One year on Pesach—I must have been about seven years old at the time—my brother and I sang a modernized version of the “Mah Nishtana” at the seder. It began:
It is a child’s task
On Pesach night to ask
The Mah Nishtana
At the Pesach seder.
So If you’d like to show
The four questions you know
Then listen to me
And get ready, set, go!
It then continued on to ask the four questions and to answer them, and the last line of the song went:
But now, thanks to Hashem,
We lean on our sides, just like free men.
And I, all of seven years old, felt compelled to yell out, “AND WOMEN!” at the end of the refrain. Because, come on, why do only the men get to be free?
And thus began my career as a feminist. And for the uninitiated, that does not mean that I hate men, that I want to be like a man, or that I’m anti-family values. I am a happily married, stay-at-home mom of three ridiculously cute children. And I love what I do. What it does mean is I strongly believe women should have equal rights to men. That’s it. Women are people, with many varied talents and capabilities. Our physical characteristics do not indicate our emotional, intellectual or spiritual capacities.
However, I’m an Orthodox Jew. For better or for worse, that is the lifestyle I chose for myself. And the body of texts which dictate the morals and values and day-to-day activities of myself and my community, say otherwise. In Judaism, my status as a woman does, actually, indicate my emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities, and based on that, I am restricted or exempt from doing certain mitzvot. And not only that, because of Judaism’s supposition of what a woman’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities are, men are obliged to thank God every morning that they were not created in such a way!
I needed to hear what other people—smarter, more learned, more experienced people than myself—had to say on this topic. So I started a Facebook group called “Halachic Feminism” with the description, “A group for men and women to discuss if and how Orthodox Judaism and feminism can be reconciled.”
The resulting discussions have been fascinating for me. It is inspiring for me to see there are other people out there who are also dedicated to halacha, who also believe firmly in the Divinity of the Torah and the importance of tradition, yet can openly acknowledge there is room for improvement, with regard to the treatment of women. Judaism is the oldest religion in the world. And the reason we were able to make it through two thousand years of diaspora is because we have the amazing ability to perform this near-impossible balancing act of maintaining a 3000-year-old set of traditions in an ever-changing, ever-progressing world.
Judaism is not a stagnant religion. It is alive and breathing, and halacha is the heart of the creature. It is the life-source of our religion, and if we cut it out, Judaism will not survive. But we must continue to do as our ancestors did before us, and balance our surrounding culture with our traditional culture. Not to do so would be as damaging as a parent attempting to keep his child an adorable, sleepy, newborn baby, by refusing to feed him the proper amount of food, or buy him the appropriate size clothing as he grows. How can we ever reach our full potential as God’s chosen people if we do not allow ourselves to grow and progress?