Feminism - a phrase coined in 1837 by Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist and French philosopher, to name the effort by many at the time to seek equal rights for women - has come under attack yet again, as questions about gender norms, authority and roles bubble up in the Orthodox community. In recent months, the community has confronted questions regarding female clergy and leadership, laws of marriage and divorce, and the rights, roles and responsibilities of women in prayer. The tides are shifting and the men in charge are beginning to squirm.
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In an article published by The Jewish Week, called “Why a gendered Judaism makes sense,” rabbis Chaim Strauchler and Joshua Strulowitz suggest that separating gender roles and norms are important for creating “strong, confident and proud Jewish men and women.” The article highlights a view of gender, sexuality and women’s issues that results in dangerous consequences and renders the vulnerable members of Jewish communities powerless under the guise of religious requirements.
In the article, these rabbis of Modern Orthodox synagogues draw a parallel between gender roles in Judaism to gender-specific societal norms: “Are you bothered by the common societal practice of a man going down on one knee to propose to a woman? Are you offended that women receive engagement rings and men do not? Do you think it speaks ill of society that there are numerous websites, magazines, TV shows and entire TV channels that cater to a specific gender?” they ask.
These parallels are flawed. While men often propose to women, there is nothing to stop women from proposing to men. While women might receive a ring, they are not forced to do so - and it certainly does not limit their rights in the relationship. None of these examples compare to barring women from holding religious leadership roles and witnessing legal documents. Once the male-dominant hierarchy cuts off women’s access to power, authority and leadership, these “norms” are no longer mere opinions, but dangerous, harmful and damaging edicts, held in place by a false premise of religious requirement.
Case in point: the laws of marriage and divorce. Last month, a man remarried without giving his first wife a get, thereby leaving her chained to him. The recalcitrant husband is only partly to blame, as one reader pointed out: in light of the rabbis’ failing efforts to convince the husband to grant his first wife a get, they, if they truly wish to free the woman, “should simply annul her marriage, something that Jewish law allows them to do when a man is utterly contemptuous of rabbinical law (and common decency).” Here the rabbinic leadership is also to blame; for holding women captive to gender role distinctions that deny their rights to divorce.
The authors of The Jewish Week article write, “Masculinity and femininity are a fact of life, not an inconvenience that might be easily disposed of. Orthodox Judaism believes in the importance of engaging reality, not a world we wish existed.”
I am not suggesting that Jewish law cannot be read as preferring gender-divided prayer experiences, gender-expected norms and typical gender roles. However, one cannot suggest that the Orthodox delineation of these roles is the only way to read the law. Modern interpretations of halakha can solve many of the problems our community faces today.
How is it possible that in the year 5774/2014, women are still unable to hold roles as religious leaders in public life? We should celebrate those women who want to adjudicate law, officiate at lifecycle events, comfort the bereaved and speak from the pulpit in the presence of the Torah. How are rabbinical leaders still allowing women to be held captive to abusive husbands when they have the means to rabbinically sanctioned solutions to issues of divorce and marriage? How is it possible that we are not yet educating ourselves on issues of gender diversity and sexuality? For generations, young boys and girls who struggled (and continue to struggle) with questions about their sexuality and its relationship to their deep love and commitment for Torah were told their Orthodox community could not accept who they were. They were forced to choose and they often chose to bury themselves deep inside a closet of desperation and dangerous behavior.
Gender equality neither ignores the reality of the world nor disposes of gender difference. A world of Torah is one where women can be leaders with equal standing in the public sphere, where women have the power to control the destiny of their marriages and divorces, where children grow up knowing their Torah and their God celebrate who they are no matter whom they love. It is a world where young boys and girls embrace a Judaism that recognizes and honors the tremendous Divine diversity in every human being and human experience.
To suggest that gender diversity and distinction demands inequality denigrates the Jewish tradition’s recognition of our equality in God’s eyes. The overarching values of k’vod habriyot, honoring and respecting the abundant diversity of creations, and b’tzelem Elohim, the godliness found in each of us - no matter the gender - must be the essential guiding principles of rabbinic leadership. This is neither flippant nor convenient. It is leading with rabbinic courage and passion - not only for the truths of the tradition, but for the holy work of creating access to authority and rights for all men and women.
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabielianna.com.