Dialogue: Feminism and The Orthodox Jewish Woman
Dialogue: Feminism and The Orthodox Jewish Woman

Volume 1 , Issue 4

The following is an excerpt of a dialogue between two women, Barbara Rubin and Gittel W.

Barbara Rubin has been a resident of Park Slope for more than 20 years. She has been a Baalat Tshuvah for 16 years. She has watched the neighborhood change from the time she and her family were the only Orthodox family in Park Slope to a growing Orthodox community. Barbara and her husband have produced three children and several films together. In addition, they have a media consulting company. Barbara's ultimate goal is to write the funniest joke.

Gittel W. is a 34 year old Baalat T'shuvah who has been an observant Jew for the past six years. She is an independent film producer/director and a partner in various real estate ventures. She has spent several years in an intensive study of Judaism including two years in a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Barbara: How long have you been involved in Orthodox Judaism and what attracted you to it?

Gittel: For me it was a slow process. Some people see the light overnight, or something incredible happens--either a terrible tragedy or some kind of spiritual experience.

Barbara: If you didn't ?see the light? or have a spiritual experience, what would make you keep pursuing it?

Gittel: I think there are two levels. One is intellectual and the other is emotional. All of my life I knew there was more. I couldn't believe you are just born flesh and bones, that you accomplish as much as you can and then die. I knew there had to be more.

Barbara: So you searched?

Gittel: No. I was never into Eastern religions, Gurdjieff or anything like that. I was a workaholic. I worked in film and that was my life. I was involved with women filmmakers, the forerunners of the feminist movement.

Barbara: Were you involved in the women's movement?

Gittel: Very much so. I worked with women filmmakers whose philosophy was that there were no women in Hollywood other than the actresses. People who created those powerful images on screen were all men. These women wanted to be the ones to create the images, the whole idea was new and radical. It was the early 70's, I was recently out of college with a degree in Sociology and Aviation.

Barbara: Did you fly?

Gittel: Ihave my license. I used to fly everyday. I thought I would do more with it commercially but when I came to New York I met women filmmakers who taught me all the skills of filmmaking.

Barbara: Are you still concerned with how women's images are portrayed? Do you feel the observant Jewish woman projects the correct image?

Gittel: I still make films and it is important to project the real image of what women can be.

Barbara: Is this within the framework of Judaism?

Gittel: That's exactly what it is I would like to project, women as they are revealed in the Torah, what we really can be and what we should aspire to be. We are given the potential to be great and that's the area Iwant to focus on. I'd like to share it and bring it to other women.

Barbara: Could we just go back a little to the time period before your ?return??

Gittel: Well. I learned everything about film: how to write a script, how to shoot 16mm, etc. I had tremendous success with my films and won many awards.

Barbara: You felt fulfilled?

Gittel: Of course. This was the ultimate in creativity.

Barbara: So what brought you to Judaism?

Gittel: I was finishing my film about a woman boxer and went to the negative matcher. There I found a Chasid who owned the business. He told me at one point he was sitting with his children and realized he wasn't giving them the right life, so he moved and sent his kids to yeshiva and made the return to Judaism. I started to work on a video project with him and met a lot of people in the Orthodox community. I found them fascinating. I got a class together and started learning. Iwas very drawn to it. When Ispent my first Shabbat in an Orthodox home, I loved it. I saw real families sharing love, respect and other goals. Shortly after, I started learning with Rabbi Majesky.

Barbara: As a successful women involved in the feminist movement, didn't you see a difference between the way men and women were treated? Did it bother you?

Gittel: No, not at all. I thought this would happen but the first time in Rabbi Majesky's class a big fat tear rolled down my cheek. I said, ?What is going on? I'm a strong successful woman, why am I crying?? He told me that it was because my neshama (soul) knows the truth, the entire Torah is engraved deeply in every Jewish Soul. I felt if my soul was moved I owed it to myself to find out why.

Barbara: This was after one class?

Gittel: Yes. The more Ilearned about Torah and mitzvot the more I was surprised to learn that it was so in sync with what I believed.

Barbara: How did you feel when in certain places it said a woman's place was in the home?

Gittel: No one ever said that. The orthodox women I met ran businesses. They were incredible women, they worked and supported their families.

Barbara: You don't find it unfair that the woman is working and the man has freedom to learn all day. She is having one child after another, looking after the home and supporting the family?

