Monday, September 17, 2007

No, I Am Not a Feminist

I have considered investing in a piece of cardboard upon which I can marker, in proud Sharpie letters, "Spare me the apologetics." I will then attach this piece of cardboard to my forehead and wander around school receiving confused and subsequently horrified looks.

I do not know why the majority of people instantly assume that if you think about Tanakh and you are female, you are probably angry about the Torah's portrayal of women. I have not opened my mouth about women, I have not mentioned the fairer sex, I have not hinted in any way that I am distressed over the Matriarchs, and nevertheless Rabbis, teachers and fellow students go off on long elaborate rants about how women are just as equal as men, desperately engaging in some form of apologetics to stave off what they must see as being my imminent transformation into an angry rhinoceros, charging them down with my outstretched tusk.

But I am not a rhinoceros, I am not charging, and I have no desire to do so. Indeed, I have absolutely no idea why this is expected of me. When I mention that actually, I'm quite okay with the Torah's depiction of women, they step away from me warily. "Are you sure?" they ask tentatively, still waiting for me to breathe fire. And when I don't, and continue to ask my original question, they look as though they're about to cry in relief.

I don't see it. Am I really so rare? Are all Modern Orthodox females biblical feminists, holding their Bibles over their head as they angrily confront their Rabbis? Am I a traitor to my gender? I don't think so. But if I am, I suppose I will have to grin and bear it. Chin up and so forth.

The fact is that I quite like our female characters. How can I not like them? We have our Matriarchs, fascinating and flawed people, Dinah, whose claim to fame is the massacre that ensued in her name, Osnat, who is theoretically Dinah and Shechem's daughter, Tamar, who pretends to be a harlot, Miriam, a prophetess who leads the people in poetic song, On's wife, who saves her husband's life through combing her long tresses outside her tent, Queen Attaliah, our legendary murderess, Jael, who murders Sisera with a combination of her feminine charms and a tentpeg, Queen Jezebel, mistress of deceit, Deborah, who scornfully laughs at the man who relies on her and helps him to victory, Judith, who cuts off Helifornes' head, and so on and so forth.

So no, the argument that women are underrepresented or viewed in a condescending fashion doesn't work well for me. Tanakh is full of fascinating women. Many of them are seductresses (can we ever forget the wily Delilah? And consider the fact that Tamar and Jael both achieve their ends through similar means), some are prophetesses, several are warrioresses; many of them fulfill several functions. Women's roles are not confined or flattened in Tanakh; they are large and expansive. Women are not constantly victims; indeed, one of the few cases when a woman is a victim occurs by Tamar, and then Absalom avenges her lost honor. Women are characteristically wise and sly (the Wise Woman of Tokea, whom Joab hires to convince David to receive his son is a perfect example, as is the unparalleled Queen of Sheba) and have many excellent qualities at their disposal. Women are characterized as being wise, sly, gutsy (consider Tamar's challenge to Judah, "Identify, if you please..."), beautiful, sensual, decisive, resourceful (consider Tzippora's hurried performance of milah on her son with a nearby sharp stone), moral (the women refuse to donate their earrings to the cause of the Golden Calf), jealous (consider Sarah's reaction to and subsequent treatment of Hagar), clear-sighted (Rachel's understanding that Jacob was to have the blessings, not Esau, an unusual departure from the idea that it is women who are blinded by love.) Women are strong, powerful; they are queens, often evil queens (Jezebel and Assalya) and tricksters, liars or deceitful as it suits them (for these last consider Delilah and Jezebel, who hires false witnesses to procure a vineyard for King Ahab.)

Ah, you will now caution me, but leave aside the female characters. The problem is with the way women are treated! Look at the consequences of rape; why are women not valued more highly? Why is a woman worth less (monetarily) than a man? It's not fair! It's unequal! It's brutal, immoral and barbaric, and Chana, you ought to be upset about it!

