Wednesday, November 21, 2007

feminism vs orthodox judaism

on her own was blogging about feminism, and othodox judaism, which reminded me that I meant to blog about the topic at some point.

When I was a freshman in college I took an awesome class called "Women and the media". And then I took another class that summer called "Growing up female." Eventually I took up a minor in women's studies. Last week I sent in the paperwork to get a graduate certificate in gender studies to complement my phd in sociology.

All bragging aside, It's not clear to me to what extent learning about women's studies has influenced my move out of judaism. Well, maybe it's a little clear. In that first ever women's studies class-women and the media- the one I took becuase my college had a requirement to take a class addressing gender-we spent the first third of the class talking about images of women in the bible. Later, in the "Growing up female" class I took with the same prof (since she was so freaking awesome) one of our assignments was to write an essay discussing the extent to which gender affected the way we grew up. It was the first time I really thought about how my family was influenced by gender roles, and how orthodox judaism treated men and women differently.

Ok there's the standard men and women sitting seperately in shul, with women kinda off to the side or in the back of the room (depending on the minyan). And that bracha men say every morning - Thanking god for not making them a woman. A teacher explained that away by saying that it's because they are acknowledging that women have a harder time in life, but I didn't really buy it. And how my brothers got to get up in front of everyone at their bar mitzvah and read from the torah, but when i tried to sit in and learn the accenting system, i got shooed away. And how women have to cover their hair and elbows and knees and collarbone because it might turn men on (???) and it's not "modest".

When I was writing that essay for my growing up female class, I couldn't help but reflect on the gender roles inherent in the my family and every other jewish family i knew, and that pervaded every aspect of orthodox life...the women were overworked housewives, or overworked working women who still did all the housework. My mom, who owned her own small business, and who acted as a secretary for free for my dad's business, still did all the cooking and cleaning and everything, because as my dad put it, his contribution to the household was 'bringing in the money." In high school halacha class the only halachas we learned were the ones about cooking. And in high school art class we drew paintings of brides. And they told us we couldn't wear the color red becuase it's not modest. One Fall the president of the sisterhood of my synagogue had a huge fight with the rabbi because they had decided that since there wasn't enough room for shallas shuddes in the sukkah for both men and women to sit seperately, the women would have to eat inside.

Later on these ideas stuck with me. When I was applying to grad school, my dad asked when I would fit in having children (I was engaged at the time) and how a good jewish mother should stay at home, becuase kids need their mothers. A few years back my cousin got married- the next youngest female cousin in my family (and I am the oldest). She was 19 at the time, had been on dates with 3 different men, was engaged after 6 weeks of dating, and as far as I know did not touch a man until her wedding night. A few months after her wedding we were talking at some family event, and we got to talking about sex..i told her i had had sex (she was shocked) and she was like "how do you get over the embaressment of being naked in front of a man, it's been 6 months and I still want to shut the lights off every time." Then she informed me that when she got married, her Rabbi had told her at Callah classes that it is forbidden to use birth control until she has a boy and a girl. This was 3 years ago. Now she has two children and is expecting a third. She just turned 22.

I recently had a conversation with B about gender roles, and the way my family is- with my mother never sitting down during a meal, doing like 3 days of cooking for every holiday, serving everything, and cleaning everything, while my dad sits there like the a king with a servant. B was shocked that people like that actually exist, that I knew a whole bunch of other families like that, and that not just my immediate family, but my entire extended family is the same way- both sides too. In fact he was shocked that my parents aren't divorced as a result. In fact, when I think about it, many of those other families I grew up with- orthodox families- are getting divorces now as their kids are getting past high school age. I on the other hand was shocked when I went to B's parents house this past summer, and his dad cooked dinner for everyone one night entirely spontaniously- we all went out for the day, and when we came home dinner was all cooked, his mom wasn't even home yet, and she hadn't told him to make dinner or anything as far as I know. He just did it! I know this shoudln't be shocking, that some men are capable of cooking and doing these things that were only ever done by my mother- despite my dad claiming he doesn't "know how" to do any of these things. I mean, B does these things for me! But it was kind of a culture shock..i grew up in the culture of patriarchy, and anything different is strange to me.

