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Jewish Feminism Beyond Ritual?

Jewish Feminism Beyond Ritual?

In the past half century, North American Jewish feminists have made leaps and bounds – across the various denominations – in ensuring the inclusion of women in ritual life, as well as in the elevation of women to positions of respect and leadership in the community.

More recently, Jewish feminism has grown to include more systemic issues such as advocacy for comprehensive forms of sex education and the plight of agunot.

In my own community, I embrace and encourage the most inclusive framework for Jewish ritual within the boundaries of halakhic process, rules, and values. There is certainly much work still to be done in all of these areas, in each of the denominations. And yet, these concerns – all of which are essential – are in many respects the concerns of the privileged.

As Jewish feminists living in an increasingly globalized world, we must widen the umbrella of our concerns to include, and indeed to prioritize, the cries of women and girls around the world in bondage. Grave injustices plague our sisters, both at home and abroad. We can no longer embrace a feminism that does not consider their plight and other justice issues as important as the more parochial ritual issues.

What sociologists call "the feminization of poverty" reflects the reality that throughout the world, two out of three impoverished adults are women. More than half of the world’s food is produced by women, often while maintaining the home, yet these women make only a fraction of what men earn.

These injustices, among many others, necessitate a response from our community. American Jewish women and men must be at the forefront of campaigns concerning HIV, micro-lending to women, education for girls, and women’s health. In doing so, we realize the prophecy of Proverbs that "Strength and dignity are her clothing…She opens her mouth with wisdom."

Unfortunately, we do not have to look overseas to find oppression and systemic discrimination against women.

One pressing issue here in the U.S. is paycheck fairness. Currently, women between the ages of 45-64 who work full-time earn only 72 percent of the salary that a man of the same age, working in the same position, would earn. This inequality often compromises women’s abilities to meet their own needs, to provide for their children’s future, and to plan for their retirement.

To a different degree, the equitable labor problem is found in the Jewish community as well. Approximately 75 percent of the Jewish communal work force in America consists of women, yet the number of women participating on Jewish non-profit boards and at the pinnacle of Jewish leadership is astonishingly low, at only 25 percent. Women constitute roughly 70 percent of the Jewish Federation’s staff, yet as of 2008, not one of the top 20 Federation leaders was a woman.

Additionally, maternity leave at Jewish organizations is deficient. A recent survey exposed that only about 35 percent of Jewish organizations offer paid time off to mothers after giving birth.

Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson, a modern Orthodox rabbi and one of the great halakhic thinkers of the early twentieth century, supported a Jewish feminism on both parochial and universal fronts. A strong supporter of women’s suffrage, Hirschenson argued with the rabbis of his time that women not only should be permitted to vote but also to hold positions of public authority. Many of his battles were won within Jewish circles, not too mention, more broadly, in America, yet too many women around the world are still denied the right to vote or to attain any public influence.

As global feminists, we must call upon the Senate to draft a bill that ensures the enforcement of the Equal Pay Act, which combats wage inequality by ensuring that women can make a fair day’s pay.

We must call upon the IMF and World Bank to develop effective lending strategies to provide hope and possibility to women looking to build their crop or small business to meet their family’s basic needs.

We must demand that female refugees in war and genocide zones are protected from rape and brutalities. We can join a micro-lending team that supports women in the developing world to launch their own enterprise inspiring the next wave of global social entrepreneurs.

As Jewish feminists, we can return to the earliest texts of our tradition to help us comprehend the biblical origin of radical injustice and the woman’s plight in our world, but we can look at those same texts to provide us with models of how we must act when faced with injustice.

Eve, the first woman, was cursed with the pain of childbearing after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit. Adam, the first man, was given his own curse: "By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread."

How can we stand by while women of the world, daughters of Eve, are burdened with the curses of both Adam and Eve? It is the women around the world who bear the major brunt of agricultural labor, who continue to die in childbirth, and who continue to be infected with AIDS by promiscuous men.

We should look to the Biblical leader Esther for inspiration. Esther risked her life on behalf of the broader community, in response to the rallying cry, "And who knows if you have reached this royal position to address a crisis such as this?" American Jews have attained unprecedented influence, just like Esther in the court of King Achashverosh, and we must channel our influence toward addressing these issues. Who knows if we have reached this privileged position for a crisis such as this? As Esther well understood, all of our achievements will be lost in the abyss of history if we fail to help our brothers and sisters around the world in need.

We, the Jewish feminists, must unite to address the needs beyond our own gates. We must join the Biblical prophetess Miriam in her universal song of freedom. Yet the Midrash reminds us that, in our own day, we dare not neglect the drowning nations as we celebrate our own victories. The song for equality must be heard across seas. Only then can we fully rejoice at the liberated crossing of our own proverbial Red Sea.

Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, a 4th year rabbinical school student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and a 4th year PHD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.



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