Does mankind have a history of abuse towards women? Yes. Does mankind have a history of denigrating women as inferior? Yes. But does this history stem from Judaism and Christianity? Absolutely not.
Man’s uncultured nature always sparks the animalistic desire to dominate the weak. Just as in the animal kingdom, one’s strength makes one superior. Whether it is today’s Islamic fundamentalist man beating, controlling, and selling his wives and daughters, or the nominally Christian Russian peasant of centuries past, not yet separated from his pagan roots, assuming that the beating of his wife is an integral part of their marriage.
And there is no question that even within our cultured societies of today, you will find men whose beastly natures dominate their cultural upbringing, leading them to look down on women.
Once again, however, these proclivities in men do not stem from the traditions of Judaism or Christianity. Judaism’s history is that of not just protecting, but elevating the woman. In the very formation of our nation, of which we devoutly read in Genesis every year, the decisions of our foremothers dominate: when Avraham doubts the goodness of Sarah’s decision to send Yishamel away, for the protection of Avraham’s true spiritual heir, God tells him to listen to whatever Sarah says. When Yitzchak wishes to bless his firstborn as his heir and is deceived by Rivkah into blessing Yaakov, he accepts his wife’s choice, which is proven to coincide with God’s choice. When Rachel and Leah give birth to the twelve tribes, it is they who name the children.
The law codes that follow in the Chumash are aimed at protecting women. Even a female slave or captive must be taken care of properly in marriage, and even the child of an unloved wife retains his firstborn rights, regardless of his father’s preferences. And look at the daughters of Tzelafchad — God commanded that they become landowners so that they might carry on their father’s legacy.
You might ask: “Why weren’t women ‘allowed’ to serve in the Tabernacle?” Pagans did. Pagans had plenty of women priestesses and temple functionaries. Why not Jewish women? Because the Torah placed each woman in the center of her Mikdash Me’at, within which she is responsible for the perpetuation of her people and for their loyalty to God. The Torah has not barred her from the Temple, but rather relieved her of responsibilities incongruent with her true purpose.
The Oral Torah, by means of the Talmud and Midrash, carries on the same spirit. The Talmud continues to detail the obligations of men towards their wives and, explaining that women are relieved of additional burdens of observance, frees them to reign in their homes. The Midrash lauds women as the keepers of the covenant. In the story of the Golden Calf, for example, the Midrash tells us that the women did not stoop to the evil in which the men engaged. Earlier, in the stories preceding the Exodus, it grants the women the role of ensuring the continued birth of Jewish children.
Christianity, drawing on both its Jewish and Greek heritage, incorporates the concept of fighting for a woman, for her protection and for her honor. Here come the medieval knights, followed by centuries of a culture refining its approach towards women, with centuries of literature and poetry inspired by love of great women. Why do I write of Christianity in a piece on women rabbis? Because Jews do not live in a vacuum. For as long as our Christian sisters, inspired by their Jewish cultural roots, cherished their roles as women, we took on our roles as Jewish women with the dignity that these roles entail. When a spirit of doubt and self-criticism swept the western world, we began to doubt ourselves.
To be sure, the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought some welcome changes to women. Previously, there had been an element of over-protection in Western culture, one that discouraged women from pursuing the same level of education as men in their social circles and prevented women from entering some occupations. At the turn of the 20th century, this was beginning to change. Women who had not yet entered the role of the homemaker were able to pursue higher education. This allowed them greater intellectual pursuits, as well as financial safety and independence in the event that their male relatives could not provide for them.
Sadly, however, this was not enough for a segment of the population. In an era ripe with utopian spirit, a misguided sense of justice was leading men and women around the world to demand improvements by means of leveling – leveling the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated, the male and the female. For these ideologues, justice meant sameness. There was no appreciation for the unique roles and responsibilities people have in life. If you can have it, then I should have it too, and if that’s not possible, neither of us should have it.
Long before feminism helped radically redefine work roles in America, Communists were praising women who were sharing physical labor with men. There are Soviet legends of women who heroically outdid everyone in agricultural labor, ignoring the fact that excessive work with heavy machinery negatively affected these women’s health. Everyone should be the same, even if this means defying your natural capabilities, impoverishing the country, or squashing creativity in art or business. All should be dressed in the same ugly clothes (buying nice, imported clothing was a crime in the USSR). Women should not be homemakers, nor men bread-winners, even if the birthrate plummeted as a result.
By the mid-20th century, American feminism adopted a similar radical egalitarian outlook when it came to work. Now, it was not enough to have expanded educational, entertainment, and work opportunities; women needed to defy their very natures. We must use birth-control and become promiscuous to pretend like women are no different than men when it comes to sex. We must introduce pants into the female wardrobe, just like the Communists did in the 20s — we don’t need to accept the fact that nature made our bodies different and that tradition highlights the differences through dress. Science created infant formula — our infants no longer need us to nurse them. Once again, we can defy nature and level ourselves with men. Here the lines between gaining new opportunities and forgoing unique privileges begin to blur.
The true destruction begins when, just as in the Soviet Union, so-called equalities begin to be forced on unwilling members of society. By the late 1970s, no one was stopping women from using birth-control, pre or post marriage, nor was anyone preventing them from receiving an education and a good job, yet they continued to advocate for equality, demanding equal pay and the subsequently necessary elimination of the family-based living wage, which helped push willing and unwilling women into the labor force. Feminists lowered society’s expectations with regard to men — a man is no longer expected to commit his heart, soul, body and bank account to a woman before he can approach her sexually. Men are not expected to defend women physically, whether in personal confrontation or in the military. Men are not motivated to keep their responsibilities when women do not hold them responsible. Feminists have succeeded in ruining so much for traditional women, and they still remain angry and dissatisfied.
This is exactly what I see in the demand by a sliver of our Orthodox Jewish female population to become ordained as rabbis. They simply cannot take on the title of “Rabbi,” which connotes ritual leadership, something that Judaism has long proscribed for women. Yet these women can have anything in today’s world — they can be teachers, professors, lecturers or administrators. Or, if they are so dismissive of thousands of years of tradition, carefully dividing roles and protecting their ability to build strong homes, they can leave our beautiful tradition and join the Conservative or Reform movements. Or they can create their own movement and call it whatever they like, so long as they do not call it Orthodox.
To Jewish feminists, I say: For the hundreds of thousands of women who love their tradition, who love and respect their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers for all the valiant work they accomplished for their families and for the rest of the Jewish people from within their traditional female roles; for the sake of the women who love and respect their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons as they bear the torch of tradition in the realm of talmudic study and halachic decision-making, as well as synagogue-based leadership; for all of our sakes, please leave Orthodoxy alone. We love our tradition. We protect it and cling to it and cherish it. We have enough battles to fight with the outside world. Please do not break our world from within. If you do not love your tradition — leave it, but do not rip it away from others. If you do not respect your ancestors, go ahead and defy them, but do not force us to join you. If you do not feel fulfilled and respected within our tri-millennial tradition, I doubt you will find true fulfillment in breaking it. Try if you must, but I pray that you do not drag us down with you.
Rahel Rocklin is a Judaic Studies teacher and rebbetzin living in Teaneck, NJ.