August 17, 2019

The Torah of female power

Men had their chance. 

I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they didn’t rule the world as badly as it seems they did. Because the truth is, we do not yet know what an equal world looks like, let alone one in which the world’s women might hold a disproportionate balance of power. So the notion that a better world than the one we have now might exist remains strictly speculative. 

But if the wildly unpredictable U.S. election has taught us anything about the direction of our future, it’s that change is not only necessary, it’s imminent. 

Like her or loathe her, this week Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. And you know what? That’s f—–g cool. 

In the same week, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s most powerful women, with Clinton coming in second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, Merkel stunned the international community when she dared to invite hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Germany’s borders, demonstrating the courage to do something many believed unimaginable and dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps it takes a leader who comes from outside the conventions of power to make choices that defy convention. 

But even with modern, wind-tunnel forces like Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama, “Statistics on women in positions of power remain bleak,” Forbes noted. Citing the nonprofit tracker Catalyst, a survey found that women occupy only “a measly 4% of corner offices at S&P 500 companies. And they hold only 25% of executive or senior-level jobs in those same firms.”

The fact that this list exists at all is a triumph; it is a public nod to women’s impact on the engines of our world, and it is evidence of a spreading, worldwide contagion.

In the Jewish community, the Jewish Women’s Archive in partnership with Jewish Women’s Theatre recently launched an online database of women rabbis that explores how female leaders are transforming Judaism. Since 2009, the organizers surveyed women rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and their testimonies describe risky, experimental and innovative choices that are revitalizing Jewish life to the point of “renaissance.” 

And yet, we live in a world of contradictions. For every bit of progress — in every sphere — inequality remains. We see it in Jewish liturgy and communal life, and in the wider world. Ordaining women rabbis was a good first step in expanding the unharnessed potential of Jewish possibility; but how many women run our community’s most important institutions? And how much are they paid in comparison with their male counterparts? 

Liberation is a process still unfurling. We know that for every Forbes woman of power, there are tens of millions of women around the world who suffer the daily indignities of utter powerlessness. What does female power even mean if those with newly realized strength do not uplift those who are weak? 

As Shavuot teaches us, liberation alone is not enough. You can leave Egypt and become free, but freedom is meaningless without a system for living that ensures freedom for all. The only thing that could stop newly freed slaves from repeating the mistakes of their oppressors was to give them Torah — a system of laws that could shape a just and fair society. 

Isaiah Berlin famously taught that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom from and freedom to. What good is freedom from oppression without the will to make a better world? 

So I say to the world’s powerful women: Liberation is only the first step. It is now up to you to use your newfound power to enact the values that feminism has always promised. Electing a woman to the highest office in the land is meaningless unless that woman ensures that all the things she’s talked about become real — including women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave for families, equal pay for equal work and rebuilding the middle class. To be able simply to call someone “Madam President” is a mark of liberation, not transformation. Without the will to change, it would be like leaving Egypt without ever getting to Sinai. 

I want to believe that shifting the balance of power could mean new ways of exercising it. Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee once told a story about her father, who was a respected community leader, but was demoted when he refused to subject his daughters to female genital mutilation. His defiance of tribal custom cost him, and he lost the respect of many in the community. But his courage to act preserved his daughters’ dignity. Real power, Gbowee learned, was not about keeping it all for yourself, but having the strength to give some power away. 

The power structure of every lasting system, from religion to government, can become antiquated. But survival depends on an ability to adapt to the needs of an evolving populace. What will women bring that will improve upon institutional foundations? How will the memory of oppression shape the experience of female power? 

In Judaism, ultimate power resides in partnership with God, a shared responsibility for the well-being of the world. Female leadership should reinforce the idea that greatness comes from empowering others. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.