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Chassidic Feminist

Chassidic Feminist

My Personal Experiences

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I would describe myself as a Chassidic feminist. The two terms are not mutually exclusive, though their combination is not without tension. Primarily, I am a Chassid, and my identity is wrapped up in that word.

I was born into a Chabad-Lubavitch family that never questioned the intellect or ability of a woman. I grew up surrounded by female role-models of strength, character and intelligence.

This was rooted to a large extent in our Chassidic background. The Chassidic approach to Judaism - and especially the Chabad-Chassidic approach - brought a certain equality and an enhanced status to women in Jewish life, which increased further over the generations as women took on a larger, more prominent role.

My femininity was more than just the way I was

The women in my family were a force to be reckoned with, and as I soon learned, never to be underestimated.

As I was growing up, there was nothing I felt was beyond my reach, except perhaps synagogue life as enjoyed by the men. This often seemed unfair, but there was an understanding that this was just the way it was.

As I grew older, I realized that I enjoyed being female. My femininity was more than just the way I was; it was a unique part of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to express myself.

Yes, there were things I wished I could do. But I lived in a world of absolutes, the Torah world. I loved that world and I knew it to be true. If in a world of absolutes there were certain things a woman didn't do... I just wouldn't do them even if I wanted to.

They never loomed all-important. The joy and potential for fulfillment in the Chassidic-Jewish lifestyle, coming from knowing who you are and having a sense of direction and purpose in life, was far more significant.

I am still somewhat bothered by issues which, in this pre-Redemption era, have yet to be resolved. I am still drawn to some feminist polemics and compelled by certain arguments. But I know that after all of the arguments, refutations and debate, something must speak to the soul.

From somewhere there must come the ability to look beyond the individual issues to the totality that is Judaism. For me that has been the teachings of Chassidut.

Whenever I feel a tug, I ask myself some simple existential questions. Why am I here? Chassidut answers: to transform this world into a dwelling place for G‑d, a place of spirituality and sanctity. Mitzvot in accordance with Halachah, Torah law, are our only tools for doing this.

An explanation of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, has been particularly meaningful to me. Song of Songs speaks of a love between woman and man; it is a metaphor for the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people.

The literature is graphic and overwhelmingly physical; it resonates heat and passion. Here is the vivid joining of man and woman, a physical meshing and weaving of their bodies - sexuality as the nexus of body and soul.

For G‑d/Jew relationship is not meant to be platonic. It calls for nothing less than a coupling of body and soul: action.

A mitzvah is spirituality realized with and within the physical realm; it is the only way for a human to draw on the Divine. On this level, unity and oneness cannot be achieved through even the most sincere emotions or most passionate exclamations. There must be action.

For if I wish to be in a relationship with G‑d, I must make room for G‑d within me

Taking the male/female metaphor a step further, we know that conception occurs when one, the woman, accepts the other into her self. In their oneness, in their transcendence of self, the two potentially create a third, new, reality.

As Jews we need to create this opening within ourselves. In our relationship with G‑d, we all - both men and women - must strive to purge ourselves of the overriding ego and, in its stead, create a space to accept and embrace G‑d in a spirit of receptivity.

When we transcend the self and allow for fusion with G‑d, on His terms, only then is there the possibility of "progeny," of eternity, in our relationship.

Relating this thought to myself, I cannot allow anything - the winds of society, the most finely tuned arguments, my own desires - to come between me and the performance of that action: mitzvot according to Halachah.

And if there is within me what Steinsaltz calls the strife of the spirit, it is mine to grapple with.

For if I wish to be in a relationship with G‑d and tap into eternity, I must make room for G‑d within me, even if it means negating the "I" that stands in the way.

There is an image that comes to my mind: On a Friday morning some months ago, I walked into my grandparents' kitchen and witnessed a scene which to them was just life, but for me was a revelation.

My grandfather was in one corner of the room putting on his tefillin. My grandmother was in the other, separating a portion of the challah dough (which my grandfather had kneaded for her so that she could fulfill the special mitzvah). He was reciting the Shema, she the appropriate blessing for separating "challah."

Both were praying with equal fervor. Both were in communication with their G‑d, with no thought of their "roles." They were joined with the Divine, in a place above distinctions.

Although at the core my life and my grandmother's lives reflect the same values, there is a major difference.

The feminist movement has helped society
catch up to the Chassidic world

My grandmother grew up in an age when a woman's role was unquestioned, when life was much simpler, and whatever choices existed were based on necessity, not personal options. I, on the other hand, am immersed every day in the chaotic, constantly changing world of the near-21st century.

My grandmother has strength and purity; her vision is pristine and untainted. She has what one would call clarity, while I have tensions. My vision is often obscured by my ego. I too can feel and sense what she does, but not intuitively.

