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Jewish Feminism: The Battles Are Not Over

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

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This is the first entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

Why am I a Jewish feminist?

Because if you’re a woman, you’re either a feminist or a masochist.

Because if you’re a Jew, you’re obligated to pursue justice and treat each person — man and woman — with perfect dignity, for all of humanity is created in the image of God and filled with divine sparks.

In other words, I’m a feminist because I’m a woman and a Jew.

Anyone seeking religious justification for the women’s movement struggle against sex discrimination and gender violence need only recall the words of the ancient sage, Hillel, who famously summarized the entire Torah (while standing on one leg) saying, “Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.” This terse distillation of fundamental Judaic ethics could serve as the rallying cry for every feminist organizer from Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and Emma Goldman to Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and the feisty young feminists of the 21st century.

To be precise, I’m a feminist first in the Jewish world, where women are often stereotyped, their interests subverted to men’s, and a Jew first in secular contexts, where Jews sometimes suffer neglect, disregard or defamation. I balance my double identity on a seesaw, tipping in the direction of whichever side of me finds itself in the minority or under threat; I stand with the weakest flank.

Recent history has proved that Judaism benefits when women challenge patriarchy in the synagogue and sexism in Jewish communal organizations. The secular world benefits when Jews bring to the table our traditionally progressive Jewish values, build coalitions with other ethnic and religious communities, and speak out against anti-Semitism, homophobia, racial and economic inequality, anti-intellectualism, and a million other injustices.

After more than 40 years of activism, however, I’ve noticed a telling difference between mainstream American feminism and feminism in the Jewish world. Sadly, secular women’s organizations can never sit on their laurels; their advances — whether in reproductive rights or workplace equity — are continually being eroded by a right wing or Christian Evangelical backlash master-minded by conservative think tanks and funded by the likes of the Koch brothers.

As a result, the mainstream women’s movement, in all its incarnations, is always having to re-argue cases we thought were settled law, and to stay on guard against invidious right-wing reversals of our political, economic, and social progress. On reproductive rights, for example, this can currently be seen in legislative efforts that would mandate parental consent and enforced waiting periods before a woman is able to get an abortion, and in fetus “personhood” amendments.

Jewish feminists, on the other hand, have seen our achievements take root, endure and flourish, though the changes we secured in Judaism have been even more radical than those wrought in secular life. Jewish feminism has enhanced and enriched traditions once considered immovable and unalterable — the ordination of female rabbis and cantors (in all but Orthodoxy), the proliferation of women studying Torah and Talmud, recognition and respect for the authority of female scholars, the right to be given an aliyah, to be counted in a minyan, to have a bat mitzvah. Once won, those milestones have been neither reversed nor eroded. Rather, they have multiplied and intensified. For my daughters’ generation and now my granddaughter’s, those new realities are correctly considered entitlements, not privileges.

This does not mean Jewish feminists can roll up our banners and retire. The advances enumerated mostly occurred in the religious arena but in the larger Jewish world, the best one can say about women’s progress is, “we’ve come a long way, maybe.” Jewish organizations, major and minor, are still largely dominated and led by men. Many male Jewish leaders and politicians still need to be reminded to go to bat for women’s issues as energetically as they fight for, say, aid for Israel. When a delegation is named to represent “the Jewish community” at the White House, or to meet with a head of state or religious potentate; when some group is organizing a panel to discuss the “Jewish future,” or to decide who gets honored at their annual dinner, all too often, women get left out.

I’m a Jewish feminist because our battles are not over.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, and the co-founder of many Jewish (and other) women’s organizations and dialogue groups. She is the author of nine books.

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