Recently, I had the privilege to learn from a great Torah scholar and teacher. Her name is the Honorable Dr. Rabbanit P’nina Neuwirth, and she helped found an organization called Beit Hilllel. The speech was magnificent for a few reasons, starting with the content. I can’t do it justice here, but it is worth sharing the three minute version of her 30 minute presentation. It’s relevant to another thing I’ve been meaning to write about, so hopefully this essay will spawn a discussion about both.
In Genesis, Adam’s wife is given two names. First she is called Isha, and later she is called Chava. A careful reading of the verses shows that God names her Isha, and Adam names her Chava. Adam only gives her a name after the sin and the resulting punishments. Adam declares her the “em kol chai,” mother of all life, and therefore she is called Chava. This set of facts is troubling on several accounts. One big question is, why doesn’t Adam call her Isha? Also, why is he calling her the “mother of all life” after her punishment of difficult childbearing? It seems awfully insensitive.
In the commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama explains these names as representing two ideals. The name “Isha” represents the complete woman: she has both a religious destiny and a maternal destiny. Man and woman are meant to have equal roles as Ish and Isha. The name “Chava” only includes the maternal destiny, “em kol chai.”
After Chava causes Adam to sin, they are both punished. Adam believes he made a mistake about the role of his partner. He regrets trusting her with his spiritual destiny, so he condemns her to a life of only motherhood.
The plan was for man and woman to have equal roles in spiritual and parenting destinies, but Adam made the error of stripping away the spiritual destiny of his wife by calling her Chava. According to Rashi, the prophet Jeremiah predicts that the Messianic age will be identifiable by women courting men as if they are equal.
Rabbanit Neuwirth argues for the dual true destiny of women. Women are not meant to be either spiritual or maternal, but both. A few centuries ago, it seemed like women may never have the opportunity to achieve their spiritual or religious destiny, but as the Messianic era draws nearer, women are returning to their dual roles, as originally intended.
A very similar Frum Feminist (Wo)Manifesto is the thesis of a book called Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism by Miriam Kosman. This is one of the most nuanced books I have ever read by an Ultra-Orthodox author, and it is so intricately packed that unpacking it properly requires that one actually read it.
In essence, Kosman argues that the famous Midrash about the sun and the moon in the primordial days of creation is a metaphor for man and woman. The original plan was for sun and moon to be equal, but the moon was unhappy splitting duties with the sun, so God made the moon smaller. In the days of the Messiah, the moon will again be like a second sun. Similarly, Kosman argues based on a book called “The Moon’s Lost Light,” man and woman were meant to be equal, but woman sinned, so God made her subservient to man. In the days of the Messiah, woman will begin to return to the intended state of equality and will achieve that equality when the moon is restored to its glory.
Kosman builds an entire concept of gender roles based on this Midrash. That seems a bit tenuous to me because there is no support elsewhere for the idea that the sun/moon Midrash is about gender, but let’s accept it for now. The book contains a lot of contradiction, and doesn’t actually answer as many questions as it claims to answer, but it’s a valiant attempt. I definitely recommend it. It is thought provoking and worth a read. The book argues that woman is crawling her way back toward equality, and that’s a good thing, even according to Torah and Chazal. This is virtually the same concept as the Frum Feminism of Rabbanit Neuwirth.
To me, the most important development is the acknowledgement of the reality for Orthodox women. Both Rabbanit Neuwirth and Mrs. Kosman are forthright about the problems with our entrenched gender roles. Until recently, the most common Orthodox approach to this issue has been that the Torah thinks women are better than men, and that’s why men must be so publicly and actively engaged in Jewish observance while women are exempt. This is a nice soundbite, but the blessing of “shelo asani isha” throws a wrench into it.
The New Frum Feminism of Rabbanit Neuwirth and Mrs. Kosman is definitely an improvement. From a darshan’s perspective, the Modern Midrash of these ideas is awesome. I’m glad someone acknowledges that women have been traditionally treated as second class citizens, and doesn’t attempt to whitewash the historical inequalities in Judaism. This can empower Orthodox Jewish women to proactively seek more public roles. However, from a liberal perspective, I find their resignation to the status quo a little troubling. They seem to be saying that full equality is not for us to create, and that we should wait patiently for Messianic times.
My personal approach is similar to this New Frum Feminism, but I take it a little further. Orthodox Jewish gender roles are fifty years behind American gender roles. It’s the Mad Men era. We are not “there” yet, but we are also not Neanderthals, Ancient Greeks, Victorians, or pre-suffrage Americans. I am hopeful, because in the grand scheme of human civilization, fifty years is an entirely bridgeable gap. I believe it’s on us to take our community the rest of the way.
Despite our differences, I see Rabbinit Neuwirth as an ally for more progressive Orthodox Judaism, especially for women. Mrs. Kosman is harder to pin down, but I think she too is helpful to the cause. Read their works, teach their ideas, and help restore the proper order to humanity: equality.
The Future of Women in Orthodox Judaism
Defenders and Benders of Roles for Genders
Will the Real Charedi Feminists Please Stand Up?
Apropos of Nothing (well… maybe something): Rabbi Julie Schonfeld Edition
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Fresh New Frum Feminism http://t.co/gaWKC1mi09
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) May 28, 2015