Really? Some of the points you raise are good ones. I am bothered by the idea of rape in the Torah; I also have not studied it well enough to truly raise the question. But there are many ideas that bother me in the Torah; why should this one be more significant than other ones? And I certainly am curious about the inheritance laws, and I understand why you would be unhappy with the idea of an agunah when the man always has an option of marrying more than one wife, or that the lady must perform chalitzah. Yes, these are all excellent questions. But is this reason for me to get upset? Shall I go attack the Rabbis now?

I have heard all sorts of reasons for why women are not obligated in the full 613 mitzvot, as men are. Most of these are soft forays into the realm of apologetics. "Oh," someone coos to me, "women are on a higher level than men. Therefore, they don't need the full 613 mitzvot in order to come close to God! Men, those beasts (she doesn't actually say this, but that's the insinuation) need to have their passions controlled and regulated for them; hence they have more mitzvot." This is when girls invariably start crying out that they want to put on tefillin and a tallis and other good things like that and start citing sources that don't even exist about Rashi's daughters (I've never seen a satisfactory source on this one.) I have no problem with girls putting on tefillin, not at all! Go ahead! But don't start telling me that I ought to feel unequal and that I need tefillin to make me equal. That's simply ridiculous.

Our society is obsessed with equality meaning sameness. You have a purple shirt; I have a purple shirt, but they have to be of the same cut, make and brand. You're a guy and wear tefillin; if I want to be equal, I have to do the same. This is ridiculous. I'm a girl; there are differences between us, and simply stating that there are not won't make it so. I freely admit that the majority of the guys I meet are stronger than I am. This doesn't mean I can't break their wrists if I feel like it and have enough of an opportunity (Tae Kwon Doe is useful) but guys come in immensely useful when it comes to lugging my boxes up the stairs. I will break my back and probably tumble down the staircase and lie on the ground in a shriveled heap; my cousin needs only to get a firm grip and can easily stow my box in my room.

Then it comes to women's megillah readings, women's selichot and egalitarian siddurim. I don't know the halakha on this, so nothing I have to say comes from halakha. But once again, I feel similarly; if you want to have a women's megillah reading, go ahead! But why do you look at me as though I am a brainwashed lunatic if I prefer to attend a traditional megillah reading where I get to hear my father lein? As for egalitarian siddurim; I personally find these to be amusing. Are you honestly going to make me feel better if we both say "she'asani kirtzono" instead of your saying "she'lo asani isha?" Now you're going to tell me that the only reason I'm not a fan is because I've never tried it. Not so! I spent a Shabbat with my Conservative cousins (amazing people, by the way; there are many Orthodox Jews who could benefit from imitating them) and was in the awkward position of having to accept an honor at their shul. This sweet old man who was ninety-two or so wouldn't take no for an answer. So I reluctantly went to open the aron. Imagine! Me, a girl, opening the aron! Who would have dreamt it? Was there some sudden and wonderous thrill, some spark of connection to God as I pulled the curtain aside? No, there was not...I am telling you that there is absolutely no reason to covet the honors and the aliyot and whatever else the men supposedly "get to have" that the women don't get to have.

Of course, now we get into different territory- the motivation behind the desire to act the biblical feminist. Do you truly want to serve God and become closer to God through your wearing tefillin? That is one thing; in that case, kol hakavod! Please, wear tefillin! If this enhances your prayer and you are better able to serve God, that is wonderful. But if you simply want this because the men have this, I think it is silly. A Rabbi of mine (whom I respect) once referred to women's minyanim as reminding him of little children playing house. It's not real, but they are children playing pretend and it makes them happy! So we will humor them. You are going to tell me that that was condescending. Yes, I suppose it was. It doesn't make it less true...

We are different! That is the truth! Men and women are not the same. And equal doesn't mean treating us the same! Firstly, I don't think equality is necessarily something to strive for. But supposing it is, equality doesn't mean sameness. We have different tasks, different functions, different ways of serving God. Why must I covet your task? Why must you covet mine? Why must I feel the lesser because your task supposedly entails more than mine? I don't comprehend.

