Wednesday, March 7, 2007

We still have to have the "feminism" talk?

It was quite the shock to learn, some time in my teens, that I had not even been present at my own naming ceremony when I was born. My father and grandfather went to shul the shabbat following my birth, received an aliyah, said a special prayer and, behold, Chaya was named.

And I wasn’t even there.

This was the late 1960s in the Conservative movement. The "women’s movement" was also in its infancy. It would be 20 years before a Conservative woman rabbi was ordained. Bat mitzvahs were becoming more common, but certainly not the norm yet. The seminal (that SO seems like the wrong word here) document for Conservative feminism would not be presented to the annual assembly meeting until 1972. This "Call for Change" demanded that women:
  • be accepted as witnesses before Jewish law
  • be considered as bound to perform all mitzvot
  • be allowed full participation in religious observances
  • have equal rights in marriage and be allowed to initiate divorce
  • be counted in the minyan
  • and be permitted to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue and within the general Jewish community.
As a woman who grew up with most of these reforms in place it’s humbling to look back and see how hard they were fought for. I cannot imagine NOT being counted in a minyan or having access to religious observances and rituals.

So when I read a comment like this on RenReb, in response to a post about baby naming ceremonies for girls (and Ren Reb wasn’t even advocating such ceremonies), I get more than a bit irritated:

Anyone who hosts a "brita" or "brit bat" is saying that they suffer from feminine insecurity and a need to copy anything that boys have. Why else would parents search so far and wide to make up ceremonies like washing baby girls feet in mikva water or dunking a baby girl in a mikva (yes really), instead of simply celebrating the birth? Why else would it be called a brit bat instead of a simchat bat or mesibat bat or, hey here's a radical idea, a "kiddush."

My sons came into the world with a deficiency that Hashem commanded us to fix, then welcoming them to the covenent. My daughters came into the world already how Hashem wanted them to be, and already in the covenent. Our celebration of all births were not effected by having an extra mitzva to perform for the sons. Claiming that baby girls need an extra ceremony seems to me to be an insult to them and to G-d. Why not just celebrate their birth? I'm posting this anonymously since I know I'll get in trouble for this.

This comment was made anonymously, but I’m making a couple of assumptions here:

1. The commentor is a male.
2. The commentor is some strain of Orthodox.
3. The commentor has very little exposure to or education in true feminism
(meaning feminism unfiltered through Orthodoxy or Limbaugh-like lenses).

It’s an old canard to say that feminists who want girl-centered and girl-honoring rituals are "insecure" and need to "copy anything boys have."

The real truth of the matter is that women have been systematically denied access to the power structures of Judaism since its inception. Women did not write the powerful guiding myths of our people. Women were not asked our opinion when entire volumes of Talmud related to things like nidda were redacted. (Can you imagine men accepting entire volumes of Talmud about men’s bodies that were written by women?) Women were not participants in the codification of Jewish law. Women are conspicuously absent in so many arenas of Jewish importance, even today*.

What I really don’t get (at all )if the uproar from men when women want to add celebrations that honor girls, young women, and women. What harm does it do, exactly, for a girl to have a simcha bat, or a public naming ceremony in which she is formally welcomed into the covenant? What do men lose? Is a bris less of a celebration because the boy’s sister gets a simcha bat, too? It seems like a win-win to me.

What’s the downside?


Some links and resources. I really encourage everyone to visit the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) site. These feminists are concerned with feminism and maintaining the boundaries of halacha and tradition. Imagine that.

Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance
Wikipedia
The Jewish Women's Archive
Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project
The Velveteen Rabbi

* One report I read recently indicated that of the 40 largest Federations in the United States, only one (one!) has a female CEO. How many of you have women Board presidents? Women principals? Women CEOs, CFOs, or VPs? In many Jewish organizations, even "liberal" ones, women are still relegated to doing much of the work but never rising to the top of the game.

7 comments:

mother in israel said...

I looked for an email and couldn't find one. The Hebrew word for the title of your blog is spelled aleph, yod, kaf (with a dagesh), heh and pronounced "Ayeka." Thought you would like to know. Good luck with your blog!

