Orthodox, Feminist, and Proud of It
Judaism's Orthodox feminist movement has succeeded in opening doors for women committed both to Jewish law and gender equality
BY: Blu Greenberg
After 30 years of steadily pulsing its messages into the culture, feminism has reached deeply even into the most traditional religious communities. The radical transformation of divorce law in Egypt--making it easier for women to end a marriage--is but one example. Discussion among American Catholics about the ordination of women is another.
Orthodox Judaism, too, has been touched by this new social movement. Orthodox feminism, once considered an oxymoron, is a fact of life. Questions about women's roles and rights are raised daily on issues that were uncontested for centuries.
The consciousness of the entire modern Orthodox community has been raised, with rabbis readily acknowledging women's issues to be a primary concern in their congregations. Conferences on feminism and Orthodoxy in 1998 and 2000 turned out record numbers of participants, 2,000 strong; many showed up unregistered, boarding planes the night before as if impelled by some mysterious force. The explosion in Jewish women's higher learning is unprecedented, with women studying Talmud as if by natural right. One would not guess that these texts were virtually closed to women for 2,000 years.
New Orthodox synagogue architecture reflects the desire to create space in which women will not feel at the periphery, creating a women's section on par with the men's section. Orthodox women's prayer groups, though not universally welcomed, have grown in number and in size. Models of women's leadership--congregational interns (the female equivalent to assistant rabbis), presidents of synagogues, principals of Jewish day schools, advocates in the Jewish divorce courts, advisers in halakic (Jewish legal) matters--all are new to the Orthodox scene.
Yet, just as all these gains are being made, "feminism"--the very word itself--has increasingly become a red-flag word inside Orthodoxy. When feminism mattered not at all, it was not a subject for discussion. But suddenly, feminism is at the door--or halfway through the door--of modern Orthodoxy. And many inside have squared off.
Some examples: A mainstream Orthodox women's organization was invited to join as co-sponsor of the 1998 Orthodox feminism conference, a role that same group had played the previous year. The organization's leadership said yes, but only on condition that conference organizers drop "feminism" from the title. (They refused.) And this year, women from 11 countries met to form an international Orthodox feminist organization, but the issue of whether "feminism" should be part of the title went unresolved. Probably half the Orthodox women who would be described by any objective standard as feminist shy away from the word in defining themselves.
At some level, I understand this. During the first 10 years of the women's movement, I often used the word "feminism" to criticize excesses; during the next 10, I'd begin statements with "I'm not a feminist but..."--though clearly I was speaking the movement's values.
Perhaps the expedient thing to do would be to drop this internally fractious word. Yet each time I consider the idea, I reject it, for many reasons.