I am simply not angry. I'm really not! I am lucky enough to be living in 21st century America, where I am able to learn Torah, which makes me happy. So I'm glad I missed the portion of time where we had the various people fighting about whether women could even learn Torah or Gemara; that is one battle I would have fought. But after that, what else do I need to fight for? I am comfortable; I am happy. I don't view the mechitza as a deliberate device to separate me from my brothers because I am lesser, somehow flawed. Why would I think so? It is simply there per halakha during davening. Now, I do get annoyed if I have to sit behind drawn curtains when the Rabbi gives his speech, as that has nothing to do with halakha, and I want to hear the speech as well. That's when I start feeling like I have been relegated to the backseat, and I would protest. Thank God, I don't go to such a shul, so I have no problems in this area. I am very lucky.

I am very glad that women have the right to vote, are theoretically paid equal salaries to those of men and enjoy the advantages that America has to offer us. I am also glad that nearly everyone understands that women are quite able and capable of learning the Written and Oral Law. But beyond this, I see no reason to get all excited. Also, I'd like to be treated as a lady! Hold doors open for me, as you would for anyone; that's simply being civil. And as to the black guy wearing the "I Flip the Bird At You" t-shirt who gave up his seat on the subway to give it to me, I think he's wonderful! Maybe he gave it to me because I was a girl, in which case, that's great, too! Do you think I mind? I don't mind! I should always find such people who are willing to give me seats on the subway!

And don't let me walk alone in areas of New York that aren't safe for those of the female gender! You're not doing me or any lady any favors if you do! You should always escort a lady to her car if it's dark outside and the neighborhood is not particularly safe; that's the only courteous thing to do.

There are differences between men and women, both religiously and physically, and it is simply silly to deny those differences, and what is more, claim that we are the same when we aren't. There are some areas in which men do have different privileges or advantages over women, and good for them! There are some areas in which women outdo men as well! Must it all be a rivalry? I really see no need. I will tell you something even more heretical; I really miss the guys in my class. My English class was brilliant when I had the guys there; they simply have a different way of thinking than many girls. Aside from which, they would always make class entertaining! That's another thing; I don't mind off-color jokes or teasing, so long as the comments are made in fun; I don't get all uptight about these things. If I did, I would never have enjoyed AP Euro as much as I really miss a lot in life if you get upset about this kind of thing! There's so much to simply enjoy; must we waste time taking everything personally, taking every comment seriously, defending women from the innocent comments of joking classmates? There is a limit, of course, but you'd be surprised as to where that limit is...Oh, you can't imagine the discussions I had in Art class; there was one girl in my school who was a rabid feminist and she frightened me. The guys and I had a very good time joking around; any comments were always made in good fun, but if she happened to overhear them, we were all in for a lecture...

So no, I am not a feminist! I have never been a feminist! I doubt I will ever be a feminist! You should enjoy and make good use of your women's selichot and your women's megillah readings and egalitarian siddurim, but please don't expect me to join in and fight alongside you! I simply don't see the need, and there are so many other things I need to be studying; I really don't have the time to spend on this. Let me finish my Rabbi Kanarfogel homework, please God, and maybe then I will be able to hear you describe why it's so unfair that this one or that one won't support your women's megillah reading...

The loveliness of it all is I'm sure you are looking down at me right now and saying, "Oh, poor girl, so brainwashed; she is to be pitied!" But I wonder, I really do; who has more fun, me or you?

I'm the one having the party here!


Mordy said...

I don't think the surprise shown is because /all/ women are upset about the way women are portrayed in Judaism. I think the surprise is that all women likely should be upset. After all, none of your post deals with Agunahs - or the fact that only a man can give a divorce. Or deals with Talmudic doctrines about women, like the numerous times where it states they can't be trusted. Or the fact that a King can rule Israel but not a Queen. Or the fact that a Sanhedrin is made up of men. Or that today, a man can get smicha and become a posak but a woman can't.

You may be ok with these facts, but many people (myself included) are not. But you're right to be angry about apologetics. They don't solve any of these problems. They just explain them away.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes try to look at Orthodoxy through female/feminist eyes (just like I try to look at it through non-Jewish eyes, LGBT eyes etc.), and I think you miss the areas that would upset my female alter ego.

