Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector

Everyone’s a little bit feminist.


Well, maybe not. But it would be nice if it were true, no? What the hell is a feminist anyway, and why is it a dirty word for some and a proud label for others? What does it mean to ‘give feminism a bad name’?

So, I’m a little late to the IWD party. But when am I ever not late for things? I’ve had this idea in my head for a few days now, and it only just occurred to that posting it yesterday would have been timely, but I missed midnight by just a bit.

It never really occurred to me that gender would ever feature in someone’s minds when they were thinking about intelligence or ability.

I’ve also come fairly late to the feminist camp. As a young girl, I had a pretty entitled attitude to life (by which I mean I was a somewhat petulant and precocious child), so I’m sure there were occasions on which I protested the ‘rights’ afforded to me, but I was never that bothered about the status of my gender in comparison with men. I was comfortable in the fact that I generally came out at or near the top in my class at school, ahead of most of the guys, and it never really occurred to me that gender would ever feature in someone’s minds when they were thinking about intelligence or ability.

In my religious life as an observant Jew, it never bothered me all that much that I was upstairs in the gallery of the synagogue while the men did their thing downstairs. I actually remember my mother z’l – no cowed woman herself – saying at one point, ‘I’m quite happy letting them do the religion stuff, I can’t be bothered!’, and I was always inclined to agree with her. The same way that I knew that if I had been around in the time of the suffrage movement, I would have been one of those women who said, ‘I’m not that bothered about the vote. I’ll just carry on making dinner, if that’s OK with you.’

Until relatively recently, I recall telling people that I was no feminist. ‘Feminist’ meant those slightly barmy woman who hate men, show off their armpit hair, and rant for hours about how society has done them wrong. Sure, I didn’t think that it was right for women to be given fewer opportunities than men based on their gender, but it’s not like that really happens all that much these days, anyway, right? Wrong, Past-Me, very wrong. You were so wrong.

Yes we can!

Feminist. Feminism. Let’s go back to basics. According to one definition, ‘feminism’ is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ According to another, it is ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’ or ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.’ Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that two of these three seem to have assumed the synonymy of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ and just focus on the basic ideas in them.  Quite simply, then, it would seem that a feminist is one who agrees with the somehow radical idea that men and women should be given the same opportunities in life, to be used (or not) as they wish, without the fact of their gender changing what society permits them to do. So, am I a feminist? Yes, and I probably always have been. Yes, I personally happen to love the activities traditionally assigned to women, and will happily cook, clean, iron, sew and so on once I’m (please G-d one day) married with a family – as long as my husband is willing to share some of those tasks with me. As a feminist, I believe that can be my personal choice, just as I could choose to be a high-powered career woman if I wished to (and may still choose to).

A feminist is one who agrees with the somehow radical idea that men and women should be given the same opportunities in life, to be used (or not) as they wish.

In recent years, there has been a big stir in the Orthodox Jewish world regarding the role and position of women in Modern Orthodoxy. It doesn’t seem unfair to say that traditional Orthodoxy has had pretty strongly defined gender roles, with men taking the prominent role in the synagogue and public worship and the woman’s domain being the home and the family. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of law vs. tradition here, nor exactly why I’m in favour of many of the growing trends for the inclusion of women in prayer, practice and legal decisions; instead, I’d like to focus on people’s reactions to it all, particularly in reference to the relatively new partnership minyan movement.

For those unfamiliar with certain aspects of Judiasm, I’ll offer a brief explanation, and try to make it as cross-denominational as possible. Judaism is an incredibly community-focussed religion, and various aspects of the liturgy require an assembled community or minyan (ten adult Jewish males for Orthodoxy, ten adult Jews for progressive movements like Reform and Liberal Judaism) in order for them to be recited. There are also parts of the liturgy which are more obligatory than others, and thus there is an argument for them holding a slightly different status to other sections. Similarly, the traditional interpretation (within Orthodoxy) is that men have more of an obligation to perform/recite the liturgy than women do, and thus have precedence when it comes to leading services. The partnership movement, a new sub-group growing out of Orthodoxy, then, maintains a certain distinction between men and woman whilst arguing by identifying areas of reduced obligation that more of the service can actually be led by woman than has traditionally been accepted.

