Rav Moshe Feinstein was never known as a feminist. But he both understood and accepted feminism’s core moral claim.
In a remarkable 1976 responsum he wrote bluntly about what he perceived to be the effort to extend the women’s liberation movement from the political and social spheres into the religious. He opened by reasserting the fact that women are exempt from a particular well-known set of mitzvot, and that this exemption is rooted both in Divine wisdom, and in the practical wisdom of the rabbis, who deemed it unrealistic and unfair to expect that these mitzvot be observed by those who bear primary responsibility for the raising of children and the daily running of the household. Rav Moshe branded any effort to change this halachik exemption as being both futile and rebellious, even going so far as to say that were a woman to perform a mitzva from which she is exempt not out of religious desire rather in the effort to undermine the exemption, that this would not constitute a mitzva act at all.
But Rav Moshe didn’t end there. He concluded the responsum with a lengthy paragraph in which he demonstrated that he accepted the core of feminism’s moral claim, regarding it as consistent with classical Jewish teaching.
“… [the exemption] is not a result of the fact that women possess a lower spiritual rank than men. For with regard to holiness, they are equal…And with regard to the obligation to honor a spouse, we find that the obligation applies from husband to wife, and from wife to husband without any distinction… There is no degradation of women’s honor [in the tradition]…”
Equal holiness, worth, dignity, and humanity. This is the essence of the feminist moral claim.
In the lead article of the Summer 2002 issue of Tradition, Orthodox attorney Marc Stern challenged the mainstream Orthodox community over its habitual denunciations of feminism. First, on the grounds of intellectual dishonesty, as so much of the community has enthusiastically embraced many of feminism’s outcomes, including high educational standards for girls, hands-on involvement of fathers in raising their children, the expectation of equal pay for equal work, and the zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. He notes that none of his readers would want to see these developments rolled back. And then second, on the grounds that the resistance of feminism has exacted a religious price. In Stern’s words,
“In all too many communities shiurim for women are infantile outpourings of primitive and unreflective emotion, as if women were incapable of understanding anything more complex. Talented women have been lost to the Orthodox community [as a result]. The fight for equality has not yet been won, even within the realms of what is without question halachikly acceptable. How many shul have been built in the last generation that reflect a concern for… the ability of women to feel as if they are participants in the davening?”
Religious costs are indeed incurred through resisting feminism’s fundamental claim. To the costs Stern mentioned we also add the fact that many Orthodox rabbis still refuse to utilize the halachik pre-nuptial agreement intended to save women from becoming agunot, that women who do become agunot sometimes receive shoddy treatment at the hands of Dayanim and the members of their own communities. And the reality that in many day schools serving the mainstream Orthodox community boys and girls still do not enjoy the same Jewish studies curriculum. The rejection of feminism’s central claim comes at a religious cost.
The extreme manifestation of this of course is the zealous suppression of women in the public sphere that has become mainstream Haredi religious behavior. Their well-known policies of seating women in the back of the bus, eliminating women’s pictures from public view, and requiring that women not appear in public ceremonies even to accept their own governmental awards, do not stem from halachik analysis, rather from precisely the kind of repressive chauvinism that the feminist movement aimed to root out. The halachik analysis had already been done, again by Rav Moshe, who years ago had addressed a question posed by a man who feared taking the subway to work, where the crowded conditions invariably brought about physical contact with female commuters. Rav Moshe ruled that,
“There is no prohibition to come into contact with [women under these circumstances] since it is not done in an affectionate manner. Similarly there is no prohibition to sit next to a woman when there is no other place available. And if a particular man knows that this will bring about lustful thoughts … he needs to fight against these thoughts by distracting himself and thinking about words of Torah.”
What sort of mindset simply dismisses this kind of straightforward halachik thinking in favor of making women disappear? One that stems directly from the rejection of the basic moral claim that women possess the same humanity, dignity and stature as men, and that they are not simply objects that populate a male world. And what a price has been paid for this rejection. A disfigurement of Torah observance, and an international desecration of God’s name.
There will always be morally anchored movements and ideas that will emerge from outside our immediate four cubits. And as a religious communities, we will do much better by explicitly taking them in rather than by rejecting them. Taking them in doesn’t and shouldn’t mean surrendering all other religious values with which they may come into conflict. It means admitting them into the constellation of religious values that together determine normative religious behavior. The other important ideas out there now are democracy, and human egalitarianism – the recognition that all people of all types possess equal human dignity and worth. And these two are also facing resistance or rejection in various Orthodox quarters, with the costs already expressing themselves. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up unapologetically, and affirm with urgency the religious value of morally compelling ideas. The reward will be great.