I was browsing books yesterday at Pomerantz in Jerusalem and I saw Tamar Ross’s book entitled Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism.  If not for its price being largely outside of my budget, I would have purchased it – and I found myself a bit surprised. I’m not averse to exploring the role of women in Orthdoxy, but it’s not my ‘pet issue’ by any means.  I’m comfortable in a synagogue with equal space for women where, as per tradition and in some cases Jewish law, men lead us in prayer and Torah readings.  So long as I feel that my side of the mechitzah is of equal size and reasonably comfortable, with women who participate in song and prayer, I’m quite satisfied with my spiritual fulfillment not having anything to do with leadership, and I don’t care if anyone feels that it ‘counts.’  For me, it’s more important to focus on my individual prayer and to make certain that it is sincere, pure, heartfelt, and proper.  That is my contribution to communal prayer, and  though I know that many will call me naive or contrary to the cause, I wholeheartedly believe that it’s just as substantial as leading a minyan or having an aliyah.  I value the differences in men and women that are inherent in Judaism, and believe that our separation actually gives volume to the voices of women as we stand both alone and together in our prayer and other traditions that are more or less reserved for women – something so beautiful in its simplicity as lighting Shabbat candles, and something as dynamic as celebrating Rosh Chodesh.

Given all of this, I tend to avoid places like Shira Chadasha (a Torah-egalitarian shul in Jerusalem), the reason being that it feels like a place that puts every last ounce of its energy into women’s rights and dealing with the ‘issue’ of women in Orthodoxy.  Since I’m quite happy with my role in my Modern Orthodox community, why should I move to a place like Shira Chadasha, when my first glance at their Shavuot course schedule seems to show that the leadership ponders women and Jewish law more than they ponder the endless list of other nuances when it comes to Torah, Jewish philosophy, and prayer?  If I needed to read Torah aloud or count in a minyan to feel spiritualy fulfilled, this would be the place for me- but if not, why go?  Why care about their plight?

This, I feel, is why the Orthodox feminist movement is losing many, many potential supporters.  Sure, inherently, they will lose ultra-Orthodox and the very right wing end of the Modern Orthodox community no matter what they do or say, but there is a whole community of Modern Orthodox women who are intent on finding spiritual fulfillment and new ways to learn Torah, but who aren’t looking for synagogues and organizations that frame Judaism in terms of western values (like women’s rights).  What was so appealing about the title and description of Tamar Ross’s book was that it started with the words Expanding the Palace of Torah, instead of a call to oblliterate oppression that many people, such as myself, don’t feel exists in our modern and dynamic Orthodox communities.  It seems to be a modest attempt at reexamining the role of women within the bounds of Jewish law – not because our western societies tell us that this is what is right – but because an insatiable desire to deepen our relationship with our tradition and the essence of who we are as Jews, warrants examination and re-examination.  That is something that an Orthodox woman can identify with.

Rather than utilizing all of their resources to defend what they do halachically, I think that the Orthodox women interested in redefining their role within Orthodoxy should talk less about women, more about Torah; less about activism, and more about truth; less about oppression and more about spiritual hunger.  Speak the language of the Jewish community rather than the Western societies where we come from, and new halachic understandings can be seen as the spiritual heightening of the people rather than unwelcome activism.

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  • And in how far, pray tell, is your reactionary view of gender roles in Orthodoxy entitled to the title “feminism”?

    Afterall, “feminism” lost the meaning “state of being feminine” in the late 19th century already, and has since been defined as “[a] movement for granting women political, social, and economic equality with men. ( See women’s movement.)”

    The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition, 2005

    It might be interesting to note at this point that the European feminist movement carried by the trade unions was in no small part due to the conditions ultra-Orthodox women worked and lived in. The kind of activism you lament ensured the economic survival of many an Orthodox family from early Industrial Revolution days till WW2.

    Apropos, Orthodoxy stems from Europe, too, if you want to look into women’s roles in biblical days, you might find a few surprising concepts.

  • You contrast Torah, Truth, and Spiritual Hunger as being worthy goals with Women, Activism, and Oppression as somehow off point. I wonder where you would place the most repeated Mitzvah in the Torah “Love the Stranger” and “Do justice with the widow who is oppressed”? It seems that you are making the mistake made by many Orthodox Jews: a false dichotomy between the social justice/activism and Torah. Open up the book of Isaiah and try and tell me that social justice activism is a modern phenomenon.

  • Religious faith and “western values” are inconsistent? So Ahmadinejad tells us.

