06/29/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Feminism and Orthodoxy: The Challenge of Equality

A recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Atlantic Monthly, titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," has provoked much commentary as it questions whether it is really possible for women to have it all, and by that she means an uncompromisingly ambitious professional career and a full family life.

Orthodox Judaism reflects this point by teaching that there is a difference between the ritual obligations of men and of women. Thus, women are exempt from some positive commandments that are time-bound (like, for example, sitting in a Sukkah on the holiday of Sukkot) and are obligatory only for men. Many have understood this exemption to be reflective of the fact that women should not be forced to do it all and can choose whether to be in synagogue more often or with their family, whereas men have a greater obligation to participate in religious rituals.

This is not to say that there has not been an impact from the feminist movement on the Orthodox Jewish community. On the contrary, there has been a profound impact.

As an example, lets look at my own particular synagogue. When I arrived in Ohev Sholom in 2004, women had the right to vote on synagogue matters only if they had written consent from their husbands. This matter changed when our bylaws were rewritten in 2006. Now women can vote as full members of the synagogue in the same way that men can vote.

From a traditional Orthodox perspective our synagogue is relatively progressive as it relates to women's direct spiritual involvement in the synagogue in areas traditionally reserved for men. For example, women carry the Torah in the women's section, there is a regular women's only prayer service that meets, our mechitzah (partition between the men and women) is down the middle of the sanctuary so that men and women share the space equally, women regularly deliver sermons from the pulpit and women have leadership positions within the congregation in both a lay and a professional manner.

With all that, we do not have an egalitarian prayer service because we are an Orthodox synagogue. Being an Orthodox synagogue means that we embrace halakhah, Jewish law, for we believe it must be a guidepost to our lives. This guidepost can be strict, and sometimes we may not understand its ways. But we submit ourselves to the tradition and to the law.

I know that there are some men and women in our congregation who struggle with this aspect of Orthodoxy. They struggle with a differentiation in rituals between men and women and with the fact that the traditional prayer service is dominated by men.

We once had a meeting in our synagogue about women's spiritual involvement in our congregation. It was one of the most powerful moments of my rabbinate. Around 30 of us gathered and sat in a circle and we shared our feelings. Some women and men shared that they were very happy with how this synagogue represented where they wanted to be spiritually. Others shared their concerns that because we are a non-egalitarian Orthodox synagogue their sons and daughters might grow up thinking that girls and women are less important spiritually. As a father of both boys and girls I can say that that is certainly a scary thought.

It was a powerful evening, because everyone in the room that night spoke from the heart and from a place of real spiritual depth. Many of the people in that room were extremely close friends and yet they had conflicting feelings about the proper spiritual path. One person's spiritual answer was another's spiritual betrayal. Together we were exploring a delicate but important issue that is at the center of the spiritual lives of many of us.

Rachel Lieberman has discussed the intersection of feminism and Orthodox Judaism in an unpublished paper titled: "Reaching across the Mechitza: Feminism's Impact on Orthodox Judaism."

She explains that there are two primary models of feminism today that women feel strongly about. There is difference feminism and there is equality feminism. Those women who pursue equality feminism are trying to say that men and women need to be equal in every aspect of their lives. Whatever men do, women can and should do. The rallying cry for this approach is "equal opportunity and equal access." In contrast, difference feminism argues that men and women have different roles and women should not try to mimic the roles of men. It argues that a woman who does not desire to live like a man is no less a feminist.

From the perspective of Orthodox Judaism, Rachel writes in her thesis that Orthodox men and women, especially in Israel, are experimenting with new rituals and prayers to try and create a niche for Orthodox women that does not violate halakhah and at the same time does not compromise their spiritual desires.

I believe that a rabbinic consensus is emerging in the Orthodox world that Orthodox congregations should follow a third path, which is to use halakhah as the guide for understanding when it is appropriate to follow difference feminism versus equality feminism.
For example, in relationship to Torah scholarship we follow equality feminism. Women's Talmud study and Torah scholarship has become widespread. And as Rachel Lieberman points out, it is important to note that even though Orthodoxy is often criticized for being the least progressive of the Jewish denominations, there is nothing in Reform or Conservative Judaism that can rival the advanced and rigorous opportunities for Talmud study currently available to women in the Orthodox world.

However, when it comes to prayer services and traditional rituals we should be more restrained and embrace a tradition that emphasizes difference feminism. Women's spirituality is no less important, but the tradition emphasizes that it must express itself differently. I can't tell you exactly why this consensus emerged from the rabbis and sociologically, but perhaps it has something to do with the difference between prayer and Torah study.

Torah study is an empowering activity. It is the acquisition of knowledge, and the more one knows the more power one has. Some women are already becoming halakhic experts for their communities. The more women study Torah, the more they will be empowered through knowledge.

Prayer service as a whole is generally not viewed in the same way; it is typically not seen as an empowering activity. Still, a prayer service can be empowering. It can give us the strength we need to live our lives and to overcome our struggles. And if difference feminism can help women better connect to a prayer service -- and in that sense become more empowered in their daily lives and relationship with God -- then I see a great value in our synagogue in advancing and amplifying aspects of difference feminism vis-à-vis prayer.

Some rabbis have attacked those men and women who speak out on behalf of a more progressive approach by Orthodoxy toward women's spiritual involvement. We must never do such a thing.
Even though we are not always all on the same page, there is usually a common spirituality that we are seeking. My experience with people I have encountered who are seeking equality feminism in prayer is that they are often very impressive and personally inspiring.

Instead of viewing our differences as polarizing, we should applaud our common spiritual goals, for this common spirituality is exactly what we will need to help us each find our spiritual compass.

Excerpted from 'Fifty-Four Pickup: Fifteen Minute Inspirational Torah Thoughts.'