Are Religious Women Treated As Second-Class Feminists?

“There is simply no room for women in the beit midrash”

“Most guys wouldn’t date you, because you are Student Council President”

“I know that you have your career, but I’m the guy, and you know, the parnassah”

“You need to go to the back door. Only men can enter through the front.”

While there are constituents in the Orthodox community who would label anyone who calls him or herself feminist as extreme, we also face opposition from feminists. Jennifair Zobair’s piece in the Huffington Post struck a chord with me. I get it. I understand what it is like to feel like one is constantly on the defense. Zobair points out that feminism is under attack by celebrities. People think that we should move on. We have the right to vote and such, isn’t the movement irrelevant? Zobair correctly asserts that we have a ways to go in terms of equal pay, maternity leave, etc. Ironically, we are women of faith, even faiths that have historically been patriarchal in nature, advocating for choice while women are not religiously affiliated are not interested in fighting the fight. Zobair makes it clear that we feminists of faith have a role to play in both the religious and feminist spheres.

As an Orthodox feminist, I find that people want to know the story. Why I’ve been driven to advocate for tolerance, change, empowerment, and a voice in the Orthodox community. Each of the quotes above are real words that sunk in as they were said nonchalantly. Even as I type the words now, years later, the emotions including embarrassment, shame and anger, are still present, still raw. I remember who said those words. I remember when they shared their thoughts. I remember how I felt. I remember my response. I remember being bothered enough to vow to take future action.

What does it mean to be an Orthodox feminist? It means politely correcting the gabbai when he calls out, “Do we have a tenth?” It means providing a list of qualified, educated, knowledgeable women who should be brought in as scholars in residence, teachers, school administrators or clergy staff. It means serving as a role model of a strong intelligent women for girls and boys. It means offering your shabbat guests, women and men, the honor or kavod of making kiddush, the blessing over the wine, or hamotzei, the blessing of the bread. It means firmly advocating for an equal education for men and women in Torah, Talmud and halakha. It means calling out those who claim that the image of a girl or woman is unholy.

At the same time, it means often receiving flack for the “O.”

“Aren’t you intelligent? How can you be an intelligent woman and remain Orthodox?” “Why not just leave? How can you stand it?” “You are a part of the problem for staying Orthodox. You should leave.” “Have you thought this through? Why would you do this?”

During my post-college years I spent most of my energy as an Orthodox feminist advocating in the Orthodox community. It wasn’t until I was employed as a chaplain on a college campus that I realized how much understanding is necessary on the other end of the spectrum, and what I could learn from the process.

As an Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) Educator, and the first Orthodox Jewish Woman chaplain at Harvard University, I had thought that I would spend most of my time in the Jewish community. Six months into the job, I realized that while I had thought that I would be spending my time teaching classes, learning with students, delivering words of Torah and hosting people; I would actually spend a fair amount of time being challenged. People questioned my religious identity as a woman. I dare to say that multiple times a week I was asked how I could justify my religion as a woman.

I turned to a mentor, who by that time was also a friend, for advice. I asked her for her thoughts. I told her that the challenge was healthy and helping me refine and better understand my positions. Some of those positions slightly shifted as a result. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, I told her that I was frustrated that I was being viewed as if I was a woman in a burqa. She looked me in the eyes and asked, “How do you see the woman in the burqa?” I’ve never looked at religious feminism the same way. She was right. I was a hypocrite; I was just as guilty of judging others.

Yes, religious feminists face opposition from the right and the left. We also have elements of support from the right, the left, and in-between. Orthodox feminists are constantly questioning, debating, and grappling with our sometimes conflicting values and ideological realities. We have something in common with the readership of Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s “Halakhic Man” with our Eve One and Eve Two demands. We are constantly questioning and learning. We are engaged in the struggle.

While I would appreciate the welcome mat from the right and the left, I appreciate the pushback. I appreciate being challenged and forced to grapple with opinions and stances. What religious feminists bring to the table is complicated. The answer is rarely black and white.

This gray reality is shared by those who are feminists of faith. JOFA’s Assistant Director, Rachel Lieberman, wrote a great piece in Zobair’s collaboration “Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay,” which will be available on September 8th. While we have dedicated our lives to religions which disagree, we all have like experiences, struggles, and great moments of realization that unite us.

While many have been quick to let me know the price of being an Orthodox feminist, the moments that couldn’t seem more right make it worth it. Envisioning the future and seeing the fruits of our labor, is comforting. Knowing that as individuals and as a community we have shaped the conversation to better the Jewish community is critical to my identity as a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Woman. The benefit of having feminists of faith is difficult to quantify. How do you put a number on being able to engage deeply and meaningfully in prayer and ritual? How do you quantify in value being under the chuppah sharing words of Torah as two people become one couple, a bayit neeman? The rewards are great and also critical for the future of the men and women of our communities. It is an investment that I am proud to be a part of.

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