Halakha and Feminism

Traditional Judaism can--and should--embrace feminism to allow for greater equality in Jewish religious life.

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The following article is excerpted and reprinted with permission from On Women and Judaism, published by the Jewish Publication Society. Originally published in the early 1980s, its depictions of the state of feminism in general, and Orthodox feminism in particular, are somewhat dated. Nevertheless, this classic essay captures many of the important issues at the core of the encounter between feminism and Jewish tradition. Specifically, Greenberg argues for retaining an allegiance to Jewish law while also shaping it to be more inclusive of women and responsive to women's ethical claims.

We who are committed to traditional Judaism are standing today at the crossroads on the question of women. Feminism disturbs our previous equilibrium, for it makes a fundamental claim about women contrary to the model generated by halakhah [Jewish law].gender quiz 

Principles of Feminism

The feminist ideology can be summed up as follows:

1. Women have the same innate potential, capability, and needs as men, whether in the realm of the spirit, the word, or the deed.

2. Women have a similar capacity for interpretation and con­comitant decision-making.

3. Women can function fully as "outside" persons, in broader areas of society beyond the home.

4. Women can and should have some control over their own destinies, to the extent that such mastery is possible for anyone.

Principles of Jewish Feminism

Let us reduce these broad statements from the level of generalization to a theology of woman as Jew:

1. A woman of faith has the same innate vision and existential longing for a redemptive‑covenantal reality as a man of faith. She has the same ability and need to be in the presence of God alone and within the context of the community. Such a woman is sufficiently mature to accept the responsibilities for this relationship and the rights that flow from these responsibilities. If these spiritual gifts do not flow naturally from her soul, she can be educated and uplifted in them in much the same fashion that Jewish men are.

2. Jewish women, as much as men, have the mental and emotional capacities to deal directly with the most sacred Jewish texts and primary sources. Jewish women are capable of interpreting tradition based on the sources. They can be involved in the decision‑making process that grows out of the blending of inherited tradition with contemporary needs.

3. Some women, as some men, are capable of functioning in the positions of authority related to the religious and physical survival of the Jewish people.

4. Women as a class should not find themselves in discriminatory positions in personal situations. In such matters as marriage and divorce, a woman should have no less control or personal freedom than a man, nor should she be subject to abuse resulting from the constriction of freedom.

Women in Jewish Law

These, then, are the basic claims that a woman, sensitized to the new, broader, cultural value system, can carry over into her life as a Jew. I am not arguing here whether halakhic Judaism deems a woman inferior, although there are more than a few sources in the tradition that lend themselves to such a conclusion; nor will I accept at face value those statements that place women on a separate but higher pedestal. What I am saying is that halakhah, contrary to the feminist values I have described above, continues to delimit women. In some very real ways, halakhic parameters inhibit women's growth, both as Jews and as human beings.

I do not speak here of all of halakhah. One must be careful not to generalize from certain critical comments and apply them to the system as a whole. In fact, my critique could grow only out of a profound appreciation for the system in its entirety‑-its ability to preserve the essence of an ancient revelation as a fresh experience each day; its power to generate an abiding sense of kinship, past and present; its intimate relatedness to concerns both immediate and other‑worldly; its psychological soundness; its ethical and moral integrity.

On the whole, I believe that a Jew has a better chance of living a worthwhile life if he or she lives a life according to halakhah. Therefore, I do not feel threatened when addressing the question of the new needs of women in Judaism nor in ad­mitting the limitations of halakhah in this area. Indeed, it is my very faith in halakhic Judaism that makes me believe we can search within it for a new level of perfection, as Jews have been doing for three thousand years.

Reconciling Feminism and Jewish Law

From this understanding one is moved perforce to ask the next question: if the new feminist categories are perceived to be of a higher order of definition of woman than those that limit her, how are we to explain the gap between the feminist model and the halakhic model?

This becomes even more problematic when one considers the sheer abundance of ethical and moral constructs in Judaism (e.g., the injunctions not to insult another, to lift up one's brother before he falls, not to lead another into temptation, not to judge unless one has been faced with the same situation). How is it possible that a tradition with so highly developed a sensitivity to human beings could allow even one law or value judgment that demeans women, much less a host of such laws?

There are certain external and internal factors that explain the insufficiency of the tradition with regard to women. The stratification of men and women in Judaism simply reflects the male‑female hierarchical status in all previous societies in human history. Moreover, in light of the primary model of Jewish woman as domestic creature‑-as wife, mother, dependent, auxiliary‑-all other roles and responsibilities that seemed to conflict with the primary model simply were eliminated.

I do not wish to imply that Jewish women were oppressed. This is far from the truth. Given the historically universal stratification of the sexes, plus the model of the Jewish woman as enabler and the exclusive male (rabbinic) option of interpreting the law, there could have been widespread abuse of the powerless. But this did not happen. In fact, the reverse is true; throughout rabbinic history, one observes a remarkably benign and caring attitude toward women.

Nevertheless, there is a need today to redefine the status of women in certain areas of Jewish law. First, a benign and caring stance is not discernible in every last instance of rabbinic legislation. Second, paternalism is not what women are seeking nowadays, not even the women of the traditional Jewish community. Increasingly, such women are beginning to ask questions about equality, about a more mature sharing of responsibility, about divesting the power of halakhic interpretation and legislation of its singular maleness.

Going Forward: The Options

I have referred to the crossroads at which we stand. A crossroad implies choices. There are three ways in which halakhic Jews may proceed with regard to the question of women:

1. We can revert to the fundamentalist pole, where hierarchy of male and female remains unchallenged in most areas of human life.

2. We can allow the new value system to penetrate our civil lives but not our religious lives. In other words, women may be encouraged to see themselves as equals in social, economic, and political spheres. This is the current stance of modern Orthodoxy.

3. We can find ways within halakhah to allow for growth and greater equality in the ritual and spiritual realms, despite the fact that there are no guarantees where this will lead us.

Integrating Non-Jewish Values

It is my firm belief that the third path is the one we now must begin to follow. Admittedly, I have been propelled in that direction by the contemporary Western humanist liberation philosophy of the secular women's movement; those who would hurl at me the charge of "foreign‑body contamination" therefore are absolutely right. But is there any religion in history, including Judaism, that has not borrowed from the surrounding culture?

The real question is, What do we do with what we borrow? What are the unique Jewish ways in which we appropriate positive ideas, customs, and values? How can we enhance our system by these new accretions? And most important, in what ways can they become continuous with the essence of Judaism? True, the original impulse for all this, as I have said, derives from feminism, but even if such a movement hadn't evolved, I still would like to think that a creative pondering of the ideals of Torah Judaism might lead to the same conclusions.

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Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.