My intellect has to become involved to a much greater extent, and I have to find my inspiration and strength in a deeper understanding of Torah. I must study to know what she knows in her gut.

The Chassidic lens gives me a perspective of the world in which we live, and the changes which take place within it. Jewish mysticism explains that with the advent of Moshiach, the feminine powers in this world will become predominant. The Shechinah (feminine dimension of the Divine) will be manifest, and the feminine attributes will be the primary conduits for G‑dliness in this world. It seems to me that the women's movement as we know it actually reflects this spiritual reality.

I feel grateful to the feminist movement for the positive changes it has brought for women. It has brought opportunity, equitable pay and respect to the female half of society. My perception is that the feminist movement has helped society catch up to the Chassidic world.

Today, we see a feminism more grounded in the female self. We see a new generation recognizing the joy and fulfillment in motherhood. There is a dawning that we women are different, biologically, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually and in every other way.

There has yet to come the knowledge that we need not diminish that unique identity in any way in our quest for recognition and respect.

Rivkah Slonim is the education director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University. An internationally known teacher, lecturer and activist, she travels widely, addressing the intersection of traditional Jewish observance and contemporary life, with a special focus on Jewish women in Jewish law and life. Slonim is the editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology (Jason Aronson, 1996; Urim, 2006) and Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday (Urim, 2008). Slonim and her husband are the grateful and proud parents of nine children.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous Trucksville May 26, 2016

Adam:
I too questioned for years some of the very same things you have stated. Now, in older years I've come o understand that it's the content of the character of people that's what's important not their gender. I began becoming more involved in my children's schooling and funding them tutorial programs in the areas needed and I set the example for my son's of what a husband is, of what a father is. As well as my girls, in the way I cared for my wife, my family etc., It is good that you are questioning these things, perhaps Hashim is trying to broaden your path and show you to a more positively involved person in the lives of your family.
There is humanity in g-ds eyes not men or women. It's what we are individually that matters not our gender. Feminism isn't at fault for he things you say. The content of the character of we humans is what matters Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA July 28, 2011

I always wondered how the women think Who accept and live this kind of life. I would have probably felt and believe the same way as the author if I had had a childhood such as hers. However, I didn't, and that made all the difference in the world. If I had not worked for 23 years as a teacher, then I would not have had a financial means to support myself now in my retirement age, with no husband and sons who don't have enough money for themselves, let alone help me out financially. Reply

Yakira raleigh, nc August 18, 2009

Adam: Feminism has created much harm in society including low birth rates, fatherlessness, and women that hate men.
First of all this is a very bad sweeping generalization. Realistically, I really don't think that America has any problems with reproducing children; the real reason why there are so many households without father figures is because of selfish, lazy, weak men; and I actually slightly agree with your misandry theory. The government cannot replace the role of a father or husband, it can only exploit its citizens! Some of the most technological advances have been created since the increase of female students in science and math. The only reason why there are not as many women in math and science fields is because men have been very successful with barring women from pursuing these fields;furthermore, women are starting to catch up. I agree that there should be more programs to help men to advance in reading and writing. Adam look in the mirror before you blame everything on women Reply

mom of special needs child Philadelphia, PA March 11, 2009

What a wonderful article! Thank you so much for this beautiful expression! I have wanted to learn more about Chassidism for a long time, & this article allowed me to view it from a feminine perspective. I have saved a copy for myself also, as I found it very inspirational & uplifting. I also found the article empowering & strengthening for me as a woman, wife & mother (as a whole person, really), & that is something I don't find in secular society. Reply

Yocheved Hande Boca Raton, Florida/USA June 11, 2008

comment on Chassidic Feminisim Embracing the conciousness of Feminism and Chassidius is to rejoice in G-d making us a woman!! There exists an allure of this world but it is so false and pales when we truly understand and accept our roles as women, wives, and mothers with all the joy and glory G-d has intendedfor us!! We are now in the Messianic era, and must be humble and loving as we channel our G-d given spiritually intuitive light. This is truly a gift from G-d to the women. Embrace and love all those in your celestial family!! Reply

Anonymous Birmingham, AlabamaUSA August 31, 2007

Chassidic Feminism Beautifully put! Reply

Anonymous Metairie, LA July 15, 2007

Women I just read this wonderful article about women; describing us a bold, powerful, intelligent oeople. I was not raised with a positive role model of a woman or mother, so I've questioned what my role is as a woman. Thank you for a direct and creative letter to help reach the heart of women. Gd created us as 'female' with a mind, a body, and a soul, so we are intelligent, passionate, emotional people. Learning how to use these gifts in a Gdly way is what is hard. I am working at becoming a more assertive, passionate woman and I thank Rivkah for opening the doors for women to talk about these issues. Reply

rick big cabin, ok/usa July 15, 2007

women most outstanding article I have read in a very long time I wish more women understood this is their role in life. all men/mankind is waiting for this. I have only been able to dream of a woman like this most dont understand how important their spiritual life is and what it can do for them and their husbands/family. thank you for showing me there are women out there that have this view and i may one day find one Reply