Now I know this isn't entirely the fault of judaism. And I know there are many non-jews out there who have traditional gender roles, and many individual jews who are progressive about gender roles. But I can't help but feel that orthodox judaism is worse than most. From the outside looking in- and I feel like I have an outsiders perspective at this point- some sects of orthodox judaism are up there with some of the more extreme muslim sects in terms of the treatment of women. Think I'm exagerating? What about those women in israel who were beaten up for not moving to the back of the bus? How is that different? How is a shetel and stockings (With a seam!) and clothes covering almost every part of a woman different than a burkah? How is telling a 19 year old CHILD that if she uses birth control she is violating the will of god, and that she has to have sex with her husband of course, because of pru urvu, how can you NOT call that enforced pregnancy? And if women are forced to have children, how can they ever be thought to be close to equal?

Ok, i know they are different in the extent to which they are extreme. But I don't think they're that different in kind. I feel like the way orthodox judaism is headed is towards a state in which women are no better off than some of the worst-off women in this world live.

So while I didn't really think of feminism and judaism as connected at the time..even as when i was learning about one i was leaving the other- in retrospect, much of my skeptisism about judaism came from my exposure to ideas about gender, and critically thinking about judaism through my new "feminist lens". it was my studies of both feminism and sociology that "lifted the veil" so to speak- for the first time I recognized that their was something wrong with all the thing I had taken for granted. Well, the gender things. I think that's what pushed me off the derech entirely. Up until then, even though I was fairly skeptical about god, and didn't really believe in judaism, I was keeping most of the laws, at least outwardly. I was still doing it for the "community". Once I saw the gender inequities inhernet in the orthodox world, i became disgusted with the jewish community as a whole, and once I became disgusted, it became impossible for me to stay in it, and subject myself to being in an inferior social position.

The postscript to this whole story is that I went to grad school, am currently working on a phd in sociology, specializing in gender and the family. Right now I teach a sociology of the family course, and try to pass on some of the ideas that were so eye opening to me.


  1. It's really interesting to read your thoughts. I don't think these gender roles are necessary within an Orthodox Jewish home, but they do seem extremely prevalent. I'm actually kinda surprised by my surprise at your description of B's father. I guess in my family, despite not being Orthodox, my mom did all the cooking and cleaning as well. I think a lot of people are very frozen in time when it comes to gender roles, and the truth is, I don't know that I really fight them all that much. Hmm, you've actually given me a lot to think about.

  2. they are extremely should totally read this book by Arlie Hochschild called "the second shift"; she found that if you count up all the excess hours that women spend on housework (as compared to men) they work an extra month of 24 hour days every year.

    Me and B have our gender roles reversed, he does the day to day cooking and I cook on the special occasions :)

  3. SO interesting. In spite of my discussion of feminism & Orthodoxy (i.e., the fact that I'm inspired by what they are doing), I too see a lot of the same problems you discussed within Orthodox Judaism.

    I think so much of it stems from attitudes within that world, too -- which are bolstered by the traditional halachic classifications and views of gender (obviously these views were influenced by the societies in which the rabbis who held them lived).

    The problem to me is the attitudes more than the halacha. Because if I was hearing more men (rabbis, etc.) admitting that there is mysoginism within halacha & Orthodox Jewish society more generally and we need to find a way to deal with it (kind of the way any GOOD rabbi talks about the agunah situation these days -- though there are some really awful rabbis who aren't so bothered by this), it wouldn't be quite so bad.

    But they're not. And that's why I'm also worried about your fear that "the way orthodox judaism is headed is towards a state in which women are no better off than some of the worst-off women in this world live."

  4. AE,
    Well there's a lot to address here.

    There's more to the gender roles than you mention. The men have to go to shul, daven 3 times a day, put on tephillin, wear tzitzis, etc, etc. If women (in general) aren't willing to assume those responsibilities, then they shouldn't really complain about the separate roles. Also my understanding is that in many religious communities, it's the girls who get a better secular education than the boys, because of these roles.

    You mentioned your parents. I can sympathize with your feelings about your mother, but remember that some of what she did she might have done because she wanted to.

    And you might want to give your dad the benefit of the doubt. Before you complain about your dad sitting down, remember he ran the business. If he sat down, it might have been because he was legitimately worn out. Or maybe your mother didn't want him in the kitchen.

    You mentioned the "awesome" courses, but you aren't clear about what it is that you learned. After all, a course entitled "Growing Up Female" ought to give you pause just because of its name. It sounds to me from the title and the essay you wrote, that it would foster self-absorption.

    Just wondering if your women's studies courses covered people like Christina Hoff Sommers, Wendy McElroy, Sally Satel, Dafne Patai, Noretta Koertege or Christine (Stolba) Rosen. If you haven't read anything by them, you're getting a one-sided picture.

