Who's Afraid of Feminism?

By Blu Greenberg

For many Orthodox women, feminism — the word and the idea — arouses fear. Even in the modern Orthodox community, women who, by any objective standard would be described as feminist, distance themselves from the word. Two examples: following our conference 2000, women from 11 countries met to form an international Orthodox feminist organization. A major discussion (still unresolved) was whether “feminism” should be part of the title. And during the past few years, trying to garner support for JOFA, it has frequently been suggested to me to drop the red flag word.

Perhaps it would be a politically expedient move, but each time I consider it, I hang back. To excise feminism from our lexicon would be an act of ingratitude, for we have all reaped the fruits of labor of the founding mothers. While there is still a long way to go, the countless legal protections and opportunities which they set in motion warrant recognition and honor.

Furthermore, feminism has done “teshuva” these last three decades. Its radical edge — threatening to many of traditional bent — is off. Men are perceived not as the enemy, but as important partners in the enterprise. The family is viewed not as a locus of abuse, but as the natural choice for most women, with equality wrapped around women’s unique biology.  Feminism is a model of how all social movements need time to re-balance and mature.

There is another reason to retain the word: precisely because it continues to rankle! Even in the midst of fundamental societal change, the temptation to revert to ancient systems of hierarchy is everpresent. Feminism is the steady watchdog that prevents that slide.

But there is a different kind of fear in the air, one which relates to the demands feminism makes upon us as Orthodox Jews. I recall two conversations from long ago. In 1973 my synagogue sisterhood asked me to inquire into women’s membership and voting rights. In canvassing the practices of 10 leading Orthodox synagogues I heard the familiar refrain of “when women show up at the 7:00am minyan we’ll give them the vote.” Following a Mizrachi (now AMIT) discussion meeting about “equality” my friend Sarah pleaded, “Please, I have enough on my plate, I don’t need any more mitzvos.” Her words sum up what many of us, already overburdened with the demands of raising children and pursuing a career (not to mention cooking for Shabbat and cleaning for Pesach), feel about the new responsibilities that come with new rights.  

If resistance can be attributed to our laden schedules, then why are we reluctant to adopt rituals which do not make demands on our time and energy, such as reciting the kiddush at the Shabbat table or dancing with a sefer Torah at women’s hakafot? What is the source of this hesitation?

It is not one thing, but many. For centuries we have been conditioned to shy away from public religious expression. Perhaps we feel immodest in this new space, certainly we feel self-conscious. At its core, Orthodoxy is powerfully structured in terms of role differentiation, and women’s roles were properly distant from the public eye. Within the thousands of details that constitute halakha, we are comfortable knowing who does what. Challenging accepted roles creates a fuzziness and tension that is difficult to navigate. A woman reciting the hamotzi begs the question: What's next? 

Furthermore, there is widespread lack of knowledge that women’s performance of certain rituals is halakhically permissible. There are even efforts to mis-educate and misinform women about their halakhic rights.

Which brings us to an even more powerful deterrent: the reaction in the larger Orthodox community to women taking on new roles is one of skepticism, if not outright ridicule. Why subject ourselves to such response?

These are not easy matters to negotiate. The pressures are not only external, but internal, as we strive to define our religious identities as committed Jews and feminists.

What are the tasks that lie ahead?

  • Engage in open dialogue across all points of the spectrum. We must discuss not only objective points of halakha, but also the fears surrounding the social realities and new challenges of women in Orthodoxy. 

  • Continue the search for historical precedent of ritual adopted by women. Practices that were once considered radical are now the accepted norm in the Orthodox community (women studying Talmud is one example).

  • Re-negotiate our personal and familial responsibilities to create greater space for religious ritual in our lives. This involves the cooperation of husbands, sons, and fathers who understand our desire for spiritual growth.

  • Recognize that emotions, psyche, and social construction play a great role in the decision to accept any new responsibility. We must not be suspicious of women who rush to adopt new roles, nor judgmental of those who are reluctant.

Finally, we must never forget that the purpose of adopting any new religious responsibility is to develop a relationship with God. My friend Carol cites the biblical Miriam as a model of women’s religious spirit. Miriam took the timbrel and sang and danced, and Moshe did not call out “kol isha.” We await the day when we can all express genuine religious emotion undeterred by self-consciousness or criticism.

Return to the Winter 2001 Journal