In 1953 the Rebbe founded the Lubavitch Women’s Organization, opening a revolutionary chapter in the history of Jewish and chassidic womanhood. In a marked departure from an entrenched tendency to limit high-level Torah education to men and boys, the Rebbe addressed his teachings equally to both genders, maintaining that women share the obligation to study and master the esoteric “soul” of Torah and thereby achieve knowledge, love and awe of G‑d.
When he sent a young married couple out to the frontlines of his war on assimilation, he expected the wife to wage the battle alongside her husband, reaching out to fellow Jews and reintroducing them to their heritage. When he sent the students of the Chabad yeshivot out into the streets to put on tefillin with Jewish men, he also sent the young women to shopping malls, schools and hospitals to distribute Shabbat candles to Jewish women. At the same time, he insisted that his female chassidim uphold the tzniut (“modesty”) in dress and manner that has been the hallmark of the Jewish woman through the ages.
“Feminism,” in the commonplace sense of the term, was not a new concept in 1953, though its primary gains still lay in the future. The sundry feminist movements rejected the traditionally domestic role of the woman, and sought to wrest from male dominance the “public” social, economic and political domains.
What was unique about the Rebbe was that he was not a revolutionary in that sense. On the contrary: he was a fervent advocate of the woman’s traditional role as mainstay of the home, arguing that men and women were charged by their Creator with different roles, in keeping with their distinct talents and qualities. For a woman to reject her intrinsic femininity in an attempt to realize herself in a male role, said the Rebbe, is to deprive herself of her choicest potentials and venues of fulfillment.
Rather, the Rebbe effected his “revolution” by a return to tradition. Drawing on the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism, he insisted that the woman’s role is of equal—and, in many ways, superior—importance to that of the man. He also showed how the Torah-ordained role for women includes and encourages an “outward” exercise of a woman’s talents that is fully in keeping with the traditional ideal, “The glory of the king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:14).
The woman, too, said the Rebbe, is to venture out to develop the world into a “home for G‑d.” But she is to do so in her characteristically feminine way: not as a “conqueror,” but as a nurturer; not by “transforming darkness into light,” but by revealing the divine luminance implicit within all of G‑d’s creation.