At one point at the conference last weekend, I happened to find myself on a panel about women and Judaism. Four of us, Esther, Rachel Bookstein (the rebbetzin), Dena of the Ghetto Shul and myself, we’re asked to talk about our own struggles and places of empowerment in being a woman within our varying degrees of Judaism.

I both love and struggle with Judaism, and in no way see that as a contradiction. The struggle is of course a natural byproduct of living in a Torah-centered community while surrounded by a world grappling with rapid social, cultural and technical evolution. Feminism is but one part of this mix, but as a woman it’s something I cannot ignore.

While I don’t personally feel the pull to lead davening, get an aliyah or become a rabbi, I understand the frustration at such a closed door. My issues focus more on how disproportionately smaller the women’s side of the Kotel is, or how men’s yeshivas get so much more funding than women’s yeshivas, and how noticeably more joyous the reaction from people is when a baby boy is born, etc. I comfort myself with the hope that these are merely anachronistic remnants of an older era, and not religious creed.

Nonetheless I sometimes can’t help but feel that with the (admittedly important) exception of eventually making babies, Judaism doesn’t really need me. At least not as a single person. I’m not needed to complete a minyan, it is not incumbent upon me to pray three times a day, nor will I ever be asked to be a witness at the wedding of a close friend.

Now, I’m not saying I WANT these things to be incumbent upon me (the thought of having to get up for shachrit every day is a little scary) but in any sort of a relationship, including between a religion/community and a member of it, people generally need to be needed in order to feel they have an important place within it.

I will try not to undervalue the role of motherhood, for it is in the ability to give and sustain life that women are most like God. But as the mother is presumably the character most responsible for a new generations Jewish upbringing, why is there not more value in women really learning the depths of Torah if for no other reason than to be able to pass it on with beauty, insight and excitement when her children ask Imma, why do you do things like that?

As it stands (with a few wonderfully notable exceptions like Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem), most girls Yeshivot are essentially holding pens until marriage. While my male friends can almost universally study for free, funding is not given in the same way to girls. The subtle message is that we are simply not as important.

Yet in so many ways Jewish women were given more rights and respect than women in almost any other culture. It is also no coincidence that a disproportionate number of early feminists were Jewish.
The Torah itself is rife with examples of women in important roles and changing the course of our history. Perhaps we need to look back to Biblical Judaism as a paradigm for women’s roles when we see that something developed in 18th century Christian Europe is no longer serving us.

Within the confines of Torah Judaism these are issues that are being discussed with more and more frequency. Some of the spiritual and practical things being talked about in orthodox feminist writings are nothing short of fascinating, and the wheels are in motion for evolution (within those streams of orthodoxy that value evolution, that is). During the course of my writing this, a friend actually sent me a link to a new blog Voices from Our Side of the Curtain written by anonymous observant women exploring their roles within Judaism (how’s that for apropos?). I recall last Shavuot hearing a whole shiur by a Rabbi about how the rise of the women’s movement is one of the most clear signs that redemption is near.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. The many Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Conservative women (and men) talking about the role of women in traditional Judaism is indicative of the fact that changes need to be looked into. More thought must be given to, and more value placed on the role of women in Judaism. I am confident that the Judaism I love is capable of dealing with this in a way that will move us forward and indeed bring us a step closer to redemption.

About the author

Laya Millman

24 Comments

  • Reading this, I really wish I could’ve stayed for the panel. I still struggle the empathize, but before now I didn’t even fathom the complexity; I had (chauvinistically) assumed it would be mainly a rehashing of “life as a Jewish woman” and not an attempt to explore Jewish feminism. I would be curious to look at how the role of a Jewish woman has differed, through the ages, from the roles of women in the society’s around them. Also, I’m curious to see if this new emphasis on the role of women will further broaden the gap between the traditional orthodoxy and more modern movements. Is a Jewish woman necessarily distinguishable if she is simply part of a less-religious family, more socially Jewish than religiously? How are women becoming empowered in more traditional homes. Fortunately for me, I have the benefit of observing “the rebbetzin”, Rachel, on a regular basis and seeing the positive effects of having a female play the spiritual advisor role akin to a more orthodox rabbi.

  • Laya, great post. After I meet all my other various paid deadlines, I hope to add more than my two cents about this issue. (In the meantime my experience at the content of this workshop is clearly echoed in Friday Night Lights , over at my blog.)

    Matt, you know we love you and we’re sure you would have been extremely respectful and understanding if you (and the other men) had stayed, but it would have been a very different dynamic, and I think this way worked much better for creating an open, unrestricted dialogue zone for the women in attendance.

    This subject is hard enough to address without Y chromosomes in the room, ya feel me?

    And Ricker Aish, allow this cool NYC chick to respectfully disagree.

  • Laya and Esther – Y’all were definitely missed in Long beach this weekend. Shabbat was just not the same without the dynamic femme-licious duo and ck had to field all the questions from the blog-front groupies here Friday night.

