakha, despite what my angry Orthodox cousin thinks. The difference is that the Reform tradition’s interpretation of Torah embraces the notion that all human beings are created in the divine will. The precept to love the stranger appears at least 36 times in the Torah – far more than issues of eating milk and meat, which is a matter of an interpretation on half a verse that appears twice – and yet, as opposed to kashruth which has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, it is easily dismissed in much of the Jewish world. And that is why I have decided that this is where I belong. Compassion first: that is my Torah.
Transcending the false ‘Orthodoxy-or-bust’ dichotomy
Rising opposition to Reform Judaism comes, ironically, in response to Reform Jews’ desire to be more engaged in Jewish life in Israel. Reform Judaism is seeking formal recognition, inclusion, and the right of Reform Jews to participate as equals everywhere from weddings to the Western Wall. Despite this desire for inclusion, the notion that Reform Judaism is the enemy of ‘authentic’ Judaism has a powerful hold on the consciousness of many Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. This demonising notion is based on the prior acceptance of a false dichotomy about Jewish life, that there are only two legitimate Jewish options – absolute Orthodoxy or absolute secularism. This dichotomy was formulated in the minds of the Ashkenazi Jewish leadership some hundred years ago, and was adopted by the founders of the State of Israel, including David Ben-Gurion. The way Judaism is woven into Israeli public life is based entirely on this all-or-nothing view in which non-Orthodox religious Jews do not exist.
The false dichotomy also finds expression in the political and legal systems in Israel and this has a huge impact on the lives of women. ‘Religious’ parties are Orthodox only – and in many cases, male only. (Women’s groups have asked the Supreme Court to declare all-male parties illegal, but they have not yet been successful.) Israel’s billion-shekel budgets for religion go almost exclusively to Orthodox institutions. Paid rabbinical positions go almost exclusively to Orthodox (male) rabbis, and definitions of religious practice even in taxpayer-sponsored events are Orthodox definitions. The treatment of women who wish to pray at the Western Wall with a Torah scroll and prayer shawl – that is, that they may be arrested – is only one consequence of this monopoly. Another consequence is that marriage, divorce and conversion are completely dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, state-backed version of religion. According to Israeli law, a non-Orthodox rabbi who performs a wedding can spend up to two years in jail – jail! – along with the couple that she or he married.
Moreover, the false dichotomy misshapes consciousness. I was brought up to believe some sensationalist anti-Reform propaganda. I remember how in my Orthodox school days, we had a class in senior year with sessions on topics such as, ‘How you know Christianity is a lie,’ ‘How Biblical criticism is wrong,’ and ‘How Reform and Conservative Judaism are dangerous’. We ate up these classes. They were also a practical induction into the Orthodox rhetorical debating technique; we were given answers before we even knew how to ask questions. I would bet that most of us, teenagers who had lived in Brooklyn most of their lives, had never met a Reform Jew in our short lives. Yet, we knew everything we had to about Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as Christians, feminists, and all the other people who were ‘wrong about everything’.
Feminism is not anathema to Judaism; it is Judaism
When my anti-feminist and anti-Reform cousin claimed that I had betrayed and embarrassed my ancestors, he wrote that feminism is ‘anathema’ to Judaism. But his description is not only wrong, it is also not mine. The Orthodox disdain for Reform that rests on this patriarchal assumption – that feminism is ‘anathema’ – was constructed entirely by and for men. I do not view feminism as anathema to Judaism but as deeply and authentically reflective of the precept to treat all human beings with dignity and respect. This means strangers, and it certainly means women. But it is hard to find a welcoming place to make this point.
For many years, as an Orthodox feminist, I was often asked why I didn’t become Reform or Conservative, and I gave lots of good answers that are still true. Women, I would point out, stay Orthodox despite the gender issues because Orthodoxy is home. It is a set of codes, practices and discourses that are beloved and familiar. It is also a matter of family, community, and synagogue-belonging. It is the place they want to be – except for all that gender stuff.
But there is another part to that answer that has been difficult to face: the real reason why some Orthodox feminists do not become Reform is because they/we have fully internalised the dichotomy that casts Reform as pasnisht, out of bounds. Non-Orthodox feminists sense this and are often incensed by it, and justifiably so. But if you don’t know yourself how artificially constructed this dichotomy is, it is difficult to fight it.
Now I’m giving a different answer to the question. I am becoming a Reform rabbi, entering a space where the values that I hold dear are embraced fully, where I don’t have to fight to explain why I believe women are equal human beings. But this new answer is shocking to those women for whom the first answer still stands. Perhaps they are still living in the dichotomy. Or perhaps, they are simply optimistic and idealistic, values that I also cherish. These are the women who are still hopeful about the future of Orthodoxy – and I understand their emotional and spiritual need to maintain that hope.
We are all on the same side. I’m still doing what I’ve always done, but just from a different location. Still, while my new answer is more palatable to my non-Orthodox feminist friends, it is harder on my Orthodox feminist friends. But I really want to work on this.
The impact on my Orthodox feminist sisters
To become a Reform rabbi, then, meant facing my orthodox feminist sisters. I knew that this would be the trickiest part. I was risking casting myself as a perpetual outsider – or as one of my friends told me, completely delegitimising myself in the eyes of anyone Orthodox. Moreover, I understood why many Orthodox feminists would feel abandoned by me.
