The Jewish Mystique: Feminism and Judaism

The Jewish Mystique: Feminism and Judaism


Gabi Kamran

Voices Editor 

It all started with Beyoncé.

My friend and I were sitting in Journalism, brainstorming ideas for our next articles, when suddenly I had a stroke of genius.

“What if I wrote an article called Beyoncé is Jewish?”

Blank stare.

“No, not that kind of Jewish. I’m talking about connecting Jewish values to the themes of her songs. Like feminism, for example.”

“Oh, okay, but be careful,” my friend cautioned, “feminism isn’t Jewish.”

Wait, what? Feminism isn’t Jewish? Suddenly I felt betrayed, like I had been lied to by my religion. If feminism isn’t Jewish, then what’s all this talk in the more conservative movements about issues like the ordainment of women rabbis, the inclusion of women in a minyan, and the use of masculine God-language?

Or why does Milken, a Jewish high school, proudly offer courses like Women’s Voices and Race, Class, and Gender? Every March, why does our library fill its shelves with books for Women’s History Month? And why have each of my Jewish Studies courses covered topics like the Jewish view on abortion and the extent of Adam and Eve’s equality in the creation story?

I quickly found myself in a deeper, more internal conflict: I consider myself a feminist, but I also consider myself a Jew. It was inconceivable to me that these two qualities, both integral parts of my identity, would be in any way discordant. There had to be more to the story, and I was going to figure it out.

To guide me in my quest, I turned to three of Milken’s own female Rabbis, each with a unique background and Jewish worldview: Reform Rabbi Lindy Davidson, Middle School Director of Jewish Studies; Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, Conservative Judaic Studies teacher; and Rabbi Sara Zacharia, Conservative Judaic Studies teacher who grew up in a Haredi family.

Before we began our individual conversations, all three Rabbis were sure to point out that feminism is not so much of a concept as it is a fairly recent, secular movement. Therefore, feminism as we know it could not have had any real relationship with traditional Judaism. It is only in more recent years that the two concepts have begun to intersect.

“There were many Jewish women who became involved in the feminist movement of the 60’s, most notably Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Gloria Steinem,” Zacharia said. “These women started thinking, ‘Well, if we’re reclaiming American history, we should be reclaiming Jewish history as well.’”

“But what was there to reclaim?” I asked. “What was it about Jewish history and tradition that was so…un-feminist?”

I expected to receive an answer that detailed the patriarchal implications of certain Torah texts, or perhaps even a tale of misogynic religious societies that displayed a shameless disregard for women’s welfare. Little did I know that the answer was much more complex than simple verses or enforced domestic servitude.

Davidson provided some insight: “The fact that all of the ancient commentators were males really biases the discussions that are within traditional Jewish commentary.”

But where do these biases come from? Today there are still men who make halachic rules, but we don’t generally see them mandating the number of babies that a Jewish woman can pop out per season.

“In the previous times, rabbis categorized things,” Zacharia said. “They were all men, so they knew about the men. But women, what were women? They got their periods, babies came out of their bodies — things that men didn’t understand. So women were kind of mystified, and when you don’t understand something about another class of people what do you do to them?

“You marginalize them.”

“Right, you marginalize them, you create labels and stereotypes. Instead of engaging with them, you put them off to the side and delegitimize them. I think that’s the impression that feminists have now, that women have been delegitimized in Judaism.”

Delegitimized. There was a word I had heard often as a child, usually at the dinner table as my dad recounted his conversations with his Orthodox secretary.

“She says that the Orthodox consider women to be higher than men, but if they’re so much higher, then why can’t they read from the Torah?” He’d ask. “That doesn’t sound like elevating to me, it sounds like delegitimizing.”

Even as a child, something seemed amiss to me about that statement. Judaism would never be mean to women, I’d think to myself as I played with my broccoli. Little did I know that ten years down the line, Fields-Meyer would, to some extent, validate my sentiments.

“I feel very strongly that while for much of Jewish history men and women had very different roles, women on the whole have not been treated as ‘less than,’” she said. “Rather, as with much of human culture, men and women’s roles were simply different. I think that women were very deeply honored and their voices were also honored.”

“How so?”

“Take the ketubah, for example. It’s very protective of women’s rights, because it recognized that women were not as powerful in every part of the culture. In signing the ketubah, the man is agreeing to provide his wife with all the necessities, financial support in the case of divorce, and even sexual satisfaction during their marriage.”

“But what about the areas where women weren’t awarded much benefit? The laws and strict gender roles that my dad was referring to?”

Fields-Meyer thought for a moment, then began slowly: “As Jewish law developed, women were cared for beautifully, but rarely seen as authorities in Jewish life or equal in terms of the system of mitzvot. ‘Women’ as a category were not obligated to do all the same mitzvot that ‘men’ as a category were obligated to do. Women were exempted from some of the “Thou shalt” commandments, which include prayer, tallit, tefillin and some other ritual mitzvot. Over time, exemption led to exclusion. Women were still honored and loved, but in a particular stratified role. Men had roles and women had roles, and a woman’s role tended to be domestic and sometimes business related, but rarely ritual or intellectual.”

