My Feminist Formation
This is the eighth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.
I’ve always felt that I was born a feminist.
Seeing injustice and protesting it as a child, my eyes were too big and my voice was too loud. The disparities were offensive: in the synagogue, at homes of my Hasidic relatives, at my Orthodox day school. There was no logic: If Judaism was wonderful, why was I excluded? Being female brought no celebration: When the elderly ladies in the women’s section of the synagogue we attended, the (not-yet-egalitarian) Jewish Theological Seminary, decided that at age 8, I was now too old to sit next to my father in the men’s section and had to move to the women’s section, their insistence was not laced with warm welcome; it dripped with disapproval, no doubt stemming from their own bitterness and resentment. To become a woman in that setting was not a moment of rejoicing and delight.
However, looking at Judaism from the margins was the best intellectual training imaginable. That was, after all, the classic position of Jews in relation to majority society and gave rise to the ambivalence that feminists, too, experience: desire for integration and acceptance battled with resentment at exclusion and the wish to remain separate and different — and unique.
Unique we are, of course, and the insights we draw from our ambivalence places us at the forefront of intellectual sophistication, even as our lives suffer from the exclusions and denigrations we experience as women and as Jews. Feminism offers us the critical tools to recognize, dissect and evaluate how power is gendered and manipulated in ways that limit our lives and distort who we are.
Feminists have changed laws and institutions in massive ways, and we have also changed the social fabric, from the discourse of the public sphere to the intimacies of the bedroom. Yet problems still persist, and our duty is to guard against the exhaustion that sometimes afflicts those who fight injustice. Some problems are obvious: We are still fighting for equal pay and for positions of leadership in Jewish organizations. The more troubling problems are the subtle denigrations: patronizing attitudes, condescension, or simply our absence, whether from the bimah at Kol Nidre services, holding Sifrei Torah or from conferences at which we are one or two women speakers in a collection of 10, 20 or 30 men. Gender power is not solely in the hands of men: Women, too, are able to turn a blind eye or sneering lip.
Ours is the task King David turned over to Solomon: “Be strong and of good courage… for God is with you and will not fail or forsake you until all the work for the House of the Lord is done.” (1 Chronicles 28:20). While the ultimate redemption is not in our hands, we strive, as feminists, to build God’s house of justice, righteousness, and generosity.
Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and the author of “The Aryan Jesus.” She is the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.