Tova Hartman opens the door to her apartment with a warm smile, speaking softly and casually dressed. With her down-to-earth femininity, she doesn’t exactly look like a rabble-rouser within Orthodox Judaism.
Which, perhaps, is precisely what makes her so effective.
The 53-year old psychologist and Jewish scholar has used her decidedly feminist Orthodox synagogue to mount a formidable challenge to the male bastion of religious orthodoxy.
“I don’t think that feminism is against the Jewish tradition,” she said. “I think it challenges the Jewish tradition.”
Nine years ago, Hartman's living room became the first home of Shira Hadasha, a modern Orthodox congregation that now has several hundred members and outposts in the U.S., Canada and Israel. She’s one of a handful of rabbis and scholars working to push Orthodox Judaism into a more egalitarian future.
And for the most part, the tradition isn’t having it.
“Shira Hadasha came about after trying to change a lot of the local shuls and not succeeding,” she said, using the Yiddish word for synagogue. “We understand and accept that our agenda does not resonate yet with modern Orthodox establishment shuls and that’s OK. They don’t want to change, and they don’t have to.”
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.
“I know about leaving,” she said, looking back. “People would say to me ‘If you don’t like it, go change it.’ What they mean is, ‘Go away and change it.’ But there’s power to staying.”
Not surprisingly, many Orthodox rabbis have preferred Hartman had stayed away. Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv’s Ramat Gan district, has called Hartman’s group “the product of a radical feminist agenda.”
“Men who come to the synagogue to pray do not want to be distracted by the prominent appearance of women,” Ariel said.
Yet Hartman’s acolytes, including Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel modern Orthodox synagogue, embrace her teachings, regardless of what the Orthodox hierarchy says.
“Tova is one of my heroes,” Lopatin said. “Especially for Orthodoxy, feminism is a foreign, scary concept. But there’s a feminine side of men and a feminine side to prayer, and that makes us better Jews.”
Hartman said she isn’t out to battle her critics, or even try to convince them to change.
“For me, feminism didn’t come about because there’s only a problem with Orthodox rabbis,” she said. “It came about because there’s a deep fissure in our community about how we treat different people.”
There has been evidence of change in recent years, but it’s been slow. Two years ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz co-founded Yeshivat Maharat, a rabbinical school for women in New York. But modern Orthodox rabbinical councils have voted to refuse female members, or even acknowledge them as equals.
In Israel, unlike North America, there is no separation between church and state, and the Ministry of Religion funds thousands of synagogues throughout the country. Not surprisingly, Shira Hadasha is not one of them.
Yet as an independent community, Hartman’s community is able to operate free of many state mandates.
“The matter of religion and politics is where religion goes bad,” she said. “I think it’s horrible for religion, and it’s horrible for the state.”
While Hartman supports the idea of the Jewish state and the Israeli law that grants citizenship to Jews who migrate to the Jewish state, she has little patience for Israel’s current religious and political leadership.
She particularly laments one impact of Zionism ― the historic rift between Jews who believe the Messiah can be hastened by a Jewish return to the Holy Land, and those who believe any human attempt to do so is blasphemy ― on both Judaism and Israel.
“Zionism broke the Jewish community in half,” Hartman said, arguing that Zionism has put ultra-Orthodox traditionalists in charge of Israeli life and religion.
Hartman is the first to acknowledge the limited appeal of her movement, saying she’s not sure whether her own daughters are likely to follow in her footsteps.
“Not everybody’s clapping,” she said. At the same time, “What we’re doing has religious integrity.”