Fresh New Frum Feminism

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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.” nausheen-bigstock-Feminism-Symbol-60217055

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.

Further Reading:
The Future of Women in Orthodox Judaism

Defenders and Benders of Roles for Genders
Dear Chaya
Will the Real Charedi Feminists Please Stand Up?
Apropos of Nothing (well… maybe something): Rabbi Julie Schonfeld Edition

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Affiliate, I receive a small commission of all book sales generated by the links in this article.

Edited by Elisheva Avital. Hire her!

 

I am seeing more and more examples of the new Frum Feminism. It’s an interesting approach and a huge improvement over…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Thursday, May 28, 2015

  • Moe Ginsburg

    “we are also not… pre-suffrage Americans.”

    In what way are we not pre-suffrage Americans?

    • I believe that is accurate. Woman don’t have a vote, and any role women play is due to the benevolence of men, all for their own good, of course.

      • Moe Ginsburg

        You seem to be agreeing with me that Judaism is more analogous to pre-suffrage Americans than to post-suffrage Americans. Thus disagreeing with Eliyahu Fink.

        • Judaism certainly isn’t monolithic, nor is it static. I believe R’ Fink is accurate to say there is progress; it just isn’t as fast as many would like. There are people who leave for greener grass which has its own hidden gopher holes and cow pies, or have the patience to seek to make changes from within. Maybe the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don’t, and some eschew devils altogether.

    • Women can vote on issues in many Orthodox Jewish communities. More to the point though, I was referring to the general attitude toward women in around the turn of the last century.

  • Gene

    The sun and moon imagery being about gender is attested to in Elliot Wolfson’s analysis of gender in Kabbalah, see his Circle in the Square and Language Eros and Being

  • Holy Hyrax

    Can you be more specific as to goals you would actually want to see? I understand you are more favorable toward progressivism (cough), so how would that work its way with tradition and halacha?

    • Holy Hyrax

      Or let me rephrase that: If the true goal is Equality isn’t Judaism standing in the way? Orthodoxy is behind, because orthodoxy is still tethered to religion. America has been able to “progress” partially due to the slow and steady secularizing of its society.

      • snowbird

        HH, don’t expect a response to your inquiry so soon. However, I am certain that in his heart, the Fink values “Equality” over Judaism, Tradition, Torah or Halachah.
        In another year or two, he will be frankly affirming his holding that religion stands in the way of progress. He will still have the nerve to claim to be Orthodox, of course.

      • Religion, of all brands, by nature cannot be like science, changing daily. There has to be deep roots that provide stability, so the branches can sprout and grow. How do we retain the positive aspects while pruning the negative ones? I’m not willing to, “take one for the team,” although in reality, the greatest contribution I could have made to Judaism (too late now thankfully) would have been to pop out kids Duggar style and raise them all to be good Jews and do likewise.

      • This is false. And if it’s true, religions need to be more flexible.

        Meaning, it does not have to be that religion is the thing holding society back from equality for women. At worst, we could say that when it comes to religion and religious rituals, women can be expected to conform to traditions of their religious community. But to imply that voting rights for women and equal pay and fair treatment are antithetical to religion, is a much greater indictment of religion than society.

        • Holy Hyrax

          So maybe it is safer to ask you what you mean by “Equality”

          • I am curious to know what Rabbi Fink means by “religion”. As far as I can tell, he already decided his values, and is demanding that religion keep up.

            I would have thought that religion is the source of those values, not just a set of rituals that you wrap around your own definition of right and wrong.

            • MarkSoFla

              “As far as I can tell, he already decided his values, and is demanding that religion keep up.”

              So do you, so do I, so does everyone. Including chazal, every rishon, and every acharon, and every religous authority that has ever existed or will exist in the future. Most often via post hoc arguments, but it still happened. Values and religion change with time.

              Alternatively, when was the last time you killed a ben sorer umoreh or a willful and public shabbat transgressor?

              • I think some of what you’re calling changes requires not taking Chazal at their word that the halakhah was always that way. If so, we don’t share givens.

