Orthodox Feminist: Not an oxymoron

If you Google Orthodox Feminism, or some derivative there-of you will be initially greeted by JOFA, but after that things get dicey. For some reason, even amongst many modern women, the idea of feminism and orthodoxy appears to be an oxymoron. I know women who learn text intensively (including gemara) who refer to it with a joking tone as though it were impossible that an Orthodox woman could also identify as a feminist.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to any of our long time readers (and even those who have only recently joined us) that I strongly identify as a feminist. I have written about many topics surrounding this in the past, including my support of JOFA, but it is time to be more direct.

I am an Orthodox Feminist.

I do not find these two things to be at odds with one another. Feminism to me has always been about opportunities being available for a women to make choices about how to live various parts of her life. Not having to be “equal” to a man, but in her own unique womanly ways. Not in any specific way, but in a way which is personally relevant and meaningful. I felt that way at thirteen wearing a talit and reading torah, and I feel that way at thirty wearing a tichel and learning talmud.

To loosely quote a rabbi I know here: if women can be brain surgeons, why can’t they lead kiddush? [Of note, a woman leading kiddush is totally ok according to the Shulchan Aruch (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 271:2).] I am sure that he is not the only Rabbi I know who has made an observation of this sort, but the analogy is particularly striking. In an era where women can follow their passions to be whatever they chose, be it a stay at home mom, work at home mom, or full time career woman in nearly any field – why can we not empower women in Judaism similarly? There is not one mold for us all to fit into, but lets figure out what the options are (and within halacha for those to whom that is important) and keep the conversation productive and proactive.

Photo posted to http://jofaorg.tumblr.com/ – Post by Melissa

Simply put, I have a unique contribution, and I want the opportunity to make it. I don’t want to be a man, but I want to learn, grow, educate, and inspire to my fullest capacity. I know that I can make an impact, I just need to be able to keep breaking down the mental barriers that even other women have around it.

We are our own best friends and worst enemies. If we do not empower ourselves and each other, we will never be able to find the happy balance where women are educated and empowered within the confines of halacha.

We cannot continue to find orthodoxy and feminism to be oxymoronic and dichotomous. We have to embrace them together if women are ever going to feel good about being themselves within a traditional/halachic experience of Judaism. So take some time to actually listen to the women around you, not just the words that they say but what they aren’t saying and what they are doing – you may be surprised how many Orthodox Feminists you really know.

{{Two important links: A  new Tumblr started by JOFA where you can submit your own responses about why you think we need Jewish/Orthodox Feminism, and a recent post on The Forward’s Sisterhood Blog where one woman shared her battle to find her footing as an Orthodox Feminist in America.}}

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52 thoughts on “Orthodox Feminist: Not an oxymoron

  1. Hi Melissa!

    Love reading all about your forays in Israel :) I am curious why you chose kiddush as an example. Kiddush has never been in halachic dispute. I don’t consider myself a feminist (in the way some people do) and I make kiddush all the time. Can you be specific about what particular practices or aspirations set you apart as an Orthodox feminist? Thanks! Looking forward to the conversation.

    • Hi Ruchi,
      I didn’t choose kiddush, the rabbi I paraphrased did. For him, it was in context – for me, it resonated as someplace to go from. Also, I’m super glad to hear that you haven’t heard it be a halachic dispute, but I actually have. So, its all perspective I guess.
      As to what sets me apart, I don’t know that I have a quick answer. I think its about a holistic approach to women being included and empowered to the extent with which it fits in halacha, even if that means re-exploring the perceived boundaries in contemporary practice.

  2. Thanks for the post Melissa which is very interesting and accurate !
    I think the kiddush example is a very good one. Here in France a woman would never say Kiddush unless she’s alone, divorced or widowed. If she’s married she would never say it “instead of” her husband. It would be considerated as a feminist gesture as saying the Zimun when there are 3 or more women at the table… (i don’t even talk about studying guemara ^^)

    Thanks for bringing this perspective on the table !

    Lucie.

  3. ” We have to embrace them together if women are ever going to feel good about being themselves within a traditional–”

    … dogma that tells them that the only things they can contribute are based on what they have below the waist and not above the neck, no matter what their natural gifts may be.

