Redeeming humanity: The Jewish approach to women

Women are at the center of Jewish life, and need to be central in the Jewish environmental and social change movement. Jewish women — as a collective entity — must draw lessons from the global conversation on economic development, which acknowledges that empowering women is the central key to societal harmony. Then steps need to be taken to strengthen our own circle and extend support to all women.

Jewish birth workers today serve women in medical and non-medical settings locally and globally, and women’s wellness inside and outside of the Jewish community. Birth workers in the Jewish community are intimately entwined in the historic mechanisms that place women in the center, as they are involved with women who live according to the ancestral customs. Jewish birth workers today have thousands of years of Jewish history and experience to build from.

So what happens when a doula and a midwife-in-training meet at a Jewish environmental food conference? They share observations about how the women are relating to each other and the roles women play at the conference. They connect over Jewish ancestral matriarchs and cry together over Mama Rachel, in their first conversation. They hold an informal women’s exchange at a table in the cafeteria during the conference’s parting meal. And when they both join the planning committee for the next conference, they propose a “Women’s Circle” which comes to fruition.

In the summer of 2011 when over 50 women at the Hazon Jewish Environmental Food Conference came together, the women went around the circle and answered the question, “What does being a Jewish woman mean to you?” It was a challenging question, and it brought out deep emotional stories.

By the time we reached the end of the circle, we had learned new things; that the question itself being posed to Jewish women in the room might be hurtful for transgender or other gender-identified persons, that feeding kids healthy foods is challenging, we even learned that men had wanted to participate. The prevailing thread, the topic that came up over and over was that of infertility and childlessness. The women of all ages in the room laughed, cried, listened and found connections with each other that they had not discovered before.

Global context: Women are central to resolving social strife

The current backdrop to the recent conversation among women at a Jewish environmental conference is a massive, visible global discourse on how economies and societies thrive when women are educated, employed, and have access to contraception. Humanity’s collective consciousness is finally recognizing the centrality of women. This recent recognition is unprecedented on this scale, as seen in the following international conferences:

  • At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development May, 2012 in Rio, women were noted in new policies, but not seen as a critical answer to worldwide betterment. A prevailing reaction from non-governmental organizations to Rio+20 was the re-assertion that women’s wellness and reproductive rights are proven to be indispensable to sustainable development strategy.
  • A Global Summit on Women convened in Athens, Greece in the end of May, 2012, bringing hope to another country in crisis. There, women executives from some 70 countries reaffirmed and established new professional networks – international alliances of female businesswomen who understand the important part they play in shifting power dynamics across the planet.
  • The London Family Planning Summit in July 2012 brought together advocates and policy makers that addressed contraception and abortion in the context of women’s rights, also with a broader understanding of its implications for economic development. Soon after, All Africa published an editorial July 25 which identified family planning as crucial to overcoming humanity’s global challenges:

In addition to improving public health, satisfying unmet need for modern contraceptives would bring a host of other benefits. Enabling women to control their fertility and time their births means better chances for higher educational attainment, increased employment opportunities, and enhanced social and economic status. Family savings and investment would rise, spurring economic growth and reducing poverty. These advances at the family level would in turn make social and economic development goals easier to achieve, benefiting society as a whole.

News on women’s rights from the Holy Land that reaches mainstream media in the United States tends to focus on freedom of expression and religious oppression. Domestic violence is rampant in Israel, where one out of three women experience sexual assault in their lifetimes, and there has been a call for prioritizing funds to combat sexual violence like national security. Disparities are evident, as over half of Palestinian women are subjected to physical violence. Palestinian women protested against domestic violence in Bethlehem this month, while a Haifa women’s shelter that serves Palestinian women is at risk of losing its funding.

Meanwhile, the “war on women” is raging in the USA. Squabbling in the US Congress stalled the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for months and lawmakers broke for August recess without passing it. Violence in teen and adult relationships is epidemic. With 1 out of 5 college women experiencing sexual assault, social innovations are taking place to engage youth in helping develop strategies and common understandings of the crises before us. Despite the hold-up of the Violence Against Women Act in Congress, August 10 President Obama signed an Executive Order Preventing and Responding to Violence Against Women Globally. In the US, eradicating violence against women is a beginning step to clearly supporting women.

Childbirth being a gauge for any nation’s healthcare system, women who give birth in US hospitals are not receiving evidence-based care, while a New Zealand study demonstrated that the same midwives at homebirths were better educating their clients than in hospitals. About one third of births in the US are by cesarean, and one fifth in Israel. United States maternal mortality rates have nearly doubled since 1990, and rank 50th in the world while spending more on healthcare than any other country. The US has enormous disparities between birth outcomes for different populations of women.

