Orthodoxy and feminism: A response

“Opening Up About Open Orthodox Misogyny” is another piece, by another man, purporting what type of religion is (and isn’t) good for women – all in the name of feminism, of course. Because if a man is telling a woman how oppressed she is, its impossible that he’s part of the patriarchy.

Let’s start with the premise of the article: One personal experience can sum up and symbolize an entire religious movement. Given the wide breadth of Orthodoxy (and Conservative and Reform), I cannot accept this premise. If I did, I would be forced to conclude from my experiences at a Conservative minyan, where the women were outside watching the kids while the men prayed, that Conservative Judaism is sexist. The women are equally obligated in prayer and can lead the services, but in reality, they are stuck on babysitting duty. I would then say that my experiences seeing Orthodox men take care of their children in synagogue corridors so the wives could pray, whether at home or in synagogue, meant Orthodoxy was progressive. Obviously, this dichotomy would be false. That’s because the reality is much too complex to be reduced to evidence gleaned from personal anecdotes.

It is true that the debates about the definition of Orthodoxy often focus on the role of women. This is not due simply to mysogyny, however: As Dr. Tamar Ross points out in her book, “Expanding The Palace of Torah”, the reason feminism and Orthodoxy often becomes so controversial is that that debate necessitates a debate about the halachic process – and yes, how one relates to the halachic process is one of the basic elements of Orthodoxy.

To state that being Orthodox enough means “accepting that women are not people who should make a difference in Jewish ritual life” is false. First of all, in Open Orthodoxy, women do participate in public ritual life, serving as clergy, as well as reading out loud from the Torah and leading certain parts of the services. Second of all, the assumption that to “make a difference” means to lead services or be called rabbi, implies that women did not make a difference until the 20th century, when they began gaining equal participation in that realm, thus relegating women to the margins of Jewish religious history.

Of course, in Mr. Ranks’ article, the word “ritual” is synonymous with “public ritual”‘ because private ritual, a realm in which Orthodox women and men are equally obligated, and which is often seen as the special domain of Orthodox women, is completely disregarded.

If Orthodox Judaism is inherently misogynist, then Orthodox women are simply masochists, sucking at the teat of patriarchal oppression. This completely deligitimizes the tens of thousands of women who make a conscious decision to be Orthodox.

It is often hard for progressive Jews to accept the validity of a full and meaningful Jewish religious life sans public participation in synagogue services, even though the traditional legal sources did not see such participation as a prerequisite for a full religious experience. Orthodox Judaism views public ritual as a subset within the body of Jewish law, and it is that body that constitutes the numinous religious life. Conservative Judaism however, has chosen instead to focus on the synagogue experience as the indicator of full citizenship in Judaism – which is more in line with the practices of its laity, whose religious experiences are mainly reduced to the synagogue, and its affiliated Hebrew schools and youth movements.

It seems that one of the reasons Conservative Judaism sees public ritual as a prerequisite to a full religious life, is that it has traditionally been done by men – since men have been doing this for hundreds of years, it must constitute the meaningful religious experience. All the women who came before did not have a meaningful experience, because theirs did not replicate that of men. Anything done by women but not men cannot be vital the religious experience, because it occurred in the private domain, which we know is less meaningful than the public, since the public was reserved for males.

Of course, this is the narrative of many within the Open Orthodox movement as well: Many in Open Orthodoxy are extremely troubled by the role of women in Orthodox law. They do not believe that “women are not people who should make a difference in Jewish ritual life”. They see a conflict between their beliefs about women’s ideal role in Jewish public ritual and their beliefs about the way that Jewish law should be legislated – and ultimately, prioritize the latter.

Misogyny exists in all religious movements, simply because we live in a world in which misogyny permeates all facets of social and political life. But arguing over which movement is more misogynist is pointless: There is constructive discourse to be had about Orthodoxy and feminism, but such a discourse must be predicated on accepting the validity of Orthodox women’s religious experiences – because if there’s one thing we need less of, its Conservative men (and Orthodox men, and Reform) telling Jewish women how to be religious.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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