Judaism & Feminism: Part 1

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Dear Expert,

Does Judaism have a particular stance on feminism?

— Age 16

The answer to this is complex and multifaceted. We have asked a number of experts with different backgrounds and perspectives to contribute their thoughts.

This is one of three responses. Please see response 2 and response 3 for more perspectives.

Let’s start with reminding ourselves that there is no one binding definition of feminism, no credo that we have to swear allegiance to in order to call ourselves feminist. What all feminists would agree on, though, is that girls and women are full human beings.

Different denominations of Judaism have taken different positions on women’s full participation in Jewish life—such as whether or not women count in a minyan, can read from the Torah in a mixed group of men and women, and so forth. But I imagine you’re asking, in a broader way, whether Judaism at its core offers a particular opinion regarding the status of women as people.

We can understand Judaism and feminism as deeply consonant with one another’s values. Judaism and feminism are both driven to improve the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world to make it a better place for its inhabitants–motivates both Judaism and feminism.

Judaism is on the side of treating people fairly. An employer must not hold a worker’s wages overnight, for example. Economic justice is part of Judaism’s tenets, stressed often in principles and narratives. This is very much in harmony with feminism’s work to have women workers treated equally with their male peers.

And although Judaism sets forth that community norms should not be easily disrupted (minhag ha-makom), Judaism can also come out strongly for the rights of the individual. Here’s one example: If two travelers are in the desert and the water container of one of them spills, and thus there is insufficient water for both travelers to survive, it is mandated that one of them must drink the remaining water in order that they not both perish. Judaism does not demand that one person sacrifice her life for the sake of another, which is why even the most devoutly traditional Jews support the termination of a pregnancy if the pregnant women is endangered by its continuation.

And here’s another: When Hannah, in the Bible, believes she is never going to have a child, her husband reassures her that she is valuable in and of herself, whether or not she bears a child. And when the Zelophehad’s daughters (there are no sons in this story) petition to be able to inherit their father’s land, at a time when the custom was that only males could inherit property, their plea was granted and became legal precedent.

These examples don’t erase the fact that in many ways Judaism was (and in some communities still is) a powerfully patriarchal culture, denying females the right to full participation in prayer and learning. In Jewish law and liturgy women have sometimes been grouped with children or slaves, and considered less than fully empowered adults. Though children grow up, and slaves can be freed, a woman’s status remains fixed.

By rethinking these ancient categories, feminism has been good for the Jews. New rituals engage girls and women, and Jewish men now often look to women for more meaningful ways to celebrate holidays, mark lifecycle events and uncover the 51% of our past that has been kept under wraps.

 


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Susan Weidman Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief and one of the founding mothers of the groundbreaking magazine Lilith, whose tagline is "independent, Jewish & frankly feminist." (You can read Lilith articles and daily blog posts at www.Lilith.org.) Susan is also the author of three books, including the acclaimed Jewish and Female.