My Conversation with the Rabbi about Feminism

Thu, 05/02/2013 - 10:01am -- JOFA

By Elana Maryles Sztokman

I had an enlightening conversation recently with an Orthodox rabbi in which I got a clear glimpse into what some people think of feminists.

The rabbi wanted to know what JOFA is, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, where I work as Executive Director. When I explained that we advance women’s inclusion in all areas of religious Jewish life, he responded, “That’s nice, and it sounds like something I might support, but have you thought about your name?”

“My name?” I know there are problems with my name. Nobody can pronounce it properly or spell it properly. But I was wondering what that had to do with Jewish feminism.

“Not your personal name – the organization’s name,” he explained. I asked him why. “You know the word ‘feminism’. Have you thought about taking the word out of the title?” Now I started to understand where he was heading. “I’m just telling you that for me, when I hear the word ‘feminism’, I cringe. It raises lots of red flags.”

I smiled. “You know, the word ‘Jew’ conjures up some difficult images, too,” I replied. “Like moneylenders or people with big noses. Perhaps the problem is not with the name but with the red flags, with the stereotypes that have in our minds. Maybe we should be examining our own reactions rather than asking people to change who they are.”

He thought about it for a moment. “It’s just that ‘feminists’ are not motivated by genuine desire to be part of Judaism, by halachah, but rather by their own personal motives, by ego.”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. “I think there’s a bit of a double standard here,” I responded. “When was the last time you challenged men about their motives? When you need a tenth man for a minyan, do you ask him if he actually wants to commune with God or whether he’s there just for the camaraderie, or maybe for the Kiddush?” (I wonder how many men go to shul just for the Kiddush, not that it matters.) “It’s unfair to castigate women for the perceived impurity of their motives. And it’s also inaccurate – we have no idea what lies in women’s hearts, and I’m not sure that it’s our job to be speculating about that.”

He thought about it some more. He clearly felt that I wasn’t appreciating the validity of his points. He’s right – I probably didn’t.

“Look, I’m just saying,” he said. “Feminists just seem so militant and angry.”

I smiled again. “You’re looking at a feminist,” I said. “This is what a feminist looks like. Perhaps the problem, again, is not in what feminism is but in our perceptions and stereotypes of other people. When we are confronted with the argument that ‘feminists’ are a certain way and therefore out of the realm of legitimate Torah discourse and activity, we should use that as a trigger for inner reflection about our relationships with people rather than as an excuse to mindlessly judge others.”

“But feminism IS outside Torah,” he said.

“On the contrary” I said. “Feminism is not outside Torah at all. In fact, feminism is the very definition of Torah. Feminism is an embodiment of the most basic precepts of Torah, to love others as you love yourself, do not do unto others as you would not like done unto you. All else is commentary. Feminism is about building a divinely-inspired, inclusive and loving community according to the most fundamental ideas of Torah. It’s about treating everyone – including women – as creatures created by God, fully deserving of respect and compassion. Feminism IS Torah.” 

I have no idea if anything I said resonated with him, although I heard that a few days later he called a shul meeting to talk about women’s roles in the congregation.

What I do know is that I have no intention of taking “feminist” out of my name any more than I would take “Jew” out of my name.

When we encounter people who don’t understand or appreciate us, it’s a reminder that we have to do a better job and building bridges and relationships with others. We should all see others the way they would like to be seen, not the way our preconceived notions direct us to see them.

Any other rabbis out there want to talk to me about what a feminist looks like? I welcome the conversation and for you to contact me at


Submitted by Yisrael (not verified) on
Great post. You're tough. True, feminism is a broad movement with many people and branches (gender, equity) so it's unfair to brand it one way. Many feminists have proposed things that are contrary to Torah ideals - gay marriage, reckless abortion, reckless divorce, women dressing the same as men, devaluation of the homemaker. But you call yourselves Orthodox Jewish Feminists so you are by definition labeling yourselves as being within Torah bounds. Can I be a democrat and still be opposed to abortion? There is a group called Democrats for Life. So why not here with a limited definition as you have done with other words? I have long felt that there are two types of feminism. 1) The type that is needed in India to protect the life and limbs of vulnerable women. 2) The type that is practiced in Vassar College where rich girls want the same privileges (and not the same responsibilities such as going to war) as their rich brothers. The ladies at Vassar can do what they want in the elitist circles but the problem is that their ethic sprinkles down to the common folk where it confuses people. For example, has the push for careers been so great for women when this lands the working class woman in a factory or a cubical at the expense of her femininity? When I started dating years ago, I was first amused and then annoyed by all the frum modern women who labeled themselves as feminists who still insisted that I drive to their houses and take them out to dinner. It also was important that I earn more money than they did and dress in a dark suit while they got to wear all kinds of colorful and comfortable clothing. Maybe that’s a third kind of feminism, the kind that takes and doesn’t give. Maybe that’s just the Vassar kind. So if what you seek is justice, and to focus some of your energies on a portion of Klal Yisrael, as long as that doesn’t become your new Klal Yisrael leading you to forget about the welfare of the rest of Klal Yisrael then I guess it’s OK with me. If you didn’t know that men have their own gripes, their own need to humanize their lives, their own struggles with halacha, their own questions concerning their unique burdens, then you might have done just what I’m warning against, separated yourself from the Klal. I, who have such questions, have long desired to converse with a feminist Orthodox woman for we have something in common: concerns about the distinctions in roles. What a great conversation that could be. Yet, I have never yet met one who grasps that men might have complaints of our own. And there’s something fishy about that. Maybe I need to chat with an Indian feminist.

Submitted by Yisrael (not verified) on
Your position on this reminds me of the non-frum Jewish kids in the 1960s who tried to present Buddhism as being a philosophy and not a religion of idolatry. Because those kids were but a generation or two from Torah observance they were naturally averse to idolatry, weren't tempted by it (might be different with kids today), so just saw the good and missed the fact that Buddhism is basically idolatrous. Visit the Far East and you'll see what I mean. So too feminism. You're a Torah Jew, so you naturally value family, and self-restraint, and chesed. You are innocently missing the fact that secular feminism destroyed the world by teaching self-righteousness and selfishness, by disparaging the concept of a religious yoke in life, destroying families, killing the idea of the helpmate, numbing us all to the tragedy of abortion (there have been 20 million in the US alone since the 60s and 100s of millions throughout the world), and causing divorce and broken families everywhere. This is why feminism has a bad name, for good reason. Maybe call yourselves JOWA.

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