I can clearly remember where I was sitting, in the midst of my Bible class during my final semester at Stern College for Women. We were learning about Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers and the subsequent loss of water for the Jewish people. The well dried up. Why was that? The slew of commentators makes it clear that the Jewish people did not properly mourn Miriam’s death. They did not give the proper kavod, honor, to one of the greatest leaders of our nation.
One by one, students raised their hands to defend the Jewish people’s decision. “Well…Miriam was really behind the scenes.” “Well…she did not have a role like Moses and Aaron.” I kept hearing excuse after excuse. I looked at the clock and decided that I would wait ten minutes for someone to defend Miriam’s honor. I waited those ten slow painstaking minutes, and then I raised my hand. I questioned why medieval commentaries were more progressive and supportive of the role of women than my classmates in the twenty first century.
I could not help associating this experience with the recent public responses to Rabbi Moshe Kahn’s shiur, lecture, about the halakhic parameters of delaying procreation. I read Hannah Dreyfus’ take on the event published in the Jewish Week, and Blanche Haddad’s response printed in the Observer. I then listened to the shiur itself and would recommend reading his article “Halakhic Matters in Delaying Procreation” which was published in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School’s Meorot Journal.
In first reading the back and forth, I was frustrated. I felt like little had changed since my time on campus in 2003. It seemed that a number of the students were insistent that the fact that birth control is permitted by halakha is not related to feminism. Haddad stated that she is “not arguing that halakha and feminist ideals are inherently separate and can never be reconciled; to me, this is rarely the case. However, the two are not inherently linked in our case of postponing the mitzvah de’oraita [biblical obligation] of procreation; rather, there is space within halakha for a couple to make the decision to delay procreation due to a couple’s pressing concerns, and not a ‘feminist ideal of personal choice.’” Rabbi Kahn, empowered students to make their own decisions about family planning girded with the knowledge shared in his shiur and article.
When people, especially relatively young people, try to dissociate certain liberties, including birth control, from the feminist movement, I feel that there is often a lack of hakarat hatov, proper gratitude and recognition for those rabbis, lobbyists, feminists and other supporters who went to great lengths for all of us to have more choices. It wasn’t until 1972 that access to birth control was legalized for all Americans. I questioned this mindset—the absence of hakarat hatov– when I was a senior in college, and I initially felt that way in reading these articles about the shiur.
By last night, I had considered a new lens for viewing the sentiments of these students. Perhaps access to birth control, at least in the Modern Orthodox community, is a given at this point. At what point in time do we stop declaring that this is a fight to be won? When have we reached the moment when we are so far past the line in the sand, that what was once controversial a battle to be won has not only been won, but it is now accepted, normative, and no longer questioned.
One might argue that these students have moved beyond their predecessors’ outlooks and are not looking at the world with rose colored glasses, rather they are looking at the world with their realities, their truths.
While this may be applicable for example, in regard to the Civil Rights movement, in that many battles have been won, such as integrated seating on busses, I’m not sure that the same can be applied to women in Orthodox Judaism. It is not a given that a woman can sit wherever she chooses on a bus in Brooklyn or Israel. It is not a given that a woman will feel that she can make personal, financial, or life-changing decisions without the psak, decision, of a rabbi. It is not a given that women can serve as a synagogue president.
In some ways, I am gladdened that these students view choices, such as using birth control for family planning, as their rights and as normative, but it is important to understand the halakhic premise for these rights as well as detractors’ arguments as Rabbi Kahn aptly spoke to in his shiur. Access to, and halakhic permission to use birth control, is not a given for all Orthodox women.
I was moved by the women portrayed in the film Be Fruitful and Multiply who shared their stories of feeling overwhelmed by their perceived obligation to have well over a dozen children because they were not provided with the choice to control their reproductive system. Viewing this film and hearing first-hand accounts from women who have struggled with the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” might be a good follow up exercise to take place at Stern and in other communities. In today’s world, regardless of your own personal religious practice, your place of employment may have control over your body as well as was heatedly debated in regard to the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby.
