Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jewish Feminism

In American Jewish Life (SOC 203) we've been discussing in depth the different branches of Judaism. In our most recent class, we adopted a feminist perspective to examine the role of women in Jewish practices, laws, and customs.

A broad feminist critique would suggest that Judaism, in general, is sexist. The same broad statement could be attributed to most religious organizations - I don't intend in any way to pick on Judaism, but rather to point out how recent readings and discussions have made me more aware of sexism & biases ingrained within in the community in which I was raised.

To begin, here are the four branches of Judaism & the years when their rabbinical seminaries were first organized:
Reform - 1875 - Hebrew Union College (this faction is often viewed as the most liberal form)
Conservative - 1902 - Jewish Theological Seminary (this faction is often viewed as a compromise between reform & orthodox)
Orthodox - 1915 - Yeshiva University (this faction is often viewed as the most traditional/strict)
Reconstructionist - 1968 - Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (this faction is newer and overall views the social aspects of religion as central to Judaism)

And now, following the brief overview of the factions of Judaism, here are some specific situations within Jewish tradition that make me uncomfortable because they could be interpreted as sexist (included are the manners in which the situations have improved):
1. Halakha (Jewish law) dictates that a minyan (prayer quorum) must contain ten adults in order to count towards public prayer. However, women, traditionally, were not included in those that "count" towards the minyan. In recent years, women have become recognized as members of the quorum in reform, conservative, and reconstructionist factions.
2. Traditionally women and men are separated using a mechitzah (barrier) during the prayer services to prevent distraction. Previously, this has been carried out by women being placed above the men on a balcony (called "ezrat nashim" in Hebrew - a " gallery of women"). More modern examinations have suggested that there are manners in which we can have "more equal manners of separation" (as contradictory as that sounds), such as being separated by a side-by-side barrier.
3. During times of menstruation women are viewed as impure; in Orthodox tradition women are required to sleep in separate beds from their husbands during that time. Men are not supposed to touch women while they are menstruating. The mikveh, the ritual bath, is utilized as a way to become clean after menstruation (in addition to using it for other traditions - before marriage, after a major life event, etc). Some have recently come to embrace the mikveh under different circumstances; not necessarily under the traditional auspices. The professor of SOC 203 gave an example of a mikveh created under different circumstances: Mayyim Hayyim, in Newton, MA. In my own life, my mother worked to help create a community-based mikveh in Portland (where I'm from!). Website here: Mikvat Shalom.

In my own life, I am made uncomfortable due to some of these traditions. My orthodox (male) cousins and uncle do not often hug me, which although having a basis in traditional, still can feel hurtful. Dissonance occurs, because I want to respect their beliefs but I do not feel that the tradition is one that I personally would obey.

Additionally, it's discouraging to me that women are seen as "impure" during menstruation, a time when women's bodies are following through with an important biological process. It is particularly frustrating to me when women are shunned or made to feel embarrassed because of a natural, necessary process & an important bodily function.

Lastly, it frustrates me to think that certain folks may not believe that I "count", or that other women do not. Bigotry is irritating in any form, but to think that tradition dictates that God may not recognize women's prayers, is a terrible thing.

In the moment I am stricken with frustration and dissonance, but I am hopeful that through more examination of these topics, I can determine a manner in which I can create a positive impact in regards to feminism within the Jewish community. In SOC 203 this past Thursday, we read some women's midrash. Midrash are the stories that people write to complement biblical passages - oftentimes to explain certain tales, or to supplement ideas already presented. The bible frequently appears to have been written by a male voice - thus, it was nice to read some women's views to compensate for the lack in biblical texts. I am hoping to continue examining women's midrash on my own time, and potentially to do so as a part of my capstone study for Jewish Studies. In this way, I hope, to make a positive impact and to feel empowered through my own actions.

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