Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Feminism and Judaism – A Double Edged Sword

I get her point. Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, a world renowned author, columnist, teacher, and lecturer on Jewish studies has written an essay at Aish.com that is highly critical of feminism and opens her essay with the following:

Three decades of feminism have left women with a new version of the quip: If you're so liberated, why aren't you happy?

Her basic thesis is that modern feminism created a society in which women's contributions are largely unrecognized. It’s not that she yearns for the pre feminist ideal of ‘the happy homemaker’. Not at all. She is just as critical of ‘June Cleaver’ as she is of the modern feminist. Her ideal of a Jewish woman is summarized at the end of Mishlei (31:10) that many of us sing on Friday nights before Kiddush – Eishes Chayil. As she puts it:

There we see qualities such as wisdom, courage, creativity, business acumen, and the profound insight to recognize how to relate to individuals according to their specific needs.

I suppose her point is that feminism has destroyed the uniqueness of a Jewish woman and devalued her contributions to home and family. Characterizing her role as wife, mother, and homemaker as one of complete ignorance, and stupidity. Her experience with a female census taker in Israel illustrates this quite well:

Several years ago, the Israeli census taker came to our home. For various reasons I chose not to participate. My children were in school, and the census taker, a woman, found me sitting at the dining room table surrounded by books, looking very professorial. I took time to discuss with her, in Hebrew, my philosophical stance, over a cup of coffee. She was very interested, and left at least respecting my intellectual clarity about my position.

Now, the law requires that anyone refusing to take part in the census must be visited again, so a few weeks later she reappeared. In the meantime, of course, she had interviewed hundreds of people, so she did not recognize me from our previous discussion. This time she saw the Friday morning me. I was surrounded by small children and elbow-deep in challah dough. Surmising my intellectual capacity with a cursory glance at the scene, she pointed at the paper she held and speaking slowly and clearly in beginner's Hebrew said, "This--is--a--census. A--census--is--when--we--count--people. We--want--to--count--ALL--the- people. Sign--this." To her, being a mother and housewife excluded any possibility of my being an intelligent human being.

Apparently that census taker defines a woman only by her career and not by her contributions to her family. I must admit that her condescending attitude took me aback. Has feminsim really created this monster? Are women who chose to stay home and raise their families all seen as having no intelligence?

What a sad commentary on a movement designed to raise the status of a woman - if she can only be judged by her career. Judaism is not about what we do, but who we are. It isn’t about how we make our money that matters – as long as it is done honestly. It is about the content of our character. To have created a mindset where a homemaker is seen as a person of low intelligence is evidence of a serious failure in the movement. Lest anyone say that this is an aberration of recent vintage, I am reminded of a statement by Hillary Clinton made in March of 1992 when her husband was running for President:

I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.

Is it any wonder that so many women today value themselves only by what they do career-wise, instead of who they are?

So I definitely think Rebbetzin Heller makes a good point. But her point is only half the story. If one were to read only what she says here, one might conclude that feminism has compelety failed the modern woman. And that would be completely false. The truth is quite the opposite.

Feminism has contributed mightily to the benefit of all of us, including and perhaps especially Charedi society of whom I believe Rebbitzin Heller is a part. They are the ones who have shifted the work paradigm from men to women. Men are no longer encouraged to work for a living. They are encouraged to learn full time for as long as possible and to not even think about preparing for a career at all during that time. It is feminism that has enabled them to do that.

Feminism has raised the value of the working - career oriented woman to the point where she can now earn wages close to her male counterpart. Although disparity still exists and men still mostly get paid more than women for the same work, feminism has enabled Charedi women to support their families - and their husbands in Kollel. Were we to go back to the ‘June Cleaver’ era, how could the Kollel family possibly survive? That many Kollel men have wives with good jobs that pay a decent salary is what enables them to do what they do.

This phenomenon of better paying jobs for women in the workplace has not gone unnoticed by Charedi educators. In both America and Israel it is the Charedi woman who is educated towards a career - not the Charedi man.

I recently attended a banquet of a Beis Yaakov where one of their finest Mechanchim extolled their excellent secular curriculum which he said was necessary so that women can better compete in the workplace! Would any of this have been possible without the feminist reality? Hardly.

Rebbetzin Heller in her zeal to paint feminism in a negative light has conveniently ignored the very real contributions it has made to her very own Charedi world.

One has to recognize the truth and not only that part of it that fits with your worldview. In that sense she should have been Makir Tov and recognized the value added to the Charedi world by the very movement she now criticizes for ‘masculism’. While her criticism is legitimate, it falls way short of the complete story.

For me feminism is a double edged sword. It is truly a wonderful phenomeneon that has given women the respect they deserve as human beings and has rightfully sought equal pay for equal work. That we are not quite yet there is an outrage that ought to be corrected immediately! But at the same time I also believe that in the social sphere it has gone where it does not belong Jewishly. And it has - at least in some cases - created the kind of monster described above. Rebbetzin Heller is right about that.

Judaism does see women as equal in the eyes of God, but separate from men in how they serve Him. Roles are important in Judaism. Feminsim that seeks total equality of the sexes for the most part rejects that idea of differing roles for men and women.

The Tanna R’ Meir when asked why he hung out with the ‘Tanna turned heretic’ Elisha Ben Avuyah, he answered: Tocho Ochel V’Klipaso Zorek. We ought to recognize the contributions of feminism and reject that part of it that contradicts our values.