Orthodox Feminists- Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives

A common question posed to Orthodox feminist is given the great conflicts between their feminism and their religious environment (which I mentioned here and is discussed here), why don’t they just leave and join a non-Orthodox denomination?

Two thoughtful authors,  Elana Sztokman and Leah Sarna address this issue in:

Why haven’t I left yet and Orthodox Feminists Are Not Conservatives in Disguise

Here are some of the points they make:

  • A monopoly on expertise

I simply could not keep halacha on my own. I am not prepared to build and maintain my own eruv, slaughter my own animals, make my own wine and cheese, write my own Torah scrolls, home school my children or care for my own dead.

  • Community– the Orthodox community is strong, engaged, educated Jewishly , kind, hospitable, creative, with kind, caring leaders.
  • Connection to the past and a feeling of continuity with our ancestors, observing the same rituals and studying the same texts.
  • Familiarity– I’ve never known anything else. All my friends are here. These are my people, whatever their flaws
  • I like being in a halakhic community- a bazzillion brave points to Elana Sztokman for acknowledging  that the Conservative movement is also a halakhic movement
  • It is an-all -encompassing life style that gives me an identity and allows me to easily recognise people “in the club”. It provides a rhythm to my life and defines how I dress and eat.

These reasons (except maybe the ones in the first bullet, which have some problems) are all are echoed in a beautiful essay The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account.  But through this essay I came to understand my underlying problem with these reasons and my respectful disagreement with Orthodox feminists. It is that the reasons that feminist or intellectually questioning or pro-LGBT people give for not leaving Orthodoxy are all sociological. “I love the community, I love the observances, I love the ritual etc.”  And what bothers me is the assumption that one cannot have a meaningful, observant community outside of Orthodoxy- because I do have one.

And my kids are educated and engaged and taught in their day schools by both observant and non-observant teachers, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Most recently I spent Purim at Reform shul in  the evening and at a hip partnership Minyan in the morning- at both I met other parents from my kids day schools and other members of the two (other!) shuls I actually belong to. I could go on about the possibility of a non-Orthodox observant life…

The point is- staying in Orthodoxy is certainly a respectable choice, but it is not the only option for an observant community. And to imply that it is the only choice is insulting to those of us who are observant but not Orthodox.

Also one can say only a small minority of non-Orthodox Jews live in a communities of engaged, educated, immersive observance, which is a totally valid point. But you can also say that a small minority of Orthodox Jews are self-defined as feminist or pro gay rights- so you are in a small community whatever you do.

If anyone who wrote these posts sees this, I would love to hear you thoughts.





This entry was posted in Feminism and Jewish Ritual & Practice, Jewish Feminism & Media, Liberal Judaism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Orthodox Feminists- Why haven’t they left? Not because a lack of observant alternatives

  1. Marcia Beck says:

    Thanks for putting words to some of my unspoken thoughts. 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?”

  2. Dan Ab says:

    Sarna gets at one other part, which I’m still trying to put into a larger narrative. We are all part of organizations with which we have disagreements. If someone loves what they are part of, they might seriously work within their community to push for change rather than abandon their community. Sometimes these efforts are foolish or bound to fail, but that judgement is more often clear with hindsight.

    What I really don’t like about Sztokman’s piece is that she doesn’t actually address the question. It’s not why she isn’t Conservative it’s why 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.

  3. Pingback: Jewish Feminists, Liberal and Orthodox, Seek Mutual Respect | Rainbow Tallit Baby

  4. I’ve never gotten a baziliion brave points before….. I’m honored 🙂
    THX 🙂

  5. And BTW I totally agree with the commentary that Orthodox feminists often fail to acknowledge those who came “before”. I’ve written about this before and have also spoken about it in many settings.
    And I also agree that the decision to stay in the “Orthodox” camp is often politically and sociologically motivated rather than religiously motivated….. I think it’s a fair consideration for people, since communal and social relationships are just as important as relationships with God…….although I do wish that people were more honest and self-aware about it.

  6. The point is that staying within Orthodoxy is a legitimate option based on one’s need for one’s own community, familiarity and social supports. But leaving is also legitimate and noon-Orthodox movements are also legitimate. really that is it.

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