Someone asked me the strangest thing.
“Who told you to be offended?”
As in, who put it into my head that I should be disturbed by certain practices in Judaism. I looked at him bewildered and replied, “No one told me to feel offended. It is a natural consequence of being (at times literally) invisible and unable to affect the changes that need to be made, of seeing people suffer at the hands of what is meant to be the light of the world.”
I love Judaism and I love Torah. That said, there are many things that leave me as a woman feeling alienated, and in some cases, wronged.
And I think this is what people need to understand.
Those looking to keep Jewish women in ‘traditional roles’ need to understand why these roles are falling apart and why this shift isn’t only ok, but essential.
Woman’s place in the world has changed drastically.
In every sector.
Women want different things, more things. Some as personal fulfillment and some out of communal necessity.
But people say that these desires stem from foreign places. That they are Western or feminist ideals, and that they are nonkosher.
And I say, who are you to tell someone that her needs and thoughts and desires are foreign and not kosher? To tell someone who sees a need and wants to fill it – whether personal or societal- that it stems from hubris and arrogance?
Blaming ‘feminism’ and Western ideals is a very convenient way to feel superior and shut down legitimate concerns and valid arguments.
But in fact, throughout Jewish history women and men have challenged the way Halacha was implemented and succeeded in influencing its development– to the great benefit of the Jewish people.
How can that be? It is because Halacha does not exist in a vacuum, but takes into account dynamic societal norms. In many arenas, when societal norms change, so do Halakhic norms.
Tzniut. As is discussed in many halachic sources, dress standards are dependent on local custom. Where forearms and shins are the norm, it is not a problem to expose them. They become like the hands and face- normal to be seen and thus not a temptation. The Aruch Hashulchan says that a man can say Shma in front of a woman’s uncovered head because it is commonplace. The Yaskil Avdi, based on the Ben Ish Chai, ruled that where women never cover their chests, breasts have the same status as hands and face. I am not suggesting that we dress according to modern society but I am suggesting that the frum world’s increasing obsession with erasing women for modesty is the exact opposite of how our sages ruled and and has no Halakhic basis. Societal. Not Halachic.
Striking your wife. Hitting one’s wife was halachically acceptable in places where striking wives to educate them or get them to do their work was accepted. In communities where it was deemed wrong, so too did the Rabbis deem it forbidden by Jewish law. How is this even relevant today? A woman wanting a divorce must have cause according to the Beit Din. If her cause is abuse and the judges decide that beating for education is ok, she may be told that she has no cause- and thus not be ‘entitled’ to a divorce. Societal. Not Halachic
Women’s Rights. Zelafchad’s daughters saw injustice in the way land was given only to sons when the Jews were entering the Land of Israel and petitioned to change it. Moses took the question to God who said they were right and the law was modified, allowing daughters to receive an inheritance of land as well.
Sara Schenirer recognized that keeping girls from learning Torah was actually destroying the young Jewish generation with girls marrying out of the religion. She petitioned the Rabbis at the time and was given blessings to begin teaching girls Torah in a formal setting. Something that was until then forbidden.
Rabbeinu Gershon outlawed polygamy- something explicitly allowed in the Torah. He saw it as detrimental and made a blanket ban that completely altered marriage in Ashkenazi Judaism. He also made it so that a man could not divorce his wife without her consent – a radical change in Halacha.
Would we accuse them of foreign influence and nonkosher ideals?
Fear of women’s advancement is something I cannot grasp or understand. The fear that comes along with women wanting to fill more active roles in Judaism is, quite frankly, bizarre. I am still waiting for someone to give me something more than, “it’s never been done before”, because a- that is not true and b- that is not a halachic response.
Halacha is clear that never having done or seen something before does not make it forbidden. And the manipulative use of Kol Kevudah Bat Melech Pnima (the honor of the king’s daughter is internal) as a means to guilt women into thinking that they must remain behind the scenes, passive, and tucked away is eroding in the face of unanswered and unaddressed needs.
Recognizing that a Jewish practice no longer reflects contemporary ethics or norms, or is in fact detrimental to the Jewish people, and calling for halachically-mandated solutions has been a normal part of Judaism since we became a nation. It is how we stayed a nation for so long while so many others disappeared.
To those who resist women’s advancement in Judaism I say: What is it you fear? Why is our advancement not also your advancement? Why is our desire to be closer and more involved with Judaism not something you would applaud?
This phenomenon of women seeking more is not going anywhere. Women are going to continue to seek, to learn, to achieve, to speak, to be heard, to teach, to influence, to make the changes that the Jewish people needs for its survival because that has always been the Jewish way.