You make good points about the type of women Tanakh portrays, but in terms of sheer quantity, they are far out-numbered by the men. I know, quantity isn’t everything, but it is difficult to avoid the impression that Tanakh thinks women have – and should have – considerably less influence on the world than men do.

However, the big question you duck is the view of Tanakh’s women, not to mention women generally, in the Talmud and post-Talmudic literature. Sure, the women in Tanakh are not passive – but what the Talmud about blaming Dinah for getting raped because she went out? I’ve been reading the Tzenah Urenah (published by Artscroll as The Weekly Midrash, although the title is a bit of a misnomer), which was traditionally used by women in lieu of actually reading Chumash itself, and while there are many wonderful insights in there, it does very much have an attitude of women belonging in the home, not needing to study and so on.

I have always liked On’s wife, though. Even if she doesn’t actually appear in the text, she certainly knew how a Jewish marriage really works.

“Rachel's understanding that Jacob was to have the blessings”

Chief Rabbi Sacks makes an interesting point somewhere that in Bereshit (actually, he might say in the whole of Tanakh), mothers always understand their children better than fathers.

I am bothered by the idea of rape in the Torah; I also have not studied it well enough to truly raise the question.

This actually bothers me a lot less now than it used to. I now know that there are still lots of societies out there where if a woman gets raped, she is held responsible, she is unlikely ever to get married and she may even be killed for ‘dishonouring’ her family. Seen in this regard, giving her the option to marry her attacker if she so desires becomes far more liberating, a way of safeguarding her future. True, in an ideal world those sexist attitudes wouldn’t exist, but it takes generations to build such an ideal society. In the meantime, the halakha needs to deal with the practical issues of finding the least worst alternative for these women.

As for agunah, I think the issue that bothers feminists is not the consequences of agunah per se (the situation for men whose wives refuse to receive a get is not so severe in terms of adultery and mamzerim, but not so different in terms of practical effects), more the (real or perceived) unwillingness of the rabbinate/community to deal forcefully with men who refuse to give gets.

Men, those beasts (she doesn't actually say this, but that's the insinuation) need to have their passions controlled and regulated for them; hence they have more mitzvot

My understanding of this from what I have heard (which isn’t much, unfortunately) from people who talk seriously (i.e. not apologetically and not anti-Orthodox) about the mystical differences between men and women is that the fundamental difference is women’s ability to bear and nurse children. God is the God of life who created mankind out of love. Obviously in imitating that both men and women have a role, but the mother, by physically bearing and nursing the child, develops a more intimate understanding of what it is like to give life to and nurture another living being, and so develops a deeper instinctive understand of God. The maternal instinct is divine, if you like.

I will break my back and probably tumble down the staircase and lie on the ground in a shriveled heap; my cousin needs only to get a firm grip and can easily stow my box in my room.

Now, here is where I really need to protest. We’ve had feminism, and we’ve had intermittent anti-feminist backlashes from unreconstructed men. I need a liberation movement for pathetically weak men. Actually, make that pathetically weak men who are neither interested in sports nor cars. One day we’ll make our (embarrasingly high-pitched) voice heard, then you’ll all be sorry. You won’t be asking us to carry heavy bags or open jars any more…

No, there was not...I am telling you that there is absolutely no reason to covet the honors and the aliyot and whatever else the men supposedly "get to have" that the women don't get to have.

Similar to the previous point, but infinitely more serious: there really isn’t any awareness of how difficult it is to be a frum man if you have social anxieties. I literally hate having aliyot, because I just can’t cope with the pressure of being in front of so many people (yes, rationally I know most of them are talking or wondering how much longer this is going to go on, but still…). It’s so bad that even though I’ve been called up dozens of times, and know what to do backwards, I can still make mistakes in the brachot. When my depression really kicked in and made my anxieties worse, I started doing things like turning up late to Shabbat mincha and/or hiding in the toilets until after the leining. And, of course, it’s almost impossible to turn down an aliyah; it’s just rude.

