Friday, August 22, 2014

The Beis Yaakov Feminist Experience

Torah reading by Orthodox feminists (from the JOFA website)
Talia Weisberg is a self described feminist.  And yet this young woman from a Modern Orthodox background - having attended a Modern Orthodox coed elementary school - made an odd choice in deciding to attend an ostensibly non feminist Beis Yaakov high school. How, one may ask, does this make any sense at all? No one could ever attend a Beis Yaakov and expect to hear anything about the equality of the sexes.

If feminism is mentioned at all, it is usually to condemn it as an anti Torah ideal. But after 4 years of Beis Yaakov, Talia still calls herself a feminist. Not only does she not condemn Beis Yaakov for being against her ideals, she actually thanks her Beis Yaakov experience in in the Torch - a blog sponsored by JOFA  ( Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) that explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. (It is republished in My Jewish Learning.)

How is this possible? Well I think the answer is quite simple really. Feminism is not monolithic. It means different things to different people. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I believe that feminism can be generally broken down into two different categories. One is highly compatible with Orthodox Judaism and the other is quite frankly anathema to it.

If one sees feminism as each sex treating each other with equal dignity, it falls in to the former category of compatibility. If one sees feminism as treating men and women equally in the workplace - as in equal pay for equal work… and an equal chance for career advancement, that too is compatible with Orthodoxy. If one is gender blind to academic achievement, it is compatible. If one sees it as a married couple sharing household duties, sharing child rearing responsibilties equitably, and making important family decisions togther, it is compatible.

However when feminism moves into the realm of Halacha, Hashkafa, and Mesorah, it becomse dicey.And can and often does make it incompatible with Orthodoxy.  For example the  Egalitarian Minyan (the ten man quorum required for public prayer) requires men and women to be treated equally in the synagogue. That is a feminist ideal that is completely incompatible with Halacha. 

Men and women are equally valued by God. But God requires different things of us. Even the most strident Orthodox Jewsih feminists would agree that an Egalitarian Minyan (so commonly found in the Conservative Movement) is not Halachicly  permissible.  You cannot join such a Minyan and call yourself Orthodox. In order for a man to pray at the higher spiritual level of a Minayn in a Shul, women may not be present. An ardent  feminist whose values of equality trump everything else including religion would reject this Halacha and insist on mixing the sexes in Shul. But an Orthodox feminist would never dream of it.

The problem lies in the grey area of things which are mandated to men and not to women. Although not mandated to women they are permissible - and in many cases even laudable for women to observe. For example taking the Daled Minim on Sukkos (commonly referred to as Lulav and Esrog). It is a universally practiced Mitzvah by women even though only men are mandated to do so. 

At the same time there are such areas that are traditionally and almost universally not practiced by women, but have been increasingly adopted by the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy. Like Partnership Minyanim where a woman may lead certain portions of the service that are not technically considered prayer - like Kabbolas Shabbos. Or ordaining women to serve as rabbis (without giving them the title of rabbi) in Shuls in Halachicly permissible ways- staying behind the Mechiza during prayer. 

Tyipcal Beis Yaakov student
These kinds of innovations skirt Halacha and have historically never been accepted by women. I am not going to get into all the pros and cons other than to say I am opposed to breaking with tradition in ways that are influenced by ideals not consistent with the Torah, like full equality in all areas of life including religion.

The guiding principle should – in my view – be NOT to serve God the way WE want, but to serve Him the way HE wants. That is determined by the Torah via Halacha and the Mesorah - traditions handed down through the ages. Unless there is a Hora’as Shah ( an existential crisis) the Mesorah should not change. 

I obviously place myself into the former category of feminist.

Which brings me back to TaliaWeisberg. I believe she probably falls into that category as well. While as a feminist there were many things in her Beis Yaakov education that were hard for her to swallow, like - among other things - the excessive emphasis on Tznius - her overall experience was very positive.

Here is what she said in addressing her Beis Yaakov education: 
So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it. 
Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes.
During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha andhashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary. 
Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing.  
I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.
What an amazing level of maturity this young woman had even at age 14 - the age when she most likely entered high school.

JOFA and My Jewish Learning should be given credit for publishing this article. It shows an uncharacteristic open-mindedness to a type of feminism with which they might not necessarily see eye to eye in the current zeitgeist. It also shows there is room in the feminist tent for people like Talia… and for people like me.