Stern College provides a place where women can engage in deep halakhic discourse, academic pursuits and flourish in a variety of resources outside of the classroom. I say this out of love and the utmost respect for my colleagues and soon to be colleagues. We are extremely privileged. Privileges can never be taken for granted. Much of what may seem permanent is not as stable as some of you may think. In order to hold our ground and continue to have personal choice as Orthodox women, we need to continue learning halakha, being aware of detractors and their rationale, and understanding and embodying gratitude. Without gratitude for those who we owe a debt for setting the stage that we can walk on today, those who currently support and empower us, I fear that there is much to be lost.
In December, the New York Times printed an article about the new fashion guidelines for state legislators in Montana. In the article, a number of women were cited as frustrated by a dress code that they thought unfairly targeted women, and did not provide an appropriate level of respect and frankly, faith, in the female legislators’ professionalism and ability to follow social norms.
It’s fairly common to read about dress codes that unfairly scrutinize girls’ dress in schools, whether it is a Jewish day school or yeshiva haggling over skirt length and the visibility of collar bones, or a secular school negotiating “leggings as pants” or revealing prom dresses. So I wasn’t fazed by the concept of an unfair dress code, but rather its targeted demographic—adult women professionals, elected officials who could presumably figure out how to dress with decorum, or at the very least, should be able to follow some basic tips from a fashion blog or magazine about what is or isn’t appropriate office attire. Why did they need a list of fashion guidelines handed down from the senior state legislators to tell them how to dress?
It made me wonder: Is there such a thing as a feminist dress code? What would a feminist dress code look like? Is there any way the Montana legislature could have gotten this right, or did the very fact that they were policing adult women’s outfits doom them from the start?
When we critique school dress codes, we often argue that they are overly focused on sexualizing the bodies of women and young girls, but we never hold up the shining example of the perfect feminist dress code, the dress code that those schools should aspire to emulate. Is it because that perfect feminist dress code doesn’t exist?
Most of the time, dress codes seem to be constructed with a focus on covering up women’s bodies and they ignore (or only perfunctorily address) the clothing choices of men and boys. The underlying assumption is that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and therefore bad, and need to be dealt with, covered up. Whereas men’s bodies, just are, and men need to be dressed “appropriately” but it’s pretty simple to figure out what that means.
Dress codes often have much longer and more detailed guidelines for women. For the men, the core of the instructions might be: no shorts, no jeans, no T-shirts. Whereas for the women it is: no shorts, no jeans, no T-shirts, and then the list continues with a list of body parts: all shirts should have sleeves that cover the shoulder, hemlines should cover the knee, necklines should not be too plunging, etc. The assumption is that women need far more instruction on how to dress appropriately, and what body parts should and shouldn’t be visible, while men should be wearing clothes that are appropriate for the occasion.
So, I repeat my question. What would a feminist dress code look like?
Is it a “balanced” list of restrictions that is a similar length for both women and for men, rather than a list of restrictions on women’s clothes that is twice as long as the men’s list? Is that even possible?
Would it also address the sexuality of men’s bodies? For example—including requirements on the lengths of men’s sleeves and shorts, explicitly prohibiting “Deep V” neck T-shirts for men, or perhaps, prohibiting visible chest hair or undershirts (technically an undergarment, similar to a visible bra strap).
Is it the tone of the dress code? Could we build a dress code that treated both women and men as people who only need a few reminders about the level of formality of a particular environment (e.g no jeans and sneakers, or suits are required), and leave it to individuals to figure the rest out?
Or is it the assumption about the enforcement of the dress code—that the men will be able to follow it naturally and easily, and women will need more guidance and reminders about what is and isn’t appropriate?
So if the Montana state legislature (or your child’s school or camp) were to “re do” their dress code, is there any way they could “do it right?” Could they institute a feminist dress code? Or are dress codes intrinsically sexist and un-feminist?
Feminism has become a dirty word.
In discussions with students, this is what I hear: “Sure, I think women should get paid the same as men, but it’s not like I’m a feminist.” “Feminists want to make everyone the same, but everyone knows men can’t breastfeed.” “Feminists think women are better than men— that’s the problem.” These summations are offered with a blend of confidence, scorn, and ignorance, while the word at their center, “feminist,” is spoken with that special brand of dismissiveness that comes so naturally to adolescents.
