My Response (But Not My Answer) to "But Isn’t Judaism Sexist?’” Part 2
After last week’s post went up, I received a lot of questions from readers on social media. As a blog writer who writes about a wide variety of things, getting feedback particularly on this type of post was really exciting for me. I strive to write each post with this idea in mind: While there are degrees of struggling, nobody is free from struggle and we all need support. I write about ideas I’m passionate about, but I also write to become a better person, a better thinker, and to better understand other people who may or may not think like I do.
I have learned the most from the mentors and friends who have advised, thoughtfully criticized, and downright disagreed with my ideas. My goal through this blog is to share some of my experiences, thoughts and perspective in order to foster understanding and, thereby, build a deeper sense of community. So, for this post, I tried to gather the comments and questions from the last post that shared a common theme in hopes to provide greater clarity.
1. Why didn’t you answer the question?
I responded to the question rather than answered it because I believe that many people do not notice what the question implies. While there usually isn’t any maliciousness behind the question, the question itself presumes an accepted superiority of their philosophy (mainly liberalism/feminism) over another and thereby a right to classify what is and what is not "objectively" sexist. Feminists (or anyone with a more liberal take on women's empowerment) challenge orthodox Judaism and religious societies in general for imposing their own values and ideals of femininity onto women. However, my purpose in responding to rather than answering the question, is to illustrate how feminism imposes its own values onto women just as well.
As a religious woman who is often “put in the hot seat” for her values and lifestyle, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight this contradiction. Because of my religious identity, I am expected to defend my lifestyle and choices much more frequently than a woman who subscribes to a more “empowered” ideology. Under a more liberal/feminist "lens", my experience as a woman in a religious community is dissected and scrutinized to a molecular degree. Every aspect of my life - from marriage, to motherhood, to my level of happiness and satisfaction with life – is called into question in order to evaluate where there is potential for enlightenment. These judgments are a consequence of the more modern definitions for female empowerment we have today. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t try to understand women’s lives better in order to prevent injustice or that the practical byproduct of feminist activism - namely institutionalized protections and rights for women broadly - have not been beneficial or worthwhile. Rather, I am pointing out how feminism imposes its own values onto women, while simultaneously criticizing other communities for doing the same. I would not be able to highlight this contradiction if I simply answered the question and tried to defend my identity.
2. I take issue with your article, and your main argument, because of your oversimplification of feminism. There are many different feminisms and many feminists fundamentally disagree with another.
In my article I acknowledge that there are many conflicts between feminists, and I expand on this idea in the specific blog post I was quoting. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of NOW (National Organization for Women) for example, was seen as an activist who was disturbingly homophobic, focused only on white women, and not nearly radical enough. However, the fact that feminists disagree and that certain feminisms are mutually exclusive does not conflict with my point. Regardless of how feminisms define and implement their unique visions of “empowerment” for women, all feminisms believe they have a duty (and therefore the right) to seek justice for women and society as a whole, no matter how radical or “conservative” their actual values are.
3. I disagree with your assertion of an “unavoidable” contradiction within feminism. Some feminists are extremely judgmental and will shame other women, but that is not true feminism.
When I talk about hypocrisy within feminism, I’m not just talking about incidences of shaming. Feminism's objective is to protect autonomy/agency: the ability a person has in their community or society to make their own decisions (feminists disagree as to when exactly agency is compromised, but that is beside the point). Most people - whether they call themselves feminists or not - are familiar with and support this idea ("live and let live"). Every philosophy/value system sets parameters for what is “right” and what is “wrong” based on certain basic principles. Feminism is no different. What is “right” are the behaviors and actions that reinforce “agency”, and what is wrong are the behaviors and actions that compromise agency. Who gets to decide which behaviors lead to or obstruct agency? Someone has to for a society to function properly - but that doesn't mean that everyone will agree with the parameters set for them. Feminism's own imposition of its values onto others whether or not those "others" agree or feel imposed upon is a tenet of feminism that directly interferes with agency - an unavoidable contradiction in feminism that collapses the ideology onto itself. Feminism cannot prevail in a society where certain values are imposed on all members, and feminism cannot prevail without imposing its own ideal and definition of “agency” onto others. Implementing feminism destroys feminism.
There are certain issues brought to light by feminism that I agree with that do not contradict my own values as a religious Jew. My recent blog post on treating women seriously and fairly at work is an example and I will continue to talk about others. Rather, my response to the question, "but isn't Judaism sexist?" is an attempt to re-direct the typical conversations we have about religious women - conversations that have been fueled by a major contradiction. I’m looking forward to discussing how changing the direction in dialogue could potentially lead to a better understanding between feminist and orthodox communities and to a greater ability to collaborate and solve problems within the broader Jewish community. We will pick up from there in our next conversation on the topic!
Please feel free to leave further questions in the comment section or to send your thoughts over to firstname.lastname@example.org (or via the "say hello" section of the blog). I look forward to future discussions!