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Orthodoxy grapples with role of women

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The ultra-Orthodox Satmar religious group came under fire last week over a decree issued by the sect’s leadership. “No girls attending our school are allowed to study and get a degree,” the statement read. “It is dangerous. Girls who will not abide will be forced to leave our school… we can’t allow any secular influences in our holy environment.”

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, an Orthodox shul was taking steps in a decidedly different direction. A day before the Satmar story broke, the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighbourhood announced the hiring of Carmit Feintuch as spiritual leader. She will assume the title “rabbanit” and work alongside the shul’s rabbi, Benny Lau, a nephew of former Israeli chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau. “More than 50 per cent of the community are women,” Rabbi Lau said after the appointment was made public, “so why shouldn’t there be a woman in a leadership role?”

The Satmar decree and the hiring of Jerusaem’s first Orthodox female clergy point to one of the most significant modern schisms in Orthodox Judaism: the role of women. While the Satmars and many other ultra-Orthodox sects cling to a tradition with a strict definition of the role of women, Orthodoxy’s progressive wing is turning that tradition on its head. As Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Efrat’s Orthodox chief rabbi who last year appointed Jennie Rosenfeld to serve as a spiritual leader in his city, the first such hiring in Israel, commented on the hiring of Rabbanit Feintuch, “In every community there is a structural need for a woman to serve in a position of spiritual leadership.”

It seems near-impossible to bridge the Orthodox divide when it comes to the role of women. But there is at least one woman whose life work suggests it might just be possible.

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis passed away last week. She spent her life urging Jews around the world, especially secular ones, to study Torah. A mainstay in the kiruv community, she was known for her revival-style productions stressing prayer, gratitude and compassion. And she did it all as a strong female voice in a man’s world.

In a 2013 column for the Jewish Press, titled “Realizing your potential as a woman,” Rebbetzin Jungreis argued, “From the genesis of our history, Jewish women have always been in the vanguard, not just for their families but for our entire people.”

She was living proof of her own statement. And yet she was far from a womens lib advocate. “Our Torah places females on the highest pedestal of respect, esteem, honour and glory,” she added in that same column. “Why would we need any kind of women’s liberation movement? What are we to be liberated from?”

At her funeral Aug. 24 in Far Rockaway, N.Y., there were more than 10 eulogies delivered, all by men, while women attendees sat in a separate room at the back of the shul, behind a window covered by blinds (though the slats remained open). The setting seemed to encapsulate Orthodoxy’s struggle to square a religious tradition that appears anathema in our time with the very real accomplishments of Jewish women, both within those boundaries and pushing against them.

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