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Orthodox feminism: Where to from here

Orthodox feminism: Where to from here

The following is a synopsis of the talk I gave yesterday at Limmud Modi’in titled, “Orthodox Feminist Narratives":

Orthodox women have complicated lives – beautiful and enriching, certainly, but also very complicated.

To be sure, there is a lot of beauty in being an Orthodox woman. You are encouraged to have a rich family and community life, to create relationships that are busy and sincere. You are often part of a larger synagogue or communal system that provides meaningful routine and structure. Indeed, your life is a constant search for meaning and genuine religious expression. Your week is punctuated by Shabbat, which ideally involves festive ritual gatherings, singing, prayer, joyful relaxation, and elaborate meals with friends and strangers. Your lifecycle events are swathed in ceremony that links you to ancient heritage and hopefully to God. When you give birth, you get lots of food. When you sit shiva, you get lots of food. You never have to be alone if you try hard enough, and at key moments, you are unlikely to ever be hungry. You are busy and loved and adored, as people sing your praises every Friday night and at every bar mitzvah. You are thanked excessively for keeping the home. You are adored for your inner beauty – sheker ha-chen v’hevel hayofi (loveliness is a lie and beauty is hollow) – revered for your kindness and supported in your efforts to be good to all.

This beauty, however, has a flipside. In exchange for all that internal beauty, women are indeed expected to keep that beauty to themselves. Covering up is key – covering your body, covering your hair, covering your voice, covering your passions, covering your difficult feelings, covering your aspirations. You may have the desire to lead – to lead services, to lead synagogue, to lead the seder – but you have few if any approved outlets for that desire. You may desire to express yourself in singing, dancing, or writing a commentary on the Talmud, but you have to be careful and search hard to find outlets for those desires, if they exist at all. You may want to be a professional swimmer, gymnast or figure-skater, but those are not options for religious women. You may deeply desire to be a communal and spiritual leader, the rabbi of your shul, but that is a really challenging career path for orthodox women.

At home, life is likely even more complicated. Sure, you had a Jewish education and know lots of great things, but when you sit down at the Shabbat table, your husband takes over. He runs the family ritual, he owns all the knowledge, and he is in charge of everything from buying the lulav to blessing the children. Sure, many Orthodox men help today – though it’s still called “helping” – but we know that the onus for cooking, cleaning, and making Shabbat is primarily on you, you may consider it a measure of your worth as a Jewish women, and while you slave awaay in the kitchen and in carpool your husband gets to do all the other stuff like go out and sit in shul for hours with his friends. Sometimes you speak up, you may even insist on giving the dvar torah and making your husband serve and clear. But more often than not, there is a lingering division of labor along gender lines that is at times comfortable and even enjoyable, at other times is possibly hard for you and frustrating and perhaps even depressing.  

And if by chance, you don’t really fit in to the social expectations of Orthodox women – maybe you’re not married, maybe you don’t have children, maybe you’re gay, maybe you just really aren’t into Shabbat that much, or you don’t like shul, maybe you’ve just never been the feminine or dainty type, maybe you’re too introverted to do all that expected socializing, maybe you’re a terrible cook or not a ‘maternal’ type, maybe you hate skirts or just really crave walking down the street in shorts and a tank-top – if you don’t fit in with expectations along any of these lines, your life as an Orthodox woman may be fraught with quiet or at times overwhelming pains and internal struggle.

And all that body cover. Sure, you may have a gorgeous sheitel that’s nicer than your hair. Sure, you may really love the idea that your hair “belongs” to your husband. You may like the idea that you are not expected to look like Britney Spears – you can hide the crinkles in your thighs and your chubby arms and not worry about it. Maybe all your friends also wear skirts and scarves so you don’t think about it too much and you like belonging to a great community of women. Or…. Maybe you hate it and wish you didn’t have to do it. Maybe you really do want to wear jeans and a t-shirt, just once. Or maybe you really do get headaches from the sheitel and wish some rabbi would let you all off the hook from this thing already. Maybe you’re tired of sitting on the beach watching your sons and husband frolic while you sit still on your chair in your skirt and hat. Maybe you wish that you could stop hating your body and constantly thinking about how to cover it, and just learn to be as you are, to love and accept your body as it is, whatever that happens to be. Maybe you’re just tired of all that communal obsession about your body…..

Like I said, being an Orthodox woman can be very complicated.
The Orthodox feminist movement has done some important and impressive work on changing the lives of Orthodox women over the past 20 years. Women have made significant inroads to change both publicly and privately. Women now have opportunities to learn, to teach and to write Torah. Women have created all kinds of wonderful and beautiful rituals around bat mitzvah, birth, and more. Women’s tefilla groups and partnership minyanim have given women outlets to take part in prayer worship in meaningful ways. And of course Yeshivat Maharat has created a whole new landscape for women’s religious leadership which is nothing short of thrilling.

Yet, with all this great movement for social change, I believe that the Orthodox feminist movement has been missing a key component of the work that Orthodox women need. What has been missing throughout the history of Orthodox feminism is attention to the inner lives of Orthodox women. That is, I think that the next vital step in the movement for Orthodox feminism must focus on the healing that Orthodox women desperately need. 

Let’s face it: Orthodoxy abuses women. Women who grow up and live for years or decades in a system that constantly justifies their silencing and exclusion as the word of God are forced to make all kinds of internal adjustments to function normally. The culture pounds away messages about what women are or should be. If any individual man would force his wife to live according to the assumptions of Orthodoxy – that she is not allowed to speak or sing in public, that she doesn’t count when we count people, that men pray every day for not being a woman – we would be able to say clearly that this woman is abused. But because we are so used to hearing that this is “Torah” or this is “halakha”, because the entire culture does it, we brush off the impact of these practices on the inner lives of women. We don't call it abuse. We accept it all as normal and expect women to just adjust. Many do. Perhaps even most do.

But the question that looms is a big one: How do all these practices impact a woman’s sense of self, her sense of who she is, what she is capable of, and where her passions can be expressed? The culture collectively stifles women’s spirits, and we have not yet really asked the question about what that process of stifling does to women’s beings.

Sure, there are many Orthodox women who are doing great. Probably most women are doing okay – working, pursuing careers, building great communities, living happily on a day to day basis. We all accommodate and work within all kinds of limitations, we all negotiate with our surroundings, and many women even manage to thrive. And many women will disagree completely with my entire characterization and say that this doesn’t apply to them and they have never felt a negative thought about Orthodoxy in their lives. More power to them. If you’ve never felt stifled or contained or hurting from Orthodoxy, I am glad for your good fortune and wish that all women merit being able to feel that same joy every day. Nonetheless, many other Orthodox women struggle with different aspects of a culture that is abusive towards women, and perhaps don’t even know how to name their pain.

In fact, I think that even many of the most enlightened and activist Orthodox feminists can use a journey of healing. In my experience with Orthodox feminists, I have found that even while women are fighting for things like, say, getting women into leadership positions, they themselves may still be sunk in unexamined patriarchal practices and abuse. I cannot begin to describe how agonizing it is for me to watch Orthodox feminists treat each other with the kind of abusive assumptions that men have been using against women for millennia. All this internalized sexism…..Women hurting women simply because that's what they are used to. It is excruciating. 

Until we start to work on our own pains, our own healing, our own histories of feeling abused, Orthodox feminism will be stuck in an unhealthy place, and Orthodox women will not get the help that they really need. We have to start unpacking how the community educates women and men into relationships and identity. And we have to move from thinking about change “out there” in the world to change “in here” – in our spirits and in our souls. The next stop for Orthodox feminism: healing women.

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