Question:

I enjoy your writings, and look forward to reading your many responses to meaty questions. Recently a student wrote to me a long list of questions concerning the Jewish attitude towards women and feminism. I’ve listed them below. Perhaps you could assist with a few brief answers.

[long list follows]

Response:

Dear Rabbi ——,

When people ask us questions, the kneejerk response is to answer the question. But kneecaps aren’t too bright. Intelligence is proactive, not reactive. It is that which looks before crossing the street, sees beyond the surface before diving in and, most important, questions all assumptions before assuming it knows the answer.

Every question comes with a set of assumptions. Try answering yes or no to this question: “Rabbi, have you stopped beating your wife?” Either answer you give confirms an assumption—and I hope that assumption is not one you wish to confirm.

That’s why red lights should start flashing whenever the question begins with, “What does Judaism say about . . .” Already loaded with assumptions. First of all, that there is an ideology called Judaism which speaks with a monolithic voice, distinguishing itself from other isms by a fixed set of dogmas. Before you answer any such question, you need to ask yourself, “Do I agree with all or any of these assumptions?”

Personally, I do not. Isms are the creation of the Hegelian mind, which is compelled to pigeonhole all human thought into theses and antitheses and their tidy resolution—a cute paradigm that tells us a lot about academia, and almost nothing about Jews and Jewish thought. Nothing Jewish ever came to a tidy resolution—even the Mishnah and the Code of Jewish Law preserve dissident opinions. I believe in Torah and in living a Jewish life, but please don’t attempt to peg me on your neat little ism tree. If you insist—because you really have to hand in this paper, and the teacher just won’t accept such excuses—I could present a set of universal ethics that Jews have contributed to the world. But for a description of the internal life of the Jew according to Torah, any straitjacketing into ismness would be a downright lie. Read this: Is Judaism For Everybody?

An ism generally implies either a dogma or set of axioms, or some purportedly rational conclusion based on another set of assumptions. Our Torah and our Jewishness, on the other hand, rest neither on blind faith nor on human reason, but on the confidence of a people in their own collective experience over a vast history. Abraham may have come to belief in G‑d because it made sense to him, and came to fulfill the divine will at least initially out of intellectual compulsion; but we, his children, found our practice upon our relationship with a G‑d who rescued us from slavery, revealed Himself to us at Mount Sinai, and miraculously sustained us ever since. Our belief is in our own history and our own existence as a people, not as an impersonal ideology but as an experience. That is not to say that we don’t have ideology, faith and reason—but to attempt to grasp those elements through superficial comparison with the ideologies, faiths and reasoning of Christianity, Islam, etc., can only distort matters further.

Furthermore, Torah does not speak with a monolithic voice, except in a very small set of instances. On this topic, see The Murky Truth About Truth.

The Inlook

Quite likely, you are finding my pontifications tiresome, as none of this is particularly relevant to your student’s set of questions, although it needs to be said nonetheless. What is most relevant, however, is that it is a major error to believe you can understand the essential nature of any outlook on life simply by a desktop comparison to that which you already know. There is no aloof objectivity, no “view from nowhere.” True knowledge for a human being comes only from a subjective “inlook”—i.e., living viscerally within that outlook. After that, comparisons may broaden your self-knowledge; but, as Thomas Kuhn might be paraphrased as saying, the only understanding one can have of one paradigm from within another is that the other paradigm is absurd. How much more so when the approach is by simply henpecking with neat little questions, as though the hen knows what a farm is because she pecks all day on the floor of her coop.

If Kuhn’s words hold true in the pure sciences and mathematics, how much more so with an issue of human adaptation such as the roles of the sexes. How can you possibly understand the roles of men and women within a given society without first achieving a thorough, holistic view of the dynamics of that society? Can you comprehend the role of women in New Guinea without standing on the land’s terrain, eating its produce, bearing through its seasons, and attending the rites and protocols of tribal life? Can a man who neither speaks Hindi nor has ever bathed in the Ganges claim he understands the psyche of the Hindu and what he means when speaking of his quest for nirvana? In the 19th century, many an academic certainly believed so; today we frown upon such notions.

Simply put: Without intimate knowledge of Jewish family life, social mores, and the goals of its individuals and of its society as a whole, the answers to any of these questions are like penguins in the jungle, like Milton’s iambic pentameter in reggae rap, like cream cheese without bagels. And intimate knowledge means, at the very least, to live with a native family for at least a year, as they live their life, in full immersion, as any honest anthropologist would do.

In relation to the questions you list, let me state frankly that from within the context of modern society, the issues of gender separation and distinct roles within traditional Jewish life are bizarre and absurd. From within the context of that traditional Jewish lifestyle, they are perfectly obvious and necessary. That lifestyle produces a preponderance of psychologically healthy individuals and families, and is eminently stable and resilient. As such, it deserves at least a heuristic study from the inside.

Torah as Progress

When it comes to Torah, there’s yet another vital factor involved: Torah, much more than it is about the preservation of ritual, is about human progress. It’s inescapable that the role of women in Torah life is not a static ideal, but an ever-evolving role. The radical message of Chassidus Chabad, extending from Lurianic Kabbalah, is that there is a progression here as well: The gradual elevation of the feminine element through the medium of Torah culminates in the time to come, when “a woman of valor is the crown of her husband”—as explained particularly in the discourses dealing with marriage, beginning with the maamar “Ki al kol kavod chuppah in Likkutei Torah, Shir Hashirim. See also Sarah Schneider’s Voice of the Bride.

Over the centuries, Jews have mastered the art of preserving the relevance of the past within the shifting sands of cultures and civilizations, bridging paradigms of thought through reconstruction of text and tradition, preserving rite and ritual through organic adaptation, ever returning to mine received knowledge for guidance into a mysterious future. We have brought change to the world through our conservatism, revolution through the power of stubbornly accumulated wisdom. How? By learning our history, our classic texts and commentaries alone, the secret cannot yet be fathomed. Live the life, walk the talk, touch its heart with your hands and hang on for dear life; then, at the very least, you will have the keys in your hand.

With this preface, here are some articles that discuss the issues of your student:

Women in the Synagogue

The Kabbalah of Man and Woman

Why aren’t women and men treated the same in Judaism?

What Is G‑d?

Do Orthodox Jews still say a blessing every morning thanking G‑d for not making them a woman?

Why does Torah law allow polygamy?

These are all my articles, narcissist that I am. But I am forced to admit that there are plenty of informative and thought-provoking essays and responses on these topics on our site by other authors as well, most easily found here: Women, Femininity & Feminism. They certainly do not present a single voice, but a symphony of diverse and often even opposing themes. And, if this student of yours will learn well what they have to say and keep investigating in all earnestness and honestness, she too will be able to add her voice to the choir, to that magnificent orchestral voice of the Jewish people.

Okay, not exactly what you were hoping to get, but I hope helpful nonetheless,

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman for Chabad.org