As a high school teacher, I have the opportunity to discuss all sorts of “ism’s.” Ample opportunities arise for discussions that are ideological, political, cultural, theological, socio-political, socio-theologico-political—it all finds a moment in our discourse. And in my fifteen years of facilitating such discussions, my students have proven to possess a remarkable degree of tolerance to dissenting positions, and admirable openness to having their own points of view examined by their peers. By and large, the students I have taught are well able to leave their cynicism at the door of the classroom, and engage in healthy, self-reflective, and honest discussions. Their sensitivity time after time exceeds my own.
With one exception: feminism. Often, their negativity is shaped by the very legitimate and positive changes that have occurred in the last few decades. They chide me: “Mr. Fleischer, feminism was once really important, but there’s nothing left to fight for.” So we do the work. We take the time to list feminist concerns in detail, examining the world stage, the domestic sphere, even our own religious community. In checklist fashion, we get down to brass tacks: do women make the same as men for doing the same job? Are women treated with justice or even sensitivity in the legal and political arenas? Have our assumptions about family life shifted in response to contemporary notions of equality? And even as it becomes clear that at least some of them share many of the ideological concerns of the feminist movement, still they balk: “But that doesn’t make me a feminist.”
The issues are fine. But the word? That’s another matter.
Faced with this cognitive dissonance, I lose my teacherly perspective. Out the window go any ambitions of withholding my point of view. I find myself insisting, “Of course you’re a feminist!” while my students respond, “No, I’m not!” Part of me believes that as long as they’re thinking about the issues, the rhetoric is moot. Let them call themselves whatever they want. They still live lives of feminist empowerment, lives rich with the possibilities provided for them by the feminist movement. I chide myself: so what if they’re stuck on the word?
But there are, I think, serious values at stake in the language of feminism, values of particular concern to educators, values that turn on the very question of what we choose to call ourselves.
First of all, as a Modern Orthodox Jewish educator, I believe in the importance of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the sacrifices others have made on our behalf. Certainly, hakarat hatov is a key aspect of the relationship we build with God, as well as with our own history. Acknowledging past debts, like those we owe to generations of feminists, both women and men, has a religious component to it. The discomfort with the language of feminism that too often emerges in my community is not only historically myopic and shallow, but also insensitive. While many of us have tried to balance the changes generated by the feminist movement against the counterweight of our tradition, the lives we lead and the communities in which we pursue God’s will have yet been deeply informed by them. Allowing others to blithely dismiss the word “feminist” is an ethical and religious failure. The word matters because in using the word we engage in hakarat hatov. Simply put, it’s a mitzvah.
Secondly, like all movements, feminism is concerned with the limitations of the status quo and the need for change. The lifeblood of movements concerned with change is the language with which they describe themselves. More importantly, proponents of change are driven by passionate self-awareness; they declare themselves into being. They identify themselves and in doing so promote the change they are looking to effect. That is, in using the language of feminism we promote the cause.
As a teacher, I have a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I teach not only facts and figures but values. Ours is a mission driven profession, a tikkun olam profession. To leave my values at the door of my classroom is to betray its purpose. On the other hand, my students bring their own identifications, world views, and sensitivities to our class. Our classroom needs to be a place in which they can examine who they are and consider who they want to become. To offer my own point of view in too heavy-handed a fashion is also to betray the purpose of the classroom.
When it comes to my own feminism, it has been hard for me to find this balance. I want to push my students to examine their discomfort with feminism, but in order to do so they need to feel comfortable expressing their discomfort and confident that they will be allowed to find their own point of view. I want to direct their attention to the cognitive dissonance they experience in response to the word “feminist;” I want them to acknowledge their debt and to work toward change. But I also want them to feel safe enough to disagree with me, in part because I need to teach them what respectful disagreement looks like.
So sometimes I bite my tongue, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I argue: “Look at the issues! Of course you’re a feminist!” And sometimes I leave the word unexamined. Like all dirty words, it has power even when misused. Like all dirty words, sometimes the more you draw attention to it, the dirtier it gets.
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