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Catch 22: Feminism and Orthodox Judaism

We're the ones that can make beneficial changes for gender equality in whatever Jewish communities we come from. After reading Natalie Deller's article, I hope you'll feel more inspired than ever to make FZY a place where all genders can flourish; that's at the very least.


It’s New Years Eve. You have been looking forward to tonight for a while now, and whilst most would say it’s overrated, it’s still the party of the year.There is no way you will miss it. You arrive, greet your friends and head over to the drinks table. Unfortunately the beverage selection is disappointing; you may have been promised an open bar but for the most part the drinks have been placed in the VIP area and you weren’t granted an all access wristband, maybe next year. You head over to the dance area but yet again, it’s been cordoned off to make more space for the VIPs, c’est la vie.. Your favourite song comes on (it’s a banger, possibly One Dance by Drake) so you sing along to the chorus, until something totally unprecedented happens. A bouncer comes over and tells you that you are singing too loud and the VIPs may hear you, so he suggests that you stop bringing attention to yourself. You decide to go home, because no one wants to be at a party where they are unwanted.

Switch the term “VIP” for “men” and that describes my experience of Simchat Torah. A few weeks into my year abroad in Barcelona, I found myself in a situation where women were treated unequally to men. The VIPs were invited to celebrate the mitzvah (commandment) of finishing the reading of the Torah by singing, dancing and drinking, whilst the women watched from a small space behind the mechitza (partition). Taking it upon ourselves to make our own, respectful, celebration of Simchat Torah, a few women joined together to dance and sing, unseen from behind the mechitza and inaudible underneath all the noise. In spite of this, we were told that we had to be quiet incase the men overheard. How could following the rules mean actively stopping women from participating in the religion? Surely, this is an oxymoron. I had come to celebrate an important Jewish festival only to be told my role was to watch or to play with the children. Coming from a modern orthodox home and community where I have experienced that women can take an active and halachic (Jewishly lawful) role within Judaism, I questioned whether it was Judaism itself that put women into situations like this one time and time again, or whether it was caused by the greater patriarchal structures of society.

In the pluralist nature of FZY, it must be acknowledged that the progressive movements of Liberal and Reform jews have addressed this issue; normalising female Rabbis, Bnei Mitzvot and changing gendered language within religious text. However, whilst this movement has managed to build a denomination of Judaism in which men and women are seen as equals, they have done so through the adaption of Judaism to modern times, changing text and modernising concepts to reflect the society we live in today. In contrast, the debate in question is whether there is space for gender equality within Orthodox Judaism by challenging the societal interpretations of its laws. Changes in this manner would mean Orthodox Judaism remains within the boundaries of Halacha (Jewish law) without requiring changes to scripture.

Exploring the experiences of women who are marginalised within Judaism, it is extremely easy to point out the traditional orthodox structures that have led to social norms of gender inequality. These are evident from basic details like the design of synagogues, which traditionally have been built with balconies for women to look down from passively, to the gendered hierarchy entrenched within Jewish thought, such as the blessing orthodox men say everyday thanking God for not making them a woman. Likewise, men hold the power in divorce, where it is obligatory for them to release their wife from the marriage with a ketubah (marriage document) in order to finalise it. The language and customs developed within orthodoxy have created an environment that belittles women and devalues their role within the tradition. The framework does not leave much room to change orthodox society’s attitude towards women if you want to work within it, bringing us to our “Catch 22”. To what extent can Orthodox Judaism accommodate for the needs of the Jewish Feminist movement without compromising on its orthodoxy?

Reflecting on the rise of the feminist movement in the previous generation, this isn’t a new dilemma. The 1940s-50s saw the contentious introduction of Bat-mitzvahs; female coming of age ceremonies branded as progressive and inappropriate by the Orthodox movement. Accompanied with hindsight is the irony that Bat-mitzvahs have now been embedded into Orthodox Judaism, whilst progressive denominations have moved on to coin the term ‘Bnei-mitzvah’, which is inclusive of gender fluidity, translating as ‘children of commandment’ rather than son or daughter. The adoption of Bat-mitzvahs represents the ability for Orthodox Judaism to create a new status-quo. In only one generation orthodox women’s roles have shifted and certain issues have been destigmatised.

Once valued highly within Orthodox Judaism, women were seen as ‘Eishes Chayils’, translating to ‘Women of Valour’. This psalm is still sung within orthodox households to celebrate a “wife of excellence” defined by her ability to cook, clean and live a life devoted to their spouse. This was once a legitimate compliment, however surprisingly enough, for the majority of women, this no longer defines a fulfilling religious or secular life. As the role lost its value, women became passive in the religion and uncelebrated. Orthodox Judaism should celebrate the women of today, by acknowledging their contemporary values and empowering them to study, pray, and grow within the

Jewish framework.

Orthodoxy has come so far within just one generation. This gives me hope that you can live an orthodox feminist life. But there is still a way to go. From reading from the torah in single-sex groups to encouraging women to study and challenge text, just as men would, we can keep practicing what we have already normalised.

Natalie Deller


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