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Feminism & Judaism

Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

In secular society, feminism is often interpreted as a woman’s right to be like a man. This really isn’t feminism at all. Suppose there is a university president who really likes the university football team and doesn’t want to jeopardize its success by opening enrollment to everyone. But he has to keep to the university’s equal opportunity policy. So he says, “Any person regardless of race, color, or religion, who is over six feet and weighs over two hundred pounds can qualify for the team.” How many Chinese women do you think would qualify? The university president isn’t saying all people are equal, but that all people have the equal right to be what he idealizes. This really isn’t equality at all. When people speak about the feminist issues in the Jewish world, they may talk about the right of women in the observant community to take on roles that have been traditionally male. This is really anti-feminist. If I would describe someone as pro-Israel, I would say that he believes Israel has the right to be like itself, self-defined and determined. Being a frum woman means being acknowledged for what a woman is meant to be. What does this mean according to the Torah’s view and what does it mean in terms of actual reality?

When Hashem created Adam He said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  This raises many questions. If human function is to bring the spirit to the body, to take the soul and let it articulate itself through the sanctified body, what is not good about being alone? And if there’s something better, why wasn’t it the first model? Rashi says it’s not good for people to feel so perfected that they feel autonomous. The Ramban, the Maharal, and other commentators take a different approach. For people to grow spiritually they need to feel they lack something in order to avoid self-absorption. They need other people who are also lacking so they can become authentic givers. Why then didn’t Hashem create the first model lacking? He created Adam perfect so that he would always have a picture in his mind of what the perfected state should be. 

In Eishet Chayil the women is presented as able, wise, and integrated. She is a mother and a wife. She has a strong, multifaceted role. She is not weak or passive as women are often painted in Western and Eastern ideology. “Oz vehadar levusha,” her garments are strength and glory. Feminism should be the glorification of women as Torah presents them. Hashem didn’t say, “Let’s make man and women.” He said, “Let’s make man.” He then takes out a part of Adam’s insides and forms woman as ezer kenegdo. The ezer knegdo provides help that is so essential that it equalizes the relationship.

Hashem has many attributes through which we experience His presence, but in the highest plane He is one.  Women are more attuned to binah and malchut. Men are more inclined to chochma and tiferet. Binah means empathetic understanding. The most primary expression of understanding is in relationships, and the deepest relationships are familial. We live in an anti-feminist society that tells us that binah is irrelevant and many of us pick up on it. Malchut is sovereignty. It’s saying, “I’ll be who I want to be and I won’t defined by the outside.” When the Russian refusnik, Natan Sharansky, crossed the bridge to freedom the media asked him, “How does it feel to be free?” He answered, “I was always free.” That’s malchut. Rabbi Tauber tells how when he was a young child in the concentration camps his mother had him wear the one garment he had, inside out all week. On Shabbat, she would turn it so the right side faced out. That’s malchut.

The second stage of malchut is, “I’ll be what Hashem wants me to be and I’ll transform the world around me to what Hashem wants it to be.” Women are strong in malchut and in their ability to affect themselves and others. Yaakov was tiferet. He had the ability to see the whole true picture through the lens of Torah. Rachel, the ultimate mother, was malchut. The Torah says that when Yaakov met Rachel he kissed her. The Zohar explains that kissing symbolizes spiritual attachment. Yaakov recognized that his ability to see the whole picture would be concretized through Rachel’s malchut.

Binah must be respected. Therefore, the Torah exempts women from many things which would take them away from relationships. Her responsibility to take care of her family takes priority over praying with a minyan (quorum). The whole concept of tefilah b’tzibur (praying with a quorum) is seeing oneself as a part of something larger. Men define themselves as a group because connecting to our tradition occurs on a group level. The Jewish nation is described as collective binah coming through individuality. Jewish law is structured to accommodate this. In fact women are stronger in tefilah than men because tefilah is a function of binah and malchut. A woman’s personal prayers are significant and valued. We learn the laws of prayer, for both men and women, from Chana.

We can’t fall in the trap of saying we have to do it the male way. Women who say that not praying b’tzibur equals no tefilah have bought into secular imagery. The same would hold true for other expressions that are by custom or law masculine. Women have to balance the tightrope of pride and affirmation in themselves against the message the world tells them that that affirmation is anti -feminist. It’s a tightrope that we’re fully capable of walking. It all depends upon us knowing how valued and respected we truly are and what an eishet chayil, the paradigm of a Jewish women, is meant to be.

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