Although it has been several months since the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Conference, the Orthodox blogosphere is still buzzing about Leah Sarna’s speech at the opening plenary. In her address, Sarna stated her belief that Orthodox women must begin to demonstrate increased dedication to Judaism by participating in activities traditionally earmarked as male, like attending minyan and learning Talmud.
I would like to push back on this definition of what women’s dedication should look like. In my opinion, it is too narrow, since it is defined in terms of (and therefore limited by) male obligation and behavior. Such a definition undervalues the practices of our foremothers, minimizing the contributions of generations of Jewish women. Our grandmothers were not taught to read Hebrew and never picked up a siddur or Talmud in their lives, but they passed on their pure love of Judaism despite the assimilation of America, the pogroms of Russia, and the crematoria of Auschwitz. Were they not dedicated?
Learning in the beit midrash, or Jewish study hall, and getting to minyan are both important, but I don’t know why a woman’s frequency of doing them should be the yardstick for her dedication to Judaism. I do not wish to lessen the importance of these two mitzvot, but I cannot understand why Sarna stresses them to such an extent. Judaism is so much more than prayer and learning.
To define dedication is to exclude those who do not dedicate in such a way. I love Judaism because of its fluidity, and Sarna’s rigidifying of it confuses me. Not everybody is dedicated in the same way, and it does Orthodoxy a disservice to dismiss expressions of religion that differ from hers.
I suppose I’m biased in this matter, as I find myself in the camp of people that Sarna excludes. By her definition, I am not dedicated; I spend more time in my campus Hillel’s lounge than in its beit midrash, and the only time I ever made it to morning minyan was when I had to say Kaddish. However, I like to think that I’m dedicated to Judaism despite my absence from the beit midrash and minyan. I might not get to Shachrit, or the morning service, at 7:15 AM, but I do make it my business to daven in my room before I leave for classes.
I daven on my own time because I am dedicated. As a student who dorms at a secular college, I have complete autonomy over my religious actions. My mother is not around to critique my observance, and nobody on campus would say anything if I stopped following halakha. My life would be a lot easier if I was not Orthodox: I would not have had to miss Freshman Formal because it was on Shabbat, I would not have to avoid all the treif food in the non-kosher dining halls, I would not have to provide awkward explanations about why I won’t touch guys. But despite the difficulties that living a halakhic lifestyle poses, I don’t abandon Orthodoxy. I skipped the Freshman Formal, I eat exclusively at the kosher dining hall, and I don’t hug my guy friends.
Why? Because I am dedicated.
Sarna’s speech was a wonderful starting point to begin the conversation about changing Orthodox women’s relationship with their Judaism. However, as an Orthodox feminist, I feel duty-bound to expand her definition of what dedication means. I’m sure that some Orthodox women were stirred by Sarna’s call and have begun attending morning minyan regularly; others will hit the snooze button more often than not, and yet others will not even try setting their alarms that early. It is crucial that we do not alienate any of these women. Rather, we must create a more inclusive Orthodox community that will value the contributions of every woman, acknowledging that everyone dedicates in her own way.
Talia Weisberg is a student at Harvard University.