Photo: Gabby Menashe
Efrat Shapira-Rosenberg
Photo: Gabby Menashe

Is there such a thing as a religious feminist?

According to feminists, a woman cannot be a feminist if she’s religious, and according to the religious world, a woman cannot be religious if she’s a feminist

A great deal of ink has already been spilled on the recent Saturday-night protest demonstration against the plea bargain for former president Moshe Katsav. How with no prior organization, at almost the last moment, so many people filled the square to demonstrate, and all of it organized by women’s organizations. Yet religious women’s organizations did not join the protest.


Yes, there are such organizations, and a fair number of them at that. The largest is Kolech, but there is a not insignificant number of organizations, some with general feminist goals, and some focused on goals such as assistance to women whose husbands refuse to give them a Jewish divorce. But apparently it doesn’t really matter because not even one of the many members of these organizations was present at the demonstration since – as I’ve already noted – the organizations are for religious women, and the demonstration was mainly held on Shabbat.


Of course you can say that this was completely by chance, a result of a lack of thought, and certainly not intended as something against religious women (and men). I bet that this is even true. But this event revealed the dichotomy and the impossibility of the world in which this strange hybrid creature called the “religious feminist” – an oxymoron if ever there was one – lives.


On the one hand, from the point of view of the general secular feminist world, religious women cannot really be feminists.


'Esoteric footnote'

How often have I heard this argument: “How can you call yourself a feminist when every time you leave the house you mark yourself as belonging to a man by covering your head?” Or this objection: “As long as you accept the religious patriarchal system of Jewish law, you can’t be a feminist.”


The deeper claim is that the religious world and all its layers – spiritual, philosophical, social, and that of Jewish law – is built on the basis that women, by definition, in fact, are at the bottom of the ladder. Therefore, a woman who is part of this world by choice cannot have the honor of calling herself a feminist and declare that she believes in ideological, moral, functional, social, and status equality between men and women.


There is no doubt, therefore, that from the point of view of secular feminists, religious women are just an esoteric footnote in the masculine religious world that is hierarchical and suppresses women.


'Undermining the system'

But there is another side to the coin as well, and it is problematic to the same extent. If, according to the thinking of general feminism, a woman cannot be a feminist if she is religious, then according to the religious world a woman cannot be religious if she is a feminist. If you call into question the exclusion of women from significant parts of the religious world such as prayer in a minyan, Torah study, rulings on Jewish law, and the like, then you are undermining the basis of this system.


If you seek to make women’s voices heard on critical issues of Jewish law like the laws of personal status and husbands who refuse to give their wives a religious divorce, you are certainly a fifth column of the abominable western world with its “progressive” views, which threatens to eliminate the 2,000-year-old religious world.


If, from the standpoint of morality, you seek to undermine categorical statements like “women are frivolous” and “anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he taught her obscenity” you are loathsome. And if you express a deep internal, spiritual desire to take an active part in shaping your religious life, then in the best case you get patronizing grins and comments like “first do everything you are obligated to do, and then we’ll see….”


Both sides are right  

The real problem is that the slanderers on both sides are right. There is an inherent contradiction between feminist thought – based on western values of total equality, human freedom, and social justice – and religious thought, founded in a basic way on the existence of a higher authority that determines a system of obligatory rules that you must accept even when they contradict the principle of total equality. So you can try to resolve all kinds of contradictions in all kinds of ways, but these attempts will not get you too far.


I don’t want to throw up my hands and say categorically that feminism and religion are a contradiction in terms, but it would appear that it has still not been proven whether and how the two can be resolved. In the meantime, the bottom line is that there is a kind of daily schizophrenia, which is difficult and painful.


פרסום ראשון: 07.12.07, 16:54
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