  • Avi – I’m not talking about social justice being irrelevant, I’m talking about redefining what constitutes social justice. Also, fyi, a ‘stranger’ is generally understood to be convert in the verse that you’re pointing to.

    Tom – Not inconsistent with Judaism, just not inherently the same. Thanks for the comparison, though – at least you didn’t say that we look alike…

  • Thanks for your thoughts. I feel similarly about LGBT synagogues; although they offer a welcoming community for LGBT Jews, they tend to focus more on the issue of sexual orientation rather than the practice of Judaism itself. I care deeply about issues like HIV/AIDS, the freedom to marry, and social justice, but I don’t need these infused in to my Shabbat service every Friday and Saturday. I feel that the focus of LGBT synagogues and, correct me if I’m wrong, egalitarian synagogues emphasizes our difference (that is, we are gay, and we are women, hear us roar) to the extent that we can not help but feel that we don’t belong to the Jewish community, rather than showing how we are part of the larger whole through love of Torah, acts of loving kindness, and some A-game davening.

  • Cori, I’ve never seen you, and I’m convinced you’re incomparably better-looking than he is.

  • wow, well put. i agree. talking too much about women, not enough about Torah, too much about activism, not enough about truth, too much about oppression, and not enough about spiritual hunger, is why i didn’t renew my Lilith magazine subscription. i’d rather hang out with my rebbetsen in our small modern community and learn chumash or kashrus or mishnah.

    for me, it’s about what makes me feel connected, what makes me feel like i am expanding and learning. that being said, although i self-identify as religious/orthodox, i’m not FFB or ultraorthodox and i haven’t observed any real instances of mysogony or sexism in my jewish communities. even though im curious about having an aliyah (i think it might be fun, and if i wanted, i could go to another shul and have one) it’s not necessary. there are other things in judaism that are uniquely mine, as a woman, on which i can focus, learn, re-discover, and celebrate.

    (this coming from a woman who would be the first to identify as a feminist who grew up with tons of support and empowerment regarding what it means to be a woman. maybe that’s why a lot of the more loud/mainstream orthodoxy vs. feminism arguments don’t appeal to me– because i don’t feel disenfranchised, disempowered. i don’t feel like i need to prove anything. quite the contrary.

    at any rate, i feel like i have a healthy well of historical perspective on which to draw. my mother was told that she shouldn’t take math in high school by her teachers because, they said, she was a girl and would end up just a secretary anyways. she founded the women’s center at her state university in the early 70s. my grandmother was a progressive public school history teacher. children’s biographies on elizabeth cady stanton and emma goldman were my bedtime stories.

    the point with my crednetials is that, froylein, of COURSE there was a huge and incredibly necessary, long, drawn-out struggle for women’s rights for which we should all be incredibly thankful and about which we should learn and teach one another about as possible. of COURSE it’s naive and ignorant to lament all of that past political/feminist action, and of course there is still a place for such action today. but the “modern orthodox” communities to which i gathered cori feels that she cannot relate are not the places that need that kind of political/feminist action. why? because those women are not oppressed. i dont see those women as needing to demand equality for themselves and so when they do, it appears contrived and confused. not getting called up for an aliyah or being able to publicly don tefillin does not make someone oppressed, in my book at least.)

    • See, Batya, and that’s why Cori’s approach is, de facto, not feminist. I’ve got nothing against contentment with one’s possibilities and status, mind you, but to attach a label to something the content of which doesn’t hold true what the label says is fraudulent labelling.

      I recall a lengthy conversation I had with an ultra-feminist literature prof of mine on whether Kate Chopin was feminist. My stance was that she wasn’t as her heroines aimed for contentment and complacency on various levels, lesser known stories by her even see that contentment in conventional roles. Her stories didn’t promote activism but women’s desire to be accepted for what they aspire to be, whatever that may be. Eventually, my prof conceded admitting that she’d always read Chopin from a feminist angle.

  • Steven – completely agree, and good point – I sense the same re: LGBT synagogues.

    Tom – I’m blushing. Really.

    Froylein – I’m suggesting a new approach to feminism within Orthodoxy which is a focus on Judaism itself and in the context of things like Torah, prayer, philosophy, the examination of gender roles and perhaps, new halachic understandings. I know better than to argue with feminist theory enthusiasts re: the definition of feminism, and I’m comfortable saying that I don’t care if my suggested approach is labeled as such — but I will say that personally, feminism or not, people want to move forward. I think that this approach is much more likely to enable that to happen as opposed to what is being called mainstream Orthodox feminism. Call it whatever you want.

