Halakha and Feminism

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

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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.

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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.