“That would account for the lack of women’s voices in traditional halachic commentary.”


“But what was the reasoning behind these exceptions?”

She sighed. “Different opinions span from blatant misogyny to women being too holy for mitzvot, but the widely accepted opinion is that the exemptions were created to free women up to take care of children.”

I sat quietly for a moment, pondering. “I respect the Orthodox lifestyle. I think it’s beautiful in many ways. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about a woman filling a domestic role, because there she has a unique kind of power in her community. But if a woman doesn’t feel like that’s the lifestyle for her, why can’t she simply have the choice to become an intellectual or a rabbi? What is so fundamentally different about women and men that creates such a disparity in opportunities?”

Fields-Meyer smiled. “Your questions are the exact questions that Jewish feminists have been asking for decades. Are men and women different in the eyes of God? Does our biological or physiological difference dictate spirituality or ritual roles? The more progressive movements have answered this with a big ‘Yes, women and men are equal both in obligation and opportunity.’”

This big ‘Yes’ is exactly what has led to developments like the inclusion of Miriam’s cup in the Passover Seder, the addition of the matriarchs’ names in the Amidah, and the many feminist readings of the Torah and Talmud. Of course, in the more progressive movements, the laws have also been adapted to incorporate egalitarianism. But laws and rules are only half the story.

“You can look at feminism in Judaism through law and legal ideas, or you can look at it through narrative. In terms of narrative, our Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash are peppered with lots of stories of remarkable Jewish women,” Fields-Meyer said.

I was reminded of all the strong and inspiring women who have appeared on the pages of my Jewish Studies texts over the years. There’s Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the matriarchs whom Jews pray their daughters will emulate when they recite the blessing of the children. But there are also many heroines who seem to fly under the public radar. For example, there are the midwives in the Exodus story who defied Pharaoh’s orders to kill the Israelites’ male newborns. There’s Deborah, the judge and prophetess who led the Israelites in a triumphant battle against the Canaanites. And there’s Tamar, the woman who took her destiny into her own hands when the men who controlled her life threatened to leave her childless (she eventually gave birth to one of King David’s ancestors. Take that, misogyny).

Also, I’d like to believe that it’s not a coincidence that Purim falls during Women’s History Month. It’s an entire holiday based on the heroic actions of one Jewish woman. Esther rose above her status as the King’s virtual sex slave, spoke up to authority, and saved her people from genocide. The way I see it, there’s nothing more feminist than that.

Fields-Meyer also pointed me to a beautiful psalm in Proverbs 31 called Woman of Valor. Written by King Solomon, the poem describes the value of a woman who has strength of character. It reads, “Her worth is far above jewels… She is robed in strength and dignity, and cheerfully faces whatever may come. She opens her mouth with wisdom. Her tongue is guided by kindness…charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a God-fearing woman is much to be praised.” This is an expression of a woman’s true inner beauty and strength that dates back to biblical times. It’s a whisper of feminism through the dry air of the ancient Israeli desert.

Of course, I am basing my ideas about the relationship between Judaism and feminism in the belief that the Torah is open to a variety of interpretations. I understand that many do not share my liberal perspective.

Davidson explained, “There are two camps: the people who say that anything fits into Judaism, and the people who say certain things absolutely don’t. Then there are some who are in between.”

Earlier in her life, Zacharia found herself caught between these two camps. Growing up in a Haredi household, her path for the future was clearly defined: “I could go to college, but I was going to be restricted; I couldn’t live on campus. I was going to be married at 20 at the latest and having my babies by 21, and that was going to be it. The job that I was going to get was to be part-time, but still enough to support my husband who would be studying in the Yeshiva. That was my training.”

Zacharia reached a point in her life where she began to question the nature of this training. Who was she being trained to become: herself or someone else’s perception of who she should be? And who had set the rigid path for her — God or men?

“I went through a period where I started reading Jewish feminist material and thought “God couldn’t have created people so different, with one group being oppressed and the other one not. I can’t believe in a God like that. I think that people change things about religion and the Torah because that’s what we do. But I think that if I can imagine what was going on in God’s mind, it has to be that everyone’s equal and that there is nobody oppressed. Those are the constructs of humanity, not of God.”

I saw everything that I had learned from the three rabbis coming full circle, all the way back to the discussion about male voices creating a bias in traditional Judaism. I also saw a common thread that held the circle together: a theme of perspective and latent possibility.

Zacharia left me with one thought about the relationship between feminist ideas and Judaism: “If previous generations didn’t notice it, maybe they weren’t ready. Maybe it needed to be cracked open for them. To me, that’s the beauty of the Torah: each generation, if we really pay attention, finds that the Torah does address the things that they hope it addresses.”

Later, as I stared at the blank page of my article draft and reflected upon the words of the three rabbis, I realized that I had been asking the wrong questions all along. The concrete answer that I had been seeking about the relationship between feminism and Judaism does not exist. Rather, the Judaic tradition is filled with powerful texts and stories of strong women that could easily be interpreted as feminist — it all depends on whether you’re willing to look.

Now I’m only left with one thought: I can’t wait to go tell my friend.