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1953: Chassidic Feminism
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One of the first Lubavitch Women’s conventions in the early 1950s
One of the first Lubavitch Women’s conventions in the early 1950s

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.

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From an address by the Rebbe, autumn 1989 (free translation)

By nature, men have been endowed with a greater measure of aggressiveness than women. The purpose of this trait is to apply it to man’s mission in life to “conquer” the material world and transform it into a home for G‑d.

This is not to say that the woman is not involved in the transformation of the “outside” world. In addition to her primary role of nurturing holiness within herself, her home and her community, her influence extends beyond these realms. But also when she ventures out, she does so with “innerness,” with her distinctively feminine traits of modesty, dignity and gentleness.

The Rebbe: Timeline Biography
1902: Childhood
1915: Learning
1916: World War I
1923: Soviet Jewry
1928: Marriage
1930s: Torah & Science
1941: Flight from Europe
1939-45: Holocaust & Rebuilding
1943: Author & Teacher
1950: Leadership
1953: Chassidic Feminism
1960: Technology
1963: Rebellion
1967: The Six-Day War
1972: Retirement?
1974: The Mitzvah Tank
1977: Illness & Challenge
1983: Mankind
1986: "Sunday Dollars"
1988: Passing of Rebbetzin
1989: The End of the Cold War
1991: Missiles & Miracles
3 Tammuz 1994: Transmission
1994: Discovery of the "Reshimot"
Today: The Goal