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Blogging the JOFA UnConference: Conversion, Rabbinic Authority, and Power Imbalance in Orthodoxy

Posted on the 01 December 2014 by Starofdavida
Blogging the JOFA UnConference: Conversion, Rabbinic Authority, and Power Imbalance in OrthodoxyOn November 23, I had the honor of attending the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)’s UnConference. Unlike its large-scale two-day conference convened every few years, the UnConference was dedicated to just one topic: ritual innovation. Every session was dedicated to discussion of the change involved in Jewish rituals: is it desirable? Is it allowed? How can we change rituals while still maintaining their integrity? How does one even go about changing innovation?

The first two sessions of the day were plenary sessions addressed to all attendees. I missed the very first session, but arrived on time for the second, titled “Conversion, Rabbinic Authority, and Power Imbalance in Orthodoxy.” Moderated by JOFA board member Laura Shaw-Frank, the panelists were Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) Executive VP Rabbi Mark Dratch, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Dean Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and Executive Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute Dr. Elana Stein Hain.
All three speakers were fabulous, and they said a lot of really interesting things about how, in the wake of the Freundel situation, there is an increased need to change how mikvaot (ritual baths) are run, transform the conversion process into a friendlier system, and reform the rabbinic power structure that affords religious leaders too much authority. The moderator introduced the panel as intended to discuss things more on the meta level, and the panelists largely kept to this theme. As a layperson, I appreciated hearing the perspective of clergy on how they wield their own power and navigate the system.
I was particularly impressed by what Hain had to say. Although I’ve heard great things about her for a while, this was my first time hearing her speak, and I was not disappointed. Because I am very goal-oriented and community-centered when it comes to activism, I was happy when Hain brought more of a pragmatic dimension to the panel. It was clear that she has her feet on the ground: in addition to loftier long-term goals about what the rabbinic power system should look like, she spoke in terms of practical, on-the-ground change and how to best help individual people and communities.
The panelists worked well together, responding to each other’s comments and building on what the others had to say. For example, when Lopatin expressed his belief that every community must have a woman religious leader, Hain fine-tuned his point: “Every Orthodox community has to involve women in any capacity that they can” in order to create long-lasting positions open to women, rather than forcing change onto a community that isn’t ready for it. Dratch then pointed out that women in high positions is not a cure-all solution, as at Freundel’s shul (synagogue), the president of the shul and the entire board of the mikvah were female.

I really appreciated that both Hain and Dratch drew on Talmudic tales early on in the panel to illustrate their points, effectively showing that change is not foreign to observant Judaism; indeed, it is an integral part of it, and has been for thousands of years. Historically speaking, the Orthodox movement itself is a change made for the sake of continuity. What happened with Freundel was a wake up call that if we want to have a healthy, halakhic (Jewish law-adherent) community, we need to institute necessary change. This panel inspired me, showing me that religious leaders understand this and will push for whatever is needed to perpetuate a vibrant Orthodoxy.

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