At the same time, on August 1 a new system of healthcare in the USA began, providing women with eight types of preventative care without copay. The Affordable Care Act now covers screenings from annual well-woman visits to STD and domestic violence, but the contraceptives provisions in particular are being challenged by certain religious institutions. The ACLU reports:

Access to contraception is crucial for women’s equal participation in society. Controlling whether and when to have children has had a direct effect on women’s ability to make their own paths in terms of their schooling, careers, their families.

In the United States, the Occupy movement has kept Americans conscious of the big picture — like the alarming poverty rates — one in 45 children is homeless, and the fact that student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt. Israel’s social movement is a massive response to financial hardship as well, with 1 in 3 children living in poverty. These realities impact women and their families. How are our Jewish sisters affected by these trends? What can be done?

Critical Jewish Wisdom and Feminine Strength

How are Jewish women affected by or involved with this global analysis? Are we financially secure, and treated well in the workplace? Are we informed enough to know how to increase the likelihood of a healthy pregnancy and birth? Can we afford to send our kids to Jewish schools? Can we access healthy food and live a balanced life? Are we suffering from domestic violence or other abuse or discrimination? Are we in community, able to fulfill our life goals and contribute positively to society?

The women’s circle we held at the Jewish environmental conference was inserted into a busy weekend of extensive programming aimed at creating healthy, agricultural communities. Like with much of women’s self-care, the organizers did not grasp the far reaching impact of such a gathering of women and our circle was squeezed in after dinner before other festivities. But what we birth workers discovered was that in a very short time, the circle go-around began to fulfill the need we had perceived for the women in the conference – to connect with and learn about each other as women. We left the room feeling stronger, motivated to attend more such womens’ gatherings, and with much love for one another.

It was clear that we will have greater inspiration and cooperation when we are connected with our womanly hearts in strength, as we create new agricultural communities to promote food security as a significant contribution to improving the world; and that we need to integrate relevant programming that enhances the relationships and empowerment of women whenever possible. Women’s issues go hand in hand with any movement that aims to elevate the world with tikkun work. As we participate in Jewish communal activities, or champion social and environmental justice issues like sex trafficking, immigration, marriage equality, labor, or the Farm Bill, it is critical that we adopt these strategic concepts by ensuring that women are in leadership roles and are able to express their feminine contributions.

Not only do we need to ensure that a good Jewish education is accessible to all Jewish children; it is imperative that we Jewesses draw strength from deepening our own knowledge and understanding of our sacred heritage. Jewish women’s Torah study and building our connections to each other through Jewish ancestral wisdom are utterly natural paths to take when societal pressures are not diverting us, or when popular culture is not distracting us.

There is much we can do to grow strong spiritually as a body of Jewish women. Our ancestry has provided us with birthrights. Regular women’s rituals like bringing in the sabbath, tracking and celebrating the lunar cycle, resting during the time that Chanukah candles are lit – all these and more practices are available. In fact, our collective Jewish soul needs us to fulfill these actions as does the rest of the world.

When it comes to the environment, in Judaism the earth is female. In marital relationships, ancient Jewish wisdom puts the woman in authority when it comes to decision making – as we learned from G-d’s directive to Avraham during a crisis: Whatever Sarah your wife says, you shall listen. It was because of the Jewish women that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt. Jewesses can take pride in the fact that physical abuse is grounds for a divorce in our tradition. Judaism even recognizes the evils of patriarchy and predicts its demise.

Finally, the women confronting childlessness at the Jewish environmental conference deserve respect and support. Topics which were taboo for conservative people and uncomfortable for the modest now have been unveiled as crucial health and societal issues, including matters of fertility.

The women who are struggling to conceive, birth, and raise Jewish children need spaces where they can find each other, heal, fortify their spiritual roots, and move forward to enjoy the great things they can experience and accomplish in their lives. The strength of a woman is not from her head covering or from her womb – her power is in her spirit. We need to establish safe, nurturing settings to bring our spirits together and grow as one.

In “The Complete Artscroll Siddur,” a footnote elaborates on the daily morning prayers:

Women… both historically and because of their nature, are the guardians of the tradition, the molders of character, children, and family. Furthermore, women have often been the protectors of Judaism when the impetuosity and aggressiveness of the male nature led the men astray… They are created closer to God’s ideal of satisfaction.

Our own ancestry advises us that women are key to establishing global peace, to ushering in the age of the messiah. We have the gift of life and the power to help bring in that era of wholeness, one mitzvah at a time. In every calculation we must account for the fact that world justice won’t happen without the women.

About the Author
Wendy Kenin is a childbirth doula and mother of 5 in Berkeley, California. She produces ecofeminist Judaica, is founder of Imeinu Birth Collective, is a social media consultant, co-chair of the Green Party’s national newspaper Green Pages, and a member of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. Wendy is a member of the editorial board of Jewcology, and serves on the leadership circle of Canfei Nesharim.