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A Feminist’s Quest for a Place in Jewish Life

A Feminist’s Quest for a Place in Jewish Life

Donna L. Halper spinning records on WNEU (photos: courtesy Donna L. Halper)
Donna L. Halper spinning records on WNEU (photos: courtesy Donna L. Halper)

I have always considered myself to be a feminist. And while I am not Orthodox, I am very Jewish-identified. And I have always had great respect for Chabad, even though we are just never going to agree on certain issues. And that is part of the story of my interaction with the Rebbe, may his memory be for a blessing.

When I was living and working in New York City in the mid-1970s (I was, and still am, involved with broadcasting), I wrote to Rabbi Kastel of Lubavitch Youth Organization about an issue bothering me.

“I guess at times I wonder if there is a place for women in Chassidism except in the roles of wives and mothers—yes, I know women are encouraged to study and learn too, and some hold jobs as well as raising countless children, but the emphasis still seems to be on the role of wife and mother.”

Rabbi Kastel told me to write a letter to the Rebbe. “The Rebbe always answers his mail,” he told me.

I had long since come to terms with the fact that I could not have children

Like the Rebbe’s late wife, I cannot have kids. I wrote to remark upon the emphasis Orthodox Judaism seems to place on women having many kids. I asked about women who are childless, because it seemed to me that such women were stigmatized by Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on large families.

I was not rude in my letter, but I must admit, being in an occupation where I am always working with celebrities, I did not expect a reply.

Surprisingly, I received a response.

The letter, I thought, had been lost over the years—there was a water main break in my neighborhood a while back, and I lost much of my rare memorabilia—but the compassion in his letter will never be forgotten.

Recently, I was exchanging e‑mail with a staff member at, and it turned out that a copy of my 1977 letter still existed. Rabbi Kastel had retained a copy in his files, and sent me a copy of my letter. I tip my hat to them for coming up with something so important to me, something I thought I would never see again.

The Rebbe said that childless women are not to be marginalized, that they do have mitzvahs they can do, and in the eyes of G‑d, those mitzvahs carry the same meaning as having kids. I had told him that I was a mentor, I teach, I’m a “Big Sister,” etc.

I found the Rebbe very empathetic and cordial, even though he knew I was not a member of Chabad, nor even an Orthodox Jew. That he would take the time to respond so thoroughly (the letter was two and a half pages) touched me deeply.

Click here to read the letter.

Donna L. Halper today
Donna L. Halper today

I had long since come to terms with the fact that I could not have children. But in a culture that defines women mainly by whether they are mothers, I wondered what G‑d had planned for me, and that is what led me to discuss my situation with the Rebbe.

His advice was comforting—absolutely. But now, as I look at the parts of the letter that sent, what impressed me then as now was how he cared about me, even though I wasn’t a Lubavitcher, even though I was not even Orthodox. He understood that I was seeking some guidance as to what mitzvah a childless woman is supposed to perform, and I thought that his response was both beautifully expressed and very, very compassionate.

There is a role for every woman, whether a mother or not, in Judaism

I was never discouraged about not being able to have children. My attitude has always been that I’m glad to be alive. I shouldn’t be here—both my mother, of blessed memory, and grandmother, of blessed memory, died of cancer; yet here I am, cancer-free, so thank G‑d for that. I know that many women long to have kids, but not every woman does. And although I was at peace about my situation, it was still reassuring to hear from someone of the Rebbe’s stature that there is a role for every woman, whether a mother or not, in Judaism.

I hope that women who are deeply depressed over not having kids will take the Rebbe’s advice to heart, just as I did. Their situations may differ from mine, but in all cases his advice was practical and encouraging. I appreciated it then, and I appreciate it now. He reinforced for me that G‑d knows what is in our heart and what mitzvahs we wish we could have done.

While I lived and worked in New York, I subsequently had the chance to go to Lubavitch Headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for a talk the Rebbe was giving.

My memory of him also stays with me—he was a person who truly radiated what some call “spirituality.”

If there is a Jewish saint, this man certainly was the epitome of a tzaddik, a righteous man. Even years later, I have never forgotten how it felt to be in the same room as such an amazing human being as the Rebbe.

