"But Isn't Judaism Sexist?" - My Response (But Not My Answer) to the Question of all Questions

One of the reasons I wrote last week's post about the struggle women face to be taken seriously is because I've personally grappled with this in ways that most women I know have. To mention just a few examples: In high school one of my well-respected male teachers told me in class that my shirt was very attractive; at a previous job my coworker asked if my husband had made the excel spreadsheet I had created for an assignment; and in professional settings I often feel that I have to prove myself as worthy and competent, especially if I'm, say, eight months pregnant. 

I'm also looking forward to reigniting the discussion on modernity and religion, liberalism and feminism here on the blog. After all, how do we know what sexism is in the first place and who exactly gets to decide the definition? One reader responded to last week's blog post on workplace sexism with the question... but isn't Orthodox Judaism sexist? As a Women's Studies major who became religious, I have been asked this question many times and in many different ways. Sexism is important to address because it has real - at times life threatening - consequences for women. It negatively affects both women and men as individuals, and society as a whole. Can we help women and men lead fuller, happier lives with less discrimination, less abuse, and more opportunity? That would be a somewhat easier pursuit if we could all manage to find a common definition for what oppression truly is and what a perfect (and completely theoretical) society would look like with out it.

So instead of directly answering the question of whether or not religious Judaism is truly sexist, I would like to backtrack a few steps and ask this question first: Who exactly has the right to ask that question? And most importantly - who will ultimately have the right to deliberate over and impose judgement after the answer is given?

In our modern times, feminism and liberalism (from the radical to the more conservative forms) are generally the systems with which we use to judge oppression and sexism and pursue freedom. Some people draw from these philosophies loosely or unknowingly, while others are deeply dedicated to their political and societal objectives. Last summer, I wrote a blog post about my views on feminism and why I don't consider myself to be a feminist. Here is an excerpt from that conversation:

Feminism, more than just a women’s movement for equal rights and legal protection, sees itself as an advocate for both freedom of choice in every aspect of women’s lives, and freedom from all forms of oppression. In order to successfully achieve this freedom, feminism strives to better understand this complex web of oppressions, where each woman faces her own unique and overlapping obstacles ranging from sexism, to racism, to homophobia, to workplace discrimination, etc. (a concept often referred to as intersectionality). The ultimate feminist ideal is to achieve a society where women have the autonomy to choose their own paths to personal fulfillment. However, most feminists acknowledge that there are many conflicts of interests and profound disputes in trying to achieve this goal.

With this in mind, I do believe that there is, however, an inherent and unavoidable contradiction in the feminist philosophy and movement that complicates the above definition and challenges the claim that feminism seeks to clear a path to any and all choices and lifestyles. As I mentioned before, feminism states that it would like to create a society where each woman can find her own path to fulfillment, free from all forms of oppression. However, the framing and defining of the word “oppression” within feminism ultimately leads to the defining of a woman who is empowered and educated, versus a woman who is disempowered and/or naïve to the oppression surrounding her. This inevitably gives more value and legitimacy to the choices, lifestyles, and life-philosophies that are perceived as coming from a place of empowerment, and applauds and celebrates women who epitomize these highest forms of enlightenment. Women whose lifestyles are perceived as oppressed or oppressive, are either seen as naïve and in need of education and help, or worse, as contributing to the further suppression of women’s rights and freedom of choice. Feminism therefore gives itself the right to decide who is on the side of oppression, versus who is on the side of enlightenment; who is on the side of wrong, versus who is on the side of right; who should be supported and celebrated, versus who should be questioned and re-educated. This ultimately means that the judgement and potential approval or disapproval of a woman’s lifestyle still remains in the hands of another, contradicting the very point of feminism in the first place. 

If I fail to reassure others that I adhere to a non-sexist religion in its purest form, then what will be the consequence? In what way will I be viewed? Will I be seen as different, naïve and unempowered, or even dangerous? The risk to answering the question of sexism in the way it begs to be answered holds enough consequence for myself and for religious communities around the world that it's imperative for me to first begin by questioning the question itself. No matter how I answer the question, the judgement and potential approval or disapproval of my lifestyle and beliefs will still remain in the hands of another, contradicting the very point of a more "liberated" society in the first place.

Without a doubt, we will continue this conversation in the upcoming weeks. In the mean time, please share your thoughts and questions in the comment section below!