The Religious Cost of Rejecting Feminism’s Core Moral Claim by Yosef Kanefsky

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.

7 Responses to The Religious Cost of Rejecting Feminism’s Core Moral Claim by Yosef Kanefsky

  1. David says:

    Do you support women to be permitted – without qualifications, to serve as witnesses in an Orthodox Beit Din?

  2. I have been living in Jerusalem for 7 1/2 years and I have never seen this phenomenon: “shiurim for women are infantile outpourings of primitive and unreflective emotion, as if women were incapable of understanding anything more complex.” There are many great shiurim in Jerusalem both for women who live in Israel who come to study part time or full time as well as shiurim for young women who study in Israel for the year and they are serious Torah study classes with sourcesheets and not fluff. Maybe it is time for women from Chutz LaAretz (outside of the Land of Israel) to come to study in Israel to see what true Torah study for women is about.

  3. David Meir says:

    Rabbi Kanefsky, let me start by saying I applaud your efforts. The fact that Jewish tradition is itself held as a “sacred cow”, not to be easily tampered with, is both a blessing and a curse – a blessing in that it doesn’t just blow with the winds of each generation and lose its identity in the process, and a curse in that we end up dragging around with us an immense amount of baggage which “morally” (as you say) does not comport with our highest ideals.

    In Orthodoxy, one typically either apologizes for such moral lapses (by explaining that the tradition is misunderstood and is in fact “wise”), or by attempting to minimize the moral problem to the extent possible (so as to still be within the halachic framework).

    The fact is that whereas the traditional Jewish norms/attitudes regarding women were at one time quite liberal – or at least no worse than that of other cultures – the same is not true today. And notwithstanding some cultures which today treat women horribly, the rest of free, civil society has accepted women’s complete equality as a moral axiom. In such societies, Jewish tradition in this respect is nothing less than a busha – a terrible embarrassment and Chilul Hashem.

    As such, I see nothing whatsoever special or remarkable about the statements of R. Moshe quoted above. Every reasonable Orthodox spokesman will speak about women’s “kedusha” and dignity as being every bit as equal as that of men. And I’m sure that Muslim apologists will say the same of women in burkas – that they are holy, doing God’s work, that their beauty is magnified when it is kept inside – wrapped up, confined to the home, etc. But, when trying to open people up to such obvious moral imperatives as women’s equality by quoting solid traditional sources, I suppose we’ll take what we can get!

    So I’m not sure I would agree that R. Moshe was even “in spirit” aligned with feminist ideals (especially given that even what you quoted might be presented as an argument to the contrary!), but again I deeply appreciate the battle which you’ve undertaken. It may be a slow, arduous process – but its goals are most noble!

    In the end, (I hope) we will come to the conclusion that “nashim shelanu chasuvot hen” – for purposes of halacha and all else.

  4. David Meir says:

    That’s “nashim shelanu chashuvot hen”.

  5. rivka haut says:

    Rabbi Kanefsky, I applaud your sentiments, especially your comments about the difficulties faced by agunot. As an agunah activist for many years, I am well aware that prenups, while helpful, DO NOT solve the agunah problem. The current beit din system is a horror, for men and certainly for women. I would like to know what you, and the IRF, are doing to change this situation?
    Writing articles is not enough. Those who can act to remedy the terrible injustices that occur daily in batei din, such as yourself, must do so. A new beit din is urgently needed for get problems as well as for conversions. When will the Orthodox community see action in this arena? When will you create a beit din that will dispense justice?
    Rivka Haut

  6. Reader says:

    אם נשים שוות לאנשים בקדושתן

  7. Nachum says:

    Come on. “Feminism” has come to mean “advocacy of the left-wing gender agenda,” with all that implies that’s out of the question for honest Orthodox Jews (abortion, homosexuality, etc.). Proof: The reaction to Sara Palin, who exemplified the feminist ideal apart from the niggling fact that she was right-wing and anti-abortion.

    There’s the answer to Stern’s question.

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