Anonymous July 12, 2007

Reb. Slonim is very eloquent and fervant in her beliefs and atitudes toward women and womens roles in Judaism. It wasn't all that long ago that women were not given a Yeshivah education or even when they were, could not study directly from the texts, let alone certain texts or talmud. Today, women are doctors, lawyers, ceo's, cfo's and heads of state, not to mention mothers & wives. Until women can be free to analyze the Torah and investigate the many passages alongside the male interpretation the "Shechinah" is only given token crumbs to pacify the feminine with. It just won't cut it anymore. I think, blind faith has gotten women the raw end of the stick, so to speak. Being praised for being a baby machine and applauded for working and keeping house is another example of our being duped. Open up the rabbinical ordination programs , halachic (Jewish Law) authority, and prayer leaders, without fearing the feminine, then I will believe we are living in Mashiach times. Reply

Golda Getz Watertown , NY July 12, 2007

Thank you Rifka!!! As a person who was "on the outside" first, then "returning", after a full lifetime of feminism and "unfullfilling experiences", I find your writing and speaking very refreshing and clear. This clarity will help me in my counseling /helping others who are confused and questioning.. Reply

Anonymous Israel July 11, 2007

I regret never having the knowledge and opportunity to become chassidic when i was growing up! Reply

rachel bowie, md May 3, 2007

Hit it on the nail Rivka Slonim expresses herself with indefatigable staunchness and pride in Jewish womanhood. I appreciate her approach of "back to the future".
Thank you! Reply

Anonymous via chabadpw.org December 9, 2006

Some women, just not meant to have babies Maybe all who read this post will disagree! but, there are some jewish women who may not feel like they are mentally, emotionally or physically capable of having children. What about the passion to learn torah, that these women have, why can't this chassid community foster that, It hurts to want to be more observant and find that the only way I can join a jewish community is not by studying torah, but by having babies. Reply

Elanit Kayne Crown Heights, NY October 31, 2006

Thank you for writing in such an open (i.e. revealed and direct) yet feminine and modest way. I found truth in your directness. I had before heard the GD and man = male/female relationship, but never in such a way. This for me was a moment when a spark was lit. GD should give us the strength as women so we can communicate the beauty of ourselves modestly without creating shame - you accomplished this. Thank you. Reply

Marcie Edison, New Jersey September 13, 2006

As a young Jewish woman trying to incorporate more Judaism and mitzvot into my life, I found Rivkah's article to be truly inspiring. Rivkah has shown that a woman can be intelligent, assertive, and independent and still live a life according to Torah. I can now better understand the intricate correlation between chassidus and feminism. Reply

Barbara Mintzer Santa Barbara, CA June 17, 2006

Thank you for a beautiful, articulate article What a poignant and beautiful article you wrote on the Chassidic Feminist. It brought a new perspective on the unlikely commonality of both concepts. I, too, struggle with life, and wish it were easier. I thank you for something to read again and again. Reply

Anonymous via chabadchayil.org May 1, 2006

women silenced by unrepresentation I too was raised chassidic for many generations. I believe that i still am a chasidista, however, women''s lives have changed. We did get the vote in 1918 much to the objections of many women. Women are accepted in the professional world and have political clout. I think it is time for the Chassidic world to recognize that women are in this world not just to have babies and raise families. I have been childless and felt very much apart from the daily concerns of family life. I have made my life outside of this environment. Women without children or husbands have yet to be included or have their voices heard. Much work needs to be done in this area. I hope this is taken in the right light and not be defended but acknowledged the same way other repairs have been made in society. Thank you.

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Esther Tauby Richmond, BC April 25, 2006

Chassidic Feminism
Thank you Rivkah for a beautifully written essay that explains so eloquently the role we have as Jewish women to bring G-dliness into this world with our feminine power. Please keep writing! Reply

Sara Lubbock, Tx/USA March 30, 2006

Chassidic feminism I am a Jewish woman and a feminist as well. I often find that the world outside of my faith questions how I can be both. Like you I see a deep level of power and truth in the feminine spirit within Judaism. I also question and want to participate in all levels of Mitzvah and Torah. I am still looking for the balance, but I am certain that the balance lies in faith in G-d and Torah. Thank you for your words. Reply

Helene R Schmidt Austin, TX March 29, 2006

This made me think From this great article I am learning that it is OK to be a traditional Jewish woman and that there are things that we do and there are things that the men do.

IWe are working toward the same objective, after all.
B'H

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