    Sorry, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea for women to “feel good about being” women in an environment that constrains them so much for it. It sounds awfully pretty and tolerant to talk about being empowered “to the extent with which it fits in” a sexist framework, but it’s still dreaming about stretching your wings in a shoebox. Good luck with that.

    • I honestly must concur with this statement. Although the thought of equal representation in orthodoxy is a great idea, even the morally correct idea, without ignoring or otherwise violating tradition one cannot do this. On another more cheerful note, I am glad to see arguments against gender divides in various groups.

    • What a crude and offensive thing to say to a woman. I wonder what your general opinion of women must be, if you assume that an eloquent and thoughtful person like the author has so little wit that she can’t make the slightest sense of the religious system that she has been studying for many years, and has so little delicacy of feeling that she won’t mind her value within her faith community being referred to in a gross and disrespectful way. You appear to assume that because a person chooses a faith journey that demands a great deal of them, they have no understanding and do not deserve to be treated with common courtesy or common decency. I believe you are mistaken.

  4. I’m not Jewish, but I can identify with this post. I do not believe that feminism should mean being “equal” to men in the sense that many women seem to take it. I think women should have every opportunity to educate themselves, to work in whatever area they might wish. I even believe in equal pay… =) However, I don’t believe that women and men are intrinsically the same in nature. I believe that men and women are complementary and essential in equal partnerships, like marriage. Perhaps we can help change the idea that women are only for having babies as we, as women, allow each other to be our best in whatever endeavor we undertake.

    If we perceive our world as sexist what are we doing to promote a more healthy and realistic view of womanhood? Do we internalize the images we see on TV and in magazines and judge ourselves as less? Shame on any man who thinks as women as less, but shame on any woman who looks down on another woman for choosing a different path in life than her own!

    • I don’t know, I always thought a woman was Feminist if she said she was. Otherwise, we are defining how women can express their beliefs and how they are allowed to be feminist: how they are allowed to think and act as women.

  5. I’m very interested in how exactly you wish to do this. I’m feeling more and more “left out” of Orthodox Judaism, and I’m trying to find my way back in. It just seems to me that while Judaism itself *might* have potential to be feminist, the thousands of years of male Rabbis creating Halacha have made it all but impossible.
    It bothers me that according to Halacha a woman cannot bear witness; that in many cases zimun is not done with women; that women don’t count in a minyan, even for that woman’s parents’ Kadish; that a woman cannot be a Rabbi; that women cannot divorce (it is the man who divorces); that women are passed in marriage like property, and do not even need to sign anything; That my husband says every day “Baruch shelo asani isha”.
    In general I get the feeling that women are considered second place in Judaism, and are condescended to even now. (Oh, how cute, she wants to learn gemara…)
    Do you have any reading material for me, or courses that could help me with this issue? (I live in Jerusalem). I would very much appreciate it as I’m feeling a little lost.
    Thanks.

  6. congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, and kudos to WordPress for shining a light into our religion that reveals its complexities and many facets. I am a Conservative Jew, a woman, a mother, an educator, and a Torah reader. In many ways, I am drawn to Orthodoxy because of its commitment to community and education, and simply put, Orthodox Jews just know how to daven at a Shabbat morning service. You feel a palpable difference in that stance when you attend services at either stream of Judaism. And I know that Judaism holds women in the highest regard as being the primary and first educator in a child’s life. However, being able to be counted in a minyan, being able to help my congregation by being the 10th so someone can say kaddish, and being able to lein Torah are two very empowering things to me that I don’t think I can give up. And I’m not expecting Orthodox Judaism to change for me, so I respect your opinion, but I guess I will continue to walk the middle line. Again, a very thought-provoking post!

      • I can understand the pull towards Orthodoxy. There is certainly a bigger commitment to Kehila Kedosha and we have watched sadly as many of our friends from our Conservative Congregation leave to go to a Modern Orthodox one. We are happy for them, but more lonely still at synagogue on shabbat morning because they went somewhere else. Still hanging on because I can count in a minyan and read Torah. Happy Chanukkah!

  7. I come from a family with a few rabbis in them, whom I usually call Ima and Abba. I don’t see any problem at all with religious women doing the same things as men and saying they are feminists. In fact, my own mother, by being just who she is, has inspired me to be who I am today.

