Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Good, Bad, and Grey of Feminism

Typical 70s ad for Virginia Slims
We’ve come a long way, baby! That was the slogan created by the tobacco industry’s product for women, Virginia Slims cigarettes. It was the acknowledgement that women have finally arrived - empowered by what was then known as the Women’s Liberation Movement – now better known as feminism. And they had their own brand of cigarettes to prove it!

Living in the 21st century has its challenges. The issue of our time is indeed feminism. I don’t think there is a single issue that takes up more of the public discourse than does this subject. This is a subject I have dealt with many times in a variety of ways.  But I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface of its impact on society at large, and Orthodoxy in particular. It is a huge subject with many facets and opinions. It is a subject that has very positive and very negative aspects - depending on one’s perspective.

I recall hearing back in the 70s that Ner Israel’s Rosh HaYeshiva, R’ Yaakov Weinberg predicted that feminism will become the most difficult challenge to Orthodoxy for years to come. Bigger than any other challenge. How prescient he was!

Feminism has for the most part been vilified by the right wing of Orthodoxy as anathema to Torah values. But I have to disagree with them. Because as I said, there are some very positive things that feminism has done that benefit that very community. I would even say that without the advances spurred by feminism much of the Kollel lifestyle would not exist.

It was feminism that enabled Kollel wives to support their husbands in Kollel. The job market has expanded for women as has their financial compensation. Although there is a long way to go before there is parity, there is not a doubt in my mind that without the struggle for equality between the sexes there would be few if any opportunities for women to make enough money to support their husbands in Kollel. Which would mean that a lot of men in Kollel now would be working instead of their wives.

It would be nice if the right wing would acknowledge that and express some gratitude to the movement for that.

It is also true that feminism has equalized societal attitudes about sexes. Both sexes are to be treated with equal dignity and respect. One sex is not superior to the other.  Although that goal has yet to be fully realized even in the general culture.

Those are the positives of feminism that are fully compatible with Orthodox Judaism. And why I considered myself a feminist for supporting those goals. By today’s standards, I am no longer considered as such - it seems.

That’s because of the more controversial side of feminism as it exists today. It goes far beyond equal pay for equal work and being treated with equal dignity. Feminism on this level wants to eliminate all differences between men and women except for the obvious biological differences. This has become an almost inviolable ‘religious’ tenet for them. Any other differences are seen as cultural and subject to bias. And therefore ought to be discredited and discarded.

I do not agree with that assessment. I believe that there are legitimate studies that show that there are differences between the sexes that go beyond the obvious physical ones. I also do not necessarily believe that all cultural differences are automatically bad and should be discarded.  They should not be discarded just because society created them.

More importantly however is how religious values are to be seen in light of this new feminism. Should they always be discarded when they conflict with feminist values? And who makes those determinations? I believe these questions sum up the current struggle between feminism and religion – particularly as it impacts Judaism.

As an Orthodox Jew, the answer is relatively easy (although there are some grey areas). If one believes in God and that His will for the Jewish people is expressed in the Torah as interpreted by the sages and rabbinic authorities throughout Jewish history… then it cannot be trumped by anything. No matter how noble a cause might seem. When the 2 value systems conflict, God’s will must prevail.  When they do not conflict then the feminist value of equality can be considered.

Who are the religious authorities that make determinations like this? This is where it gets tricky. As an Orthodox Jew I look at the above mentioned Torah and tradition as interpreted by rabbinic authorities throughout Jewish history.

So an article in JTA that extols the advances feminism has made in the Conservative movement is completely meaningless to me.  Apparently the Conservative movement considers equality of the sexes in all areas as the ultimate ideal that cannot in any way possibly contradict the will of God.  Centuries of tradition is discredited as having been influenced by the  misogynist culture of the past. We now know better and can see what happened. It was a misogynist culture that drove those rabbis decisions.

Our more educated and informed modern sensibilities have taught is that ‘truth’. And now we can ‘right the ship’ of Torah to conform to God’s true ideal: feminism.  Orthodox rabbis they say are living in the past and ignorant of that ‘truth’. How could they not be ignorant cloistered up in the ivory towers of their Yeshivos!

Equality of the sexes is what God really wants in all spheres of Jewish life.including all religious spheres. As though God Himself is the ultimate feminist and never having intended the separate but equal roles that men and women traditionally had.  It is only the rabbis of the past that were negatively influenced by the misogynist culture of the time that made it so. (As if Conservative rabbis are not culturally influenced today!)

Unfortunately a lot of that kind of thinking has filtered into the left wing of Orthodoxy where some its rabbis think that about all the mainstream Poskim. They have decided that feminist values are so just that they can effect drastic change to centuries old  tradition and discard it.

What about those gray areas, mentioned above? Is it possible that there actually are misogynistic motives in some segments of Orthodoxy? Are women discriminated against that way there?  If one views the trailer for an upcoming episode of PBS’s POV series entitled 93 Queen, (trailer below) one will see the great Ruchei Freier decrying that very misogyny.

The Chasidic community tried to ban her all female EMT group. A group founded ironically for women whose extreme sense of modesty makes them uncomfortable around men  even when there is a medical necessity. Which sometimes requires uncovering parts of the female body that are otherwise covered for modesty reasons. While most Chasidc women know that Halacha requires it when there is a medical necessity,  many might still feel uncomfortable when men do it. They will certainly feel more comfortable when women do it. Which is why Ruchie Freier rose to the occasion and founded her all female  EMT group.  For which she still gets opposition.

Hoe ironic that the extreme obsession with modesty that is so typical of the Chasidic community is exactly what created  the need Ruchie Freier has filed with her all female ambulance corps. And yet it  is being fought for exactly those reasons. It is considered immodest in the Chasidic world for a woman to be an EMT.

Is it really modesty that drives them? Or is it a form of misogyny? Or is it that anything that has the remotest  connection to feminism is automatically seen as evil no matter what the benefits  - even if they can be lifesaving in some cases.

It that is the case, it’s unfortunate that the extremes that 21st century feminism have created this mindset. And a shame that in general, the good things about feminism have been set aside because of it.