Saturday, October 25, 2008


One of my dearest girlfriends is in the process of returning to her childhood roots of traditional Judaism and is becoming more conservative/orthodox in her religious beliefs and practices – and getting a lot of flack about it from her other friends. The lion’s share of their objection and surprise is based on their understanding of Jewish orthodoxy as misogynistic, and my friend is a smart, independent, professional woman, a liberal and a feminist who co-authored a seminal book about the history/dangers of illegal abortion in America, and for a living is a corporate trainer specializing in sensitivity workshops about racist and anti-woman behavior/ policies in the workplace. Her response is to explain that the charge of misogyny is incorrect, that, in fact, women are revered in the many forms of Orthodox Judaism, that they are regarded as the keepers of the spiritual flame and deeply respected as the stabilizing core of family life. (Those interested in learning more about modern orthodoxy may want to check out

As a Jew, an Interfaith minister, a feminist, a crone [wise-woman aged 56 or older], and a lifelong believer in calling a spade a spade, I find this all very interesting – especially considering the emergence of Sarah Palin, which has prompted a fierce debate among women about the meaning of feminism, preceded (for the last 30 years or so) by a return to more traditional forms of Judaism by the several generations that have come of age since the Baby Boomers.

Before I get into Jewish specifics, I want to say that for quite a long time, I’ve believed that 20th century feminism (from the early-century suffragists to the nouveau pioneers of the 1970s) has lost its footing in the 21st century; that in our legitimate effort to liberate/empower women and create opportunities outside the home, we have created a serious gap in the structure of modern family life, and in the dynamics of intimate relationships between women and men. I never would or could advocate a return to the bad-old-days, when a man’s home really was his castle, and women were given the life options of housewife/mother, nurse, teacher, secretary, or whore. But if feminism is to continue to grow and maintain a meaningful, positive impact on social change and interpersonal dynamics, we’re going to have to acknowledge – and address – the fact that the freedom and advancement of women has created new and different problems, chiefly a lack of cohesion in family life and outright hostility in men.

Traditional Judaism, from the conservative to the orthodox (and there are many forms of both) is rooted in family strength, guiding faith, study/erudition, service to one’s fellow man, and the power of ritual. This is not a bad recipe for a happy, meaningful life. But the trouble with maintaining ideas and practices that developed thousands of years ago is that they can be incongruous (if not downright unnecessary and undesirable) in modern times.

For example, it made sense for the Jewish culture that lived in the desert 5,000 years ago to use completely separate wooden and porous clay crockery for meat and dairy; there is no underlying hygienic necessity for classic kashroot today. Similarly, it was probably a good idea, back in the day, for a woman to take a cleansing bath at the end of her monthly menstrual cycle, and making a ritual out of it (the mikvah) didn’t do any harm. But today, when women bathe regularly before/during/after their periods, adhering to the idea that women are “unclean” during menstruation can reasonably be regarded as offensive.

The separation of women and men in many aspects of traditional Jewish practice – for example, in synagogue, in school, and at large social occasions like weddings – can understandably be perceived as segregation/ prejudice to the modern mind; the fact that this is done to prevent men from being “distracted” by the innate power and allure of women doesn’t make it any less so. Indeed, “protecting” men from the power of women – the same reason that women are shrouded in virtual tarps in many forms of Islam – seems like plain old lack of self-control and mature socialization on the part of men, in this day age. Even more important, the only real role for women in traditional Judaism is as wife, mother, and homemaker. Valuable to be sure, but, where are the options for women who don’t want to take on this role, or for gay women and men whose existence is not even acknowledged, let alone accepted?

I think it would be a good idea for people, Jewish and otherwise, female and male, who seek the comfort, familiarity and stability of traditional practices, to just say “This is what I want, it works for me,” rather than try to find contemporary explanations/justifications for ideas that are in fact out of sync with modern life. And I think it would be a good idea for society, secular and religious together, to acknowledge the inevitable disruptions that accompany radical social change and look for practical, equitable solutions. Meanwhile, people who choose religious orthodoxy should be left the hell alone by those who don’t – and very, very, vice versa.

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