                But your second example still touches on a real change — the Sanhedrin exiling itself from its meeting room in the Temple so as to make capital punishment a moot set of laws.

                I see a difference between people whose culture is the religion, and therefore the religion evolves as the realia do, and someone who gets his values from the surrounding culture, and “demand that religion keep up”.

                • MarkSoFla

                  “taking Chazal at their word that the halakhah was always that way”

                  Oh come on, even HKB”H didn’t take chazal at their word regarding that the halacha was always that way! (TB Baba Metziah 59b)

                  • “Oh come on” about our conflicting givens doesn’t help much. But in any case, you focused on the part I said we really have no common ground and ignore the point of my comment — that R’ Eliyahu Fink’s frustration is with religion’s inability to keep up with morality as defined by the shifting zeitgeist, rather than the rabbinate’s inability to discuss Judaism’s ethics in its own terms.

                    So, for example, you trot out the Tanur Achnai story, which is about how to pasqen given the qelalei pesaq (halachic process) rather than looking to more revelation. It’s not about responding to the enlightenment of the outside world and dragging one’s religion along.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “that R’ Eliyahu Fink’s frustration is with religion’s inability to keep up with morality as defined by the shifting zeitgeist, rather than the rabbinate’s inability to discuss Judaism’s ethics in its own terms.”

                      I think he said earlier that as long as there is progress (i.e. that religion tends to change towards more moral (as defined colloquially) rather than towards less moral), he will be satisfied.

                      So, for example, you trot out the Tanur Achnai story, which is about how to pasqen given the qelalei pesaq (halachic process) rather than looking to more revelation. It’s not about responding to the enlightenment of the outside world and dragging one’s religion along.

                      That’s NOT why I brought it up! I brought it up to refute your statement about halacha never changing (“… was always that way …”). HKB”H created Torah and halacha, and this is an example of chazal changing the halacha.

                    • I didn’t say halakhah never changed, and in fact the next sentence gives an example of change. I said that I take chazal at their word that ben soreir umoreh was always defined in a manner that made it inapplicable in practice, and punishing Shabbos violators always requires witnesses, warning, acknowledging the warning, and everything else that made capital punishment rare. That the two halakhos specific you alluded to never changed. And then added that Sanhedrin, through self-exile, did effect a change from capital punishments being rare to them being non-existent.

                      BTW, the Tanur shel Achanai story isn’t about change of existing law, it’s about how new law is decided. An interesting example of change in existing law is the differences between the mizbeiach (the main outer altar) in each of the Two Temples. In Solomon’s Temple, libations were made alongside the mizbeiach. In the Second Temple, they were poured through holes in it. The issue was a difference in the definition of the libation ending up “under’ the mizbeiach, with the Men of the Great Assembly overturning the earlier ruling and requiring the wine and water poured literally into the ground under it, rather than the ground at its foot. And if they would have found Solomon’s altar during the Second Temple period, it would therefore not have been usable, as it didn’t have the requisite holes (shisin).

                      See also Mishnah Edios 1:4-5, and Rambam Mamrim 2:1-3.

                    • Moe Ginsburg

                      It is a machlokes Chazal whether there was an actual real case of ben soreir umoreh. One member of Chazal testifies he witnessed the grave of someone executed in such a case.

                    • You’re thinking of R’ Yonasan (Sanhedrin 71a), who also was the sole member of chazal to have seen the remains of an ir hanidachas, the others saying it never happened. It is possible he had a special interest in such things and hunted them out.

                      However, a number of rishonim note that R’ Yonasan was a kohein (Rashi concludes this from BM 91a) and therefore it would be odd for him to go sit on the grave of a ben soreir umoreh. (And in general, sitting on a grave just “isn’t done”.) So it’s usually taken to be hyperbole (guzma). And once it’s established R’ Yonasan was exaggerating (even though one exaggeration doesn’t necessitate the other), that grave becomes that of someone who was guilty as a ben sorer umoreh, not killed as one. Rabbi Schwab suggests the boy died as a ben soreir umoreh not by human court, but by the heavenly one. As it says in Sanhedrin 37b, G-d punishes those who get exempt in beis din on technical grounds.

