Thursday, January 26, 2017

Not Your Mother’s Feminism

Group of Orthodox women  (Forward)
I admire Simi Lichtman for the intellectual honesty she expressed in her recent Forward article. This Modern Orthodox feminist can hardly be denied that description. What is interesting about her is that her version of feminism is similar to my own. I too call myself a feminist. And the things that Mrs. Lichtman advocates, I advocate. Where she parts company with feminism is where I do. She has always seen feminism stopping at the Torah’s door. So do I.

This puts her at odds with current thinking by Orthodox Jewish feminists that have spawned radical innovations in service to egalitarian ideals.

Mrs. Lichtman attended the recent JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) conference and was inspired by what she heard. Here are some of the observations that inspired her: 
From sexual abuse in Orthodox institutions to the halachic and social implications of transitioning in the Orthodox community, the sessions were thought-provoking, inspiring, all those trite adjectives that will never fully capture the feeling I left with at the end of the day: the feeling of camaraderie and awe of spending a day among progressive, Orthodox social justice advocates; the feeling that my community was something to be proud of, that there were leaders and activists who were enacting change and fostering important conversations; the feeling that there was so much to be done, and so much that I myself could do. 
There are important issues facing Orthodoxy today. Many of these were touched upon at the JOFA conference. But they are not exclusively feminist issues and should not be limited to a woman’s forum. Nonetheless that they discussed these issues freely is a plus. I applaud them for it and assume that they had rabbinic input as to how to deal with all these issues Halachicly. That a liberal point of view was expressed there does not make in anti Halachic. Social Justice need not - and should not - be exclusive to the liberal mindset. I certainly have no problem with such discussions and I tend to personally be on the more liberal and tolerant side on these social issues as long as Halacha is not ignored.

What about the Torah? Does fealty to the Torah contradict fealty to Feminism? I think it does. Something that Mrs. Lichtman was brought to wonder about at this conference. As a lifelong feminist, Mrs. Lichtman never considered her role as a woman in Judaism to be in contradiction to her strong feminist stance. She saw her role as a Jewish woman outside of her strong feminist perspective. Here is how she puts it: 
Fighting for equal rights in the religious sphere has never concerned me much. Getting an aliyah (turn to read from the Torah in synagogue) or wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) was not something that interested me personally, so I let other men and women occupy themselves with those issues. Because halachic Judaism never felt, to me, particularly oppressive—at least not specifically oppressive as a result of my gender—I never fought the Orthodox feminist fights.
I recognized, of course, that halacha does not treat men and women equally. It would take an impressive amount of delusion to deny that. But it never bothered me. 
She goes on to speculate about the reasons for that which in my view are inaccurate, but that is beside the point. The following sentence from that comment is key: 
halachic Judaism never felt, to me, particularly oppressive—at least not specifically oppressive as a result of my gender. 
I valued feminism precisely for the following reason. Women were not being treated fairly primarily because of their gender thus suffering financial hardships. They were also treated as second class citizens in many ways . I fought that fight right along side them. But now, feminism has changed from being a movement about fighting for equal rights in the workplace and being treated with equal dignity, into defying the traditional role Judaism defines for women. That is clearly what one particular session Mrs. Lichtman attended promoted: 
One of the sessions I attended at the JOFA conference addressed the topic of kiddushin, or Jewish betrothal, and possible alternatives to the traditional marriage process. Kiddushin, as the speakers explained, is in actuality the legal process of a man acquiring a wife; in the Gemara, her acquisition is compared to the purchase of land.
From a modern perspective, of course, this is sexist. Try telling a bride today that her marriage is an overpriced legal transaction wherein her husband is purchasing the right to have intercourse with her; this is far from the romantic ceremony of love and dedication that we have come to understand a wedding to be.
The presenters, under this assumption of sexism, proposed a variety of ways to enact a halachic marriage without the inclusion of a one-way purchase. 
First, this is an inaccurate description of what Kiddushin is all about. Women are not considered the same as land to be purchased by a man in the same way. That we refer to Kiddushin as a Kinyan (acquisition) does not mean we mean a woman becomes the possession of her husband.  Kiddushin is more about what the root of that Hebrew word is: Kodesh. It is about sanctifying the relationship; making it holy; a union blessed by God. I don’t know why the Gemarah used the word Kinayn in its discussions of betrothal. But it is definitely not about possessing your wife!

During that particular session Mrs. Lichtman thought back to her wedding day – which was very traditional... and started contemplating the Halachic aspects of her ceremony. It occurred to her that everyone she knew got married that way and wondered if she was a fool for not recognizing the chauvinism inherent in it. Was she a self hating woman, she wondered?

She also started wondering whether her Orthodoxy in Judaism contradicted her Orthodoxy as a feminist.Was there some cognitive dissonance about this?  She did not find answers to her questions at the conference. 

How sad it is to put the kinds of doubts in the mind of a woman that was essentially happy with both her role in Judaism and her strong feminist ideals.

Does JOFA really perform a public service for women by expanding the definition of feminism into the realm of Orthodox Judaism? Is fighting to change traditional customs at a wedding in order to make it more egalitarian worth destroying the self image of women that heretofore felt good about themselves as both women and Jews? Many of whom supported the original goals of feminism as I did. I don’t think so.