Sisterhood Blog

Orthodox Feminists Are Not Conservatives in Disguise

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

There is a rumor going around that Orthodox feminists are just Conservative Jews in disguise, or perhaps in denial.

I’ve heard this idea in many settings. I was at a dinner last year honoring Jewish feminists when a woman at my table — a Conservative rabbi and prolific writer whom I greatly admire — reproached me. “Why do all you Orthodox feminists think that what you’re doing is so amazing?” she demanded. “The women in the Conservative movement have been fighting these battles for 40 years. You are just barely catching up.” Last month, my dear friend Hillary Gordon echoed similar sentiments in a blog post she wrote about my recent book event in Jerusalem. “Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?” she asks. “Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?” Almost the exact same line appeared a couple of weeks ago in the comment section of Frimet Goldberger’s blog post about Orthodox feminists. Frimet dared to write that Conservative Judaism is not an option for her, to which a commenter replied, “Do I detect some judgementalism in those words?? ….Is there a suggestion here that the Conservative observance of Shabbat is less ‘full’ or somewhat deficient from the more authentic Orthodox one??”

Clearly some Conservative Jews resent Orthodox feminism. I understand this. It’s true that most Orthodox feminists do not consider Conservative Judaism an option, and for non-Orthodox Jews that’s hard to hear. Some Orthodox feminists will explain this as a halachic thing, because only Orthodoxy is halachic. But we all know that this isn’t exactly true. Conservative Judaism is deeply engaged in halachic discourse, and even if most Conservative Jews do not follow a completely halachic lifestyle, it is still entirely possible to be halachic and be Conservative. To wit, when the first Orthodox partnership synagogue (a community that maximizes women’s participation) in my city of Modi’in was trying to write its tagline, the community voted against using the term “halachic-egalitarian” because people argued that this could describe Conservative Judaism. So much for the myth that only Orthodoxy is halachic.

Perhaps Orthodox feminists retain that Orthodox insularity out of fear. We saw what happened to Rabbi Asher Lopatin when he dared to hold an event on the Jewish people with leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism. He was subjected to some really revolting blackballing tactics from within Orthodoxy. Imagine what effect these events have on people’s self-concept within the Orthodox community. Stepping out, even slightly, can have very troubling consequences.

And then there’s another kind of fear at work here, one particular to women. It has to do with women’s often difficult relationships with other women, which I wrote about recently here at the Sisterhood. Women are so trained to do it all on our own all the time without any help — as if getting help impinges on their successfulness in life — that we don’t want to know about the women who came before us. We are so socialized into a competitiveness over individualized perfectionism that we find it alarming to learn that others may be ahead of us. It’s why women have such a hard time with mentoring, sponsorship and networking. We’re not trained in it; we’re socialized to do it all on our own. I see this dynamic all the time — not just in Orthodoxy. Women often don’t want to know about others who have done this already. It’s too threatening. So of course Orthodox feminists are not looking at Conservative feminists. They don’t really know how.

Nevertheless, with all that, I think that there are still some good reasons why Orthodox feminists do not consider Conservative Judaism an option. To be an Orthodox Jew is an all-encompassing identity that drives almost every single decision in your life every day — your food, your clothes, your housing, your vacations, your sex life and on and on. When you go to the supermarket, or make a coffee date, you’re checking kashrut certificates. When you’re looking for a house, your primary concern is walking distance from a synagogue. When you go clothing shopping for girls and women, you’re looking at sleeve length and necklines. Your entire week revolves around preparations for Shabbat. When you travel, you’re looking for local kosher restaurants and synagogues. When you walk down the street, if you see a man with a kippah, you have that flicker in you, “He’s one of ours.” There are so many codes and conventions — some of which are halachic and some of which are just comfort and familiarity — that together make Orthodoxy an all-consuming identity.

Orthodox feminists are women (and men) who like all of that. They love the sounds, sights, songs and smells of Orthodoxy. They want to be part of this group that they know as their own. They love walking into a shul or a kosher restaurant anywhere in the world and feeling at home. They like their friends, their community, their entire lives — well, almost everything. Orthodox feminists are people who love everything about Orthodoxy except for the gender thing. It’s not that Orthodox feminists want to become Conservative. Not at all. It’s that they want Orthodoxy to fix the gender problem. Then their lives will be perfect. Well, you know, more or less.

I do think that there is another way, in which feminists from all denominations collaborate and dialogue without fear or unnecessary turfiness. I talked about how important this is in my recent interview with Susan Reimer-Torn at the Jewish Women’s Archive. Feminists from across the spectrum can find shared values without feeling like our identities are being threatened. I saw a beautiful model of fluidity in the community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last year, when I spent Shabbat as a guest of both the Orthodox and Conservative communities at once (thank you Mickie Diamond). Women in this community freely flow between Orthodox and Conservative communal settings. Many women told me that some days they will go to the Conservative shul, some days to the Orthodox shul, some days to the partnership minyan — and everything is okay. On Shabbat afternoon, Beth Kissileff hosted me for a discussion on the status of women, and women around the table came from everywhere — from secular through — to share in this dynamic conversation.

I left feeling very inspired.

It’s okay for women to feel like Orthodoxy is the only option — or that being Conservative is the only option. What is most important is for us to respect and acknowledge one another, to seek out each other’s leadership and wisdom, and to work together on our shared values of Torah and tikkun olam, from wherever we happen to dwell.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: feminist, Orthodox, Jewish, Conservative

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.