    Ichabod Chrain

  5. ichabod-
    as for my mom and dad, just this weekend when i was home less than 24 hours my parents got in a huge fight cause my dad wouldn't help wash the dishes. So no, i don't think it's by "choice". ANd why shoudl my dad be more tired than my mom? She aslo ran her own business, worked as a secretary for my dad, carpooled people around, volunteered in the shul sisterhood and some other organizations, and did all the laundry, cooking, housecleaning, etc., but these aren't seen as "legitimate" work forms becuase they are work women more frequently do.

    In the course we read sociological works about pre-adulthood among women. The authors you mentioned are all pop culture politically charged authors. As a sociology profeesor myself now, i can tell you those books have no place in a sociology college-level class. Maybe in a feminist theory class or a political science class, but not in a sociology class, as those books use faulty methods to make politically charged arguments which are clearly biased. That would be just as bad as teaching a michael moore book in a sociology class, which I wouldn't do either. We read articles and books by actual scholars..and none were pop culture. I don't remember exactly what we did read in that course, which I took about 8 years ago, except that we read this book written by a girl who grew up as a slave...but yeah, i would never assign a pop culture book like those you mention in my course, we read from a textbook which is supplemented by journal articles in peer-reviewed journals.

  6. i agree with some of what OnHerOwn said...

    It definitely seems to me that we ("we" since i'm an insider... at least until they kick me out :-P) spend so much time justifying and making apologetics (the bad kind) for the status quo, when it would be much healthier to admit that there are inequalities in the system, and that the system is broken, so we can't quite fix it all right now or maybe even in the foreseeable future.

    There are things that can be improved, though, and some people and communities are working on them.

  7. steg- that's why you're going to be the good kind of rabbi :)

  8. AE,

    Obviously I don't know your parents' situation. I was trying to give your dad the benefit of the doubt.

    Most of the women I know don't want their husbands in the kitchen when they're doing anything serious. Usually that's for a very good reason.

    As for the rest of what you said, "pop culture"is Ms. Magazine, Cosmo, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, People, etc. but not the authors I mentioned. If it weren't for people like them we'd still be hearing that all sex is rape, as well as the myths about domestic violence on Superbowl Sunday, the "rule of thumb", and that women make 14 cents (or whatever the number is) for every 20 dollars a man makes.

    As far as peer reviews go, peer review didn't keep Sandra Harding or Mary Daly off the scholarly presses, so it can't be taken seriously in women's studies. How can you demand peer review when the process in women's studies is as biased as it is? The people I mentioned have their books peer reviewed. It's just that the peer review isn't in women's studies.

    Whether or not their books belong in sociology, they belong in a women's studies curriculum. And if the students aren't exposed to those views, they aren't getting the whole story.

    Ichabod Chrain

  9. I think you also have to realize there is a large spectrum in OJ. Not all OJ are the Ramat Beit Shemesh type. I do beleive there are positives to gender roles but I don't quite like the extreme of it to the other end where the guy does nothing. I know too many OJ's that the man cooks. I also know many many college educated, western-moral influenced women that find benefit with the gender role family foundation. Some on the extreme, are not.

  10. HH- I realize that not all are ramat beit shemesh types. In fact, the high school i went to considered themselves "modern orthodox" and so do my parents. I grew up in a so called modern orthodox community (although my parents were more orthodox then some..for instance my mother covers her hair and doesn't wear pants) but these gender roles were and are prevelent there.

  11. I diden't say they weren't prevelant only that the gender roles of Beit Shemesh are not the same you would find in an MO community where many many women who are educated and see value in the "old fashioned" ways.

  12. > Now I know this isn't entirely the fault of judaism. And I know there are many non-jews out there who have traditional gender roles, and many individual jews who are progressive about gender roles. But I can't help but feel that orthodox judaism is worse than most.

    I think it's mostly a generational thing. Most people would consider myself to be a Modern Orthodox Jew, albeit a liberal one (though I prefer the term "Hilchati"), and I cook for my wife all the time. Many, many of my modern orthodox male friends also cook for their wives & chidren.

    It's not unusual anymore. My parents are like yours. My father sits and my mother cooks & serves. But that's generational, not inherent in orthodox judaism.

  13. Hi Abandoning Eden-- I am a 4th year undergraduate at the University of Virginia and am doing my final thesis for a class I am taking called "Jewish Weddings"- I am researching feminism and orthodox Judaism in weddings and found your blog-- I'd love to ask you a few questions and pick your brain a little so to speak- via email- if you'd be interested. Please get in touch with me if you could- Thanks so much and I really enjoyed reading your blogs!


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