Saturday, April 09, 2005

Orthodox Jewish Feminists

The world changes. Because of that, the institutions we form have to adapt. Those which cannot adapt die. They loose relevance and are no longer meaningful to their people. Orthodox Judaism may be at a crossroads with respect to the relevance of women. How can Orthodoxy adapt?

Unlike with Christianity, the locus of Jewish life has always been the home. Many of the holiday rituals, the Sabbath, the food laws, and some rites of passage (like weddings and circumcisions) all took place in the home, not the synagogue. These were not communal issues. Much of what Judaism was about was centered in the home. Much of childrearing too was a domestic issue.

Anything that was a domestic issue was firmly in the domain of women. The role of the woman of the house was to tend to all the vital religious functions while the man was off earning a living. Women had quite a bit of religious authority and responsibility once upon a time. Kosher was a full time job. So was preparing for the holidays, and raising children, especially daughters.

Unlike the case of Catholicism, Judaism has no hierarchy. There is no pope or head rabbi whose word is law, and can decide policy and outlook for all of Judaism. Each community did as it saw fit. Each was a bit different. Each household could have been slightly unique as well. The individual customs and traditions were preserved by those who ran the house, with some credence given to the community.

After WWII (roughly) things changed. Judaism became more communal. Food preparation no longer required real knowledge beyond not mixing milk and meat and being able to recognize the OU and OK symbols. Major organizations take care of this. The synagogue plays a larger role in community life; women no longer educate their sons or more importantly, their daughters. The transmit ion of knowledge is no longer oral. It is written, and becoming more and more uniform and homogeneous. People have more access and give more weight to the “big poskim” to determine Jewish law. These halachic decision makers have more and more sway over larger and larger groups of Orthodox Jews.

So what happens to the Jewish woman here? They have fewer and fewer religious roles to play. They are still needed as mother and such, but qua religious person, they are becoming obsolete. All their religious roles have been co-opted by men or the community. Given this, their power has also diminished. A man need no longer defer to his wife for food rules, child-rearing advice, or the proper time for the Sabbath. Without a role, they have less and less authority.

Hence, I am more and more sympathetic with the modern Orthodox Jewish woman who feels somewhat disenfranchised by her perceived lack of religious prominence.

What is the solution here?

I think that there are a few options available. The first option involves reinventing Orthodox Judaism to accommodate the women. To some extent this is being done. Judaism does keep up with the time, albeit not in real time, but in Jewish time – ie, with a severe lag. But the bigger issue is that I suspect it does not keep up enough. If they do not go far enough in reinventing Judaism they are left unsatisfied. This is the plight of most of or Orthodox Jewish women who are concerned about this. Other women do attempt to reinvent Judaism in their own image - so much so that that the brand of orthodoxy sounds foreign to many of their co-religionists. Egalitarian prayer services? Or worse, being >porush from the klall and having an all women’s service? That is no way to assert your place in Judaism – by showing you are now a separate faction – minyan and all.

No, the Orthodox woman does not need more rights. They do not need to reinvent Judaism. They need to reinvent themselves and make themselves relevant. Their skills, knowledge, and their very usefulness has been outsourced to cheaper and more efficient and centralized rabbis.

Judaism is a religion of action. The orthodox feminist agenda, at least the one which thinks that Orthodox Jews need some sort of revolution such that they play a larger role in Jewish life and achieve gender equity, will not be fulfilled by writing a few philosophical treatises and expounding on how women are and are not equal and how they should be. A real revolution will not take place after someone ordains the first female orthodox poseket, or whatever. That will just create a new faction of Jews. Change will come when Change will come when orthodox women do what orthodox men do – that is perform a necessary religio-social role. Men today build Jewish schools, give a lot of charity (THAT alone buys a lot of rabbinic clout), teach Orthodox children, and write stuff written for the frum community, (not the touchy-feely crap written for bored overly-pious women). Few Jewish mothers are capable of learning with their children after school. A fifth grader still has to wait for his father to review his Talmud. I can’t imagine there were too many women completed the daf yomi last cycle.

Until women can integrate themselves in to the wider community and serve the wider roles that men serve, or if not that, then find new roles that are useful to Orthodox Jews, they are fighting for privilege that they have not earned. Men have earned their place in Orthodoxy, in the olden days, women did too. Women who take the household to be paramount in Jewish life and feel bound to it religiously have also earned their place in Orthodoxy. Modern women who feel the household is not particularly fulfilling and feel shut out of the community, have not had an opportunity to prove themselves to the Jewish community. Orthodox Jews legitimately ask themselves “How are they relevant to religious life?” It may not be anyone’s fault; it may be the fault of the entrenched Jewish sociological infrastructure. But that is the reality. There are no short-cuts here, no affirmative action. Jews have to earn their right to have a voice. Jewish men who can’t speak intelligently about Judaism, can’t contribute to the religious organizations, or the overall religious life of the community have little voice. Jewish women are in the same position.

