The Times They Are A’Changin – R. Yosef Kanefsky

For the last 14 years, I have been leading a Sunday morning discussion group with our Bnai/Bnot Mitzvah. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Every year, I devote one of the Sunday morning sessions to exploring the kids’ thoughts and feelings about the changing roles of girls and women within Judaism generally, and within Orthodoxy in particular. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking session, but this year’s was exceptional.

The items that I (literally) put on the table for discussion each year include women dancing with a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, women leading their own zimmun, reciting Kiddush for the family on Friday night, learning Gemara in school, delivering Divrai Torah in shul, and becoming rabbis. I always emphasize that the point of the session is thoughtful discussion, not the reaching of any particular conclusion. I do my level best to keep my own feelings out of the proceedings, while challenging the kids to think deeply about their positions on this or that contemporary innovation. In past years, the kids took the direction of distinguishing between the practices that they were “comfortable” with from those which “felt wrong” to them. This year, their whole approach was different.

Rather than wanting to focus on the details of particular practices, they drove the discussion in the direction of overarching principles. The ideals that emerged as being most important to them were equality in educational opportunities, and freedom to pursue one’s passions, including the passion to be a religious teacher / leader. The kids talked about according respect to all, and recognizing the dignity of men and women alike. It was obvious to them that the only criteria that ought be relevant – even for the rabbinate – are the talent and capacity to do the job. I was blown away. The majority of the kids in the group attend self-described “centrist” Orthodox day schools, and haven’t grown up in families in which feminism is a value per se. They are tomorrow’s Orthodox kids on campus – halachik commitment runs in their veins – and then, with God’s help, they’ll be the rank and file members of Orthodox shuls. 

What’s changed? A few things, I think:
(1) This is the first wave of kids who were born and raised in our shul, and who thus take it for granted that the pulpit is open to women (and girls celebrating Bat Mitzvah), and that women do hakafot in the same way that men do. These girls have all attended numerous Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Women’s Tefilla, and have seen their fathers and mothers alike take leadership positions in all facets of shul governance.
(2) By the time this group of kids arrived in middle school, Mishna and Gemara had already taken firm hold in the girls’ curriculum. (In historical terms this is a new development in most of our LA Orthodox schools, but what do these kids know from history??)
(3) They are very aware of the many women who have achieved prominent positions in US government (I’m sure they can’t name the last California Senator who was male), and their lives are filled with women who have accomplished impressively in every professional field.

If this year’s class is not a fluke – and I think it’s not – then it provides an inspiring testament to the power of quiet perseverance, the patient pursuit of a communal vision, and the fact that over time, communal norms can really change. I have no illusions as to the likelihood that some will soon wrangle with the halachik limitations on women’s participation in public tefilla, but I’m confident that they will be equipped to sort those issues out in a productive way.

So hang in there Morethodox communities. The future is bright.

7 Responses to The Times They Are A’Changin – R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. wolfman says:

    I see three possible futures for these kids, ranked in terms of likelihood:

    1) They will drop out of “frum” Jewish life by the end of college or a few years later, disillusioned by the brow-beating they will receive from their more right-wing (and self-assured) Orthodox peers, exhausted from trying to maintain the cognitive dissonance required to stay within the broader narrow-minded Orthodox community, and, despite the “halakhic commitment that runs in their veins”, bewildered by their inability to articulate — to others and to themselves — the rationale behind their practices in broadly comprehensible anthropological terms.

    2) They, being particularly motivated and engaged, end up joining (or, if especially driven, forming) a community that looks a lot like Hadar, reasoning that their values and halakhic commitments can best be met by cutting the gordian knot and that whatever loss of community and weakening of halakhic commitment they experience is more than made up for by the fulfillment they feel at no longer needing to walk on eggshells amongst most of their peers.

    3) They remain within the Orthodox fold, acquiesce to the sexism, fundamentalism, and anti-intellectualism they encounter there for the sake of strong community and nostalgic ties, submerge or alter their value commitments in order to do so, and perhaps privately hope (like many of their parents did) that the next generation will be more conducive to those values.

    It’s already been almost a generation and a half since the founders of WTGs hoped these same hopes, and, with rare exceptions, found those hopes disappointed. It’s not clear to me why this generation should be any different.

  2. The heart follows the deeds.

    My mother never had to teach me, for example, that blacks are equal to whites or that women deserve respect. I just saw that in practice, she treated black store clerks the way she did white clerks, etc. I just saw that she herself was a chemist with an M.Sc. earning a nearly six-figure salary, and that she didn’t shy from expressing her opinion on any political or social issue. That’s all I needed to see; I didn’t need her to explicitly teach me anything.

    So yasher koah, and hazak u’barukh!

  3. OTG says:

    Of course, Rabbi, you set the agenda of topics to be discussed. Feminism (or the role of women or however one wants to describe it) is the premier topic for young people because you make it such. It isn’t about spirituality or kashrus or learning Torah or Israel or belief in God. This is where you lose me.

  4. David S says:

    I think you are right. Its always darkest before the dawn and I think people are waking up to reality. It was one thing to obey the power that be when you believed that they were better than you are, its another when you realize they are not.

  5. ilanadavita says:

    This is very interesting but also promising.

  6. […] The Times They Are A’Changin, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky reflects on the new generation of Modern Orthodox kids in his shul […]

  7. Bat Sheva M says:

    Wolfman is right that some of these girls may drop out,or opt out or get frustrated..Or maybe some of these women will go on to help open the eyes of the Orthodox community and create new and different variations we haven’t even considered yet. The world for Orthodox women is so different today then I could have ever forseen 30 years ago. I don’t even pretend to guess what my daughter’s future will hold. But I do know this: iife is never worth living in a myopic tunnel and trying to protect our kids will never allow for change, growth and nearing a more perfect world. Yasher Koach for the amazing work you’re doing and fill us in next year when you have the same discussion!!

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