It’s even worse if you are frum enough that people assume you can lein or lead at least the daily services. At Oxford, where the community is tiny and mainly neither Orthodox nor frum, the frum students are expected to do most of the actual davening during term time – and there aren’t that many frum students. When I was there, I really offended some people by refusing flat-out to do anything like that. I wasn’t happy about it, but I literally can not do it, even though my Hebrew is good enough and I could polish up my leining fairly easily. I just can’t stand there in front of so many people and daven.

And don't let me walk alone in areas of New York that aren't safe for those of the female gender!

Best title of an academic article I have ever come across: ‘If “Woman” is Just an Empty Category, Then Why Am I Afraid to Walk Alone at Night? Identity Politics Meets the Postmodern Subject’. I don’t know what it was about (I just came across the title in a reference), but I still think it’s brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Ill preface this by saying that im not a feminist in any way whatsover.

“Why must I feel the lesser because your task supposedly entails more than mine? I don't comprehend.”

Lets be honest, its not only tasks that are lesser, its also rights. And when one group has fewer rights than another, I think conventional wisdom tells us they are being treated as “lesser.”

“I don't view the mechitza as a deliberate device to separate me from my brothers because I am lesser, somehow flawed. Why would I think so?”

Not a fan of the courts ruling in brown v. board of ed., are you?

"Are you sure?" they ask tentatively, still waiting for me to breathe fire. And when I don't, and continue to ask my original question, they look as though they're about to cry in relief. I don't see it. Am I really so rare? Are all Modern Orthodox females biblical feminists.”

The truth is that you have probably developed some sort of reputation for being very sensitive or short tempered (I dont personally know you, but given the way you describe the conversation, it seems likely).

MYG said...

Oh, poor girl, so brainwashed; she is to be pitied!


Anonymous said...


And no, I have never tried to look at Judaism through LGBT eyes - that is just a bit too weird.

Looking Forward said...

one thing that I might point out, chana, is that at least in any of the cases in tenach I can think of, violating a girl generaly resulted in not in the death of the purpetrator, but the death of the entire town where he lived.

How is that for not taking such laws seriously? I mean, on a practical level we can't do such things, but certainly there seems some level of extreme chayiv misah for this crime, at least in biblical settings.

and let us not forget, a man who is attempting to violate a woman, his life is forfite, and either she, or anyone who happens upon him has not only the right but the legal obligation to kill him if they can.

so then I just wonder about the question of, if before he finishes the crime he'as chayiv misah, and the bible certainly seems to condone killing not only him but those around him in revenge, why isn't he after the fact?

Stubborn and Strong said...

Go chana!

Ezzie said...

What Moshe said. :)

Men and women are different?! Who knew!?

Jack Steiner said...

Good post. I enjoyed it.

Scraps said...

It's funny...I can hear you reading this post out loud, and I can picture the slightly indignant look on your face as you proclaim your freedom from feminist tendencies, wondering why the whole world expects you to have them.

I liked this post. I'm not a feminist myself...but then, no one expects me to be.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I'm glad for you. I'm also sad for all the would-be frum women and would be feminist women who can't find support for the feminism in the frum world.

Charlie Hall said...

It isn't Tanakh that I have difficulty with so much as what has come afterwards. I recently finished tractate yevamot. It is not pretty. I will not give details because they are not appropriate for a PG rated blog.

Anonymous said...

I have a daughter who was educated in good religious schools who has entered university and is taking a feminist studies course as part of her social work program. She is asking questions I do not know how to answer. Like - why do I have to dress modestly at the Shabbas table? I feel good and powerful if I show a bit of skin. Men do't have to look! Why am I objectified if I show a bit of "cleavage"?

Any answers out there? HELP!

Shira Salamone said...

