Judaism and Feminism

Guest Blog by Benjamin Barer

If the recent uproar about Jews renting homes to Arabs in Israel (including this, this and this) has taught me anything, it is that the Jewish canon can quite legitimately be interpreted in almost any imaginable way.  That fact is both what has sustained the religion over millennia and what constantly poses a problem for anyone wishing to posit a uniform ‘Jewish view’ on a given topic.  The texts are complex and often (on the fact of it) contradictory.

Personally, I struggled with the notion of orthodox feminist Jews for a long time, as I saw the two concepts as mutually exclusive.  Only after talking to people willing to defend the existence of such people – and talking to some of those people themselves – was I able to understand that I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the issue.  To ask what Judaism has to say about feminism, and whether the two can co-exist or interact depends much more on who you ask than on which texts are consulted.  Someone for whom Judaism and feminism are both important will have no trouble citing texts (if that is the proof that you are after) supporting a more egalitarian society than most strands of the religion practice today.  Equally easy is the task of finding texts that seem to make the mere notion of being Jewish and feminist absurd, which are quickly quoted by anyone who feels that Judaism is more important than feminism, or that Judaism is so archaic that it cannot accommodate modern values.  Ultimately, I agree with Dr. Wendy Zierler (Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College) when she says that “[i]f halacha [Jewish law] is a way of walking with God in the world, it cannot be compatible with a status quo that denies the personhood and rights of half of the Jewish community.”

One theoretical point is worth making here, though.  The blind spot that I had in thinking of orthodox feminists as a contradiction in terms stemmed from what I perceived as systemic oppression of women in orthodox communities.  It is therefore important to keep in mind that if your definition of oppression hinges on the agent themselves feeling oppressed or not will ultimately decide whether you are willing to entertain the notion of orthodox feminists.  As if you a priori assign a ‘status of suffering’ to all orthodox women, then there is little room to admit of women in such a society also defining themselves as feminists without wishing to remove themselves from their society.

So what does Judaism have to say about feminism?  Studying Jewish texts in an institution that is aware of and sensitive to the modern world we live in as well as the world in which these texts were written has exposed me to beautiful ways of making traditionally difficult texts jive with our modern sensibilities.  But at the end of the day it is more about whether one wishes to discard the tradition because of examples of moral imperatives contained in the text (and there are many) that are repugnant to modern readers or whether one wishes to save the baby while throwing out only the bathwater.

— Benjamin is a Philosophy student and recently returned from studying in Israel for four months.  He also hosts his own blog.

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