As some of you may know, I struggle with self-identifying as a feminist.
I prefer to self-identify as an equal-ist, since, as I told my cousin who is a Women’s Studies professor, I don’t only believe in equal rights for women, I believe in equal rights for everyone.
She smiled, looked me right in the eye and said, “You know, you sound just like a feminist!”
But regardless of whether or not the shoe fits, I am certainly grateful to have been able to pursue my career without being told I was limited by my gender and I am proud to support the fight for women’s rights at times and places where they are still, somehow, up for debate. Because even though I’ve never felt oppressed as a woman, and rarely have I felt marginalized as one, there are places and there are times where it’s clear that the fight for women’s equality is, sadly, still ongoing.
Which is why I felt a bit conflicted this week, when I found myself explaining to a group of young Jewish adults the difference between a sexist system and a patriarchal system.
I had been invited to speak to a group of young Jewish professionals through an entry-level Youth Leadership Division program run by CJP (called LEADS). It was an “Ask the Rabbi” session, and one of the women in the group (we’ll call her Jennifer) described traditional Judaism as “sexist”.
I found myself pushing back.
“Perhaps we could use the word “patriarchal” instead of the word “sexist”, I suggested.”
She tilted her head thoughtfully. “I’d like to know more about that,” she said.
And so it was that I found myself, somewhat bizarrely, putting forth the argument that modern Orthodox women have, time and again, put to me: that having separate gender roles in Judaism is not inherently sexist; that the male rabbis who engineered Rabbinic Judaism a little less than 2000 years ago couldn’t have envisioned a society where women could claim equal rights – or would even want to!; that our liberal, democratic, equality-driven worldview was something of which they could not really have even conceived.
“The system feels sexist to us today,” I explained, “but at the time it was first implemented, it was perfectly acceptable. The question is whether or not we should impose our contemporary worldviews and values on a different group of people at a different time in history”
The next day, I found myself reading an online commentary to this week’s Torah Portion, written by Loree Resnik, the Vice Chair of Financial Resources of ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America). Resnik was approaching the Torah portion in much the same way as I had approached my conversation with Jennifer.
This week’s parshah – Tazria-Metzorah – is often a challenge for Jewish women because it outlines rules for women who have just given birth – rules which rub our modern sensibilities the wrong way.
“Yes, I admit it.” Resnik writes, “I am a woman, the oldest of the baby boomers, who struggled and championed women’s rights in America. I think my adult children and their spouses might secretly like to ask me to “give it up already,” “chill” or however one says such things today. Still, I continue to struggle with women’s rights, what they mean to societal norms, and how they impact us both here in North America and, of course, in Israel….
I am compelled to examine this Parasha in the light of Israel today where the call for separation has slipped into segregation. For me, it simply cannot be that a Parasha that so often separates us physically, not spiritually,was meant to convey a message of segregation…Instead of reading the Parasha as enforcing separation, I see it as celebrating motherhood, as allowing the bonding of women to their daughters as they passed down an ancient heritage…”
Resnik is advocating a perspective that is often touted by Jewish feminists, contemporary Torah scholars and women rabbis as we try to smooth the rough edges of the Torah’s ruling that a woman who gives birth to a son is only impure for 7 days, but a woman who gives birth to a daughter is impure for twice as long.
And although I have often interpreted this portion in much the same way as Resnik, I recognize that there are those who are not convinced by this approach.
It just feels too imbalanced; too segregated; too patriarchal; too sexist.
Rabbi Jacobs, President of the URJ, wrote in another online commentary this week about how for too much of Jewish history Jewish women did not count. “Consider the opening of the Book of Exodus,” he writes, “’Eleh sh’mot b’nai Yisrael – These are the names of the children of Israel.’ The text then goes on to name only the male children of Israel…there is no mention of the female children of Israel. There definitelywere many female children of Israel who were there but the opening of Exodus doesn’t see fit to mention them. The Biblical text seems to be telling us that: “girls don’t matter.”
But Rabbi Jacobs continues his commentary by reminding his readers that a closer reading of Torah reveals a different message, “that the story of our liberation depends first and foremost upon strong, brave, God-fearing women. All of Jewish history would not have taken place had it not been for the women,” he writes. “Moses and so many others would never have lived if it hadn’t been for Shifra, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Batya.”
Jacobs is asserting that the role of women and the importance of women is not swept under the biblical rug although, admittedly, we often have to look a little harder to find it.
In Resnik’s commentary, though she does not view the segregation in the parsha as sexist, she does acknowledge that men and women are inherently different.
“Do I discount the differences between our genders?” she asks, “Never. The more we learn about the brain, about language usage and about emotional development, the more we learn that “Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus,” the more we know of these differences. Perhaps our ancient ancestors knew this too and looked for ways to strengthen our bonds to each other by enforcing our differences.”
Resnik goes on to relate her interpretation of Torah to the challenges of contemporary Israel.
“(But) as I look at Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel,” she writes, “I know that we have the most important of things in common. We are proud Jews. We love Israel and will always think of it as a beacon of light in a sometimes desperate world. And, I think, for most of us here and in Israel, whatever our bodily functions or our spiritual need for separation during illness or after childbirth, we need not be segregated on a bus. Separate on a bus is not equal. Wearing a tallit does not make that most beautiful spiritual garment unclean because it covers the graceful and delicate neck and shoulders of a woman nor does it turn the woman into something other than a woman.”
Resnik couldn’t be more correct.
But just like with our Torah portion, we can view Israel through different lenses.
Yes, the gender segregations in Israel fly in the face of the progress of the past few centuries; and yes, the fact that not all women in Israel can pray in the manner of their choosing is abhorrent to those who advocate not only for women’s rights but for equality in religious freedom as well.
But there is another side to Israel, as Resnik points out.
“We take pride in the real Israel that is universally known,” she declares, “the Israel that elected Golda Meir, the Israel that understood the need for quality child care for women who worked on the kibbutzim, the Israel where men and women were partners in helping to settle the land, as well as partners in defending our home….”
And today, we can add to this list the Israel where a democratic, secular judicial system enabled a female judge to rule yesterday that the 5 women arrested for praying at the Kotel (with 295 other women) were not doing anything wrong.
Judge Sharon Larry Bavly, after seeing all the evidence, dismissed the charges of the police officers. In a groundbreaking decision, she declared that the Women of the Wall were not disturbing the public order with their prayers but rather, that the disturbance is created by those publicly opposing the women’s prayer!
This is an Israel we can be proud of.
This is an Israel we can celebrate with full hearts when Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day – arrives this coming week.
This is an Israel we can pray will be the rule rather than the exception.
May the coming year bring about more and more moments where Israel, Judaism and Torah are redeemed from those who would manipulate an patriarchal system and use it to impose sexist regulations.
May the Israel of the future be the Israel of our dreams and may we never doubt that Torah, at it’s heart, is a document that promotes justice, tolerance, and equality.
Kein Yehi Ratzon, May it be God’s Will.