Sisterhood Blog

Haredi Rabbi Talks 'Kosher Feminism'

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Sunday was the enormous Lubavitch Kinnus HaShluchim, replete with 3,500 of the rebbe’s emissaries in Crown Heights for Shabbos and coverage in The New York Times, of the banquet meal at Brooklyn’s cruise terminal, the only space large enough to accommodate the crowd.

I write this while watching a live feed of the speakers. The shluchos, or female emissaries, have their own convention in Brooklyn in February. Shluchim are only sent out as married couples, and in the Lubavitch community both the husband and wife are regarded as full partners in the work.

Seeing this weekend’s convention reminded me of the speaker I heard at a recent Shabbos dinner, where Rabbi Chaim Miller spoke about “kosher feminism.” It was held at the synagogue where my husband and I were married, 20 years ago, which is being revitalized by a young Lubavitch shaliach named Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum.

Now, I will confess that I walked into the dinner feeling more than a little dubious about the topic. After all, if there is such a thing as “kosher feminism,” then there must be “unkosher feminism.” I wondered if the speaker would use the occasion to excoriate feminists and say the “real feminists” are those who stay in their Torah-ordained place as he and his community understand it.

Things didn’t improve much as we entered the synagogue, when it became clear that my daughters and I were expected to ascend another staircase to the balcony while my husband and son went right in. I had last been in the main sanctuary for my own wedding, when men and women were allowed to sit on either side of the aisle downstairs. Grumbling, I went up to where a few women sat, intent in their individual prayer. When the men began singing some of Kabbalat Shabbat’s lovely songs, the women seemed to be singing along with them. Except that no sound could be heard. (This phenomenon is a topic for another day’s blog post).

Finally it was time for dinner, so down we went to the basement social hall, where several dozen people — some younger, some older, many of them artist-hipster types — were getting seated around a long table.

Rabbi Miller spoke after we made Kiddush and HaMotzi, and I was not impressed. He said “the feminists say thi…” and “the feminists say that…” Listening to him paraphrase Judith Plaskow, and her book “Standing Again at Sinai,” I thought he was doing this classic of Jewish-feminist scholarship a disservice, and that he was, in fact, putting feminism down.

During dinner after his talk, other women at the table convinced me that I had been wrong. These women, a couple of whom are members of the same Conservative shul we attend, along with some who were becoming Orthodox, talked about how remarkable it was for a Hasidic rabbi to be speaking about feminism at all, and that he deserved credit for doing so. By his own estimation, Rabbi Miller’s premise was not to put down feminism, but rather to talk about how few inroads it has made in the Haredi community and to articulate that he hopes it makes more of an impression there.

I hope to meet Rabbi Miller for coffee some time soon to be able to better understand where he is coming from (and perhaps suggest some additional readings in Jewish feminism).

Rabbi Kirschenbaum invited me to start a women’s Torah study group in the neighborhood. At the moment my work at Drisha is filling my Torah study schedule, but I do appreciate that the foundation of all change is literacy, and that there can be no change in Judaism without knowing Torah.


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