He was talking to a large group of children, and they seemed as enthralled as I was. None of them squirmed or wriggled or anything—they knew they were in the presence of a great sage. I knew it too.

It still brings a smile to my face to recall how those children looked adoringly up at him, and the kindness and warmth he displayed as he was teaching them principles of Torah—even a skeptic could see that he genuinely loved being a Jew and that he genuinely loved teaching about G‑d.

He gave out a dollar to each person at the end of the talk, so they could give charity, and I felt privileged to be one of them.

Donna L. (D’vorah Leah) Halper is Assistant Professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge, Mass., and president of Donna Halper and Associates, a radio programming and management consulting firm. She is the author of numerous books on broadcasting, amongst them Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting and Icons of Talk—The Media Mouths That Changed America, a history of talk shows.
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unknown gentile ottawa July 31, 2013

That was well put. While some attributes of differing groups are obviously different, I do wonder if the rest of the differences rejected by specialised groups such as the ones you mention, are actually similarities from which these groups divorced themselves while persecuting those who have not divorced themselves of the same attributes - now deemed undesirable. Seems justified in instances of human/animal sacrifice, and other forms of primitive brutality. Where the practice of bringing pressure to bear on those who would revel in primitive brutality is understandable, the fact that this prejudice extends to other seeming manifestations of "primitive" attributes, such as skin colour, body structure, fashion preferences, gender.... that's where it gets nuts, yet it's seen as the norm, and not nuts. It's like every other coping mechanism - good and lifesaving on the one hand, yet insufficient and dangerous when over used and misapplied. Oversimplified response due to character limit. :) Reply

gregreedan Yardley, PA July 30, 2013

gender and the concept of "different" In graduate school, there was a course taught by a very wise professor. The subject was "hatred of other groups". It included discussions of aliens, genders, ethnic groups, neighbors, and even inaminate objects!. It would seem that our perception of others is, to a large extent, determined on how we classify and order that which we perceive through our senses. When we think of other people, do we say to ourselves "How are they the same?" or do we choose "How are they different from me (us)?" If the answer to that question arrives by looking at differences only, our perception is colored by exclusion. One must remember that the Nazis did not view inmates of concentration camps as human beings. They were "untermenschen (less than human). Likewise, slaveholders viewed their slaves as "property". Today, within Islam there is a movement to categorize all who are not Moslems and especially Jews, as infidels, and radicals call for their elimination. One must learn to think "samenesse. Reply

unknown gentile ottawa July 27, 2013

rox What i find so disturbing and upsetting, is that everything you said should go without saying. So I have to ask, what does it mean, that it must be said? To me it implies that the underlying belief is that women who don't fit the conventional mode have no right to survive. It makes me so angry that I just want to exclaim "the hell with all this feminist apologetics, this is war." It's been proven that women are a match or better as compared to men in all but differing biological attributes. But this is all old ground on which precious little progress has been made. Reply

Rox Eastern PA July 25, 2013

"Feminism" is not trying to be like a man. It is working for women to have the same lifestyle choices as men.

I wrote this on the page the Rebbe's letter is so pardon the redundancy.

For women whose men are unreliable or abusive, or for women who simply don't have a wealthy enough man in their lives to provide absolutely everything, feminism is a necessary tool for them to SURVIVE. They must be treated equal in the workplace, because well, the only way their bills are going to get paid is if they work. And they need equality in pay in proportion to responsibilities. This is NOT, once again, trying to be a man. It is absolute SURVIVAL for many, many women.

Not having the same lifestyle choices as men dooms many women to either stay in abusive relationships, or starve, along with their children if they have any.