                      But in any case, my beliefs follow the majority, not the opinion of one (daas yachid). (Even if many hadn’t explained it away.)

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “I didn’t say halakhah never changed, and in fact the next sentence gives an example of change.”

                      Ah, then I misunderstood you. If we agree that halacha can change over time then what’s your machloket with R’ Fink?

                      “BTW, the Tanur shel Achanai story isn’t about change of existing law, it’s about how new law is decided.”

                      How is that possible? The food from the tanur existed and presumably was eaten the day and week before, then the law changed and it was destroyed because it couldn’t be eaten.

                      “it would therefore not have been usable, as it didn’t have the requisite holes (shisin).”

                      Probably an example of the law changing for practicality. Previously the liquids didn’t have anywhere to go and probably just ended up making a big mess, so they had to come up with a solution.

                    • The Tanur shel Achnai is a kind of oven that is made of disconnected pieces. The question is: if someone’s tanur became tamei, and then they take it apart and put it back together again using sand rather than something sticky between the pieces, is it now tahor? Is this considered making a new utensil, because it’s a usable oven, or does the fact that the pieces were not reconnected into one whole mean it’s not a new utensil.
                      Really, how often did this come up that you think there had to have been a pre-existing ruling? And if so, how do you know R’ Eliezer’s rejected position of tahor was that prior ruling?

                      If they made the mizbeiach in a new way for practicality, I would agree with your point about the mizbeiach. But no — they said the old way of doing libations was not valid, even while they knew it was the way libations were done throughout the First Temple period. (Finding a new, better, way doesn’t necessitate prohibiting the old.) The Great Assembly consciously changed the law either way, though.

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “And if so, how do you know R’ Eliezer’s rejected position of tahor was that prior ruling?”

                      Because (IIRC) the gemara explicitly says that they had to destroy all the food cooked in it. If the position before was “not tahor”, why would anyone cook in it and run the risk of wasting all that food? Furthermore, didn’t HKB”H agree that it was correct to say it was tahor [before], and didn’t chazal overrule that statement and say that it was now (and forever) to be considered tamei?

                    • First, the gemara doesn’t say that, it raises the case in the hypothetical (bot BM 59a – 59b). Second, since when do people only do things with full knowledge of the facts, the halakhah, and without making mistakes?

                    • MarkSoFla

                      “First, the gemara doesn’t say that, it raises the case in the hypothetical”

                      It doesn’t sound hypothetical to me. Sounds like they literally took the food they declared to be tamei and burned it THAT DAY.

                      אותו היום הביאו כל טהרות שטיהר ר”א ושרפום באש

                    • I see Rashi says like you about the burnt tum’ah being from this oven.

                      Although to me the gemara itself (naive read) looks like the Rambam and the Ritva: They debated a hypothetical case, R’ Eliezer’s Shamuti ruling came to the fore, and they lost confidence in *all* his rulings about taharah. So, they gathered up everything they found that he declared tahor and got rid of them. Presumably speaking about only things that require being ruled tahor — terumah and other qodshim. There is no reason to burn most tamei objects. But anyway, the idea that it was a general condemnation of his rulings follows the next thing, they curse or at least excommunicate R’ Eliezer.

                      So, while I can’t take sides against Rashi, there is still no indication anyone ruled it was okay (or prohibited) to use such ovens before the debate in the gemara. I would think this is the first time they tried to bring the question to resolution. Otherwise, it would take a vote of beis din to overrule a prior beis din (the Sanhedrin was in Yavneh at this time, no?) and R’ Eliezer would be a zaqein mamrei, not “just” in cheirem. There is nothing about someone doing something that implies a prior ruling. People sin by accident or by making wrong guesses about what’s okay all the time.

