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 firstname.lastname@example.org.