  8. Interesting thoughts, well written article. Like Fireandair, i also wonder whether it is possible though; i do accept Halacha as binding, but whether it is possible to speak of feminism in its framework, without leaning to the left to MO and further left to Masorti, i am not sure either. Anyhow, good luck to all and Mazal tov on being Freshly Pressed!

  9. Very interesting, A lot of secular Jews (myself included) get the idea that Orthodox women are there to produce children and be a good wife, especially in the more extreme communities in Israel. I’m so happy to be proven wrong.

  10. I’d like to start off by saying that this was well written, and your points were fair. I like how your brand of feminism isn’t seeking to emulate men, but simply allowing women to do as they wish.

    However – I would never call myself a feminist. This is not because I have a skewed idea of feminists being man-hating superbitches (though there are writers on the Guardian which shamefully live up to the stereotype), but because I find it a very alienating concept. I, quite simply, believe in equality – in the truly liberal sense – for everybody. The fact that I am female is arbitrary, I feel no more strongly for other women and their rights than I do for working class, under privileged men, and I do not see why I should.

  11. i am a secular feminist, but was willing to read along, go for the ride so to speak, until you wrote “I don’t want to be a man,”, then you lost me… This is off track… feminists don’t want to be men, so this statement illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the feminist movement – in my opinion…

  12. I agree that “Orthodox” and “Feminist” aren’t at odds. Gender roles as a social construct are what’s at odds with feminism, and these roles are still reinforced.

    The big intellectually vacant stance against feminism today is the notion that women can “get what they want” from men. The irony of that notion is that it assumes women can only “get ahead” by being sexual and nothing more, thus it’s an incredibly sexist perspective.

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  14. I do not consider myself a “true” feminist, although I believe that Orthodox women can learn all parts of the Torah and can do mitzvot that are permitted, such as kiddush, havdalah, and reading the megillah. (I have studied gemara at MaTaN.) I say that I sympathize with feminists.

    I say this because of several reasons, but mainly because of the perception that Orthodox feminists do not follow halacha. Statements like “There is not one mold for us all to fit into, but lets figure out what the options are (and within halacha for those to whom that is important)” reinforce that. Why only “within halacha for those to whom that is important”? If we are Orthodox feminists, then all changes/actions done must be in accordance with halacha. In my shul, the women take a sefer Torah during hakafot, leave the shul, go to a member’s house, and have a women’s Torah reading against the Rabbi’s explicit psak. Although I understand their desire to read from the Torah, I am disturbed that they openly defy the Rabbi and take a Torah. This is against Orthodoxy. If a Rav of a shul paskens that something is ossur, it is forbidden to do it in his shul. (Yes, they leave the shul, but they take a Torah from the shul without his permission.) Similarly, partnership minyanim might technically be muttar; however, I (and many Rabbis) believe that they are against the spirit of the Torah and therefore forbidden. Orthodox feminists, such as some who area affiliated with JOFA, do not seem to acknowledge that there is a spirit of the Torah and that just because something is technically permitted, it is wrong to do. To quote Blu Greenberg, “where there is a Rabbinic will, there is a halachik way.” This philosophy is against Orthodox Judaism. Just because a Rabbi wants something, he cannot change halacha. Just because there are many women suffering as agunot, Rabbis cannot annul their marriages. Just because a woman wants a public role in the shul, Rabbi cannot allow her to be the shaliach tzibbur of shacharit. However, this statement seems to be the motto of the Orthodox Feminist movement, of which Blu Greenberg leads.

    • I have to disagree. Firstly- you are stereotyping. Generally, women who are Orthodox are shomer mitzvot. Calling a woman out for being passionate simply does not make sense to me. To imply that a women would want to have access to a Torah for anything but positive reasons is unfounded.

      Halakha has a lot of grey area. There have been many instances throughout Jewish history when problems arise within the framework of halakha, and the rabbis made adjustments. In many ways, the gedolei hador (the great rabbis of the generation) in medieval times were more progressive and thoughtful in terms of women than they are today. The prime example would be Rabbeinu Gershom. In the 11th century he made it impossible for a woman to be forced to consent to a divorce against her will and he outlawed polygamy. He outlawed polygamy! This is a drastic change to Judaism and the narrative of our forefathers! Nonetheless, he knew that it was no longer acceptable in society.