    • Cori, firstly, I’m not a feminist theory enthusiast, so if you chose to argue, you’d argue semantics my use of which can easily be verified, not philosophies or policies. Secondly, if what you describe contains all the aspects of a reactionary role of women in Orthodoxy sans the responsibility for the community and the world – even the family – calling it feminism won’t make it such.

  • Not interested in discussing semantics. At all. I’m talking about women in Orthodoxy and suggesting an approach that, I think, can change how we pray and how we live, all rooted in Torah, Judaism, spirituality, etc.

  • You don’t even know what you wrote?

    You wrote “Rather than utilizing all of their resources to defend what they do halachically, I think that the Orthodox women interested in redefining their role within Orthodoxy should talk less about women, more about Torah; less about activism, and more about truth; less about oppression and more about spiritual hunger. Speak the language of the Jewish community rather than the Western societies where we come from, and new halachic understandings can be seen as the spiritual heightening of the people rather than unwelcome activism.”

    I wished you a nice life where you never have to worry about getting a get from a reluctant husband. That is because if you do have to get one from a reluctant husband, then “speaking the language of the Jewish community rather than…Western societies” may give you some unwelcome surprises, especially if want to be a woman who understands your situation halachically while refraining from “unwelcome activism.”

    Still don’t get it? It’s like this. Your formula above keeps women screwed in a patriarchal society that has a bunch of rules for screwing women.

    Go ahead, revel in your back-bench mechitzah seat as the men say “baruch she’lo asani isha” and then watch while they go study torah as their women go home or to work because studying torah isn’t for them. And if your husband is a schmuck and you want to get rid of him? Shhhhh, better keep quiet and stick to halachic understandings that give him power to screw you (figuratively) while your best fertile years go to waste.

  • agunah – I’m sorry that your ignorance has you confused. I’m all for women AND men re-examining the role of gender in Judaism. I’m not for activism, I’m for Judaism. Inherent in Judaism is a duty to continuously learn, evaluate, and understand.

    Froylein – you’re mistaken. Semantics = is what I’m suggesting feminism or not. Who cares? I’m suggesting an approach that I think will help Orthodox women. Don’t tell me if the label is correct or not, discuss the approach and whether or not it’s something that you think is viable.

  • Hi Cori, a very late reply to a discussion which still gets my blood boiling. I am not sure what you are aiming at but I am deeply disappointed. I feel that you are doing exactly what Agunah is saying ” sitting back in your seat behind the mechitzah and feel empowered and living a full jewish life because you fulfil the obligations on jewish women without complaining.

    Well, there are loads of muslim women who do not complain when they are stuck in their situation, cooking, caring for the family and giving birth to yet another child while their husbands are out enjoying life and living it to the full. Yes, lighting Shabbat candles is yet a wonderful mitzvah and yes I do feel empowered yet I also feel empowered when donning my tallit and tefillin, praying alout and counting as part of a miniyan. I am part of the LGBT community btw. counting for the latter part – the T, born as a female, stuck in my role and I never felt so very free and very powerful as to when I started living my life as a man. Not only because I always felt like a man inside or always was a man inside despite my body telling me differently, but also because I am now part of those who count, those who take things into their hands and those who make decisions.

    Yet, I still do feel for those women who are still stuck behind the mechitzah and who struggle with work, caring for their family and running a house because their husbands are a lazy bunch who are off to study whilst their wifes have a 18 hour (minimum!) working day. Yet these husbands feel like they are the ones who know everything and are allowed everything. I feel sorry for you and all the other women who think that feminism is a bad thing and that one should be happy to be a women.

    I am a conservative jew nowadays (without anyone in my congegation knowing that I was a woman once) as parts of the traditional service make me vomit. “… for not making me a woman..” how effing racist is that?

    If Judaism should liberate I would suggest: to chuck out the mechitzahs, let women count as part of a miniyan, give them equal rights in all parts of the service and let them pray at the Kotel with/next to the men.

    Otherwise I would suggest dear Cori, that you keep quiet and don’t write about feminism and women’s rights if you are happy for yourself and all the other women to be oppressed… No offence, but it really disappoints/shocks me… seriously how can women be so “stupid” today?

    Please note that I am kidding here (I am telling beforehand so you can not take things as an offence):
    Please don’t come into the lounge whilst us men are enjoying our conversations there. If you want to serve us tea, coffee and cakes, please place it on a table next to the door as to not disturb our conversations with your female presence. You won’t be understanding our conversation anyways as we are talking Torah, Halacha and politics and not your female interest stuff like how to change nappies, bake and cook. Thanks. You are very welcome to wash our dirty socks though and to clean the house.

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