Gittel: These women had choices.

Barbara: How much choice is involved if she is taught from an early age what she must do later on. She isn't encouraged to go on with furthering her education.

Gittel: Ihad these questions. I thought it was very sexist. But these women were unique and varied. They weren't trying to be different. They were trying to be as much as they could within a given framework.

Barbara: Isn't that framework very limiting?

Gittel: I disagree. Only through that framework can a woman realize her greatest potential and have real freedom.

Barbara: Do you feel the same level of Torah education is open to women or even encouraged as it is to men?

Gittel: There are many girls' yeshivas and seminaries.

Barbara: Yes, butthey are only learning the very basics and things concerning the home.

Gittel: Not true. They receive an unbelievable education.

Barbara: A Torah education but not secular.

Gittel: No. some receive a secular education too.

Barbara: But how many of these girls go on to college, law school, medical school, etc.?

Gittel: Within Yiddishkeit the paths are endless. You can find all types of women.

Barbara: But it is only the exceptional orthodox woman who makes it out of the traditional framework.

Gittel: If you want it, it's there.

Barbara: How do you feel about a minyan for women only or women putting on tefillin?

Gittel: If you want to do it, go ahead. I personally don't. Who wants to get up early and wrap myself up in tefillin?

Barbara: Well. picture yourself married with a family. Every morning your 'husband starts his day by connecting to Hashem. You begin by feeding kids, doing laundry, etc. Don't you feel it is built into the law that the women are released from time related mitzvot just so the men will have the freedom to pray and meditate and connect? I wouldn't mind getting that extra boost early in the day. Also in the morning prayer, men say thank God You have not made me a woman. How do you interpret that?

Gittel: In Sefer Halichot Bat Yisrael, it says, ?a man recites these blessings to thank God for the extra mitzvot that he as a man is required to do.? The Maharal says, -Men with their aggressive tendencies can't obtain peace and serenity of the world to come unless they subjugate these tendencies through constant involvement in Torah studies and mitzvot.? Secondly, you have to learn to have a relationship with God. Everything you do is related to God whether you are praying, bringing up and educating your children, or doing chores.

Barbara: There is a difference between the two!

Gittel: They both lead to the same thing. It all has to do with obligation and responsibilities.

Look at creation. There is a midrash that says the first person was an androgynous human. In order to fulfill its purpose it had to be separated. Certain qualities were put into man and others into -woman. The two halves must come together in a marriage to become whole.

Barbara: But do these qualities only appear in a man or woman without exception?

Gittel: Yes!

Barbara: How is it a ?feminine quality? to want to be released from certain obligations (like prayer) so one can do household chores?

Gittel: As women, we say thank God for making us according to His will. ?His will? means that God willed a woman's essence and purpose to be similar to His. The greatest joy is being like God. He is all giving and good. Woman is like God because her nature is giving. Women are more comfortable giving because they were created that way. Women are spiritually closer to God than men are.

Barbara: How do we know this?

Gittel: Women were given an extra measure of binah (understanding). Because of this quality they are on a higher spiritual plane. Women are closer to reaching their perfection than men are. Men are given extra mitzvot to do and to learn Torah, because they need it to rectify their imperfections.

Barbara: Do you really think it is hard work to sit and learn?

Gittel: There is a difference between having a desire to learn and being commanded to learn. He must learn to become whole. A man must learn and teach his sons.

Barbara: Orthodox Judaism may be fine for an observant woman who is born in an orthodox home, but what about a modern feminist woman who has been brought up to want other things besides a home and family? Why would she choose to become an observant Jew? Wouldn't she, from her perspective, be giving up her freedom and accepting a diminished role? I've been involved in Orthodox Judaism for 16 years and still find many references offensive to women. There aren't many great women scholars. The women who were considered great did things often through food, sex or trickery.

Gittel: What about Sarah'? She was greater than Abraham. Devorah and Bruria were great scholars. Look at the prayer Woman of Valor, a man says it to his wife every week.

Barbara: The man is thanking his wife for being there and doing everything. How many men sing these praises without thinking, and just do it mechanically? At any rate, the woman represented in the Woman of Valor seems overworked, exhausted and probably oppressed. She is doing such an amazing job, one which many people give over to maids or servants.

