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 The International Committee for Women of the Wall (ICWOW). In Israel, the leading Orthodox feminist organization is Kolech, founded by Dr. Chana Kehat. In Australia, there is one Orthodox partnership minyan, Shira Hadasha, in Melbourne.

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.

In 2016, Lila Kagedan officially became the first female Orthodox rabbi, while serving in Melbourne, Australia.[2] Later in 2016, Rabbi Kagedan was hired as rabbi at Modern Orthodox Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, New Jersey, becoming the first orthodox female rabbi in the United States.[3][4] Rabbi Kagedan is currently working at Walnut Street Synagogue in Massachusetts.[5][6] In 2021, Shira Marili Mirvis was appointed to be the spiritual leader of the Shirat HaTamar synagogue in Efrat, Israel.[7]


Orthodox feminists, using historical precedents and the aforementioned liberal legal interpretations, 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.[8] 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, without a husband and unable to remarry.

Orthodox feminists make a priority of fighting on the behalf of agunot, and the "agunah crisis".[9] Many fight in organizations specifically for this purpose, and some work independently.

Interaction with The Torah

Kissing the Torah scroll with a siddur (prayer book), 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 Haredi and Chassidic congregations. Dancing with the Torah and having hakafoth (processional 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.[10]

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 zimmun is exactly the 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 feminizing the call.

Use of Prayer Shawls

In Orthodox feminism, the donning of a taleth (prayer shawl) 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, make the wearing of prayer shawls by women common in Orthodox feminists circles.[11][12]

Use of Tefillin

A member of the Women of the Wall prays while wearing tallit and tefillin

Citing Talmudic and later sources, Orthodox feminists allow the laying of tefillin by women.[citation needed]

Some Orthodox communities claim that women are not permitted to lay tefillin, as is required by adult men. The duty of laying tefillin rests upon males after the age of thirteen years and one day. Women are exempt from the obligation, as are also slaves and minors (Berakhot 20a). The medieval halachic work Orach Chayyim precludes women who wish to wear tefillin from doing so. In ancient times, this was not the case. There are several instances of women who allegedly wore tefillin. According to a baraita, "Michal the daughter of the Cushite [i.e., Saul, cf. Mo'ed Katan 16b] wore tefillin and the sages did not protest" (Eruvin 96a). After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, women became increasingly excluded from Jewish ritual activities as rabbinic Judaism become increasingly codified. Women became exempt from almost all time-bound positive commandments: prayer three times a day, sitting in the sukkah, and laying tefillin. The Mishnah tractate entitled Nashim (women) is the most comprehensive dealing with the legal aspects of women’s roles in Judaism. Medieval Ashkenazi communities represented a high point in women’s voluntary participation in Judaism, even in aspects supposedly forbidden to them by Talmudic law. Women of Northern France were known to put on tefillin to pray. In addition to tefillin, women were documented as being counted in prayer quorums, and serving as a sandeka'it at circumcision feasts. However, the political and economic situation of European Jewry gradually worsened beginning in the 13th century. In response, communities reverted to more traditional practices, and most of the gains Jewish women had achieved were put to a stop.


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[13] 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[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

Spiritual Leadership

Blu Greenberg advocates for women to ascend to the Orthodox rabbinate.[17] Mimi Feigelson was an Orthodox student of Shlomo Carlebach who was ordained after his death, but she doesn't use the term 'rabbi' in reference to herself out of respect for Orthodox social structure.[18] Haviva Ner-David has the equivalent of Orthodox ordination, but teaches at a Conservative yeshiva.

