Dr. Susan Handelman

One needs to understand the frustrated spiritual yearnings concealed within the struggles of Jews today.

I approach the writing of this piece itself with a sense of “trepidation and triumph.”  Trepidation due to the sensitivity of the issue of Orthodoxy’s relation to feminism, and the storm of words surrounding it.  And trepidation due to my desire that my contribution to this debate should only have as its result:  l’haagdil Torah ul’haadirah –“to magnify Torah and make it glorious” (Is.42:31).

But I also confess to a sense of “triumph” stemming from my deep gratification at all the new opportunities that have opened up for contemporary Jewish women thirsting to become closer to God and Torah, to grow in mitzvot and limud.

I must first  say, however, that I find it difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about “feminism” or “the feminists.”  There is as much variety, dispute, and ideological conflict within the larger “feminist movement” itself as there is within the contemporary Jewish world.  It is as important for the Orthodox world to recognize that complexity as it is for “feminists” not to caricature Orthodoxy as “rigid and inflexible.”  The accusatory rhetoric on both sides serves neither.  I would especially distinguish between secular forms of feminism based on a neo-Marxist “cultural materialism” that see reality solely in terms of issues of power, economics, self-interest, and those based on a more spiritual-theological view of the world; and between those based on Christian theological categories and experiences, and those welling up from a distinctively Jewish yearning, seeking the treasures buried in Jewish tradition by shining new light upon them.

I am equally unhappy characterizing this as a two-sided issue:  “Orthodoxy and feminism.”  I would prefer to understand it in the broader context of Torah’s relation to contemporary culture.  And on this level, I want to stress my belief that it is crucial for us all (including feminists) to stop fighting the obsolete battles of “modernity.”  And to stop framing the discussion within the dichotomies that characterized the period of “modernity:”  e.g, the autonomous individual versus the heteronomous law; independent reason versus dogmatic faith; tradition versus innovation; secular knowledge versus Torah, and so forth.  This is a post-emancipation, post-modern, post-assimilationist era.  (I heartily also wish we could do away with the old labels that stereotype us, including even “Orthodox” and “feminist” and find a better language to describe ourselves and others; “Orthodox” is not even a Hebrew word.  As the philosopher Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”)

We need to understand this new reality, and recognize that these modernist dichotomies are no longer intellectually operative or culturally effective.  That is why the theologian Michael Novak, in a recent New York Times column, “The Most Religious Century” (5/24/98) predicted:  “You may be sure that the 21st century will be the most religious in 500 years.”  He noted that the prestige of secular humanism, that has held sway intellectually for the past 500 years in the West, has waned after the collapse of many of its own brand of “religions.”  This has occurred not only due to the bloodbaths of Stalin, Hitler, and others, but is also happening within such intellectual areas as theoretical physics, philosophy, and literature.  (Novak begins his piece with a quote from the rather notorious assimilated Jewish-American novelist Norman Mailer, who said in a recent interview:  “Religion to me is now the last frontier.”)  The questions of what to live for, and how to live justly are part of the great thirst for “spirituality” one sees everywhere in America today amongst Jews and non-Jews.  Jews today are not seeking to run away from Judaism; on the contrary, they are looking for a way back.  And so, what is needed today in Orthodoxy, I believe, are not more defensive reactions to “modernity.”  Or even, I would say, “accommodations” of it — but rather, a thinking “beyond” it.

In sum, one needs to understand the frustrated spiritual yearnings concealed within the struggles of Jews today.  And the women’s issue is part of all that.  The feminist movement originally captured the minds and hearts of so many Jewish and non-Jewish women 30 years ago (although it has far deeper historical roots — among which, I would argue, is the Torah itself, although I have no space here to develop that idea), because it gave voice to many of their felt, existential frustrations; it gave them an ideal to struggle for and a sense of community with other women.  Some of its excesses, however, alarmed and repulsed others.

But it is also important to note, if I may crudely generalize from my experience, that the current generation of young women, having benefited from the social and legal gains made by the previous generation, is itself largely “post-feminist.”  These younger women feel little need to critique the “institution of the family” or of “motherhood.”  They too, partake of the spiritual quest occurring in the contemporary world.  And because of the strength of that desire they, too, seek their place before God, in synagogues, batei midrash, and look back to foundational texts for what these can tell them about their lives.  However, in some more traditional religious circles, there is still suspicion and mistrust of women’s desires for more participation as importations of non-Jewish ways of thinking or rebellious threats.

In any case, these challenges have required Jewish scholars and laypersons to look again at our sources, to examine more deeply and searchingly certain areas of halachah, Jewish history, literature and theology.  They have also led to the founding of the many extraordinary institutions for women’s advanced Torah learning in the United States and Israel, and to the deepening of the curriculum for many women.  Women have taken many initiatives on their own and helped create new opportunities.  These trends, I think, are irreversible.  I do not want to enter here, however, into questions of ritual practice and the many debates surrounding them.*

Ultimately my position, as someone who has benefited from these new Torah institutions is that the greatest advances women can make in all areas of contemporary Jewish life will come, first and foremost through derech halimud, the way of serious learning — through their deeply engaging and mastering the wellsprings of all parts of Torah.  Any progressive contemporary theology and politics for Jewish women must, finally, rest on a vision of the unity of Torah — on faith in and engagement with all its facets, halachah, chassidut, Jewish philosophy, midrash, Bible, Talmud.  And the Orthodox world should trust in the power of talmud Torah and bring women to it in the most serious and challenging way, taking their questions seriously, and probing the depths of all parts of Torah in a spirit of mutual inquiry, trusting that the answers will be there, but we must first search them out.  And we may find some surprises along the way.

