Judaism & Feminism: Part 3


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 2 for more perspectives.

According to the Webster definition, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Therefore, there is no question in my mind that Judaism and feminism are compatible, and in many cases, mutually inclusive. That being said, while there are seeds of feminism, and feminist thought, as far back as “the beginning,” these ideas have grown and changed over time, and differently in different communities. Additionally, the expression of those ideas has not yet been fully realized, have not become a regular part of daily life.

To me, Judaism demonstrates equality between the sexes from the very beginning, as we see in Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God did God create it, male and female God created them.” That being said, the second chapter of Genesis tells a more widely-known story of creation, of Eve being created from Adam’s rib, to be his helpmate.

Taking these two stories together, our first challenge, as feminists, is to understand that partnership is a value, and helping one another can be a feminist act. At the same time, this idea of being a helpmate must not be used (or abused) in a way that denigrates either those who are single, or women in general. Certainly, women shouldn’t be seen as the “default” helpmate for men, rather, we should look at Genesis 1:27 to remind ourselves of the equality of the genders, not the hierarchy presented in the second creation story.

We also see an evolution in what women’s roles are considered to be and how they are perceived. These roles have often been described (by men) as “behind-the-scenes,” implying that their work is less important than work in the public sphere. While strong women in the Torah such as the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel), were not in the public sphere, they actually played tremendous roles, often at great risk, to themselves, their families and the Jewish people. And, over time, women have taken on more visible, public roles. For example, women now serve as religious leaders, as rabbis and cantors, in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. In the last few years there are Orthodox synagogues that have hired Orthodox women rabbis and advisors on halacha (Jewish law) as well. Women are writers, scholars, and leaders in all areas of Jewish life. While there is still a pay gap between the genders, and the majority of leadership positions are held by men, there is an increased effort in many areas of the Jewish world to consciously amplify Jewish women’s voices.

Similarly, we have seen an evolution in the way women’s rights have been considered in the area of Jewish law. In some denominations, the ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) – which has always included some protections for women, but has also positioned women as men’s property – has evolved into a form of protection for women.

While we can be proud of these evolutions and accomplishments, we cannot not use them as an apology where there is still a long way to go. What do I mean? While Jewish women, especially in the more liberal denominations and post-denominational settings, have made tremendous strides in public leadership and within the framework of Jewish law, sadly, some communities are selecting from the Torah and Rabbinic commentary to keep women down. For example, there are still agunot, “chained” women (women whose husbands won’t give them a Jewish divorce), women whose voices literally can’t be heard (because of kol isha, a concept stipulating that women cannot sing publicly, as it is considered to be immodest), women who are told what clothes to wear (for example, beged ish, or “men’s clothing,” which keeps women from wearing, for example, pants, as well as other restrictions for reasons of modesty) and so on.

My belief is that ideally, Judaism is not only compatible with feminism, feminism is a value of Judaism. But like with so many ideas, we need to uncover these ideas and breathe life into them, so that they will flourish beyond our dreams.

For more on Jewish women & girls, as well as Jewish living, learning, spirituality and identity, please visit our Resources section.

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Rabbi Rachel Ain is the Rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. In the past she has served as the Senior Director of National Young Leadership at JFNA and sits on the board of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan as well as the Chancellor's Cabinet of Jewish Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Rabbi David Levy, live on the east side with their two sons.