    For those who know me, I am rarely short on words, and yet I find myself without answers to all the questions (even answers that satisfy me) that were brought up at the session Laya and Esther wrote about. It was a privilege to be facilitating a discussion by, for, and about Jewish women that brought out some of the beauty and some of the challenges in Judaism for women. I know I learned at least one key lesson.

    I respectfully disagree that women are only useful in Judaism as baby makers and caregivers – without denigrating that role, occupation, chosen path or phase of life some of us may be in. Women throughout our history have made claims on education, access to paid professional work, and legal access, leaning on the broomstick of homemaker and mother. And yet those gains have gotten us out of the kitchen and nursery to a great extent and complicated Jewish mothering, and notions of Jewish womanhood.

    Jewish women have built hospitals, orphanages, schools, libraries, soup kitchens, labor movements, literary renaissance and artistic crises and the Sate of Israel. They may have been mothers and wives, and they may have been (more or less secretly lesbian – that would be Alice & Gertrude, not Golda!) spinsters. OK, so maybe they weren’t all lighting candles Friday night worrying about fire safety (see Esther’s blog), but I believe they were all enmeshed in a deeply Jewish context and mileu.

    Laya, I want you to meet a great teacher in Jerusalem, her name is Devorah Rubin and she teaches at Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya ( in my humble opinion a top notch BT women’s yeshiva that teaches Torah, text skills and lets you remember you have a neshema in the process). To me, and many of her students, she is a Torah giant. She is a “Monsey girl”, descendent of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch. One of her bio highlights is that she married after 30 in a community where her peers were pretty much making bat mitzvahs for their daughters by then. What did she do before becoming a kallah and an Ima? She taught and was a principal of a girl’s school, engaging and challenging the minds of a generation of girls. Did she want to be an Ima, sure…did she see it as her only calling or value? Doubt it. Go to her home for Shabbat lunch and watch how she speaks words of Torah to her guests and her children. She is not conflicted.

    About the under-funded women’s yeshiva education. You are right. Plus there is no really great place outside of Israel to learn. Who should we speak to get something started?

    One interesting thought about the value of educated women… In the Ashkenazy tradition there is a revered and sometimes mocked book called the Tzena U’Rena. It is companion to the weekly Torah reading with translations of text and key commentaries, midrashim and parables into Yiddish a vernacular. It was written for a Yiddish reading Jewish women. It is more than a translation, it provides guidelines for “good Jewish living” for the ladies section of the shul. In the Sephardic tradition we have the venerable Ladino text, the Me’am Lo’az., roughly the same idea, only it draws on more major commentators, is more through, scholarly, has fewer Bubbe meises, and hence is a better book. You can find either of these in a good Jewish bookstore, and they were written with the central purpose of educating women in the value and values of Judaism. These books reflect a medieval recognition of the need for women to learn, teach and own Judaism for ourselves. The question we need to as ourselves is what is our Me’am Lo’ez? Where are we failing a people to educate our girls to be proud Jewish sisters?

  • brilliant post post that now has me wondering….. since I am not interested in having kids, where does that leave me as a jewish woman? Will I ever be “useful” in Jewish society?

    A great post for starting a dialogue and getting everyone thinking and talking. toda!

  • Rachel, thanks so much for your considerate words, both here and at the session. Of course I don’t believe that the only place for Jewish women is as babymakers and wives, otherwise I would have given up and moved on long ago. But the more I think about it the more I believe that Shabbat and holidays are most ideally experienced with a family.

    I like to think that we can all contribute our talents in a meaningful way to Jewish life as a whole. The problem is often the Jewish community’s reception to what we give, on every level from synagogue life to Jewish communal institutions. The phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” should apply LEAST in Jewish organizational life, and that’s the opposite of what actually happens. It seems to me that the more involved one becomes the more one often regrets it. The contributions of professionals to Jewish organizational life are undervalued and undercompensated, sometimes are even treated with contempt, and that’s just wrong.

    I recognize that Jewish communal life has been both my anchor and my underminer at various places in my personal and professional life, and dealing with that duality is part of my struggle, religious life aside.

  • I am a feminist and wish that women would have more of a public role in Judaism and would get more respect from men, but I disagree with two things you wrote: 1) that boys can learn for free in Israel while girls have to pay. I don’t know where you got that idea. Maybe there are some free boys’ yeshivas, but my brother’s yeshiva cost just as much — if not more — than my seminary. 2) That Judaism “needs” men but not women. I see your logic, but it’s based on a flawed assumption. Judaism doesn’t need anybody. It’s not that people were created to benefit the religion, the religion was created to benefit us. “Ratzah haKadosh Baruch Hu l’zakot et Yisrael, l’fikach hirbah lahem Torah u’mitzvot.”

  • Celestial Blue, just a remark, but it is my experience that it can be interesting to have kid(s). It was the only job I ever did that required every scrap of my abilities, and where the outcome truly mattered. So I gave it my all, and it worked out OK. Of course, other work is important, but Mom work underlies everything else. Moms build souls! What job is higher than that? It does indeed take courage and patience and does not get obvious public rewards. It is a private labor. But I still feel that I would not have traded it even for the Oval Office, complete with Presidentially monogrammed Kleenex.