Feminism wouldn't be necessary at all, I am sure, if men were better. Reply

Shmary Brownstein July 12, 2013

To Saul Shajnfeld II Regarding checks and balances, Torah law gives very specific regulations about when capital punishment may be applied. Some of the checks in place have nothing to do with a doubt as to whether the transgression was committed, but are technicalities that regulate this extreme action. For example, if the entire court finds the defendant guilty, they must exonerate. Reply

Shmary Brownstein July 12, 2013

To Saul Shajnfeld It is a person's prerogative to believe that the Torah was man-made and that it is lacking in compassion. However, history has shown that attitudes that conflicted with Torah which were widely accepted at one point in time have often eventually become accepted as the norm. Some examples are attitudes regarding idolatry, and the value of human life. Likewise, what is today considered to be liberating and empowering for women may one day be recognized as not that at all. A person's greatest freedom is to live up to their fullest potential. A woman may make an excellent witness, or rabbi - even better than some men. But she may be doing that at the expense of being the best woman she can be. A witness must be impartial, while women by nature invest themselves personally in situations. They may suppress that nature, but they risk deadening a feminine characteristic that is good and special. Reply

Saul Shajnfeld Rego Park July 5, 2013

Response to Rabbi Shmary Brownstein >It seems to me that the Rebbe was making precisely the point that a woman's completeness does not lie in her being just like a man. The Torah recognizes that there are indeed differences between men and women....This concept underlies the distinctions made between the genders in Torah law and obligations. It is not a judgment of superiority or inferiority, but a view of competing important duties.... In the case of testimony, there are checks and balances in place for capital cases to minimize the number of people that are put to death. The murderer would not necessarily go free for lack of valid testimony, but might serve a life sentence instead of being executed.<

You're still completely evasive. What checks and balances? Why can't two female Jewish Supreme Court justices testify? If you really want to minimize executions, why not prohibit also men from testifying?

Is it impossible to get a straight answer from a rabbi? Are you just too embarrassed to tell the true reason? Reply

Anonymous USA July 2, 2013

The "Barren Woman" I can understand this ruling based on the ethos of time and place. But we do not live in that time and place any more. If the Talmud and the Rabbis cannot change this mandate, then perhaps we should enlarge it to include all human beings who are not capable of bearing children and those who do not wish to have children. This, then would be free of gender bias. Reply

Saul Shajnfeld Rego Park June 21, 2013

Re: a vain search Rabbi Brownstein:

>In the instance of testimony in court, it is not a matter of catching a criminal, but of applying the death penalty, against which there are many checks and balances.<

A nice way of saying that the Torah is not going to allow a man to be executed based on the testimony of incompetent witnesses like two female U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Are you so afraid of tackling my question head on that you have to give vague and mysterious answers? The bottom line is that whoever wrote the Torah was unable to foresee that women one day would be lawyers, doctors, physicists, mathematicians, policewomen and Supreme Court Justices. Doesn't sound very divine to me. Is it beyond rabbis to admit the obvious? You lose all credibility with your wishy-washy answers. Step up to the plate and answer the uncomfortable question I posed. Judaism does require some modicum of honesty, does it not? Reply

Donna L. Halper Quincy MA June 21, 2013

A Little of Both Since I was asked, here's the back-story. I was childless because my doctors told me I had cysts on my ovaries and would not be able to have children. I learned to accept it, and it was fine with me; I am basically happy to be alive, as my late grandmother (obm) had the same thing and died as a result. When I made friends with several nice folks in Chabad, one thing I discussed with them was the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. It seemed everything was about being a wife and mother, and while I was hopeful of marrying someday, I knew I could not have kids. So, I decided to ask the Rebbe (may his memory be for a blessing); I have never claimed to be Orthodox, but I had the honor of hearing him speak, and came to respect his opinion. I hope that clarifies a little, and again, feminism was not the issue-- many feminists marry and have kids; I ended up being a step-mom, in fact. I was just trying to understand the attitude about women who cannot or choose not to have children. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein June 20, 2013

Re: A vain search It seems to me that the Rebbe is saying precisely that women's liberation should be the effort of women to be women, not to be the same as men. There is no question that the Torah differentiates between the genders, but as the Rebbe points out, this comes from 'the Merciful One,' to accentuate and nurture the unique qualities of each gender. In the instance of testimony in court, it is not a matter of catching a criminal, but of applying the death penalty, against which there are many checks and balances. Reply

Devorah S.Burlington, USA via June 20, 2013

what mitzvahs? So what were the Mitzvahs that childless women could do? Teach? Influence? So they have no family, children, or grandchildren. Then again they are to teach others children and influence them? Seems barren to me. Shabbot without a family, isn't shabbot. No family to be with or get ready by sundown? So to me life within orthodoxy for the childless is still very hard. Reply