Gittel: For me, the Woman of Valor is the epitome of what Jewish women can strive to become. Before I was religious I never wanted to marry. I always did what I wanted but paid a big price. There was another part that had no expression. In Judaism, you achieve a bond with a man that is complete.

Barbara: Can't a woman be giving and caring outside the confines of Judaism?

Gittel: Without God you can only go so far. There has to be something greater than the two of you in a marriage -- an ultimate spiritual goal.

Barbara: You don't see a woman complete unless she is married?

Gittel: There are parts that can be fulfilled and expressed. But the ultimate is giving in a marriage. But actually a man must have a woman to be complete. Chazal, the Sages of the Talmud, say that a man without a woman is incomplete. It doesn't say this about a woman. A woman has the power to connect to a man. She has the strength knowing he is helpless without her.

Barbara: Why haven't there been any women commentators? Why is there so little mention of women after the oral law?

Gittel: Why can only men make major decisions and why are all the Rays men? Because, a woman's nature is such that she isn't capable of the type of objectivity required.

Barbara: Why would a woman lack this? It's my understanding of the Torah that a woman has her feet planted firmly on the ground; its the man who has his head in the clouds and needs to be constantly reminded to control himself.

Gittel: This has nothing to do with making decisions.

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Barbara: To me it seems appropriate that the one who is grounded would make better decisions then one who is so flighty (as the men are).

Gittel: Women can't make objective decisions based on vision, and only a few men can.

Barbara: There is no basis for that. Gittel: That's how God created us. Barbara: I can't accept that.

Gittel: Not to be influenced by the heart and emotion is the key. Only men on the highest level are able to achieve this.

Barbara: Then you agree with concepts like women are frivolous minded. that women belong at the spindle, etc. (from the Woman of Valor)?

Gittel: That's taken out of context. In B'reisheet (Genesis), Rachel is without children. She goes to Yaakov and says, ?give me children, why aren't you praying? If I have no children, its like being dead.? But this is not so. The Torah commentary Akeidat Yitchok points out that barren women are far from useless. People might think Jewish women are treated like second class citizens and that their exclusive function is to reproduce. Here we have a clear indication that this is a fallacy: Akeidat Yitchak speaks specifically about Rachel's statement (in B'reisheet). It points out that the two names for woman are Isha (woman) and Chava (Eve) which indicates women's two purposes. The first, Ma, teaches that woman was taken from man, Ish, stressing that like him, ?You may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral field just as did the matriarchs and many righteous women and prophetesses.? The second alludes to the power of childbearing and childrearing as indicated by the word Chava (Eve), the mother of all living. The woman deprived of the secondary purpose is left with the same ability to do evil or good as is man who is barren. According to Akeidat Yitchak, motherhood is women's secondary purpose. So when Rachel says, ?If I don't have children I will die,? Akeida Yitchak responds ?this was a treasonable repudiation of her function and purpose, shirking the duties imposed on her not by virtue of her being a woman but of her being a human being.?

A Jewish woman develops a dveikut (clinging to God) as she reaches her greatest potential. In Devarim(Deuteronomy) it says you shall teach your sons. Ramban says women are light minded. This bothered me. Is Torah just for men? Torah was given to the women, ?to Bait Yaakov? (Exodus 19:3). Obviously it was intended for us to learn it. Ramban says most women aren't interested in learning on this level -- men have to, women don't need it.

Barbara: Why is that?

Gittel: God created her not to need to learn. Man was created with a lack. This type of learning fills that lack. Women were created beyond that lack. However, some women are born with the desire to learn. If a woman has a strong desire to learn, there is certainly a basis in Chazal and amongst the Gedolim to support this. The Torah Temimah brings a t'shuvah (answer) in response to a woman asking for a heter (permission) to learn. The Torah Temimah commentary implores the Wise Men of that generation to support her and encourage her. 435 years ago, a woman asked Rabbi Shrnuel Ben-Elchanon Yaakov Harkavalti for permission to learn Torah. He said it was possible that if the sages refused to teach their daughters they might have meant as children. However, women who are dedicated to learning Torah out of their own choice are raising themselves above God's mountain... Because these women became outstanding, all Rabbis of each generation are obligated to support and encourage them.

Barbara: You don't feel a lack or feel like you are being excluded?

