The Jewish Women's Archives published a three-part series in which Susan Reimer-Torn interviews Elana Sztokman about her vision for religious feminism. Here are a few excerpts:
Much of the halakha regarding women legitimizes exclusion. So if a form of exclusion is halakhic, is it ipso facto legitimate?
Elana Sztokman: There is a lot more room for women’s inclusion within halakhah than is currently practiced in many places. For example, issues such as women serving on synagogue boards, women teaching the congregation, women giving sermons, even women making announcements—these are practices that really have few if any halakhic obstacles and yet are not practiced widely enough in Orthodox life. We have a long way to go in order to maximize women’s inclusion in areas where there is no real halakhic issue before even getting to that question of areas where there may be more debate.
Some of JOFA’s early financing came from progressive Jewish groups and some non-Orthodox women. Why do you think they were persuaded to contribute? How important is this alliance?
Elana Sztokman: The alliance between Jewish feminists from different denominations is so important. It’s vital for us all to recognize that we’re on the same journey of working to build a Jewish life that is both loyal to our traditions and committed to values of inclusion, compassion, justice and equality. We may end up in different places and with different solutions—one prays with a partition and one doesn’t; one has women rabbis and one has women as Maharats—but those differences are much less significant than our shared values. We need to support one another in our struggles, because our real strength comes from this kind of collegiality and collaboration.
SRT: Do you believe in hard-wired gender differences?
ES: The discourse of gender differences is very problematic, and that’s why we have to be really careful when we talk about a woman’s “way.” The second we start talking about a “women’s way,” we run a risk of falling into old patterns and traps of seeing women as “less,” as “softer,” as less capable of dealing with pressure, as less assertive, as less logical, or whatever. When we start to couch this in language of brain differences, we are basically turning sexist attitudes into some kind of pseudo-scientific data. I highly recommend Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender. She is a neuroscientist and psychologist and does an expert job of debunking the pseudo-science of gendered brain differences.
So again, I want to reiterate that when we talk about women’s contributions to transforming society, it’s based on culture, not biology. If men are typically acculturated into a kind of sterile individualism, women are acculturated into relationships, caring, and other-centeredness. Both of these personas are part of the human spirit, and all human beings need access to both characteristics, that is, individualism and connectivity. So the point is that bringing a “women’s culture” into Jewish life is not about “femininity” as an essence but rather about restoring cultural balance to a world that has overly valued the culture of sterile individualism that has been typically owned by men.