If women learn to walk the walk and talk the talk, that and only that will compel the community to take them seriously. But if everyone, including girls, can only learn with their fathers, then they will grow up thinking that it is their fathers that need to be taken seriously in Judaism. The feminist revolution in Judaism, if it is to happen at all, needs to be internal, that is is has to come from within the community, and it must be without tracts, or slogans, but a silent one that makes the phrase “ben torah” sound anachronistic.

This revolution will be democratic and free-market. If enough women can be convinced that this project will be worthwhile, then it will happen – with or without loud feminist complaints. If Orthodox Jewish women cannot be persuaded that this is in their interest, then the feminist push to change Orthodoxy will stay a loud and persistant, but very minority voice shouting at themselves.

Addendum: I came accross the following in Anderson and Zinsser'sA History of thir own, Vol I: Women in Europe from the Prehistory to the Present which parallels what I said about the fate of Orthodox Jewish women:
The nineteenth century marked the nadir of European women's powers and opportunities. In earlier eras, alternative authorities and customs , as well as regional, governmental, and religious variations, created a range of circumstances that enabled some European women to achieve relative independence and relative dominance. Gradually, however, the growing centralization, rationalization, and uniformity imposed in government, law, the economy, and religion worked to erode those options and further limited women's lives. (p xiii-xiv)
For Orthodox religious women, this still holds. The uniformity, rigidness, and centralization of practice has all but made women irrelevant in the spheres which they used to dominate. Unfortunately, (at least not as far as I've seen yet) this theme is not picked up on by Anderson and Zinsser (which is a bit disapointing given their sensitivity to the notion of marginalization).

12 comments:

Shosh said...

hmmm.....I think I see what you're saying except I'm not entirely clear on one thing-are you saying women need to adopt male roles to be relevant? Because this is the whole problem. It's the opposite of what women should be doing. I don't know how it got into some women's heads that we need to behave, think and feel like men in order for things to be "equal". Education, obviously, is a must and I like your suggestion (at least I think you suggested this) that women take a more active role in schooling their children at home in those things that are fundamental. But there are no easy answers in a society that downplays the importance of the role of mother and wife and what a powerful, formative force a woman is to her family. We know we can be CEO's and media moguls and high power lawyers. But that sort of leaves us dissatisfied too. I think that's because it's a woman's biological destiny to juggle. We should fight for the dignity of our tradition (if we believe it's there) and leave men to their own stuff.

Karl said...

Shosh, I of course pretty much agree with you. What I am saying though is that women need to adopt some role to be relevant, not necessarily the male role.

Women who are content as wives and mothers and take an active role in mothering and maintaining a household will always have a place within the tradition. Women who are finding their roles as wives and mothers diminished and unsatisfying need to adopt another role. They must either stake out some territory as women or risk having no role in Orthodox Judaism at all. Merely demanding rights will not do. Respect needs to be earned. If women do not earn it in the home they have to earn it elsewhere.

Currently there are many women who demand respect they have not earned on the grounds that the traditional route to respect is unsatisfying. Fine. Find a new one. In the interim it is seen as unreasonable to just demand the respect anyway.

Anonymous said...

One problem here, of course, is the “vicious” cycle, whereby women cannon learn do to many things because other women don’t know them either, and so there is no one who can teach the women unless the men take the first step. You say that women aren’t earning their right for respect because they don’t take an active enough role. One example you cite is that few women, if any, finished the last Daf Yomi cycle. You are right of course. But how are women supposed to learn daf yomi if men wont teach them? And how are women supposed to even develop an interest in learning if this interest is not instilled in them in school? You can’t just pick up a Gemara and teach it to yourself. Someone must be willing to teach it to you. There is a vicious cycle in the Jewish community in that women, for the most part, only know the touchy feely stuff of Judaism (and also some Nach) and the men who do know it wont teach it to them.

From that perspective the feminists have a point in that men must be convinced that contemporary women should be taught the same information as men. Women daven, for example, so what’s wrong with them learning Tractate Berachos? I remember back from my yeshiva days it was commonly said that understanding a gemara is the most spiritually uplifting experience in the world. Regardless of whether that is true or not, if that is what the Rabbis believe then why are they barring women from experiencing this part of Judaism?

Karl said...