Gittel: No, not even in the beginning because Judaism felt so natural. The more I learn and participate, the more I feel I'm becoming what I really am, and I'm so comfortable with that. To become what you really are by nature, what you were created for, to me, that's such peace of mind. In the beginning of my return, things seemed strange, maybe even oppressive, but finally after doing it I saw the wisdom in it.

Barbara: Why doesn't it feel right with other women then?

Gittel: Sometimes I'm impatient with people who are so militantly opposed to Yiddishkeit, usually they aren't observant or learned.

Barbara: Well, suppose you are a woman who is an observant Jew. You've fulfilled all your obligations in an honest fashion and you still have problems with your role? How would you make Judaism attractive to a feminist woman? How do you convince a woman she can't wear pants, she might have to cover her head and observe the laws of Niddah (family Purity)'?

Gittel: Wearing pants or covering your head isn't the essence.

Barbara: It's not the essence but these certainly are some of the questions a nonobservant woman would have.

Gittel: I wish I could package Yiddishkeit beautifully and market it. It's the greatest thing in the world and too complex to see simply. I would get on my hands and knees and beg that person to put her questions aside for a while. Don't let that stop you from learning. Find out what it means to be a Jewish soul in relation to God.

Barbara: But how can you make it appealing?

Gittel: I would just say be honest and open yourself.

Barbara: When you first became involved, didn't the issue of t?zniut or modesty bother you? Were you able to change your whole way of dress?

Gittel: I approached it on an intellectual level and made a conscious decision to put all my questions aside. I also had a lot of good people who dealt with these issues.

Barbara: Do you feel a woman can be a feminist and an Orthodox Jew?

Gittel: Define both terms.

Barbara: Well. in simple terms, an Orthodox woman is living according to Torah values and laws within a strict framework. A feminist woman is able to desire and fulfill whatever she wants without any limitations. Everything available to a man is and should be available to a woman: salary, education, career opportunity, etc.

Gittel: No, one can't be both. A woman who is an observant Jew cannot do whatever she wants. She must stay within the framework and structure of the Torah. Because if you make the commitment, there are limitations. It's not your own will or desire which dictates what you do, but the same will or desire which dictates what you should do also holds true for men. You must nullify your will to God's. One of my teachers told me Yiddishkeit is a romantic involvement with God. When you are in love, you want to make the other person happy. Fall passionately in love with God.

Barbara: So, to return to my question, do you feel a woman can't pursue certain things because she is a woman?

Gittel: There is a choice I can exercise my will or God's. God's will brings intense joy or pleasure. I'm a woman who did whatever I wanted, whenever I pleased. I produced films, I flew planes and did many exciting things. Yet, everything I've done doesn't come close to what I feel I've become or can be. There is nothing as intellectually stimulating as learning. There is an endless potential for becoming great.

Barbara: You mentioned a passionate love affair with God. It's great if it happens, but what if it hasn't happened to you? How do you fall in love intellectually if it hasn't happened emotionally? Much earlier you talked about a big tear falling down your face in Rabbi Majesky's class and that clinched it for you. I respect you enough to know you had a moving and spiritual experience, but that doesn't happen to everyone.

Again I would ask you how would you convince a feminist to get involved?

Gittel: People are so immersed in secular life and the pursuit of material things they forget there is a spiritual side to them. All these issues you've raised like wearing pants, covering one's head, etc., are only issues when you view them from a secular perspective.

Barbara: You were involved in the material pursuit solely until you were fortunate enough to have a spiritual experience. But, not everyone has this.

Gittel: Every Jew can ultimately have this when Mashiach (Messiah) comes. The Jewish soul is sensitive to the spiritual world and opposed to the secular world. All I can say is put all your preconceptions on a shelf and learn with someone you trust.

Barbara: So let me restate my question, is there a place for a feminist in Judaism?

Gittel: 100%. Most of the issues you raised are only issues in the secular world, not the observant one. Orthodox women are not bothered by these things.

Barbara: But that's not true. Certain issues bother observant women both baalath teshuvah (Returnees) or women who have always been religious. Mikvah (ritual bath) is a prime example. Many women are upset emotionally, physically and intellectually by the practice.

Gittel: Then it is a lack of education. If one appreciates the effects of performing the mitzvot you are rewarded by being elevated and refined. You are brought closer to God. There is a connection between body and soul, and between you and God. That relationship brings intense joy. Mikvah has a practical level in your relationship to your spouse. I would say the whole Jewish attitude toward sexuality is in opposition to the secular attitude, although Fm not married. In the secular world your relationships have no boundaries. We do everything for pleasure. But, how long does that pleasure last, I minute, 5 minutes and then what do you have? In Yiddishkeit there certainly is pleasure. Physical pleasure is very permissible with the right person under the right conditions.