Chana, for better or for worse, my brain simply doesn't work the same way yours does. You're a student by nature, a lover of the intellectual give-and-take of Talmud in an era in Talmud study is open to women. Perhaps, if that were my own personal approach to Judaism, the traditional role for women would be as fulfilling to me as it obviously is to you. It so happens, though, that I'm an “experiential Jew" by nature. Study is just not what draws me to Judaism--ritual is. And ritual opportunities for women are somewhat more limited in traditional circles. That's okay for many women, but not for all. So I hope that we can simply agree respectfully to disagree: I won't insist that every women become a feminist, and I hope that you won't insist that every woman become a traditionalist.

Shira Salamone said...

On the other hand, you said, "I am very glad that women have the right to vote, are theoretically paid equal salaries to those of men and enjoy the advantages that America has to offer us." So perhaps the title of this post is not entirely accurate: You're not a feminist in terms of religious practice, but you're a feminist with regard to secular law. Methinks there are many others in the Jewish community who share that perspective.

Anonymous said...

"but you're a feminist with regard to secular law."

Shira, if this is how you define feminism, id say 99% of this country is feminist.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Jael, who murders Sisera with a combination of her feminine charms and a tentpeg

It's not murder, but killing.

Sisera was the enemy, and she killed the enemy in wartime.

That makes her a killer, not a murderer, which has a much more sinister connotation.

Anonymous said...

Mordy? Who are you? Your not me, but some people seem to think that your comment must have been mine. Anyway, I happen to think that Chana's view is refreshing and much more healthy, and wish more people could approach this issue from a more nuanced position. I really do think way too many people are stuck in a place were equality has to mean sameness, and that's just simply not true, and non-obtainable. Sure there's plenty of place for discussion, and perhaps some distance to go in the educating and eradicating of machismo views of women. It would be dishonest to say that Judaism hasn't been affected by these patterns found in larger society. But until we are willing to allow for difference, delineation, and non-uniformity of stature and position, we can't approach individual issues from a place of open and honest discussion.

We each have our role to play, and we can't be constantly looking at our friends lot. The grass may appear greener on the other side of the fence, but maybe that's because you planted your yard with colorful flowers.

I would suspect that Chana also values finding a solution to the agunah issue, and doesn't view women as property. But I'd also wager she finds a beauty to kiddushin, and isn't seeking to do away with the process of Get. (Although, maybe I'm wrong... please call me on it.)

Let's focus on the real issues that underlie the injustices against women. (Poor education, Over emphasis on the Synagogue and it's artificial establishment as the center of Jewish life and participation, perpetuation of machismo and fear of the other.) And stop trying to apply bandages that aren't going to solve problems long term (like pushing the halachic envelope with the creation of Shira Chadasha type minyans which just temporarily move the line over and make people happy for a little while, until that line won't move anymore) and pushing for sameness, because we're too afraid that embracing our individual roles and missions in this world will mean that were not as good as the next guy.

Let's stop playing the blame game, stop the apologetics, stop trying to find the quick fix, and start confronting the real issues head on, even if that means some unpleasant soul searching and discussion.

Go Chana! It's good to see that someone out there has their head on strait.

Purim Hero

tafka PP said...

Hi Chana,

So clearly, you've come across plenty of frum, educated women who you perceive as "upset", "angry" "charging" "confrontational"- (I'm not about to regurgitate your entire post back at you.)

What saddens me most about your post is your overall tone, and your seeming need to distance yourself from and/or disparage other streams of Jewish female thought (which you freely admit you know very little about.) And further, I'm surprised at your untypical lack of reasoning: I can't fathom how you think it's intelligent to conclude that other women's desires to fulfil certain mitzvot are baseless and meaningless, based upon one solitary meaningless experience of your own, or that certain issues are more or less worthy of consideration, based purely upon your own (relatively brief and by your own admission, narrow) life experience.

Feel free to declare yourself as Not-A-Feminist: But there's no need to go all out on taking subtle swipes at those of us who wear that label with pride. While you may well be having a "party" (which I personally hope you continue to enjoy) why on earth would you assume that we aren't? :-) Maybe there's more to feminism (Jewish and otherwise) than you are aware- have you considered that?


Tafka PP

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