‘I’m bereft,’ one friend wrote to me. ‘For me, you were a beacon of light in a grey murky world of meta-halachic, socio-religious psychobabble, cutting through the rubbish in Modern Orthodoxy. And now you’re gone, as so many other shining stars have gone. And those of us left behind are sad. Sad for ourselves. And sad for Modern Orthodoxy. And sad that we have to fight even harder against the “Oh – you see – they were Reformist feminists all along.”’ For years, when Orthodox rabbis have called feminists ‘secretly Reform,’ we have responded, ‘No! We are Orthodox!’ And now I have become the proof, the cautionary tale.
But I also received many emails from women who supported and understood my decision – and who wished me well in my future as a rabbi. Many women have been genuinely loving, and I have made many pacts to remain allies in the struggle.
One of the most interesting responses came from British Orthodox feminist writer Miriam Shaviv, who wrote a column in The Jewish Chronicle to say she was ‘jealous’. ‘As an Orthodox feminist,’ she wrote, ‘watching a prominent activist like Sztokman switch camps was an emotional experience. It felt like watching a caged bird fly the coop — and part of me was jealous. The tiredness that she expressed so eloquently is the same tiredness I feel. In my own way, I too have been fighting for a greater role in the synagogue for over 20 years. And let me tell you, when even the smallest issue is an ongoing, uphill battle, it wears you down.’
Shaviv then described the impact of trying to bring about change for women within Orthodoxy. ‘Every time a rabbi tells you, “Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but no, it’s 10 years too early”… every time you hear, “Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but my Board won’t let me”… every time you arrive at shul to discover that the women’s section isn’t open … every time a shul Board member makes a misogynistic comment … every time the shul acts like it’s doing you a massive favour on Simchat Torah, because they’ve given women a Torah scroll to dance with … every time the rabbi says from the pulpit that “every Jew’” is commanded to do this or that, when you know full well he only means the men … every time you have to justify why you want to participate in your own religion … it takes it out of you.’
Orthodox feminists have to battle on several fronts at once: male rabbis who cast them as illegitimate, non-Orthodox feminists who take offense at their insistence on being Orthodox, and perhaps most difficult of all, Orthodox women who enjoy the status quo. To Shaviv and all the other wonderful women whom I have met on my journey, I say: I have not given up on Orthodox feminism. I am a still an ally in the struggle. We are all doing the same work, but from different locations.
Building bridges among feminist women in different denominations
Orthodox women who live contentedly within the gender status quo are likely still the majority. At least that is how it feels for Orthodox feminist women. One woman, from Long Island, told me that she is fairly certain that she is the only feminist in the Five Towns, and looks forward to the day when her kids are grown and she can move to Manhattan. Her story is familiar. Orthodox feminists who I have met around the world – anywhere outside Manhattan and Riverdale – always report feeling like a tiny minority in their communities.
And yet I often saw a very different picture. As Executive Director of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, I travelled the world meeting Orthodox feminists to help them build up their communities and wherever I went, I would find one or two Orthodox feminist women, and ask them to call a meeting so that we could speak with like-minded women about change. Next, every time, the same thing would happen. The women would say, ‘We’re a small group.’ Then the meeting would be standing room only. Over and over, I would hear women say to one another, ‘I never knew you felt this way!’ I am fairly certain that there are far more Orthodox feminists than there appear to be.
Feminists – not only in Orthodoxy – so often feel alone, and that feeling of solitude is often what holds back social change. If there is one thing I want to contribute with my life it is to help women feel less alone in their struggles for change. Today, that means finding new ways to build bridges among feminist women from different denominations.
Conclusion: Embracing my heritage, arriving home
My days are now spent learning Talmud, halakha, Bible, liturgy, and Jewish sociology. Far from throwing away my heritage, for the first time in my life I am fully embracing it. Until now, I was watching Jewish life from behind an encasing glass; there but not fully there, watching but not really seen, in the room but never allowed to touch. Now, it is as if the glass has been shattered and I am at last fully present in the room.
I am writing this sitting in rabbinical school. I have finally arrived home to sing the melodies of my childhood.
 Significantly, there is some interest in men who leave Orthodoxy, but not women. In Israel, there is a movement of ‘datlashim,’ formerly Orthodox people who are now secular. But the discussions in Israel about datlashim are male-centric. For example, one book on the subject, has the title Noar Hakipot Hazrukott – Youth of the Strewn Skullcaps – and it draws conclusions about this population based exclusively on interviews with males. The author did not include a single woman in his research sample.
The problem of male-centricity is not only a problem in research. In datlash communities, such as the Yachad school in Modi’in that presents itself as mixed religious-secular but in practice is dominated by datlash families, discussions of religion are often male-dominated and patriarchal. I wrote about some of this in my book, Educating in the Divine Image, which described the discussions in the school about prayer services, and how much resistance there was in the school and in the community to women’s ritual inclusion. Issues of allowing men to drive to synagogue on Shabbat or break halakha were never contested, because welcoming men and counting them exactly as they are – without or without a head covering, whether they drive or Shabbat or bring their cellphone to the sanctuary – was seen as paramount. Yet welcoming women was never a consideration. The idea of allowing women even to give a speech was treated as out of bounds, as ‘cutting corners’ from a Jewish legal perspective. It took years before this mixed, heavily datlash community began allowing women the most basic role of giving sermons.