      There are so many loopholes that rabbis have created in order to improve the observant Jewish lifestyle… the eruv, cancelling loans with yoveil, the list goes on and on… I find it disappointing yet telling that you feel that the spirit of Judaism and halakha is that of the exclusion of women. I disagree not only based on my gut, but on halakha and its historic development.

    • Again, I agree with what Sharon said in response to much of this post so will just echo that if I respond in full.
      I do want to reply to one piece though: “Statements like “There is not one mold for us all to fit into, but lets figure out what the options are (and within halacha for those to whom that is important)” reinforce that. Why only “within halacha for those to whom that is important”? If we are Orthodox feminists, then all changes/actions done must be in accordance with halacha. ” Yes, as an Orthodox feminist I believe all “changes” must be done in accordance with halacha, and I don’t think I said differently. What I said here I intended to mean in a more broad and diverse way to apply to women across the spectrum. I also apologize if my statement shed a poor light on what you see as a movement, I can only speak for myself.

  15. A beautiful, thoughtful and important piece. Well said indeed. I know your unique contribution to Judaism and this world will be of great significance.

  16. First of all, thanks for the shout out about JOFA!!!

    Second of all, at JOFA we of course agree that “Orthodox and Feminist” is not an oxymoron. it may be a struggle at times, for sure. But we believe that that solutions to the dissonance are possible and welcome. In fact, if you read some of what Prof. Tamar Ross has written on the subject, it’s not only that Orthodoxy and feminism can be compatible, it’s that feminism is actually rooted in fundamental Torah ideas and enhances Torah. Expressions of feminism are actually expressions of Torah and halakha. You can find some of Prof Ross’ writing on the topic, and of others who have been grappling with these issues, at the JOFA online library http://www.jofa.org/Library/Page.aspx?tid=103079215898

    B’vracha,
    Elana Sztokman
    Executive Director, JOFA

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  18. Mazel Tov on being Freshly Pressed! I know it is overwhelming (I was FP’ed in Aug.’11), and given the time delay and circumstances in Israel right now, you will be reading comments for days! My daughter is currently living in Jerusalem, studying at Pardes. She was raised a Reformed Jew, and converted to Orthodox Judaism before leaving for Israel. Of course, you know, that was a long process, not something she did simply. It has been a long and difficult journey as she finds her Jewish Identity and we, her family, struggle with the changes she has made. That said, I have always known that she would be a Feminist Orthodox, when she did convert. I am really pleased that Word Press chose to spotlight your blog, as it is a subject and a window on a faith, that so many people do not understand. I have sent the link to my daughter and another Orthodox mother, who I thought would appreciate your words. This is well written and stirring.

    I know you were not taking comments for the The Siren That Shook My World, but I wanted to tell you that it really touched me. As noted above, my daughter is there too. Those sirens shook her, and shook me. My post, When There Are Sirens In Israel, I Grind My Teeth, was written from the perspective of those of us who view this from parental hearts, far from our children; it is not just as a news story. I will keep you in my thoughts, and hope for peace for all of you living with those sirens.

    • Thank you for your support and for sharing this with your daughter. (Ironically, my husband is learning at Pardes so there is a good chance she and I have met or will meet before the year is out.) Most importantly, thank you for supporting your daughter in her religious journey and her own struggle with Orthodox feminism as it evolves – I feel it is safe to project that it will be needed and appreciated.

      • Ah, Melissa… I figured you didn’t respond to most comments, so it’s nice to hear from you! This makes the world even smaller—it would be truly wild if you meet my daughter (Emily, from WA state). She is very thoughtful, informed, passionate and committed to her faith. My husband is there celebrating Hanukkah with her now, and I hope to visit in January… thanks for your response and happy Hanukkah. So glad that you are all under more peaceful skies for now.

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  20. I also just want to leave one general reply to thank everyone for your comments here. While I did not individually reply to each post, I do appreciate everyone’s words of support, inquiry, and disagreement. (And the great honor of being Freshly Pressed!)
    A woman I have an amazing amount of respect for here in Jerusalem recently addressed the struggles of modern religious women by questioning how we shape our identity in relation to both our Judaism and our feminism. This is a critical question which will be the topic of an upcoming post.

  21. Pingback: Which identity has the most influence? | Redefining Rebbetzin

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