Thursday, August 24, 2006

Orthodoxy and Feminism

Orthoprax in a recent blog (8/15) lays out the controversy between Orthodoxy and feminism: “Can you please explain to me why girls aren't taught Gemara like boys are? Why is the subject matter deemed too much for the small minds of girls? Why is there no such thing as a female rabbi or halachic poseket (judge)? Are women incapable of being community leaders or understanding halacha well enough to be a poseket (judge)? Is a woman incapable of giving a d'var torah (sermon) worth listening? You don't see it at all degrading to women when they have to walk through separate entrances to go into these super frum places?”

There are a number of responses to these sorts of frequently heard complaints. The first and most straightforward answer is that the Bible, the Talmud, and the subsequent tradition are inherently patriarchal. If there was a solution to the complaints listed above, there would be ten more right behind. A woman or a man who finds this sort of patriarchy unacceptable and an affront to their dignity and self-respect ought to draw the appropriate conclusions, move on and leave Orthodoxy.

Obviously this is not a solution for most Orthodox women because they are as deeply committed to their religious way of life as the men. My point is that the apologetics are frequently worse than the disease, and just lead to total confusion. I have no patience for somebody who tries to tell me there is something essential or necessary in a patriarchal organization, or that women are so constituted that it would be in violation of the laws of nature for them to give a sermon. It is true that when you make a change in one part of the religion there will be externalities, unintended and unforeseen consequences, which will cause changes in other parts of the religion. But one cannot forever say who knows what is going to happen. If we did, we would all be living in caves.

When I was younger, I used to think the feminists who were complaining the most were those who were least successful in the professions and business. Women who were successful and had a happy family life didn’t have the need to fight for the right to put on tefilin. As I have grown older I realize that even if this generalization is correct, and I’m not sure it is, it is irrelevant. If a woman says something bothers her, it bothers her. The burden is never on the discriminated party to defeat these sorts of counterfactuals. The woman doesn’t have to prove that she would find it equally distasteful even if she were successful

A second approach, which many women have adopted, is to organize, lobby and pressure the religious establishment for changes. Over the long run, I believe this approach might succeed in part, at least in Modern Orthodoxy. The changes are slow in coming, and might not happen within our lifetime. To be sure feminists have had a few successes…an assistant rabbi, an enlightened congregation Shira Chadashua in Jerusalem, Talmud classes in a variety of places, and so on. I don’t think, however, that women alone can make these changes occur everywhere without the help of their husbands and sympathetic men. I wish these groups every success.

The bulk of Ultra Orthodox women are not moved by these feminist critiques, and it’s important to understand why. I believe most of the women think of these religious issues as largely symbolic, and their main concern are the substantive issues raised by feminism. On their view what is important is that women have the opportunity to exercise and develop their talents, that the tasks of child-rearing be divided in an equitable way, and that both husband and wife have an equal opportunity for success and happiness. These sorts of issues can only be decided within the context of a family, and depend very much on the particular conditions of the family itself, and the personality and character of the members of the family. A husband and a wife with a handicapped child do not have the same opportunities as the parents of healthy children. The differential earning capacity of the spouses, the number of children, the age of the children, and an endless number of other factors all determine how the duties of family life are distributed. Feminism has very little to contribute directly to this issue, once the basic principal that a woman is entitled to the same life possibilities as a man is accepted.

When it comes to these basic questions most Orthodox women would say their opportunities in life are not affected by their less than equal status in many areas of halacha. Feminists would argue it is impossible to have a patriarchal religious superstructure and real equality of opportunity. I think the Orthodox are right about their own situation, though maybe not in the general case. In Islam the patriarchal legal system has a much bigger influence on the opportunity of Islamic women to develop their talents.

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