Sara Conway

My Take on the Torah and Feminism

The dichotomy between modern feminism and “traditional Jewish Feminism” is coming to a head right now in Israel. As a group of women and men, named Women of the Wall (WOW) and their leader Anat Hoffman, have made it their “mission” to “liberate the Kotel” and wrest it from the control of the Traditional Orthodox community. Public statements by self purported WoW leaders, indicate that this is just one part of an agenda, which includes eliminating any forms of gender segregation from the public sphere in Israel, including at Holy Sites, where Traditional Jewish law dictates a separate prayer area for men and women. At the Kotel, a separate section, Robinson’s Arch, a few feet away from the ladies section of the Kotel, has been designated as a “pluralist” prayer area, to accommodate for non-Traditional Orthodox ceremonies. But according to a number of news sources, WOW has refused to agree to a compromise and insists on the right to pray in the Traditional women’s section and wear Talis and Tefilin, read from the Torah and sing out loud, even if it upsets the customs of the majority of people who pray at the site. One leader of WoW has said publicly, that WoW’s ultimate mission is to dismantle the status quo at the Kotel and turn into a non-religious state monument.

As part of their attempt to change the status quo at the Kotel, WOW and their PR team has conducted a systematic, worldwide, media campaign, painting Traditional and Orthodox men as bullies and Traditional and Orthodox women as blind ,uneducated followers. I have come across statements from this group comparing Jewish gender segregation in Israel to Jim Crow Laws, racial segregation in the 1950’s United States and women wearing Burkas in Iran. One of WOW’s leaders, has been quoted on the BBC as saying, “There is Orthodoxy and there is Normalcy- they both end in a Y, but they are not the same concept.” Despite their “pluralistic claims,” WOW refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy and religious freedom of hundreds of thousands of Jewish men and women, around the world, who wish to maintain the status quo at the Kotel and support gender segregation, especially at Holy Sites, which are held in reverence and require the utmost decorum. They choose to introduce rituals at the Kotel that are disruptive and offensive to the thousands of Traditional Orthodox Jews who pray at the Kotel every day, without any sensitivity or regard for their feelings and Traditions.

Many of the statements issued by leaders and followers of this group are directed against Traditional and Orthodox Jews. The most personally offensive comments are those that portray Traditional Orthodox women as mindless followers who do not know any better but to follow the rules of their men. As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I embrace the mindset and culture of traditional Judaism, as it has enriched and beautified my life. The Traditional and Orthodox women that I know are highly educated and intelligent and play a crucial role in Traditional and Orthodox culture. The majority of my peers are college educated and many have attained higher degrees. Even those without formal higher education are intelligent, hardworking and free thinking women. While many of my peers currently work part time or are stay at home moms, others have full time careers. What is consistent amongst them all is the esteem in which they hold the Torah and Rabbanim and their commitment to the role they play in the Jewish home and family. No matter what track a Traditional Orthodox Jewish woman chooses for herself, career or home or a combination of both, preparations for Shabbat and Holidays, educating her children and supporting her husband emotionally and spiritually, are the cornerstone of her life. In Traditional Orthodox Judaism, women hold much power, as it is their role to set the tone for their family and ensure that our traditions are passed down to the next generation

Modern feminism has opened the doors for women in many ways and there are many more doors they still have to open. Feminism has helped women attain the right to vote, increased their ability to attain higher degrees and has opened the door so they can follow any career path they can choose. An unfortunate consequence of this “liberation,” is that it has systematically minimized the natural phenomenon of male and female uniqueness. An unfortunate byproduct is that it has created negative associations with traditional female life roles. This often results in a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach, where some women feel that they have to be exactly like men to be fulfilled. It is has been my personal experience that in the pursuit of “fairness” and “equality,” many women spend their lives trying to achieve perfection both at home and in their careers and as a result never feel completely fulfilled in either role. While others choose to deny their feminine sides completely, opting out of having children and/or getting married as these “distractions” may disrupt their career. In the environment of academia, I was told by more than one colleague, male and female, that I was selfish for having taken one of the 10 spots granted per year in my graduate program, as I had children and my education would be wasted.

For me, Traditional, Orthodox Judaism gives a woman the ability to balance her religious and personal lives in a realistic and fulfilling way. In Traditional, Orthodox Judaism, while men hold more of a public role, attending synagogue 3 times a day, engaging in Torah study and wearing Tails and Tefilin; a woman who often plays a dual role as bread winner and primary caregiver, has everything she needs to feel fulfilled in her relationship to G-d, within her heart and her home. Our sages teach us, that women are naturally more spiritual and loyal and therefore do not need the physical reminders of their devotion to G-d, such as Yarmulka, Tzizit, Tallis and Tefilin. Women are also exempt from the majority of time sensitive laws, such as praying with a Minyan, as her main priority is to be available for her family and her children. Women are not explicitly forbidden to do these things, but women are considered to be on a higher spiritual plane, where these outer trappings are unnecessary for them to maintain a connection to G-d. G-d in his infinite wisdom has given a woman a way to balance her career and family obligations, while at the same time allowing her to maintain a connection to her Creator. All a woman has to do to reach out to her Creator is open her heart and her prayer book and she is already there.

This approach contrasts many of the publicized assertions of WOW and their supporters, as Torah Judaism does not suppress Traditional women, but frees them from performing certain commandments, so they can perform other equally and perhaps, one would argue, more important tasks. Personally, I think that once people experience the warmth and light of the Traditional Orthodox approach to Judaism they find it very attractive, as the number of Traditional Orthodox Jews is growing exponentially year after year. Yeshivas and Jewish Day schools are busting out at the seams and another Orthodox synagogue opens every day. While, unfortunately, the same thing can not be said for some other streams of Judaism, where communities are losing more and more numbers due to assimilation and Temples and Hebrew Schools are closing as people have lost interest.

For thousands of years, we have prayed toward Jerusalem and the Kotel from all around the world. We have prayed that our traditions and prayers would return to this Holy Site. Now that Jerusalem is in our hands, let’s not forget the pain we felt when we were severely limited or forbidden to pray at the Kotel in our traditional way. The Torah has always led us to a path of justice and continuity, so my sisters, let’s be careful that in our pursuit of “equality,” we do not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and remove the sanctity and tradition from this Holy Place.

About the Author
Sara Davis-Conway PhD is a mother of four and a licensed neuropsycholgist in Flushing, NY.