Feminist Pioneer Challenges Orthodox Patriarchy

Jewish scholar Tova Hartman has used her decidedly feminist Orthodox synagogue to mount a formidable challenge to the male bastion of religious orthodoxy.

Tova Hartman JERUSALEM (RNS) Tova Hartman opens the door to her apartment with a warm smile, speaking softly and casually dressed. With her down-to-earth femininity, she doesn't exactly look like a rabble-rouser within Orthodox Judaism.

Which, perhaps, is precisely what makes her so effective.

The 53-year old psychologist and Jewish scholar has used her decidedly feminist Orthodox synagogue to mount a formidable challenge to the male bastion of religious orthodoxy.

"I don't think that feminism is against the Jewish tradition," she said. "I think it challenges the Jewish tradition."

Nine years ago, Hartman's living room became the first home of Shira Hadasha, a modern Orthodox congregation that now has several hundred members and outposts in the U.S., Canada and Israel. She's one of a handful of rabbis and scholars working to push Orthodox Judaism into a more egalitarian future.

And for the most part, the tradition isn't having it.

"Shira Hadasha came about after trying to change a lot of the local shuls and not succeeding," she said, using the Yiddish word for synagogue. "We understand and accept that our agenda does not resonate yet with modern Orthodox establishment shuls and that's OK. They don't want to change, and they don't have to."

Some Shira Hadasha practices are unusual by Orthodox Jewish standards. The group uses a distributed leadership model. Hartman is not the rabbi -- there isn't one -- but she is the de facto matriarch. Bat mitzvah ceremonies are available for girls, and women can lead services.

Members emphasize hospitality, welcoming people with disabilities, the elderly, those with mental illness, single mothers and even non-Jews. No one ever leaves Friday night gatherings without a Shabbat dinner to attend.

"Everybody said, `Nobody has a need for this kind of shul,"' she said. "But the job of the leader is also to create needs."

The Shira Hadasha sanctuary follows the traditional practice of dividing men and women with a separation barrier. But the Torah sits in the center of the room, allowing both men and women to approach it from either side.

"There is," she said, "no back of the bus."

The idea that Shira Hadasha considers itself Orthodox is seen as an anomaly by most within the tradition, making Hartman at once a pariah and a beloved religious leader.

"There are many ways to approach God. I never think there's one way -- or one religion," she explained. "I do deeply believe that God listens to different kinds of prayers, but for me (traditional orthodoxy) was untenable."

At times, she has felt trapped by the patriarchy and that her only alternative was to leave. For several years, she abandoned Jewish studies entirely to pursue psychology.
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