So I do not fear major defections from Orthodoxy of women who have been influenced by feminism — I fear, rather, the loss to Orthodoxy of so many searching, intelligent, interested Jewish women exploring their roots and wanting to find their place in Judaism — women who could move towards Orthodoxy if it would engage them, encourage their questions, and exploit the many possibilities open to them in halachah and in Jewish thought.  The beginning of the Book of Samuel describes how Chana’s brokenhearted silent prayer was misunderstood as that of a drunken woman.  But Chana’s prayer later became the model for the Amidah prayer, and so too, I ultimately hope that from engagement with the issues pressing on the hearts of contemporary Jewish women, there may come forth further development of “Torat Immecha,” the “instruction of your mother” (Prov.1:8) — that is, feminine wisdom of Torah.

Similarly, I would like to see feminist thought itself challenged, in its turn, by Torah — to examine its own presuppositions, values, goals, in light of criteria such as avodat Hashem, yirat Shamayim, anavah, tzniut, kabbalat ol [service of God, fear of Heaven, humility, modesty, acceptance of the yoke of Torah] and so forth.  In other words, to be discerning about what philosophical and cultural categories it employs for its critique.

But there is an even larger issue which challenges us all,and that is the nature of the dynamic between revelation and tradition, the way Torah is renewed daily, our larger theological-historical understanding of what is demanded from us in our time, and how it is part of the ongoing redemptive efforts of the Jewish people.

There are some who see a deeper level to the increasingly pressing voice of women…as part of the mandate l’takken olam b’Malchut Shakkai [to perfect the world through the Sovereignty of God].  Some see it less positively in terms of the “descent of the generations”; as is well known, one of the justifications given in previous generations for the establishment of women’s schools was the pragmatic necessity to fortify the Jewish woman against ever increasing outside influences.

But others see it as part of a larger metaphysical process.  Less dramatically put, the latter generations benefit from the cumulative ongoing efforts of Jews throughout their history to mend and bring light into the world through Torah.  More dramatically put, each generation further away from Sinai is also closer to the final Redemption and Messianic Era.  So some have also argued, including the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, that the reason we have merited the increase in Torah study for women in these latter generations is precisely because of that proximity.  It is part of the preparation for – and already a “taste of”– Redemption.  A defining characteristic of that future era is a great increase in knowledge and wisdom; and just as before Shabbat one tastes each of the special dishes to be enjoyed at the Shabbat meal, we now have a taste of that future state.

This notion is also based on a deeper connection of women to the Messianic Era in the kabbalistic and Chassidic understanding of the role of the feminine in the Era of Redemption and the World to Come:  then all the “feminine” aspects of the world will rise to the highest stature, emerge from their concealment and diminution in the unredeemed world.  (In this sense, the “feminine” would also include the entire Jewish people, who have often been eclipsed and suppressed by the nations of the world, their worth questioned, their lives threatened.)

And that is the deeper reason, this line of thinking holds, that the innovations and increase in Torah study of recent generations connects to and is emphasized more in relation to women.  That would be the deeper meaning of the famous verse from Proverbs (12:4): “A woman of valor is the crown of her husband,” and from the prophet Jeremiah “the woman will encircle the man” (31:21).  The crown, symbolizing the highest kabbalistic sefira or Divine attribute of “Keter,” sits on top of and encircles the head.  Similarly, in the prophecy of Jeremiah, “the woman encircling the man,” signifies the highest level of Divine revelation, in the mode of a circle (makkif).  In a circle, all points are also equidistant from the center, rather than in the hierarchical structure of a line.  A circle also symbolizes what encompasses and can’t be contained and delimited.  There are hints to this in the wedding ceremony where the bride indeed encircles the groom, and in the language of the wedding blessings.

I confess to being attracted to this view of things.  And in my most optimistic moments, I would like even to see the larger “secular” feminist movement, with all its problems and all the elements with which I disagree, as ultimately somehow, some way, part of this.  I would like, that is,  to find the Divine spark concealed within it, while at the same time also recognizing what in the surrounding klippah [shell] needs to be discarded.  I recognize, too the dangers of “messianic thinking” and the need to maintain a healthy dialectical tension between the ideal and the real.  I do not want to claim for the partial and fragmentary what is absolute.

The well known verse from Psalms 2:11 says:  “Ivdu et Hashem b’yirah, v’gilu biradah, Serve God with fear, and rejoice with trembling,” which is also another way of talking about “trepidation and triumph.”  This mixture of joy and trembling is, I think, a constant in a true religious life (see Berachot 30b).  The joy of closeness to God and Torah also brings awe and trembling before their infinite greatness and kedushah [holiness].  A joy which does not have in it an element of trembling is one to be wary of.  My joy at the positive things “feminism” has brought to “Orthodoxy” is not without trembling; and I would want feminists, as well, to have as a priority that sense of awe and trembling in the face of God and Torah.

Finally, the Torah is also compared to fire, and as the Talmud says, “just as fire does not acquire tumah [impurity], so, too, the Torah does not acquire tumah (Jer. 23:29, Ber. 22a.).  Despite my  trembling, I believe in the power of Torah and truth… that in the end, what is good and right and true and redemptive in the issues women are bringing to the fore will lead to hagdalat Torah vehaadarah.  What is not, will not last.  As the Talmud famously says (Sotah 11b):  “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation were the Jews redeemed from Egypt.”  So may it also be for us and for our generation’s righteous women.

Dr. Handelman is a professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of two books on the relation of Jewish thought and literary theory.  She is currently in Israel for two years on the Jerusalem Fellows program at the Center for Advanced Professional Educators.

* See, for example, the essay in Tradition, Winter, 1998 on “Women’s Prayer Service” by Aryeh Frimer and Dov Frimer for a superb review of debates, ideas and sources.

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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