            • (Revelation + Interpretation) + Law + Ritual = Religion

        • Milton

          “But to imply that voting rights for women and equal pay and fair treatment are antithetical to religion, is a much greater indictment of religion than society”
          Yes, because if a religion believes that all men, women, blacks, whites and Hispanics should be free to contract with their employers/employees as they so choose, clearly that’s an indictment of religion. If you want to cling to your progressive “equal pay” nonsense you’re entitled, but to then insist that if any person or religion disagrees, that’s an indictment on that religion, is quite close-minded of you.

          • “But to imply that voting rights for women and equal pay and fair treatment are antithetical to religion, is a much greater indictment of religion than society”
            Yes, because if a religion believes that all men, women, blacks, whites and Hispanics should be free to contract with their employers/employees as they so choose, clearly that’s an indictment of religion. If you want to cling to your progressive “equal pay” nonsense you’re entitled, but to then insist that if any person or religion disagrees, that’s an indictment on that religion, is quite close-minded of you.

            This comment makes no sense.

            I said if X is antithetical to religion it is an indictment of religion. Then you said something, something, libs, something as if I had said a completely different thing.

            • Milton

              No I actually directly addressed your point. You said that if “fair pay” was antithetical to religion, that was an indictment of religion. Which means, that being opposed to so-called “fair pay” was so out of bounds, the position so ridiculous, that such a view “indicts” the religion. I pointed out the absurdity and close-mindedness of that argument and I did not mention the word “lib.”

              • No it does not mean “being opposed to so called “fair pay” is out of bounds.” It means that saying fair pay is antithetical to religion is out of bounds.

                “Antithetical – directly opposed or contrasted; mutually incompatible.”
                Say “fair pay” is incompatible with religion would be an indictment
                of religion. So either you didn’t know what antithetical means or you’re just being annoying.

                • Milton

                  I am fully aware what antithetical means. Perhaps you are unware what idictment means. Indictment-
                  a thing that serves to illustrate that a system or situation is bad and deserves to be condemned.
                  So again, why would a religion be “indicted” if its belief system is antithetical to fair pay?

                  • Yes.

                    • Milton

                      Glad you’re able to keep the discussion at a high level.

                    • Sorry. I didn’t see the word “why” in your comment the first time.

    • I want lots of things. But the most important thing to me is not the destination, it is progress. I feel strongly that as long as we are struggling with these issues and trying to work through them, we are alright. So my goal is that we don’t stagnate and end the discussion.

  • Art Tzad

    I finally have enough for a dowry . . . now not sure if I want to wed someone who can use it!?

  • It would seem one could spin any narrative, and while the frum feminists are careful to create one of equality, it would be just as easy to provide evidence for a superior female role. For example, we know that Avram became Avraham with the addition of the heh representing an addition of the divine breath to his name which enabled him to fulfill his divine destiny. One could say that Isha was destined to be greater than the ish, as the yud, the hand of action was replaced with the heh, the window to wisdom.

  • Miriam Kosman

    Rabbi Fink, thank you for your nuanced review of some of the ideas in my book Circle, Arrow, Spiral, Exploring Gender in Judaism. The truth is I am not advocating passively and resignedly waiting for things to improve–I think it is up to us. But the big question is what do we want to change and how to go about it?

    In the reading of the Midrash presented in my book, the moon is protesting the unfairness of being ‘feminine’ in a world which values only typically masculine traits. The rest of the Midrash is about G-d trying to convince her that her traits are the ones most beloved to Him.

    Interestingly, the moon is also a metaphor for the Jewish people. Women and the Jewish nation have the same mission: to bring the world closer to the ‘feminine’ way of being which include traits like interconnectedness, receptivity, mindfulness, process, interdependence, openness, fluidity, responsiveness, and relationality.

    How does one bring the world closer to such ideas? It’s an important question—and clearly one way is through encouraging dialogue, thinking, being receptive to others views, even while clarifying your own, etc. In fact, writing this comment has gotten my juices flowing—thank you Rabbi Fink! . I think I am going to write a post on what I see as the Jewish women’s agenda. It will probably take a few days but you are welcome to visit my site miriamkosman.com to read. (by the way, you can download the first few chapters of my book there as well.)