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.

BY: Kevin Douglas, Religion News Service


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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.

Continued on page 3: 'I know about leaving...' »

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