Many prominent figures have thrown their opinions into the partnership minyan debate – although I’ve heard more of what’s happening in the UK than worldwide. We’ve heard from supporters like Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Dina Brawer, Lindsay Simmonds, and Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel, and there’s been a plethora of responses to the movement from those less in favour, notably Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Rabbi Alan Kimche, and Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet. There’s also been much keyboard-time given to the matter on Facebook, particularly in the relatively new ‘MOO – Modern/Open Orthodox’ group set up by David Chait in the hope that it would provide a space for issues like this to be debated and developed further. The justification for partnership minyanim in Jewish law aside, what I’ve found really fascinating in all of the debating back and forth has been what it has revealed about people’s attitudes to feminism. And, in that, I include my own.

If things have been one way for centuries and then a grassroots movement comes along to shake it up a little, noses are going to be put out of joint.

When there is something at stake as fundamental as the traditional interpretations of Jewish law (halacha), it’s not all that surprising to see certain red lines being drawn and people taking other people’s views a little too personally. If things have been one way for centuries and then a grassroots movement comes along to shake it up a little, noses are going to be put out of joint. There have been both men and women arguing against partnership minyanim using a variety of halachic and sociological arguments ranging from the reason- and logic-based to the appeals to emotion and tradition, and the same can be said of those in support of the movement. I myself have been guilty of all of these forms of argumentation at times.

Where the embryonic idea of this blog post was born, though, was in my thoughts about and reactions to seeing women arguing against partnership minyanim: many, many women oppose the concept, having accepted and embraced their more traditional role in Judaism, and have said as much. Some have even done so whilst calling themselves feminists. My gut reaction to this has been a mixture of pity for their ‘oppressed mindsets’ and annoyance that they would be held up and used by their male counterparts as examples of why Orthodoxy doesn’t need such ideas after all. After a while, I became so frustrated by seeing such views being aired, particularly on the Facebook group mentioned above, that I seemed to be doing nothing but demonstrating that not all women shared the same views, rather than giving real counter-arguments. Eventually, I gave up entirely, concluding in disgust that the women concerned weren’t ‘real’ feminists; there seemed to be no point in hanging around, because I was clearly sharing the space with a patriarchal voice which couldn’t be silenced. But more on this later.

JOFA has been gaining momentum worldwide, and was brought to the UK a year ago by Dina Brawer.

My own view of partnership minyanim has evolved over time. I remember the first one I went to, about four years ago, making me feel distinctly uncomfortable. I was much more conservative (with a little ‘c’) in those days! As my feminism grew in general, though, so did my Jewish feminism; by the time JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) held its first UK conference last June, I jumped at the suggestion (made by a male friend, as it happens) of going along. I even decided to go along to the partnership minyan held that morning, and I remember being moved by the fact that, as well as the 100+ women in attendance, dozens of men came along to ensure that there was a halachic minyan. They could have gone to any minyan that morning, but they chose to support the one which gave women a real role in the proceedings. Since that time, I have attended almost every partnership minyan held in London, and been given my first aliyah (call up to the Torah) at a different grassroots minyan. Quite an about-face!

I find it very comforting to know that we will only be pushing halacha and tradition so far and no further, because it seems somehow to justify what has been permitted.

I recently had a bit of a flash realisation, though, at a Q&A session with Rabbi Sperber about partnership minyanim. When asked (by a man!) whether such minyanim actually go far enough to include women, Rabbi Sperber responded that we are bound by halacha: we can go so far and no further, however much we may want to do so. And I was very surprised by the feeling of relief that that answer gave me. I feel very comfortable with the concept of partnership minyanim, and don’t feel that they are ‘just a slippery slope to Reform Judaism’, but I find it very comforting to know that we will only be pushing halacha and tradition so far and no further, because it seems somehow to justify what has been permitted: we know our limits, so clearly we must be operating within halacha. Stopping to think about this feeling of relief, it surprised me somewhat. Was I there and then demonstrating a mentality of patriarchal oppression? Was I only happy to be given equality if it was conditional? What kind of feminist was I, if I found reassurance from a not-so-transparent glass ceiling?

