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.