Thursday, October 24, 2013

Is Feminism Compatible with Orthodoxy?

Ruth Colian -Photo credit: Jewish Press
I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist. I still feel that way, although I doubt an organization like JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) would see me that way. For me, feminism has always meant two things. 

One is giving equal pay for equal work and equal opportunity for men and for women in the workplace. 

The other is a question of dignity. Men and women ought to be given the same respect in society.  All things being equal, men should be given no more respect than women. Nor should women be put on a pedestal. Respect should be based on character. Not on gender.

As a feminist, I have for example always fought for equal pay with men for female Hebrew teachers. This is an inequity that still exists throughout all areas of Orthodox Jewish education in all segments of Orthodoxy. It is unfair and I protest it strongly!

What I do not agree with is pushing feminism where it does not belong. Which is in certain areas of Judaism. I have written about this many times. I do not believe that feminism, which is a rights based movement belongs in areas of Judaism that are obligation based.

The ‘rules’ of Judaism are based on what God demands of us as His people. They are not based on rights which we may demand. In Judaism men and women are given specific roles.  Each has their own area of responsibility for fulfilling God’s will.

The problem is that from a feminist perspective this is a clear inequality. Just to give one example: Only men are counted for a Minyan. A minimum of 10 men are required for any Davar She’BeKedusha (i.e. saying Borchu, Kaddish, Kedusha, etc.) 9 men and 100 women do not fulfill that requirement. Not even if the 9 men are all ignoramuses and all 100 women are PhDs!  But 10 ignorant men will do just fine.

Feminism as defined today considers that to be  anti woman. They believe that there is no difference between men and women and that both should be counted equally toward a Minyan. If feminism is your ‘Torah’, then you’d be right. The Conservative Movement has bought into this idea. But in Orthodoxy feminism stops at Judaism’s door as far as ritual goes.

In my view this is a real problem for Orthodox Jewish feminists like those belonging to JOFA. As Orthodox Jews they would never violate Orthodox precepts. Which precludes counting them for a Minayn.  By today’s feminist standards, therefore, they are not true feminists.

JOFA will surely protest and say that they are. And they try mightily to push the boundaries of Orthodoxy to allow as much of feminism as they can into it. This is why we have such anomalies as Maharats, Women of the Wall, Women’s Teffilah Groups, and in Rabbi Weiss’s Shul a Chazanit leading the services for Kabbalat Shabbat. But try as they might, they realize that they will never be a man’s equal when it comes to counting them for a Minyan. So in my view – as far as current definitions of feminism go – there ought to be an asterisk next to the letter ‘F’ in JOFA.  

But this does not mean that feminism has no place in Orthodox Judaism. It most certainly does. As I said, in the area of economics and dignity we should be completely equal. Just because Judaism mandates different roles for men and women doesn’t mean that either of us are second class citizens.

Which is why I disagree with one of my favorite bloggers, Rabbi Eliyahu Fink. The Jewish Press has published his post where he questions the very idea that Orthodoxy and feminism are compatible. As a liberal thinker he admits having difficulty with that. But at the same time he says that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and Orthodox. He wrote this in response to what Ruth Colian is doing. From the Jewish Press
(A) Haredi woman named Ruth Colian is asking that the Israeli government stop funding Haredi political parties because they discriminate against women. The Haredi parties will not place a woman on their ballots, yet they are receiving money from the government. Colian argues that the government is sponsoring gender discrimination by supporting the patriarchal system of Haredi Judaism in politics. 
I think it is safe to say that Charedim comprise the right wing of Orthodoxy. I assume they refuse to allow women to serve based on issues of Serrara. Women are not supposed to be involved in pubic leadership positions. One can argue whether Serrara applies to a women serving as a legislator in the Knesset. But that is beside the point for purposes of this essay.

Eliyahu makes the point that when a society as a whole believes that the quintessential Jewish role for women is that of being an Akeres HaBayis – the anchor of the home which includes being a wife, mother, and homemaker - then she has no claim to being a feminist by choosing that role. Even as he lauds that choice - one cannot be a feminist  if everyone else is doing it or expected to do it. One can choose that role and be a feminist only if it is one of many options. Not if it is the only option. That - he says - does not fit the accepted definition of the word. But then again neither does JOFA’s limited feminism fully fit that definition.

Orthodox Judaism does however fit my definition of feminism. I believe that even Charedim will at least in theory (if not in practice) agree with that. Or at least say that it is a valid position even if they do not for example agree with equal pay for equal work (for practical reasons). There is nothing incompatible with the Torah in the feminist ideals I espouse.

That Ruth Colian is trying to break the Charedi ‘glass ceiling’ is both compatible with Orthodoxy and feminism. I do not think it is impossible to break that ceiling even in the Charedi world. If for example the government declares the Charedi prohibition against women serving in the Knesset to be illegal, I am convinced that they will not resign the Knesset over it and dissolve their political parties. They will not give up the power that being a member of the Knesset gives them.  If it were true that Ruth Colian’s feminism is incompatible with Orthodoxy, they would resign!

I am rooting for Ms. Colian. I hope the government sees it her way. That will show that feminism is alive and well even in the most right wing segment of Orthodoxy.