This reaction and realisation didn’t make me change my opinion of partnership minyanim. I remain committed to taking up a role in Judaism within the confines of halacha. What it has affected, though, is my understanding of feminism and self-definition. What it made me wake up and realise is that, for all that I pat myself on the back for being proactive about ensuring that women don’t suffer persecution, I forget that there are almost as many interpretations of feminism as there are feminists. Without having to stop to think, I can think of scores of people in my own circles and beyond who would consider my views to be far too traditionalist and would think that I haven’t gone far enough in the feminist pursuit. I may in turn think that they are wrong, but the disagreement doesn’t need to cast aspersions over either of our ‘feminist credentials’.

Not all feminists will share the same views as me, and that’s OK. We’re all ultimately heading in the same direction, so we really need to stop with the infighting.

Following that through to its logical progression, though, I’ve had to come to recognise that not all feminists will share the same views as me, and that’s OK. Feminist issues can cover a range of things from women in the workplace to women in religion to women in education, and different women will feel different levels of passion about such topics. If a woman considers herself to be a feminist because she is infuriated by the inequality she sees in education for women, but doesn’t feel a need to participate in religious worship, it doesn’t mean I have a right to decide that she’s not a ‘real’ feminist. Entering the feminist world late as I did, I never got the chance to talk to my mother about her views on the subject, but I very much doubt that her views on getting involved in services would have made her forswear calling herself a feminist, nor would I say that she wasn’t one. As frustrating as it can be to hear people not agreeing with one’s point of view (!) and seemingly even contradicting those opinions, we’re all ultimately heading in the same direction, so we really need to stop with the infighting. My feminism is different to that of people who go to fully egalitarian minyanim, and different again to women who disagree with women leading services in an Orthodox context, but we all have the right to self-define as feminists – people who recognise that men and women are equal.

11 thoughts on “Everyone’s a little bit feminist.

  1. Whilst I agree that we can’t tell other people that they’re not feminists, I do struggle with the idea that there is no wrong way to do feminism.

    Women who call themselves feminists but deny transwomen a voice? You’re not my feminist sisters.
    Women who call themselves feminists and then say that they don’t think women should participate in services? I’m sorry, I won’t call you my feminist sister either. It’s not enough to claim the label, you have to actively be fighting the patriarchy in some (tiny) way!

    But hey, you can have 3 Jews and 4 opinions and you can have 1 woman and 5 opinions. That’d be me 🙂

    Ps. Did I just pop your comment cherry?!

    • I hear what you’re saying, and I fully expected to hear that from at least one person (and you may have been on the shortlist for being that person!). You’re assuming, though, that these women aren’t fighting the patriarchy at all simply because they don’t want women participating in services. How about if they’re fighting for improved women’s education in a society which usually denies it to them, or if they’re taking a stand and demanding contraception rather than having no control over when they fall pregnant? Still not feminists?

      Also, given that you’re fully egalitarian, what do you define as women ‘participating in services’? If women aren’t counted in the minyan or able to lead an entire service, are they participating enough for you to call it feminism?

      *stirring the pot*

  2. ‘we all have the right to self-define as feminists – people who recognise that men and women are equal.’

    Hey Abigail!
    Some really awesome stuff in your blog- I I agree with a lot of the sentiment, even if we will always ideologically differ on halacha. I’m not sure if I can completely agree with your idea that people are can be a feminist in some areas and *ideologically* not others, and call themselves a feminist. I think there is difference between a being someone who isn’t actively involved in women’s education for example, but ideologically supports the cause, to being someone who *purposefully and ideologically* doesn’t participate in minyanim where people are working hard to allow women to take leadership roles.^ I would rather not get too into labeling, but I feel there is an inconsistency in some positions. I just find it very hard to understand how for a person in the second category they could really believe in the goal of ‘equality’- they are putting their religious life in a separate box in which discrimination that they would think is unacceptable in the workplace etc. is sanctified. Also they are not recognising the historical and current role religious gender discrimination plays in all other types of sexism.
    I really hope in the future more Jews recognise that women are *people*!^^

    ^I appreciate that many people make this choice for other reasons that are more about habit/ community/ convenience etc. And here I am not making a strong distinction between partnership minyanim and egalitarian minyanim, although I believe they do see women significantly differently.
    ^^Note how many siddurim/birkonim etc. assume the congregation is male only: ‘bless the master of the house and his wife’, ‘all should don tefillin now’, ‘has made the covenant in our flesh’. So much more shit to stir.

