Religion & Beliefs

Jewish Mythbusters: Orthodoxy is Misogynistic, Israel is Egalitarian

Orthodoxy is an easy target when we’re criticizing societies where women are treated poorly, given fewer rights, and are relegated to lives in the kitchen and nursery. Walking into an Orthodox synagogue and seeing a mechitza dividing the men and … Read More

By / March 26, 2008

Orthodoxy is an easy target when we’re criticizing societies where women are treated poorly, given fewer rights, and are relegated to lives in the kitchen and nursery. Walking into an Orthodox synagogue and seeing a mechitza dividing the men and women can seem like a throwback to the days of Jim Crow, and when we hear about ultra-Orthodox women wearing burka-like garments, it’s hard not to jump to conclusions about the kind of society that would endorse such behaviors.

The truth is much more complicated. Though it has taken Orthodoxy a staggeringly long time to come to terms with even the most basic feminist ideals, all kinds of feminism are alive and well in the Orthodox world.

  • The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance provides lists of minyans where women participate in various forms, directions for life cycle events, advocates for agunot (women whose husbands won’t grant them Jewish divorces), and access to articles and databases to address a wide range of issues, from whether first-born women should fast the day before Pesach, to alternative readings of traditional texts.
  • Education for Orthodox Jewish girls has come a long way: Until fairly recently there were some communities where women were not even allowed to learn Torah directly from a book, but in the past fifty years, education for Jewish girls has taken great strides, and schools like the Drisha Institute and Midreshet Lindenbaum allow women to study Talmud and pursue Torah learning with the same vigor as at the best yeshivot for men.
  • Scholars like Tamar Ross and Haviva Ner-David are writing books that break open the stereotypes cast on Orthodoxy and feminism. There’s still plenty of apologist bullshit going on—you can always find some rabbi who wants to explain that women aren’t allowed to do x because they’re already on a higher spiritual plane, so it’s just not necessary—but increasingly, women are breaking out of the shtetl mold and finding new paths and ways to compromise tradition and modernity.

Meanwhile, the secular Israeli world isn’t quite as gender egalitarian as we like to think. We tend to regard kibbutzim as a kind of precursor to feminism, with women out in the fields working alongside men, and we love to brag about things like Israeli women spending time in the army, Golda Meir having been the first women Prime Minister of Israel decades before a female President was considered possible in the US, and Women’s rights always being a cornerstone of Israeli politics. In fact, according to an article at MyJewishLearning, even on socialist kibbutzim, women generally ended up back in stereotypical roles, working in kitchens and childcare because they were seen as too weak for heavy agricultural labor.

  • Though Golda Meir was a political lioness, she was not known for working on behalf of women’s rights, and few women have been able to follow in her footsteps to rise to the top of Israeli political parties.
  • The number of women in the Knesset is still very low relative to female political representation in other Western countries.
  • Israeli cultural capitol still nudges women back into the home and towards traditional child-rearing roles, though slow improvements are being made.
  • Women in the Israeli army complain of sexual harassment, and of being given unimportant jobs where they languish for their two years of service.

Despite these sobering facts, there is some good news: The President of the Israeli Supreme Court is a woman, and women are well-represented and protected in Israeli legislation. There’s still plenty of work to be done on both ends of the spectrum, and it’s not always as clear cut as you might think.

Previously: Haman Wore a Three-Cornered Hat?