I'm Orthodox and I agree with you that it's patriarchal. I don't always like it but that's life.

Anonymous RenReb reader said...

I was the anonymous RenReb commenter, and I think you've reacted to what I wrote without reading it carefully.

I'm not at all opposed to a simchat bat, and I said that clearly. And I'm not unread in feminism, in fact I use Simone De Bovoir as an analogy for the current religious/nonreligious attitudes in Israel, and believe that women have largely won the battle against being the "other" gender.

In fact, from what I've heard from friends (although admittedly not read in literature), there's a break in feminist thought these days between what I gather is called "classical feminism" which aims (in a nutshell) to put women as close as possible to identical to men, and "neo-feminism" which aims to elevate women in their own strengths and greatness irrespective of men. (A quick Google search seems to bear out this distinction.)

Taking that distinction to our current discussion, what I said in my RenReb comment is, I believe, fairly consistent with a neo-feminist position (although perhaps phrased a bit obnoxiously, I admit). "Simchat bat" is celebrating a daughter's birth in its own right (neofeminist), "brita" is modeling this celebration after boys rather than elevating the girls irrespective of boys (classic feminist).

Now, independent of all that I said, I'm cynical of modern-made-up rituals of any sort. A celebration doesn't need a made-up ritual, and I think that made-up rituals tend to contradict or weaken the philosophies that are deeply embedded in Jewish rituals in a mutually consistent and wonderful way. This is as true of boy's "upsherins" as it is of a "brita."

I don't believe that a simchat bat where everyone simply celebrates a daughter's birth is less holy or constructive of women's holiness than a "brita" where a daughter's feet are washed in mikva water (wherever exactly that came from).

southernyid said...

The root of your problem with the role that women play in the "public" jewish arena can be found in one sentence of your post

Women did not write the powerful guiding myths of our people

If you beleive that he laws are divinely decreed, as opposed to divinely (or not) inspired you take a whole different approach to accepting the customs and traditions of our people.

That is the fundamental difference between Orthodox and what was once only Reform but is now Conservative and Reform.

ChayaLife18 said...

First, I do think I read your comment carefully -- perhaps you are right that the obnoxiousness overshadowed the real issue.

As for women winning the battle of being the "other" gender. Maybe in Israel, but definitely not here in the states, and not in so many areas of Judaism. Some movements in Judaism (I'm thinking Renewal specifically) have turned the world so far on its head that men feel like the "other," an unwarranted punishment for the sins of their forefathers.

As to this point you make:
anon: "Now, independent of all that I said, I'm cynical of modern-made-up rituals of any sort. A celebration doesn't need a made-up ritual, and I think that made-up rituals tend to contradict or weaken the philosophies that are deeply embedded in Jewish rituals in a mutually consistent and wonderful way."

I think they way folks really "grok" a life-cycale event is through the associated ritual. Not just Jews -- anyone. What does a naming ceremony for a girl look like sans ritual? And why not make it similar to a boy's ritual so that it's clear that they are equal, if not in substance, than in status?

ChayaLife18 said...

Mother -- I do know the spelling is "off." I borrowed it from a non-profit I'm particularly enamored with right now. www.ayecha.org.

Thanks though!

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I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree

Anonymous said...

Message to the blogger: it seems that you feel that woman should have the same roles as men in judism. Woman should count for a minyan, woman should be called up to the Torah etc... But there are commandments for men, commandments for woman etc. I ask you this there are adult men who were unable to be circumcised as children very common in the Russian community... So these men get circumcised now... Now this is a commandment from god to the jewish people... So I ask are you ready to get circumcised... Not dip your foot in the mikvah and have a party etc... I mean if you don't understand or a so unsecured as a woman that you want to be equal, then be equal!

Point is woman are closer to Hashem then men and are not required to fulfill timed mitzvah's because of there holieness....

Btw I know many female CEO's and top female executives and my wife is an orthodox Jewish female who also is a Dr. She finds her roll as an orthodox woman beautiful and fulfilling and is comfortable being a confident and successful female professional and a strictly observent shomer mitzvah Jewish woman