Viewing Judaism through the Lens of Feminism

I’m told that back in the 70s the late Ner Israel Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg once commented that the biggest danger to Judaism in our time was feminism. I remember thinking that surely there other more pressing problems we faced than a movement to give equal rights to women. Something that I supported and something that has borne much positive fruit. I thought, ‘What could possibly be wrong with the ideal of equality of the sexes?’

Well I still feel that way in most cases. But clearly Rabbi Weinberg was right. I have also been told that Rabbi Weinberg felt that way because it was a much more difficult task to convince people seeking equality that Judaism is one area where it could not be universally applied. That has proven to be the case.

What was once a movement to give women equal pay for equal work and equal dignity with men, has in the case of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) turned into a movement to change the face of Judaism into something unrecognizable. We are way past equal pay for equal work as feminism originally stated purpose Even though we still have a long way to go in that department. We are also way past the idea of treating each other with equal dignity.

The agenda being set now may have begun with Rabbi Avi Weiss’s innovation of ordaining women for the rabbinate. That has picked up steam in the form of Yeshivat Maharat, a rabbinical school for women. More recently Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has done the same – celebrating the ordination of two women. He is now suggesting that women be considered for positions as religious court judges!

I refer you to an article in the Jewish Week about a recent JOFA  conference. If one reads the issues addressed at this conference one would be hard pressed to find any real Jewish content. Had this conference been held by Christians or even secular humanists for that matter, it would have sounded the same. While it might be true that a lot of the rhetoric there might have included phrases like ‘Judaism aligns with…’ or ‘It is a tenet of Judaism that…’ you could probably substitute the name of any other movement for the word Judaism and say the same things. That all or most of the attendees were observant Jews does not make this a Jewish event anymore that a group of Orthodox Jews attending a conference on climate change. Climate change is a concern for all of us. But it is not a particularly Jewish agenda item.

This is not to say that Judaism does not address the issues raised. Of course it does. Judaism has something to say about all human endeavors. But that was not what JOFA seemed to be saying about these issues. The speakers addressing them had already decided on the validity of their own ‘progressive’ approach to all the issues raised. An approach virtually identical to the prevailing view of ‘Progressives’. There was nothing in that article about objective rabbinic opinion. No mention about the possibility that their views might have some rabbinic detractors. No religious authority of any stature was cited in the 2 articles I read. JOFA speakers just assumed their ‘Progressive’ approach was the correct approach.

Now I am not saying that the ‘Progressive’ view is wrong in every way. There may be some ‘Progressive’ approaches that are supported by Halacha. But JOFA apparently didn’t bother finding out. If they did – that information is missing from both articles.

Even if they did seek rabbinic guidance – I have to believe that they sought it from ‘Progressive’ rabbis that are not of sufficient stature whose views are hardly objective. I am reminded of Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s endorsement of gay marriage by using Torah passage in Bereishis (2:18) of ‘Lo Tov Hayos HaAdam Levado’ (It is not good for man to live alone). This is at best a tortured an explanation of the words of the Torah! The Torah is clearly talking about a man and a woman – Adam and Eve.

This is not to say that there were not some legitimate items on their agenda. Like the plight of the Agunah. Or the recent practice in more right wing circles of erasing women from the public square. Unfortunately there are even some mainstream right wing periodicals that have decided to move in that direction by never publishing a picture of a woman in order to satisfy some of their readers that have more extreme views on the subject. And as you go further to the right, this kind of thing becomes more egregious to the point of endangering the health of women. Like never publishing the word ‘breast’ even in an article discussing breast cancer. Or in removing the word  ‘woman’ on a sign in Bet Shemesh indicating that a building was a woman’s health clinic!

If this was what JOFA was about, I’d become a member. But these issues seem to be relatively minor compared to the more important goal of breaking as many glass ceilings as possible – and eliminating any but the most basic physical differences between a man and a woman. No matter what obstacle gets in their way. This is not Judaism. This is militant feminism.

What about a statement attributed to JOFA founder Blu Greenberg which says, ‘If there is a rabbinic will, there is a Halachic way’? That simply is not true. A rabbi cannot change Halacha, not matter who much of a rabbinic will there is to do that.

JOFA will claim that this is meant to apply in areas where there is no clear prohibition against such a ‘will’. Perhaps. But if that means changing the entire character of Judaism into something unrecognizable, is it worth doing just because you want to be equal to men in all things? Is it justifiable to advocate the kinds of things whose legitimacy has been rejected by all the major Poskim of our generation? Is wanting something badly enough worth breaking with tradition and thereby causing yet another rift if Judaism? Are hundreds of years of traditional Judaism to be tossed out at the behest of modern day feminism just so that a religious glass ceiling can be broken?

There are many that will answer yes to these questions. The freedom of personal choice – they will say – trumps everything! They are happy to be part of a movement where “Feminism, and particularly Orthodox feminism, is being used as a lens to view everything…”   They have the right to see it that way. But the consequences of blindly following this path need to be considered.The following excerpt from the Jewish Week illustrates what Judaism might look like if we view everything through that lens:

Avigayil Halpern, a 20-year-old college sophomore at Yale University and a panelist at the conference, said that though her roots are in Orthodox feminism, she now identifies as “halachic egalitarian.” Halpern attended Orthodox day schools through high school and discovered a “passion for Talmud” in an all-girls Talmud class during her freshman year. Today, the Judaic studies major and West Hartford, Conn., native puts on tefillin, the ritual prayer boxes traditionally worn by Orthodox men, and wears tzitzit, the ritual traditionally-male worn garment.

This was clearly not the Judaism of the past. Nor is it the Judaism of the future. JOFA members and supporters of their cause are welcome to do as they choose. But please don’t call it Orthodox feminism. Because all it really is – is feminism!

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.