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Jewish Feminism Means Reaching Out

This is the fifth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

What is Jewish feminism to me?

It’s a mission. A calling. An identity. A life purpose. To borrow a French term, it’s my raison d’etre. Or to borrow a Buddhist term, it’s my swadharma, the ideal that connects the work that I do in this world with my divine spark. It is the key that fires the engine in my soul. It is the spiritual ideal that wraps up my entire being reminds me that I am here on this earth because God decided that I need to be here, in this person, in this identity. Jewish woman. That is everything to me. It is all that I am.

It wasn’t always this way. This is an identity in two parts, two parts that sometimes coexist, sometimes fight, sometimes mutually empower and sometimes mutually deflect. One part, the Jewish part, I was born into, without a say in the matter, while the other part, the feminist part, I chose as an adult, following a journey that included pain, struggle and discovery. One part is ancient but the other is relatively recent — in definition, at least, though not as an ideal. One part has definitive, authoritative texts and rules while the other has a different kind of textual heritage, the writings of women creating ideas out of their own lives.

Yet both are divinely inspired. And the place where the two pieces overlap is, in my opinion, the place where the shechina rests.

The Bible’s Ruth epitomizes that place for me, the place where the core of Judaism and the core of feminism overlap and melt into each other.

When Ruth the Moabite was facing her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi, a woman who had no strength in this world, no family members, no money, no home, and no community — she was a pauper, a bag-lady stuck in a land that was not her own with no connections other than a fading tie with her two young, foreign daughters-in-law, sans the dead sons — Ruth took an action that many people wouldn’t. She decided to dedicate her life to alleviating Naomi’s pain. She turned herself into the foreign, nameless pauper in Judea, standing in Naomi’s position in her stead, so that Naomi would not be alone in that place of agonizing loneliness.

That kind of awareness of the pain of the other, that act of stepping outside of your own experience and being willing and able to take on the suffering of the other woman, that is the core of Judaism. It is what differentiates Judaism from Moab, where people do not give bread to hungry strangers passing through the desert. And it is what differentiates Judaism from Eastern, soul-searching religions in which each human being is merely on his or her own path and journey irrelevant of the other. Judaism tells us to look at the other person’s journey, not just our own, and see where a person needs lifting, needs companionship, needs help, and to take action on the other’s behalf.

Ruth the Moabite is the ideal Jew. It is no accident that she has become the paradigmatic convert. She was more deeply Jewish than many Jews are, Jews who turn away from the pain of the other, Jews who are so fixated on their own navels that they can no longer even feel what the other is feeling. Ruth was more connected to the Divine than some who people claim to speak for Torah, who twist and distort Torah to hurt people — to hurt women — who erroneously think that it’s God’s will to place women behind curtains or in backs of buses or under layers of clothing. God is compassion, and Ruth reminds us of that.

But Ruth also represents the feminist part as well, which is also rooted in the divine spirit of compassion. This is how I know for certain that feminism is intertwined within the Jewish core, despite some ridiculous claims that feminism is outside of Torah and therefore illegitimate.

Feminism is profoundly Torah-based.

Ruth, in her efforts to save Naomi, not only had to step out of her own Moabite identity, but also had to step out of her assigned role as docile, passive, silent woman. She brazenly and aggressively used all the powers in her arsenal to show Boaz what he had to do, to teach Boaz how to be an ideal Jew himself and compassionately take responsibility for Naomi’s well-being. Ruth was not afraid to speak out, to fight, and to break social conventions of femininity in order to bring justice to Naomi, and ultimately transform the communal value system. For this, she is rewarded with being the grandmother of King David, the ancestor of the Messiah. Her actions stand as a model for Jews for eternity.

This is what Jewish feminism means to me. It’s about having the courage to speak out and fight for justice and compassion — not for ourselves but for those around us who are struggling. It’s about seeing the other and caring enough about the other woman’s pain to want to dedicate your life to doing something about it.

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