Barbara: Why do the right conditions occur at a woman's most fertile time? Is the whole purpose of sex for procreation?

Gittel: The main point is procreation absolutely. But there is an incredible giving and kindness and, of course, physical pleasure. Sex is encouraged in Yiddishkeit. In the Gemarrah it says, ?Man must give pleasure to his wife.? It's a requirement for a man to please his wife. Judaism doesn't deny pleasure for pleasure's sake. In Chasidut I learned holiness has to do with separation and this sheds light on the monthly separation between a wife and her husband. The mistake people make is always wanting more of something good. Sometimes for things to exist in harmony they have to be separated like fire and water. Fire and water can do incredible things together. If you mix fire and water together there's nothing, but if you separate them with a pot you can cook.

Barbara: How are you going to convince a sexually active woman that she's been doing it wrong, that she must wait 12 days and be immersed in a mikvah before she can be with her husband? How can you make the word Tumah (unclean), which is used in reference to a menstruating women mean anything other than dirty?

Gittel: The concept of Tumah is a spiritual impurity. It is not negative. The time you cannot be with your husband is a time to strengthen your relationship spiritually. In Jewish Women In Jewish Law, by Moshe Meiselman, we learn that Family Purity is the most fundamental law. Man should know there is a God who rules over him. As in other gifts, whatever God has given He has set limits. In marriage, He commanded man to separate from his wife at certain times. This makes it possible to be valued as a person rather than a sex object.

Barbara: Often, the husband will react in a negative manner during these unclean days.

Gittel: I feel both the man and woman have to really explore the potential for a closeness on a spiritual level during this time.

Barbara: Another issue that is relevant to our discussion is the concept of t?zniut(modesty) for women.

Gittel: Things that are holy and precious aren't to be revealed. The Torah isn't exposed. We roll it up and cover it with jeweled velvet. This concept applies to women. The laws of modesty are very specific. Certain parts of a woman's body cannot be exposed because they are considered ?ervah? or naked. A woman's hair takes on this quality when she marries.

Barbara: Why do the women cover their hair with wigs more beautiful than their own hair? It seems to defeat the purpose of covering the hair at all.

Gittel: A woman is supposed to look attractive. The covering of her hair is for spiritual reasons.

Barbara: Do you see the need for a change in women's roles? Women's positions have changed so much in the secular world, wouldn't this influence Judaism?

Gittel: Women are referred to as the foundation of the home. They are responsible for the holiness generated there. That's her obligation. But, no one said don't learn or work, etc.

Barbara: What also concerns me is that what a woman's role is supposed to be might be a reflection of the secular world. Historically, most societies are sexist and have created roles to keep women oppressed to some extent. How do we know Judaism doesn't do this? Or, can one prevent the influence of the secular world?

Gittel: The best way is to live in a positive, nourishing environment. The feminist problem doesn't exist in Judaism.

Barbara: Didn't you experience any problems when you made the transition'?

Gittel: I was working on a film with Paul Newman and had to make my first major decision not to work on the Sabbath. That was traumatic.

Barbara: You didn't encounter any personal problems because you are a women?

Gittel: Since I've become observant, I still make films. The only difference is I don't work on the Sabbath. I have an awareness that there is something other then myself to whom I must give thanks. This has added a beautiful dimension to my life. As I grow in Judaism there are far fewer limitations. I'm becoming who I really am. Judaism is a progressive climb to reach the ultimate level. The climb is up but sometimes you slip. This is the only way one grows. There are always challenges I'm faced with. My goal is to go all the way. I don't want a life of mediocrity.

Barbara: And you feel you can do this through Orthodox Judaism?

Gittel: It's the only way. I've been on both sides. The difference is crystal clear. You can pursue a life of emptiness by only seeking material goods or a life of meaning and purpose through Torah and Mitzvot. In the secular world people are concerned with rights, peoples rights, children's rights, civil rights and women's rights. The world of the observant Jew focuses not on the rights but on obligations and responsibilities. When everyone fulfills these, it is only then that everyone's rights are protected.

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