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.

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"I know about leaving," she said, looking back. "People would say to me `If you don't like it, go change it.' What they mean is, `Go away and change it.' But there's power to staying."

Not surprisingly, many Orthodox rabbis have preferred Hartman had stayed away. Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv's Ramat Gan district, has called Hartman's group "the product of a radical feminist agenda."

"Men who come to the synagogue to pray do not want to be distracted by the prominent appearance of women," Ariel said.

Yet Hartman's acolytes, including Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago's Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel modern Orthodox synagogue, embrace her teachings, regardless of what the Orthodox hierarchy says.

"Tova is one of my heroes," Lopatin said. "Especially for Orthodoxy, feminism is a foreign, scary concept. But there's a feminine side of men and a feminine side to prayer, and that makes us better Jews."

Hartman said she isn't out to battle her critics, or even try to convince them to change.

"For me, feminism didn't come about because there's only a problem with Orthodox rabbis," she said. "It came about because there's a deep fissure in our community about how we treat different people."

There has been evidence of change in recent years, but it's been slow. Two years ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz co-founded Yeshivat Maharat, a rabbinical school for women in New York. But modern Orthodox rabbinical councils have voted to refuse female members, or even acknowledge them as equals.

In Israel, unlike North America, there is no separation between church and state, and the Ministry of Religion funds thousands of synagogues throughout the country. Not surprisingly, Shira Hadasha is not one of them.

Yet as an independent community, Hartman's community is able to operate free of many state mandates.

"The matter of religion and politics is where religion goes bad," she said. "I think it's horrible for religion, and it's horrible for the state."

While Hartman supports the idea of the Jewish state and the Israeli law that grants citizenship to Jews who migrate to the Jewish state, she has little patience for Israel's current religious and political leadership.

She particularly laments one impact of Zionism -- the historic rift between Jews who believe the Messiah can be hastened by a Jewish return to the Holy Land, and those who believe any human attempt to do so is blasphemy -- on both Judaism and Israel.

"Zionism broke the Jewish community in half," Hartman said, arguing that Zionism has put ultra-Orthodox traditionalists in charge of Israeli life and religion.

Hartman is the first to acknowledge the limited appeal of her movement, saying she's not sure whether her own daughters are likely to follow in her footsteps.

"Not everybody's clapping," she said. At the same time, "What we're doing has religious integrity."
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