Fierce debates this month over women clergy represent the most fractious internecine conflict in the Orthodox Jewish community in a generation. After the progressive movement known as Open Orthodoxy ordained its first women, denunciations by centrist and right-of-center Orthodox rabbis alike were inevitable.
Written and verbal critiques of the ordination of women have largely focused on its propriety in the halachic (Jewish legal) system. But the halachic arguments miss the most important reason advocacy of women’s ordination smells treyf (not kosher): Open Orthodoxy seems largely motivated by the ideology of a certain f-word.
And feminism is not Jewish.
Feminism has a well-developed set of beliefs, the most important of which run counter to our tradition. It’s not sufficient to bandy about platitudes like “feminism simply means women are fully human” or “anyone who thinks women are equal is a feminist.” Doing so grossly oversimplifies a sophisticated Weltanschauung by defining it as something with which nearly everyone – including Crown Heights Hasidim – would agree. If everyone is a feminist, then feminism is meaningless.
Here, I will not address specific practices and ideas by Orthodox Jews who identify as feminists, like prayers purged of supposedly sexist language and the mantra “if there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” Writers before me have demonstrated well why those are bogus. Instead, I will show how three core feminist beliefs are incompatible with the Torah’s worldview:
• Gender is a construct. Feminists have long embraced Simone de Beauvoir’s radical idea that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Women and men, they believe, are socialized from infancy into preconceived, arbitrary, hierarchical, pernicious roles. Gender differences don’t exist; they are learned. With enough educational, social, and political effort, our sexist society can let go of its gendered baggage.
Yet in Judaism maleness and femaleness are real, and men and women are not interchangeable. The rights, responsibilities, expectations, and roles assigned to each are different, though the sexes are equally valuable. Contemporary Jews who complain of “unfair” Jewish laws (broadly speaking, only men can be witnesses and only men can initiate a divorce) must understand that such halachic differences are hardwired into the system, and cannot be overcome by declaring that gender is only in our heads.
• Women control their own bodies. “Reproductive rights” dominate today’s feminist agenda. Women supposedly must be the sole decision-makers regarding contraception and abortion because they are the ones who undergo the ordeal of pregnancy. No man – and certainly no law – may overrule a woman who feels contraception or abortion is best for her.
Nobody has reproductive rights in Judaism, though. To delay or cease procreation, a couple must ask a rabbi for permission. He considers the circumstances of both the wife and the husband and consults the sometimes-complicated Jewish laws on the subject. If he determines that halacha forbids contraception in their individual case, the woman cannot veto her rabbi’s ruling. Similarly, Jewish law is not “pro-choice.” There are times when abortion is prohibited (a pregnancy whose existence threatens no one) and times when it is required (to protect the life of the mother). Here again, couples approach rabbis. The woman may not simply choose to terminate a pregnancy.
• Heterosexuality and homosexuality are equivalent. As early as 1971, the National Organization for Women declared “a woman’s right to her own person includes the right to define and express her own sexuality and to choose her own lifestyle.” Since then, the feminist embrace of LGBT rights has only accelerated, with special emphasis on “marriage equality.”
But Judaism’s prescription for opposite-sex bedroom and family life is consistent, running from the second chapter of the Torah (“A man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”) through Leviticus, the Talmud, the rishonim (earlier halachists), and the acharonim (later halachists). Our faith tradition cannot abide any change to the Torah’s demand for heterosexual behavior.
If you doubt that those three beliefs are central to feminism, ask any feminist outside of the Orthodox world whether a movement rejecting even one of them, much less all of them, could legitimately be called feminist. Or try asking a ”Jewish Orthodox Feminist” to denounce all three. Good luck.
Nobody should be blamed for trying to harmonize powerful ideologies which speak to them. For those who grew up in or chose traditional Judaism, the beauty and power of that lifestyle is difficult to drop. And for citizens of the modern West, no good person could dispute women’s basic equality and reproductive and sexual autonomy. But given the vital feminist planks listed above, anyone who insists they can articulate a formula that makes Judaism feminist – and feminism Jewish – doesn’t really understand either.
None of this means women’s roles in Judaism cannot expand. Perhaps the greatest Jewish innovator of the early 20th century was Sara Schenirer (), who founded the Bais Yaakov network of schools educating Jewish girls in Tanach (Hebrew Bible), halacha, Jewish history, and Hebrew, and well as secular subjects. Though pioneered by Schenirer’s insight, dedication, and perseverance, the change operated with the blessing of the greatest rabbis of her day. Feminism had nothing to do with it.
Some Open Orthodox Jews have argued, implausibly, that their ordination of women isn’t actually about feminist ideology. But feminism has been the engine driving their movement’s approach to women’s issues. Most of the women clergy associated with the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat seminary explicitly identify as feminists. Its dean, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, told Buzzfeed last year she “embraces” the term. Others, like Maharat Rori Picker Neiss list “Orthodox feminist” on their Twitter profiles. The seminary’s scholar in residence, Rabba Anat Sharbat, says the school’s leadership program is “halachic but also social and emotional and feminist.”
I don’t know if Orthodoxy will ever ordain women rabbis. But if it does, the change will to develop organically – explored and embraced by the generation’s leading rabbinic authorities as an expression of precepts ensconced in the Torah all along. If Judaism wishes to continue providing authentic responses to the needs of today’s women, it needs feminism like a fish needs a bicycle.
The essential lesson of Chanukah is to shield Judaism from foreign contamination. Change within Orthodoxy regarding women’s learning and leadership must come from within, based on values and texts and ideas with ancient pedigrees. We needn’t rush to accommodate a value system that’s only a few decades old in which the dirtiest word is literally “patriarchy.”
Abraham was a patriarch. So were Isaac and Jacob.
I’m sticking with them, thank you very much.
David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter or E-mail him at [email protected].