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Women and Humanistic Judaism

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 25-26, No 4-1, Autumn 1997_Winter 1998

Feminism is one of the most important social movements of the last two centuries. The liberation of women has more than historic significance. Above all, it has moral significance. From a humanistic perspective the freeing of women from male oppression and exploitation was ethically necessary. 

Respect for the dignity, equality, and talent of women is certainly humanistic. But it is not traditional. Prior to modern times there was no feminist reality in the Jewish or non-Jewish world. In a society dominated by agriculture, the primary role of women is reproduction and child rearing. The liberation of women depends on mass urbanization and the diminished need to produce children for cheap labor. When expectations rise, when children become both expensive and parasitic, when prosperity produces the cult of happiness and self-fulfillment, and when opportunities for female work emerge outside the home, then feminism is possible. These conditions have existed only in modern times. 

Traditional Judaism, whether priestly or rabbinic, is the enemy of feminism. In that respect it is no different from traditional Christianity, traditional Islam, or traditional Hinduism. Torah Judaism views women as a source of sin. Their menstrual blood defiles the territory they touch, and their immoral ambition can be checked only by male domination. Talmud Judaism sees women as the agents of frivolous and dangerous diversions. Conversing with them leads men into lewdness. No good can come from granting women either power or freedom.  

The opposition between feminism and traditional Judaism is very difficult for many modern Jews to accept. They want to believe that the roots of their feminist convictions lie in the ethics of the Jewish past. The apparent discontinuity offends their need to affirm the Jewishness of their values.  

How do Jews cope with this ideological discomfort? Many of them try to find support for their feminism in the literature of rabbinic Judaism. Since this endorsement is not there, they rip texts out of their ideological context and appropriate any obscure comment that might be regarded as pro-woman. The sadness in this effort is the need to be “kosherized” by these texts. Some liberals cannot listen to the past. They insist on using it for their ideological agenda. 

Feminism is morally right and appropriate even if our rabbinic and priestly fathers did not approve of it. The validity of an ethical value does not depend on the endorsement of the past, and the Jewishness of an ethical value does not depend on its being old. The experience of Jewish people in modern times is sufficient justification for its rightness. If there is any historic Jewish involvement with feminism, it lies in the fact that Jews were early pioneers in the urbanization of the western world. But that development is not endorsed by traditional texts. Jewish feminism has no significant past. It has only a present and a future. 

Four issues comprise the Jewish feminist agenda in the contemporary world. The first is the integration of women into all aspects of community life. The segregation of Jewish women denies them equality. The second is the opportunity to become community leaders, whether leadership means being president of the congregation or being the rabbi. Exclusion from any leadership role is morally unacceptable. The third is the need to make the language of celebration woman-inclusive. Inclusive language means that women share power and dignity with men. The fourth is resistance to any attempt to turn the obvious differences between men and women into an excuse for proclaiming female inferiority. Men are neither more intellectual nor less emotional than women are. 

Jewish feminism cannot be nostalgic. It has to be creative. It has to promote policies and practices that are new to Jewish life. Morality overrides tradition. Humanistic Judaism and other liberal Judaisms have to create what priestly and rabbinic Judaism failed to provide. 

A creative Jewish feminism must be based on six grounding principles: 

  1. A creative Jewish feminism does not fight the past. It listens to the voices of the past even though it does not approve. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism retells and rewrites Jewish history to emphasize the important contributions of women to Jewish life despite the hostility of the rabbis and the establishment literature. Most of these intellectual and artistic gifts were made in modern times. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism actively resists any attempt to force non-Orthodox Jews to participate in gender segregation at any public Jewish event outside an Orthodox synagogue. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism actively recruits women for leadership roles in the community. It assists women who want to become rabbis and helps them find employment. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism insists on inclusive language, even if familiar songs, prayers, and reflections thereby become less familiar. The dignity of women must take precedence over nostalgia. 
  1. A creative Jewish feminism produces a new Jewish literature celebrating female equality and power and incorporates this new literature into Jewish education and celebrations.