Judaism and Feminism [F Word]

I am re-posting a few thoughts on the topic of Judaism and Feminism which I wrote for the F Word last week.  Leave your thoughts, as always.

If the recent uproar about Jews renting homes to Arabs in Israel (including thisthis and this) has taught me anything, it is that the Jewish canon can quite legitimately be interpreted in almost any imaginable way.  That fact is both what has sustained the religion over millennia and what constantly poses a problem for anyone wishing to posit a uniform ‘Jewish view’ on a given topic.  The texts are complex and often (on the face of it) contradictory.

Personally, I struggled with the notion of orthodox feminist Jews for a long time, as I saw the two concepts as mutually exclusive.  Only after talking to people willing to defend the existence of such people – and talking to some of those people themselves – was I able to understand that I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the issue.  To ask what Judaism has to say about feminism, and whether the two can co-exist or interact depends much more on who you ask than on which texts are consulted.  Someone for whom Judaism and feminism are both important will have no trouble citing texts (if that is the proof that you are after) supporting a more egalitarian society than most strands of the religion practice today.  Equally easy is the task of finding texts that seem to make the mere notion of being Jewish and feminist absurd, which are quickly quoted by anyone who feels that Judaism is more important than feminism, or that Judaism is so archaic that it cannot accommodate modern values.  Ultimately, I agree with Dr. Wendy Zierler (Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College) when she says that “[i]f halacha [Jewish law] is a way of walking with God in the world, it cannot be compatible with a status quo that denies the personhood and rights of half of the Jewish community.”

One theoretical point is worth making here, though.  The blind spot that I had in thinking of orthodox feminists as a contradiction in terms stemmed from what I perceived as systemic oppression of women in orthodox communities.  It is therefore important to keep in mind that whether your definition of oppression hinges on the agent themselves feeling oppressed or not will ultimately decide whether you are willing to entertain the notion of orthodox feminists.  As if you a priori assign a ‘status of suffering’ to all orthodox women, then there is little room to admit of women in such a society also defining themselves as feminists without wishing to remove themselves from their society.

So what does Judaism have to say about feminism?  Studying Jewish texts  in an institution that is aware of and sensitive to the modern world we live in as well as the world in which these texts were written has exposed me to beautiful ways of making traditionally difficult texts jive with our modern sensibilities.  But at the end of the day it is more about whether one wishes to discard the tradition because of examples of moral imperatives contained in the text (and there are many) that are repugnant to modern readers or whether one wishes to save the baby while throwing out only the bath water.

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3 thoughts on “Judaism and Feminism [F Word]

  1. There’s an assumption you are making that is spurious. That is, that halacha denies the personhood of women.

    There’s another way of looking at it. That feminism has, despite its rights for women, unglued the family.

    I grew up in the 60’s and I saw the whole thing unfolding. And it still is.

    You most likely grew up in the 80’s and for you, feminism is a sacred cow.

    Society objectifies women, despite feminism. Judaism is good to women.

    There are things which are repugnant to some modern sensibilities which aren’t related to feminism, like brit milah. Should we do away with it because it isn’t p.c.? If you espouse the Torah as worthy of study then you must know it’s not like any other philosophy., for one don’t think it evolved into what it is based on men’s prejudices.

    Why is it that Jews always try to attach Torah to other philosophies? It’s an inherent system, it shines light elswhere but it doesn’t need to be modified. Chaval…

  2. Thank you Malka, for your thoughtful and respectful comments. Before looking at the criticisms of feminism you raise, I want to address your first point. I make it clear in the post that my “blind spot” with regard to this issue is that I take oppression to be present even if the victim does not think that it is. I readily admit that many, if not all, of the Jewish women I know who would define themselves as feminist and Orthodox would not consider themselves stripped of their personhood (definitely a form of oppression). Thus, if you are of the opinion that you must feel oppressed to be oppressed, that is a completely valid view. I do want to note, however, that speaking of halacha as a uniform code of law with one interpretation goes against the broader point I am making in the post. Thus, I would argue that there are some ways to interpret and institute a halakhic system that denies the personhood of women, but by no means am I saying that all interpretations do so.

    As for your critiques of feminism, I really appreciate hearing an opinion that comes from a wealth of knowledge that I could simply not experience myself, growing up — as you so rightly guessed — in a different cultural ethos. I consider feminism to be neither sacred nor a cow, but your point stands (excusing the pejorative term): feminism and the ideals it strives for are extremely important to me.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “society objectifies women, despite feminism.” Do you mean feminism is failing or has failed? I think that one of the clear goals of feminism is that such objectification is eradicated, and I would hope that all humans continue to strive towards that end. When you compare the current state of affairs, however, with your following sentence, I worry that the generalization has gone too far. Both ‘society’ and ‘Judaism’ are way too big and complex to admit of simple binaries such that society is bad to women while Judaism is good to them. Neither is true or false on such a scale, as both society and Judaism have shown that, like any large human conglomerate, women are treated well sometimes and much less well at other times. If your claim is that Judaism, and specifically Orthodox Judaism, as a whole treats women better than, say, mainstream Western society, that is (theoretically) an empirically justifiable or refutable claim. My argument is not comparative, though. I am simply arguing that however well Orthodox Judaism treats women, it could do a whole lot better.

    I find your analogy to brit milah to be a particularly interesting one. While there are many voices clearly proclaiming that Judaism should incorporate our modern sensibilities about gender equity into the religions (my small voice among them), I have yet to see the practice of brit milah criticized from within the Jewish community as one in need of reform or abolishment. I assume that this is because women’s rights movements are far more accepted than more ‘fringe’ or ‘radical’ arguments for the ethical treatment of children, arguments that include banning circumcision like the legislature proposed in California not long ago. Whatever the reason may be, and without planting myself firmly on either side of the brit milah debate just yet, I think that what you see as a reductio argument — that if I think that even brit milah is not “p.c.” enough to be kept then I must be arguing a ridiculous position — is exactly the position I take. In other words, I think that Orthodox Judaism’s relationship to women and the practice of brit milah ought to be criticized (in the former case) and potentially reconsidered (in the latter). And, tangentially, I think stating that brit milah is not related to feminism depends of how you define feminism.

    As for the idea that Torah is unlike any philosophy, I am not sure on what grounds that claim can be made. I most definitely object to your claim that it did not evolve into what it is now based on men’s prejudices. What else guided it? Men have run Jewish (and most other human) societies for their entire history, and even if they were all pure of heart and mind and aimed to simply do what was best in their eyes, many prejudices creeped in anyway. I refuse the buy the argument that the reason why women are not more included in the ritual and communal life of Orthodox Judaism is because they were born into different — but equal — roles. Every position that is respected within Jewish society not only is held by men, but must be held by men, by religious fiat. That is a male prejudice.

    Your final point, again, is a very large-scale claim about the philosophical principles governing Judaism, and cannot be argued for in a sentence. I would be the first to admit that I am not qualified to assess it, but I cannot stress enough that Judaism is a religion that admits of a plurality of voices. So, like your first point, I think that Judaism does need to be modified, but you are quite welcome to the opinion that it does not need to be. While this represents a fairly fundamental disagreement, I would point to all sorts of reforms — for example the abolition of slavery, the rendering of ayin tachat ayin as being a purely monetary recompense, and many more — that have been accepted within Judaism over the centuries as examples in favour of my position.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I think that the only way to better understand those coming from different perspectives is through polite and reasoned dialogue, and I hope you do not take my comments in any other spirit.

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