  • Men need to study all those words and blah blah because that is all they have and all they can do, to relate to G-d and to each other. Women do pretty well with a glance to each other and a murmur to G-d. Of course we should know stuff, but we use knowledge differently, and we are not as dependent on knowledge as they are. I hate fakes. Let us not try to be fake men. Let us be a real thing. We are totally cool as we are. But what we are gets no publicity, is little seen, and is hard to measure with numbers. So what? Let us defend our right to be women. To be ourselves. That means wives and mothers. None of this “Just a housewife” nonsense. “Oh really? No career? How stupid”. Feh. Wounded soldiers do not lie on battlefields crying for their fathers. The men get the world, the women get the children. PROPERLY UNDERSTOOD, as the children are ALSO a world, that is fair. And don’t let them take your home role! They want that TOO, even though they have everything else? NO! They can HELP at home but you are the lady of the house and it is YOUR kitchen. G-d is wise to make them say they are happy not to be women every morning. Plenty of men wish they were women. They think we have it easy. Lying around eating bon-bons between childbirths and how often do you really do that? Ugh. Play your position, I say. I didn’t learn how to be a woman in a yeshiva, but from my mother and my gramma and my aunts, thank G-d. Ima Yisroel Chai. Yay team.

  • “Men need to study all those words and blah blah because that is all they have and all they can do”

    This, like many other Aish’isms, when trying to justify the subtle misogyny within our religion drives me nuts. Please Jewish Mother, stop trying to justify something that isn’t justifiable. It is ok to be an Orthodox Jewish woman and struggle with the misogyny within our tradition.

    “Women do pretty well with a glance to each other and a murmur to G-d.”

    Really? Most of my female Jewish friends suffer spiritual laziness when they’re not engaged in textual study.

    “Let us not try to be fake men.”

    Oy vey.

    “That means wives and mothers.”

    Have you ever read Barbara Sher’s books? Do you even realize how unfulfilled woman were, in their kitchens, during the 60’s-70’s?

    “Wounded soldiers do not lie on battlefields crying for their fathers.”

    Which is a pity. Because most of my friends, including myself, could’ve used A LOT MORE FATHER and a lot less mother. See Robert Bly’s Iron John.

    “And don’t let them take your home role! They want that TOO”

    Seriously JM, I’m not sure from where your ideas come from. I can say, with full confidence, that I have NO interest in taking the cleaning, cooking role from my lady. However we need to share it due to the realities of living in the 21’st century.

    “you are the lady of the house and it is YOUR kitchen.”

    I’d much rather her be a lady of something interesting to say, than a lady with a special spatula.

    “Plenty of men wish they were women.”

    OMG, have you ever hung out in a men’s locker room. The secret that woman don’t know is that we NEVER NEVER NEVER EVER want to go through what women go through…physically, especially physically. JM…you may have the women cheering, but the men I know would be thinking: “HUH?”

    “They think we have it easy.”
    No we don’t. We’re impressed. And we’re glad we don’t have to go through what you go through. Trust me.

  • OK. I just hope I have the women cheering, as you say. No knock on you guys! You are the other pillar that holds up the world. One can be the lady of the house and ALSO the lady with something to say. The first is law, the second comes with life, reading and work. Yes, I remember the 60’s and 70’s. Lotta bad stuff developed then, but we stuffed our ears and tied ourselves to the mast and did not hear the syren’s song. Anyway, I think you mean the 50’s. Betty Friedan and her selling leftism by putting a feminist dress on it. Worked, too. She knew that was the only way to sell it. Yes, it’s fun to see female astronauts! I still would not trade my Mom title for Dr. Frau Professor Chief Astronaut Extraordinaire, “the capsule is ready, Madame Doctor, and your slippers are laid out.” Not at the price of my Mom thing. No, no. Having it all is a LITTLE bit of a phony. You can work. But serious heavy-hitter career, with travel, and late hours? Not and do the Mom thing right. Not really right. A kid should fly in the front of the plane, not in steerage, even though the whole plane will get to age 21. Oh, you know what I mean. No disrespect at all, and I know you mean well, but aren’t you on the wrong side of the mechitza? That mechitza is there for a reason. And men don’t always tell each other their less attractive feelings in locker rooms. I certainly didn’t say ALL men feel that. But the grass can have a tendency to look greener, that’s just human. You know there is not one extra word in the prayers. That does not mean I know why they are there, I just voiced an opinion. I think that prayer is healthy self love.

  • JM,

    Again, I’m split visvis your advice. Some of it is timeless and needed, some of it is a throwback to a time when men/women weren’t thrilled with the thrill you’re trying to sell.

  • “but aren’t you on the wrong side of the mechitza?”

    Nope, very much on my side. But I wouldn’t marry the women you’re selling. I respect the differences, but they manifest themselves differently in each generation and with various socio-economic realities. Oddly enough, many of your arguements can be turned around and be used to explain all those absent dads, doing their dad thing. Oh they brought home a cheque…but that’s about it. Today’s dads…so, so impressive. Let’s not turn into Belzer Chassidiim because the world is too scary to live in.

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