    • Thanks Emma! I had you in mind when I was writing a lot of this! 🙂

      Firstly, I can tell yeshivah’s taking its toll on you – your comment on a blog post has footnotes!

      I hear where you (and Emily above) are coming from, but I would have to say that this is an area in which a person’s attitude towards halacha and egalitarianism actually plays quite a large role. For the two of you, given your worldview, it makes little sense to you that someone should put religion in a different category to the rest of life (like the workplace). I get the sense, though, that the Orthodox world approaches the whole subject more cautiously, and with more willingness to box off religious practice (whether rightly or wrongly) because of a perception of the sanctity of tradition. I include myself in this group of people, I have to say, although I don’t know to what extent.

      Whether that acts as a justification for what you (and many others) would say puts a question mark over the feminist credentials of people and arguments like these, I don’t know, but I think it’s important to recognise that aspect of context in framing the discussion.

      It’s an interesting point you make about the assumption in liturgical books that the community is male. I don’t actually own one of those Artscroll Women’s Siddurim (peh peh peh), but it would be interesting to see if any of the ‘stage directions’ are different in them. Not that that would excuse the male assumption in other siddurim, but it would at least show that the publishers of siddurim have taken note.

  3. Hi Abigail,

    Firstly I’d like to commend you on your eloquently written and thought-provoking post. This is actually quite topical for me at the moment as I am writing my dissertation around this topic! I felt that I could connect to a lot of what you said, as someone who also came to the feminist part late (ironic, I know) I often find it difficult that there are so many different definitions of feminism. My personal definition, at least the one I subscribe too, is that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It would seem to some that within halacha women and men do not have access to the same opportunities. I recognise that the majority of these issues are beholden on the cultural context in which they were written. The Talmud was written by men for a male audience. I would argue that the more discriminatory material is actually found in the discussion of the rabbis as opposed to the biblical texts.

    There are some rabbis today that have realised that the time has come to engage women in halachic Judaism. That exemption does not mean exclusion and that women can participate more actively. However, this means that we are still working within a male gatekeeper construct. Orthodox Jews are far more likely to take authority from a male rabbi than a learned woman. This is patriarchy. Until women are allowed into the discussion in order to make halachic decisions we will always be working within a patriarchal context. Perhaps this explains the relief you felt at Rabbi Sperber’s talk? You had confirmation from a male gatekeeper (albeit an ally) that this action was legitimate according to the traditional male gatekeepers of our heritage. I struggle to de construct the patriarchy from our religion and heritage but somehow I have to find my place within it in order to not sacrifice my other values in my religious life. I believe perhaps this is a slow process and things will change gradually over time.

    In terms of feminism, I believe that feminism is about choice. A feminist should not be able to say “A woman cannot do X”, instead she must say “I would not feel comfortable doing X but if someone else does it it is their choice”. You do not have to support their choice, but you do need to respect it as a legitimate one.

  4. Here’s my two pennies’ worth as requested:

    I think if people (not just women) operate in a secular world – which is progressive here – and belong to a more conservative Jewish denomination then their feminism is consistent, even if they seem to apply it differently in the two worlds. The inconsistency is in their two lives, not their feminism. If they are only happy for the boundaries to be pushed within their world’s (current) redlines, then I see no issue with them being ‘feminists’. If they nay say and challenge progress in areas which they could accept within their general understanding then it might be different.

    Apologies if my maleness makes me too understanding of the other ‘feminists’. I normally just repeat what I’ve found to be insightful from others on the subject. This time it’s me thinking on my feet so might be very flawed.