Sara Hurwitz is the maharat of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. She has the full training of an Orthodox rabbi. Her 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.[19][20]

In some communities, a spiritual leadership position other than rabbi is held by a woman.[21] 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 is a Madricha Ruchanit or Spiritual Mentor of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.[22][23]

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is the Director of Education & Spiritual Enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal and is involved with JOFA.[24]

Lynn Kaye is the equivalent of an associate rabbi at Shearith Israel in Manhattan.[25]

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman is the maharat at The National Synagogue in Washington DC.[26]

Rori Picker Neiss serves as the Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, MO.[27]

In 2015 Jennie Rosenfeld became the first female Orthodox spiritual advisor in Israel (specifically, she became the spiritual advisor, also called manhiga ruchanit, for the community of Efrat.)[28] And same year Miriam Gonczarska of Poland, has received maharat smicha as first European.

Australia's Shira Hadasha invited Maharat Melanie Landau to be its spiritual head; however, she declined the role. The community remains lay-led and service leadership and leyning are performed by congregants such as Mandi Katz and Alex Fein.[29]

See also


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. ^ Desk, Jewish Press News. "Rabbi Lila Kagedan, First Female Rabbi at Orthodox Shul in Melbourne". Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  3. ^ "NJ Orthodox shul announces hire of woman using 'rabbi' title". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 2016-01-11. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  4. ^ "First Woman Orthodox 'Rabbi' Is Hired by Synagogue". The Forward. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  5. ^ admin-walnut. "Clergy". Walnut. Archived from the original on 2016-12-18. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  6. ^ "Chelsea's historic Walnut Street Shul preserves a future". Jewish Journal. 2017-06-15. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  7. ^ "Orthodox, Female and Running Their Own Shuls – Just Don't Call Them Rabbis". Haaretz. Retrieved 2021-11-25.
  8. ^ Edah: The Courage to be modern and Orthodox 'Women’s Zimmun and Whether Men [Who Are Present] Must Leave'
  9. ^ "Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot".
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ See Wikipedia: Tallit 5.2 Women
  12. ^ JOFA[permanent dead link] Links on the wearing of prayer shawls by women.
  13. ^ HighBeam Research Gen Xers Take Orthodox Feminist Reins: Modesty, mikveh and sex; New generation makes its own experience the focus at conference
  14. ^ ZEEK DIY Judaism: A Roundtable on the Independent Minyan Phenomenon
  15. ^ "Mechon Hadar". Archived from the original on 2008-09-15. Retrieved 2009-05-16.
  16. ^ Unusual but Not Unorthodox; 2 Synagogues Hire Women to assis Rabbis - A NY Times Article about female congregational interns.
  17. ^ Jerusalem Post[permanent dead link] article on the ordination of women rabbis of all denomination.
  18. ^ Jewish Virtual Library: A History of Women's Ordination as Rabbis
  19. ^ Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Archived 2009-04-28 at the Wayback Machine - About Us.
  20. ^ The Jewish Week Archived 2009-05-04 at the Wayback Machine Article about Mahara"t Sarah Hurwitz
  21. ^ An Orthodox Jewish Woman, and Soon, a Spiritual Leader NY Times article about a woman Rosh Kehila
  22. ^ Who is the Madricha Ruchanit ? Archived 2009-02-08 at the Wayback Machine The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale's (HIR) website explains the role of a Madricha Ruchanit.
  23. ^ "HIR page on Sharona Margolin Halickman". Archived from the original on 2009-07-20. Retrieved 2009-05-16.
  24. ^ "Congregation Shaar Hashomayim". Archived from the original on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
  25. ^ "A Jew finds himself at a neo-Nazi forum - Part 9412". www.jewishreview.org.
  26. ^ "Ohev Sholom - the National Synagogue - Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman". Archived from the original on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
  27. ^ "Bais Abe hires director of programming, education and community engagement". Archived from the original on 2014-05-14. Retrieved 2014-04-04.
  28. ^ "With female spiritual advisor, Efrat spotlights women's empowerment in Israel". JNS.org. Archived from the original on 2015-02-07. Retrieved 2015-02-07.
  29. ^ "Home - Macroscope". macroscope.com.au. Archived from the original on 2021-04-14. Retrieved 2021-08-16.