Anonymous June 20, 2013

Infertility I was 42 when I was blessed with my only living child.... I being named after Abraham's wife frequently thought to myself... Gee, maybe another name would have served be better? The pain of infertility and losing a child is beyond words. Childless is an option if that it what you believe your calling to be... But when you have spent your ENTIRE life dreaming about the baby that doesn't come? No words.... Reply

Anonymous June 20, 2013

Re: Why attack feminism? Firstly, I wasn't using barren as an insult. I noticed that other comments used the same term so that's why I used it. I never tried to attack you for not having kids. Sorry if my comment seemed specifically hostile to you.
As for feminism, you speak in the past tense about the purposes of feminism. I know women didn't used to be able to vote and were abused etc, but that's not the case anymore! Now there are government quotas which make it harder to get a job if you're a male. And colleges teach students that 25% of males are rapists. It's demeaning. Feminists had many goals that they accomplished, and they should be proud of that. But, it's over now. It's time for the feminists to go home. Reply

Abby June 20, 2013

Barren or Childless? Donna, in the story you wrote that you could not have children, but now you object to being called barren. I think you need to clarify. It makes a huge difference to the story if you were childless by your choice, or by G-d's choice. Reply

Andrea Philadelphia June 19, 2013

Understanding Feminism While I agree that this article does not make its link to feminism explicit, the comment that "feminism has no place in any world" shows a profound misunderstanding of feminism's central principle, which is equality for all - men and women - neither benefiting at the expense of the other. That seems an essentially Jewish principle, in theory at least, and calls for all women to be valued equally, whether or not they have children. Perhaps that is the point of the article, too. Reply

anonymous ottawa June 19, 2013

Anonymous CT Them's fight'n words!!!!! I'd love to take you on, but we'd be hijacking the article. And I have to weed whack my lawn. Guess what I'd rather be doing though? I'd love to tackle your inflammatory rehetoric one point at a time. This is one arugment for which I would bother to haul out the full arsenal of debating tactics for the sheer delight of proving, through logic, how wrong you are. I mean, if we were going to go forward in this discussion, the first thing we'd have to do is define feminism. Then you would have to explan why it has no place in any world, and watch while your argument is laid to ruin through the illuminating powers of careful deconstruction. Reply

Donna L. Halper Quincy MA June 19, 2013

Why Attack Feminism? I am puzzled by the harsh comments by the anonymous person who referred to me as "barren woman" and attacked feminism too. I am far from "barren"-- I am childless, and that is fine with me; I assume it is also fine with G-d, since He created me and helped me to get here.

I love kids. I just don't have any of my own, and there's nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with being childless, and the Rebbe understood that better than most people. The gratuitous digs at feminism are really mystifying; all that feminists want is equal rights and equal opportunities. When I was in radio, I lived in a time when men could refuse to hire women, even if we were qualified. In some states, wife abuse was not even a crime. Feminists worked to change this. Please don't make us out to be villains. There ARE Jewish feminists (I believe Deborah was one), and there's nothing wrong with women having the right to make choices, even about areas as personal as having children. Reply

Anonymous CT June 18, 2013

Why the feminism? The article is about a barren woman trying to find her place in the Jewish world. It has nothing to do with her feminism, which has no place in any world. It blows my mind that so many women adhere to a "movement" whose figureheads perpetuate discrimination against men by use of largely false statistics. Both the "unequal pay" statistics and the rape statistics put out by feminists have been proven to be hugely exaggerated. They care only about their own gender and have much less love for the other half of humanity. Reply

Alice Florida June 18, 2013

Grateful The years that I have spent studying with Chabad were the most inspiring and enlightening time of my life. Peace was found with so many difficult issues that affected me in my religious life (and my secular life, too). I was able to meld my secular experiences with my religious, making each day more joyous. One of the topics touched on was exactly what this article addresses.
I raised two step children\ from an early age but was unable to come to terms entirely with the fact that I bared no children of own.
I only wish I had found Chabad sooner. I learned the world of mitzvahs is very large, and to not lose focus on what is truly important. Live life well. Reply

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