Jewish Feminists, Liberal and Orthodox, Seek Mutual Respect

As an observant, but non-Orthodox feminist Jew,  I have been really interested in some of the struggles of Orthodox feminists both within their communities and with liberal Jewish feminists. I have listened to a lot of voices and these conversations have made me realize that Jewish feminists are looking for mutual respect from each other, but often feeling as if they don’t find it. The essence of the issue can be seen in this quote from one of the pioneering Orthodox feminists, Dr. Norma Joseph, addressing a group of Jewish feminists, “the feminist world finds me too Jewish and …  this Jewish feminist world finds me too religious.”

  • Orthodox feminists feel that liberal Jewish feminists don’t count them as “legitimate” or authentic feminists because Orthodox feminists are willing to accept non-egalitarian prayer conditions and language etc. The idea of creating change from within is too summarily dismissed and derided.
  • Liberal Jewish feminists feel that Orthodox feminists don’t count them as “legitimate” Jews or authentic Jews for two reasons:

1) Orthodox feminist don’t acknowledge the firsts or the way paved for them by liberal Jewish feminists.

As Hillary B.Gordon laments:

“Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?  Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?….. the Facebook story people were sharing about “I’m Orthodox and I wear tzizit” written by a woman.  You know what I sort of want to say?  Big deal!  I know, I know, in the Orthodox movement it is a big deal but come on people, get your head out of the sand, lots of women wear a tallit and even (gasp!) put on tefillin.

This was brought up by two comments on my blog by Dan Ab

why [do]Orthodox feminists ignore or actively remove feminist writing and changes from other denominations when crafting their own narrative. As she indirectly notes, this this a political rather than a halachic decision because admitting Orthodox feminism has been inspired by non-Orthodox changes essentially dooms efforts to make change. As an example, I was saddened that JOFA’s Fall 2013 journal had a bunch of personal stories from the first generation of Maharatot. All of them talked about having no Jewish female clergy role models which were either blatant lies or parading their own unwillingness to explore the world around them.

Similarly, modern Orthodox “innovations” like a ‘real’ bat mitzvah or baby naming  or Rosh hodesh groups, or women studying Talmud seldom if ever mention the origin of these ceremonies and notions decades before in the liberal movements.

2) Orthodox Jewish feminists don’t view non-Orthodox denominations as legitimate alternatives. As I say in  Orthodox feminists Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives - It should be absolutely respected to stay in Orthodoxy because you love the community, or you grew up in Orthodoxy, or you choose to do so, but don’t present it as the only available, legitimate choice for observant Judaism.

Again Hillary B.Gordon:

On the ride home, we discussed another comment from the evening where Dr. Gorsetman told a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman who was a big neurologist – head of her hospital department AND an Orthodox Jew who attended an Orthodox shul.  One day she walked into shul, in to the women’s side of course and said “I can’t do this anymore” and subsequently just quit going to shul.  “This” was the fact that at her hospital she wasn’t a 2nd class citizen who needed to be hidden away in order not to tempt men. …. The shame of that was, as the two of us saw it, was that she quit going to shul as if there were no other Jewish options out there that could provide her with an alternative.  But again, somehow those options are just not legitimate.

and from my blog Marcia Beck

Certainly the larger Jewish world espouses a mainstream, ‘only orthodox practice is the real deal’ mentality. I have experienced a (mostly) unspoken feeling of competition when I speak with thoughtful Jewish women about observance. “Do you keep Shabbat? Do you keep kosher – fully kosher? What about the minor fast days?” I wish that we could walk in our diverse Jewish communities with compassion rather than judgement as our guide. Then we could ask questions like “where does the reality of your daily life bump into your practice of halachot? How do you cope with that?”

It seems also as if collaboration on liturgy, which could be very fruitful, is not possible because anything that comes from a non-Orthodox source is seen as tainted and dooming (And dooming it might be. Many Orthodox leaders would love to say that Orthodox feminists aren’t really Orthodox and cite their contact and cooperation with liberal Jews. But to bow to that pressure is not brave.)

JOFA has an excellent and inspiring Tanach program. So does Schechter. What would happen if they collaborated?

So bottom line I would say this to all of us: Those who seek legitimacy should also confer legitimacy. What great things we could do together!

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2 Responses to Jewish Feminists, Liberal and Orthodox, Seek Mutual Respect

  1. cipher says:

    JOFA has an excellent and inspiring Tanach program. So does Schechter. What would happen if they collaborated?

    The universe would implode.

  2. Hi there,
    I’m the author of the tzitzit piece cited (http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/190925/im-observant-and-i-wear-tzitzit/); the Forward mistitled it, and has since changed it. The article was about my experiences as a teenage girl who wears tzitzit, and what that says abut my views as a halakhically observant feminist. I do not identify as Orthodox, and part of the reason for that is that I see myself as part of a larger community of observant, feminist women. (A larger part is the egalitarianism issue.)

    Thank you you for your words and your work!

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