Judaism & Feminism: Part 2


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 1 and response 3 for more perspectives.

Judaism, no matter how you look at it, is not monolithic. It is complicated, seemingly contradictory at times, and can only be understood in a realm where nuance is allowed, encouraged and desired. Given that I am meant to represent the Orthodox perspective, it is important to note that there is not a single Orthodox perspective. Orthodoxy has only been around since modernity, and feminisms’ entrance into the fold, in all its glory, is even more recent.

While feminism may not have been a term utilized in medieval times, I believe that Rabbeinu Gershom, for example, was an ardent feminist. He successfully instituted innovations to protect women in marriage and divorce by outlawing polygamy and the ability for a woman to be divorced without consent. I would argue that if he, or just about anyone, would propose similar changes today, they would not be received without significant pushback.

Throughout Jewish history, society has influenced Judaism including our literature, dress, and even religious practice. Today, however, in a world where division between church and state becomes more and more prominent and clearly defined, there is a fear that the border is thin. Many who identify as religious fear that allowing outside society in will corrupt our religion and tradition. For said individuals, feminism is the biggest threat from outside society. It affects people’s roles within Judaism, decision makers within Judaism, and the power structure.

I would argue that this fear is unwarranted. It is a result of outside society and poetry in medieval Spain that rich Jewish literature and culture were fostered precisely because we were intrigued and enriched by our muslim neighbors. Many of our works of Jewish literature, poetry and the like would never have happened had we not learned from our neighbors with flourishing cultures.

I could not justifiably argue that feminism is an inherently Jewish value, the same way that I could not justifiably argue that democracy is an inherently Jewish value. The question that I face is if feminism is antithetical to Judaism. I believe that feminism has the possibility to improve Jewish belief, practice and commitment for women AND men. Jewish feminism identifies areas for improvement for women at large, but oftentimes, the entire community could benefit from the thought processes and changes that undergo as a result. For example, a number of communities have added more singing to prayer services because of feminists who spoke up. A number of communities have put in protocols to protect the safety of women, but those same protocols protect boys, girls and men. When a school evaluates the standards of skills and learning for girls, the boys also benefit greatly. Ultimately, I believe that Jewish feminism is intended to benefit everyone, individually and collectively.

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Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is the executive director of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance). She has been the co-director of the Orthodox Union's JLIC (Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus) at Harvard; and was the Rosh Moshava (Head of Camp) at Camp Stone. She studied at Drisha, received her BA and MA from Yeshiva University, and earned her doctorate at New York University as a Wexner Davidson Fellow.