Experience Is To Be Lived

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


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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.

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