Halakha and Feminism
Traditional Judaism can--and should--embrace feminism to allow for greater equality in Jewish religious life.
I do not wish to imply that Jewish women were oppressed. This is far from the truth. Given the historically universal stratification of the sexes, plus the model of the Jewish woman as enabler and the exclusive male (rabbinic) option of interpreting the law, there could have been widespread abuse of the powerless. But this did not happen. In fact, the reverse is true; throughout rabbinic history, one observes a remarkably benign and caring attitude toward women.
Nevertheless, there is a need today to redefine the status of women in certain areas of Jewish law. First, a benign and caring stance is not discernible in every last instance of rabbinic legislation. Second, paternalism is not what women are seeking nowadays, not even the women of the traditional Jewish community. Increasingly, such women are beginning to ask questions about equality, about a more mature sharing of responsibility, about divesting the power of halakhic interpretation and legislation of its singular maleness.
Going Forward: The Options
I have referred to the crossroads at which we stand. A crossroad implies choices. There are three ways in which halakhic Jews may proceed with regard to the question of women:
1. We can revert to the fundamentalist pole, where hierarchy of male and female remains unchallenged in most areas of human life.
2. We can allow the new value system to penetrate our civil lives but not our religious lives. In other words, women may be encouraged to see themselves as equals in social, economic, and political spheres. This is the current stance of modern Orthodoxy.
3. We can find ways within halakhah to allow for growth and greater equality in the ritual and spiritual realms, despite the fact that there are no guarantees where this will lead us.
Integrating Non-Jewish Values
It is my firm belief that the third path is the one we now must begin to follow. Admittedly, I have been propelled in that direction by the contemporary Western humanist liberation philosophy of the secular women's movement; those who would hurl at me the charge of "foreign‑body contamination" therefore are absolutely right. But is there any religion in history, including Judaism, that has not borrowed from the surrounding culture?
The real question is, What do we do with what we borrow? What are the unique Jewish ways in which we appropriate positive ideas, customs, and values? How can we enhance our system by these new accretions? And most important, in what ways can they become continuous with the essence of Judaism? True, the original impulse for all this, as I have said, derives from feminism, but even if such a movement hadn't evolved, I still would like to think that a creative pondering of the ideals of Torah Judaism might lead to the same conclusions.
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