Anon, you are certainly right here. There is a bootstrapping problem. I neglected to mention this. Women will have to somehow learn this stuff for the whole process to start. How they will do it, I am not sure. But those who want to pursue the feminist agenda that I mentioned must.

I do know that learning does involve a rather large investment in time and effort. There are some places where this gets done, but it is definitely not easy.

It is possible to do this in some post-high schhol programs, some universities, there are shiurim on the 'net, and some self-motivation helps. Perhaps instead of reading and writing feminist tracts, the time would be better spent on the Talmud.

Hey, if any women want to learn the daf with me and "A-", and they can fit us in to their schedule, I am sure they are more than welcome. (If "A-" doesn't mind) But I warn you the time investment is tough and you have to be willing to do a lot of work on your own.

Also, I am not sure about the spiritually uplifting bit, but for those of us who appreciate knowledge and the pleasure of figuring things out, Gemara is certainly rewarding.

(Oh, and the bulk of Berachot is not rally about prayer.)

Anonymous said...

First of all, if there are any women interested in learning Gemara they should get in touch with me. I promise I won’t make you work as hard as Karl. Secondly, of course Berachos is about prayer—about 80% of it is (so far anyway, I am up to daf 41). Also, learning Gemara is most definitely spiritually uplifting. And so, of course, is learning science.

Joclyn said...

Wait, wait... the WOMEN have to do the changing? That sounds bass ackwards to me. The most disgusting I've been made to feel in my life was when walking through some "religious" area in Jerusalem... as I passed man after man on the street, as if it was written somewhere, each one would shield his eyes with his hand and look away. No flesh except my face was exposed, I promise.

Shosh said...

Joclyn-were you wearing pants? That happened to me too :). I think of it this way-the eye shielders really believe they have religious obligations-it's not a reflection on you. It's totally their problem. Also, part of the problem with feminism is that it's always on the defensive instead of the offensive, it seems like some women wait around to get offended and then ask others to change what offends them instead of working positively to create a niche for themselves.
Anonymous-thanks for the generous offer. The only problem is the tremendous amount of education it takes to even begin to approach Gemara. Having me as your chavrusa would be like trying to teach a six-month-old to speak-I just don't have the fundamentals in place to make that leap and I wonder how many women in the orthodox world feel the same way. Which is why a very solid education for both sexes is so important as it offers choices later on. Nursing mothers with their first child could probably get a lot of studying done. But having women do the amount of study required to become poskim and such would be tremendously difficult since it likely can't be reconciled with the demands of domesticity. And a woman who can't be bothered getting married and having babies because she'd rather study Gemara would be awfully suspect in the orthodox world.

Joclyn said...

Actually, Shosh, I was wearing a long skirt and a loose-fitting blouse, specifically so I wouldn't offend anyone. I wasn't waiting around to be offended, but it seems those folks went out of their way to offend me.

People should know not to make someone else feel like that, being all religous and all.

Should black people have figured out that they were going to be made to drink from separate water fountains before it happened and therefore have secured an alternate form of rehydration before it became an issue? So, it was their fault, then.

Maybe Orthodox women feminists feel inferior to men because they have to sit where they can't see or hear and because orthodox men say "thank god I'm not a woman" every day as part of their morning rituals and they have to make themselves look ugly and frumpy and most unfeminine, and they can't divorce without their husband's explicit, written permission?

Nah, it must be something they are doing that is making them feel inferior.

Shosh said...

Joclyn, I really hear what you're saying but women are responsible for their own feelings, living in a democracy and all. The black people and hydration thing isn't such a good analogy since you can completely ignore the ultra-orthodox and your life will go on unhindered. Many women choose an orthodox life-have you asked them about their choices? The orthodox feminists who gripe can always leave. They don't leave because they want to grapple with it because presumably they think there's merit in that way of life, they just take issue with some of the details. I don't think they look frumpy, I think they look tznius. And the divorce thing is a huge issue which is why women and men from the orthodox community need to work to defend agunot and actually mete out the punishments to men who withhold gets that are permitted-like not counting them in a minyan and refusing to speak to them until they deliver what the woman has asked for. There are ways to work within the system for change rather than dismissing the choices that individuals have made as backwards. I know I'm being an apologist here but this isn't radical Islam we're talking about.

bec said...

the problem is in the term "modern" orthdox. what makes one orthodox? the barest minimum of being shomer shabbos, observing kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha. however, there are many conservative/conservadox jews who observe those same requirements. maybe these women who are unhappy with their roles really need to redefine where they are and which faction of judaism they fit into. women should learn and be encouraged to learn, but they also have to remember that they do have a distinct role that men cannot fill if they are in absentia.

pope john paul jones said...

i like the women. they are pretty

Greg said...
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