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Lubavitch Women's Organization: Chassidic Feminism

Lubavitch Women's Organization: Chassidic Feminism

1951-1953

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Courtesy of JEM.
Courtesy of JEM.

The Lubavitch Women’s Organization was one of the first institutions founded by the Rebbe after accepting the movement’s leadership.1 The purpose of this institution was twofold: 1) To educate, empower and galvanize women within the Chabad community. 2) To inspire women generally to intensify their commitment to Jewish life and learning. This was an organization run by women for women, and the Rebbe kept up a constant stream of encouragement, mobilizing and advising women activists through private correspondence2 and meetings,3 and public addresses to specifically female audiences.4

The place of the Jewish woman in the modern era is often framed as an issue fraught with dissonance. But the Rebbe saw no conflict, fully believing that the eternal truth of Torah need not be contorted in the face of modernity’s critique:

Those who think that the Torah places the woman in an inferior role to that of the man labor under a misconception… Man and woman are like the head and the heart in the physical body: both are equally vital, though each has entirely different functions, and only the normal functioning of both together ensures a healthy body. The same is true of the role of the man and woman in Jewish life, and, indeed, in any healthy human society5

Ever-sensitive to the spirit of the times, he criticized modern feminism from a distinctly feminist point of view. “It baffles me,” he wrote, “that the thrust of the movement “It baffles me that the thrust of the movement is centered on the woman’s becoming similar to man..."is centered on the woman’s becoming similar to man — and this is what is termed 'independence' and 'feminist' pride, etc.!”6 Women, he similarly argued, are in no way liberating themselves by dressing less modestly. He taught that, more than a set of rules, modesty is a character trait to be internally developed and outwardly expressed by men and women alike,7 enabling people to focus less on external appearances and more on internal qualities.8

A woman's role in society, the Rebbe wrote to one Chabad educator, is actually more formative than that of a man, for it is they who set the tone for their households and their communities. “The daughters of Israel build the house of Israel… Whether they will be the mainstays of the house or, G‑d forbid, the uprooters of the house, depends on their education.”9

In the natural scheme of things a husband is guided by his wife’s needs and aspirations. If she prioritizes Jewish life and learning, her husband is likely to devote himself less to material needs and more to the Jewish future of his family.10 A woman’s influence is by no means restricted to family alone. A community is built by individuals, and the ramifications of a woman’s conduct in her own home extend to the entire house of Israel. Moreover, the Rebbe charged women to seek out the spiritual and physical welfare of their sisters, just as he charged men to seek out that of their brethren.11

Under the Rebbe’s leadership, chassidic women felt themselves to be full members of the Chabad community. They were not simply wives and daughters of chassidim, but chassidim and emissaries of the Rebbe (shluchot) in their own right.12

Rather than encourage women to imitate their male counterparts, the Rebbe helped them recognize and actualize their feminine qualities, galvanizing them to embrace their responsibilities Distinctions are to be celebrated and harmonized as complimentary manifestations of G‑d’s infinite capacity. as the mainstays of Jewish society. Accordingly, he enshrined the traditional roles of mother and homemaker as a path of religious service, emphasizing the particular mitzvot that transform the mundane cycles of life into rich spiritual experiences. He campaigned to promote the lighting of Shabbat candles, the laws of family purity and kosher dietary laws. But he did not want women to restrict themselves to practice alone, he also urged them to acquire knowledge of the legal foundations upon which these practices stand, and of the mystical ideals which inspire them.13

Preserving the axiom that men and women differ in terms of their roles, temperaments and sensibilities the Rebbe advised women to engage with Torah teachings in ways that were uniquely suited to them. It was to this end that, with his editorial support, Lubavitch Women’s Organization began publishing a quarterly magazine in 1958. In one talk he explained that the diversity achieved through making Torah accessible to all types of Jews, “also encompassing the distinctions between men and women, will bring to the true unity of the Jewish people… and ultimately the fulfillment of the promise that ‘the female will transcend the male’ in the messianic era.”14

This was not an isolated pronouncement. The Rebbe’s attitude towards women was deeply intertwined with the mystical worldview of Chabad chassidism, in which diversity is reframed as the greatest expression of all-encompassing unity. Distinctions are not to be extinguished. They are to be celebrated and harmonized as complimentary manifestations of G‑d’s infinite capacity. This process of harmonization has an equalizing effect, the unique function of each element is revealed to be vital, and the previous hierarchies are first subverted and then reversed. That which was previously perceived as spiritually “lower” will ultimately be recognized as deriving from a deeper place in the mind of G‑d.15

Footnotes
1.
Igrot Kodesh Vol. 4, page 346, item 3. Although the Rebbe began working to establish the organization in the summer of 1951, the first national gathering didn’t take place until a little more than a year later, in Kfar Chabad, Israel. A few days later, on Simchat Torah, the Rebbe urged Chabad women in America to follow the lead of their Israeli sisters. See Torat Menachem Vol. 7, pages 116-118.
2.
See, for example, the letters by the Rebbe to woman activist Mrs. Rachel Altein, viewable here . See also Igrot Kodesh Vol. 6, pages 225-226.
3.
A transcript from the Rebbe’s meeting with Jewish women from Worcester, Massachusetts in June, 1953 is viewable here . For the background to this meeting see the testimony of Mrs. Rachel Fogelman, viewable here .
4.
Many videos of the Rebbe’s public talks to women are viewable See here.
5.
Letter of the Rebbe, viewable here .
6.
Ibid.
7.
See for example Sichot Kodesh 5728 Vol. 2, page 199.
8.
See also here .
9.
Igrot Kodesh Vol. 15, pages 155-156.
10.
Ibid. Vol. 7, pages 300-301. See also the Rebbe’s talk here .
11.
See, for example, Likkutei Sichot Vol. 12, page 224.
12.
See sources cited in Lowenthal, ‘Daughter / Wife of Hasid’ - or ’Hasidic Woman’?, Jewish Studies #40, pages 21-28.
13.
For two talks by the Rebbe on this theme see here and here .
14.
Torat Menachem Vol. 18, page 190-191. See also sources cited in Rapoport-Albert, From Woman as Hasid to Woman as “Tsadik” in the Teachings of the Last Two Lubavitcher Rebbes, Jewish History #27, pages 435–473.
15.
See for example the discussion in Torat Menachem Hitvaduyot 5752 Vol. 2, pages 184-185.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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arthur killum redondo beach January 27, 2015

Chassidic Feminism Notice how strikingly different the treatment of women are between those who would impose/follow Sharia Law (Muslim/Islamic faith) and Chassidic (Jewish) values. Rebbe's letter (footnote #5) clearly intones the importance of both men and women working as a single unit (my words) to further a greater good. Reply

Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.