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.