Latest update: October 24th, 2013
In Israel, a Haredi woman named Ruth Colian is asking that the Israeli government stop funding Haredi political parties because they discriminate against women. The Haredi parties will not place a woman on their ballots, yet they are receiving money from the government. Colian argues that the government is sponsoring gender discrimination by supporting the patriarchal system of Haredi Judaism in politics.
It’s a good argument and I hope she wins. But that’s not the issue here.
The real issue is that Colian is running as a Haredi woman for political office. She won’t run on a secular list because she says she is Haredi. She wants to break the glass ceiling in the Haredi community. I wish her luck because it won’t be easy. In the past, people who tried to change Haredi norms were either pushed out or left on their own accord. It’s an uncomfortable place to be a revolutionary but maybe Colian will be the one.
If she is successful, it will mean yet another avenue that Haredi women can achieve the same level of acclaim and success as men. Leaving the rabbinate as one of the few places Haredi women cannot. That might prove to be a difficult position to maintain.
Corian is a true Haredi feminist. She is Haredi and she is vying for equal opportunities for women. This is the basic premise of feminism. It comes in many flavors and textures, but at the heart of all of these feminist movements is a sense that men and women should have equal opportunities and that men should not dictate the role that women must play in society. One can see how feminism and Haredi life seem incompatible. While it’s true that many, if not most, Haredi women choose to play the dignified and refined role of mother, wife, and homemaker on the sidelines of religious and communal life, there are many women who would prefer to have a choice to play a more public role in religious and communal life. That is what the Haredi feminists want.
When juxtaposed with a trailer for an upcoming documentary on the hasidic community of Brooklyn called Uniforms: The Hasidic #Community, Corian’s struggle seems even more poignant. The documentary was produced by a self proclaimed non-traditional Jewish woman. She offers a peek into the softer, more spiritual side of Hasidic Judaism. It’s a noble attempt to show good people living good lives. The public has a negative perception of Hasidic Judaism and this documentary could go a long way to bridging that divide.
Leaving aside the extremely problematic conflation of different hasidic groups in the movie, illustrated by the visuals of chasidim in shtreimels and double head coverings for the women, while hip Chabad people talk about their more liberal way of life, there was a line in the trailer that requires attention.
A woman, who almost certainly is Chabad as betrayed by her perfectly unaccented English, proclaims: “Jewish [sic] women, we’re kind of the biggest feminist women out there. Judaism creates space for women to tap into what might not be popular right now, but what is innate, the creative power of bearing children.”
I think that if a woman wants to “tap into what might not be popular right now, but what is innate, the creative power of bearing children” she should have that opportunity. I am all for traditional values for women that want those values in their lives. It’s great. It’s one of the secrets to Orthodox Judaism. In fact, I think it’s a problem that so many husbands and fathers are studying all day while their wives are leaving the home to support their husbands and babies are being dropped off at day care. I believe the traditional home is a great ideal and bearing children is a wonderful and powerful role to play in this world.
However, it is decidedly not feminist. It can be feminist to choose that life. But if everyone is doing it, or is expected to do it, it does not fit any accepted meaning of the word. You can’t unilaterally change the entire meaning of the word feminist and apply it to Haredi Judaism. It doesn’t pass the laugh test, forget the smell test.
And why is feminism an ideal for this Haredi woman? Why is she trying to pretend that a world where women are not given every opportunity that men are given and they are expected to produce large families is feminist. It’s not feminist at all. Proudly so! Recently, I heard a prominent rabbi say that Jewish feminists were comparable to reform and conservative Judaism! Orthodox Judaism is not feminist. You need to be okay with that to be orthodox.
In Israel, Ruth Corian is dying for the opportunity to lead her community. She is a feminist. In Brooklyn the party line is apparently that being a mom is the most feminist thing one can do.
Again, I am not degrading moms. God forbid! I think it’s a great choice if one can and one wants to make it. But it’s not feminist if that is what is expected. But even more perplexing is why are you trying to call it feminist?
I don’t think this is an isolated incident. I’ve seen this more and more often. People are selling Orthodox Judaism as feminist. I’m a pretty liberal Orthodox Jew and I don’t see how anyone could interpret my religion as feminist.
Personally, it bothers me. I grapple with it. I struggle with the current inequality and I empathize with those orthodox Jewish women who want to play a more prominent public role. I wish Orthodox Judaism had more feminist opportunities. I do my best to accommodate feminism within tradition. But I don’t redefine the term to conform to my orthodox worldview. Words have meaning and that meaning must be respected.
It seems impossible, if not extremely unlikely, that orthodox Judaism will ever have equal opportunities for men and women. Maybe that’s okay. Not every religion or creed has to conform with every modern sensibility. But let’s at least be honest about it. And if we can, try to break as many glass ceilings that we can shatter.
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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.
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