Feminism and Judaism - The Role of Women in Judaism
Modern Feminism quickly atrophied into “Careerism,” which left us with a society in which women’s contributions are unrecognized by men and, more painfully, by women themselves.
Three decades of feminism have left women with a new version of the quip: If you’re so liberated, why aren’t you happy?
Women at the advent of the new millennium have higher salaries, more corporate power, and more career choices. We also have more divorces, more custody battles, more childcare crises, and—if the truth be told—more conflict about who we really are and what we really want.
We want to be whole. We want it all. We want to be women while actualizing the full range of our potentials. And we should—we were made to strive for completion.
Judaism believes in wholeness, in the valid claims of contrasting aspects:
in being part of a society while remaining a unique people;
in being part of a community while maintaining one’s individuality;
in being a full-fledged part of the world while also being a woman.
Before focusing specifically on the Jewish view of how women can flourish in modern society without experiencing conflict, let us look at contemporary reality.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HAPPY HOMEMAKER
We of the Western world have just invested about 30 years in rebelling against the advertising industry’s “Happy Homemaker” feminine ideal. The Happy Homemaker was the coiffured blond-haired, ever-smiling, empty-headed female whose sole pleasures in life were serving the moistest cake possible to her family and having dishes she could see herself in.
The Happy Homemaker was not Jewish. The stereotype she represented was antithetical to the idealized Jewish vision of womanhood, portrayed as early as in King Solomon’s time in his poem “A Woman of Valor.”
There we see qualities such as wisdom, courage, creativity, business acumen, and the profound insight to recognize how to relate to individuals according to their specific needs.
Nowhere is “lovin’” spoken of as synonymous with “something from the oven.”
Women’s contributions to society have always been far more than physical. The tragedy is that this obvious fact has too often gone unrecognized. This is not to say that physical nurture is not a very real expression of caring. However, it is only one part of a complex mosaic of personal feminine self-expression. It is a gross distortion to equate this part with the whole.
The Happy Homemaker was not the first woman to idealize nurture and feminine self-actualization in such limited terms. But before her time, the practical exigencies of life gave household jobs greater meaning. In pre-industrial society, women were valued—and valued themselves—for their irreplaceable contributions to the functioning of the home. While many women would have undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity to be freed from some of the tedium involved (as would have men from the tedium of their jobs), they felt the importance of their role if for no other reason than the absence of machines which could perform the same tasks.
The desire to contribute something of true value still burned in the hearts and minds of many women. The technological liberation of the homemaker (i.e. gas and electric stoves, washing machines, ready-made clothes, prepared food, etc.) left women asking, “What do I do with my life now?” and the answer came back from Madison Avenue: “Bake another cake.”
The Happy Homemaker arrived on the scene as the role-model woman who continued to glow with fulfillment while totally immersing herself in the dwindling and increasingly meaningless domestic chores that remained to be done.
The inevitable result of this was the erosion of whatever status had hitherto been ascribed to traditional feminine roles. After all, no one could be fooled for long—how important was that cake?
Not unpredictably, the Happy Homemaker’s baking lost its taste after one generation. In the wake of her demise, a new woman was born seeking gratification that could not be found in even the flakiest pie crust. And thus began the wholesale abandonment of homemaking and even motherhood in favor of occupations outside of the home, which imparted the sense that one was doing something worthwhile.
FROM FEMINISM TO CAREERISM TO MASCULISM
“Feminism,” as quickly as it gained momentum, lost its calling as a movement to promote women’s rights to total self-actualization, and instead rapidly atrophied into “careerism.”
What we are left with today is a situation in which, more than ever, women’s spiritual contributions to home, family, and others are unrecognized, not only by men, but, more painfully, by women themselves.
An incident revealing disdain for traditional female roles occurred to me personally. Several years ago, the Israeli census taker came to our home. For various reasons I chose not to participate. My children were in school, and the census taker, a woman, found me sitting at the dining room table surrounded by books, looking very professorial. I took time to discuss with her, in Hebrew, my philosophical stance, over a cup of coffee. She was very interested, and left at least respecting my intellectual clarity about my position.
Now, the law requires that anyone refusing to take part in the census must be visited again, so a few weeks later she reappeared. In the meantime, of course, she had interviewed hundreds of people, so she did not recognize me from our previous discussion. This time she saw the Friday morning me. I was surrounded by small children and elbow-deep in challah dough. Surmising my intellectual capacity with a cursory glance at the scene, she pointed at the paper she held and speaking slowly and clearly in beginner’s Hebrew said, “This—is—a—census. A—census—is—when—we—count—people. We—want—to—count—ALL—the- people. Sign—this.” To her, being a mother and housewife excluded any possibility of my being an intelligent human being.
The discrediting of women in their traditional roles has lead inevitably to a prejudice against womanhood and in favor of manhood which extends across the board. In the end, many of us have succumbed to the pervasive bias that, simply put, anything men have, do, or are is de facto better and more desirable than what women have, do, or are. Shockingly few of us even pause to question this assumption.
Thus, mainstream feminism should really be called, “masculism,” because it glorifies everything that pertains to men and seeks to appropriate it for women.
A good example of this glorification of what pertains to men without questioning its value, either for men or for women, is the “feminine cigarette.” When Virginia Slims launched itself at the beginning of the feminist movement, its advertising campaign went something like this:
Men have oppressed women by withholding from them the right to smoke, so that women were forced to smoke in secret. Now a woman can prove her liberated status not only by smoking in public, but by smoking specifically feminine cigarettes, made just for her.
The question was never asked: But is smoking good for women? Claiming the right to smoke because men had it, is like claiming the right to be a kamikaze pilot as an equal job opportunity.