  5. My take on it (as a mother working in a male dominated environment with 3 young children) is that equality of opportunity in the workplace is desirable in theory but actually not practical in practice unless you either a) don’t have children b) have a husband who is prepared to take on all the childcare / be home on time every night to put the children to bed or c) you have a full time nanny and accept you’ll hardly see your kids. Its a bit like what R Sperber said – can go so far but not any further (glass ceiling?)

    In terms of established traditional religion including orthodox Judiasm – well religions have developed over thousands of years in patriarchal society, and some decisions made by that society are binding on all future generations. Like Melissa I strongly feel that the discriminatory material is from the Talmud and not the Torah – see story of Zelophechad’s daughters, who challenged authority and G-d ruled in their favour, which makes me think its the Rabbis who were misogynists rather than G-d but not sure how much that helps now. If you challenge too much too quickly you get told its not in the Spirit of Orthodoxy and its actually Masorti / Reform.

    So there you are – in both parts of my life, there isn’t an equality of opportunity, but I guess have to accept and work with whats possible.

    • Dear Eve,
      I’m afraid I don’t think we can say that God is disassociated from misogyny. There are many examples of this, but the passage below is particularly telling and reflects a more general view that women are not full members of b’nei yisrael. This passage assumes that women do not have the right to make their own decisions.

      NUMBERS 30
      ‘3 “When a young woman still living in her father’s household makes a vow to the Lord or obligates herself by a pledge 4 and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. 5 But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the Lord will release her because her father has forbidden her.

      6 “If she marries after she makes a vow or after her lips utter a rash promise by which she obligates herself 7 and her husband hears about it but says nothing to her, then her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand. 8 But if her husband forbids her when he hears about it, he nullifies the vow that obligates her or the rash promise by which she obligates herself, and the Lord will release her.’

  6. My tolerance of non-egal minyanim changed a lot when someone suggested to me that I picture a Judaism where, historically, half the people have been black and half the people have been white – and the seating is segregated, and only whites are able to count in the service, lead the service, etc. After that analogy, I find it difficult to look at a segregated service and see anything but that – segregation.

    Keeping in mind that that’s what I see when I look at a non-egal service, to me, it would be the equivalent of saying that you believe in equal rights among the races, but are fine with your religious service being segregated, with only whites ‘counting’ in the service or leading. I can see it happening, especially in society of a hundred years ago, but I would find it difficult to take anyone seriously about their will to tackle racism if they were *okay* with that. Maybe if they tackled racism elsewhere and said ‘I’m leaving this part for others to fight because I’m busy fighting inequality in education’ I could take them seriously, but to claim that there isn’t a problem?

  7. As someone who grew up egalitarian, feminist AND observant, I have thought about this and written about it a lot. First off, I am wondering who has labelled Orthodox feminists or the creators and advocates of partnership minyanim as not feminist. Of course you are feminist!!- just feminists I respectfully disagree with. My take- personally I take equality (full equivocated equality with no ‘essential nature’ differences stuff) as an absolute given on equal footing with my desire Jewish ritual observance. What I will not tolerate in my secular life in terms of different roles for men and women , in the home, in the workplace or school – those same things ( segregation, different public access etc.) I will not tolerate in my religious and spiritual life. You have a different take- you are willing to go as far as halacha will allow but no further. Which is absolutely your right to choose. But note that you have a line beyond which you will not push for further equality in a religious setting and I do not. It does not make you less feminist, but it does make us different in our approaches and it also makes your approach to feminism in your secular life different that your approach in your religious life ( I am assuming here!).

    The other point I would add is that the idea that you will go as far as halacha allows but no farther where that boundry i a static line is not accurate. Partnership minyanim of today find more heters than those of 15 years ago and fewer than those of 15 years from now will find. The bat mitzvah and the baby naming for girls were heresy and unhalchic 30 years ago and now are barely remarked upon. You have done a lot of interesting reflecting on the nature of feminism. But I would add some reflection on the nature of halacha. When does it change? Why does it change?How? who gets to change it etc.? As one of the founding Jewish Orthodox feminists said on this topic “Where there is a rabbinical will there is a halachic way”.

    I would love to hear your thoughts!

  8. Pingback: Let It Go? | Experience Is To Be Lived

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