Orthodox Feminism: Towards a Unified Definition

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  November 3, 2016

I have identified as an Orthodox Feminist for about three years now, but back when I first donned the label I remember doing so with a sizeable amount of trepidation. My early membership sounded more like an acquiescence shyly whispered under breath than an impassioned cry of agreement shouted from a mountaintop. For the most part my hesitation stemmed from the fact that I just wasn’t quite sure what the term “Orthodox Feminist” really meant.

Of course, I knew what it meant to me the understanding that certain principles of feminism could enhance my Orthodox practice, but that Orthodoxy would always come first, even at the expense of certain feminist ideals. And I knew what it meant to others, on both sides of the spectrum. To some of my religious counterparts, it meant angry, agenda-shoving, man-haters. To some in the secular world it meant women so confused, so tied up in their religious community that they had Stockholm-syndromed themselves into remaining a part of it, even as it oppressed them.

But what made me a little shaky in the beginning was that I couldn’t figure out what the movement meant to itself.  As far as I could tell, despite the existence of a number of meaningful organizations and a decent amount of literature focused on women’s issues within Orthodoxy, there did not seem to be a cohesive Orthodox Feminist platform. In fact it seemed like every woman I spoke to or read about had a different understanding of what the movement the label they had chosenmeant to them.

I chose to label myself partly because I wanted needed solidarity, an anchor to keep me moored as I navigated the choppy, unfamiliar waters of my new beliefs. But I had to come to terms with the fact that the label I chose was not one-size-fits-all, it had no monolithic membership, and certainly no Merriam Webster’s definition. Was I okay being part of a group in which some members were much lighter on the Orthodox part of the title than I was personally comfortable with? Did other women find my personal definition to be apologetics or too light-footed, and want me out? Had we all unknowingly boarded  a boat that would sink before it could ever pick direction in which to steer?

But as time went on I learned to stopped worrying and love the label I had chosen.

Here’s why: Some time last year I tried to explain to someone how it feels to sit in the balcony of a shul, how even though I know halachically that I cannot count in the minyan, standing up in the mezzanine watching the events of the service unfold below makes me feel like a spectator to a show for which I am neither needed nor noted.

“No you don’t feel that way,” he replied curtly.

I wasn’t sure where to go from there. It was as if I had tasted a piece of cake, professed not to like it and he had just shoved another bite in my mouth.

No I don’t? How does he know? Is he in my brain? Is he able to replicate the exact way I process the world and fact check the conclusions I “claim” to feel? Are feelings supposed to be objective? After a number of shove-the-cake-back-in-my-mouth experiences like this one I began to see my self-selected label, the one that I had  been holding as tentatively as a china teacup, in a new light.

Nowadays I have reframed how I define Orthodox Feminism as a larger movement to one that makes me proud to shout my membership from the mountaintops. To me, Orthodox Feminists are, on the most basic level, a group of women who have all in some ways felt discomfort or pain with their traditional and societal role as women within Judaism and seek to advance their participation in our beautiful religion in some way or another. It is simply a place where I can speak about my personal struggles with my faith as a woman and not be told:

No you don’t feel that way.

You just don’t understand the real meaning of womanhood.

You don’t fear God.

You’re crazy and hormonal.

You’re just looking for honor and attention.

When I speak to a fellow Orthodox Feminist, I know I will be understood. I will not be denied. And no one will try to stick a gosh darn piece of gross cake in my face.

Sure, there are specific sub-groups within the movement, groups of women or individuals who differ in their approaches to Orthodox Feminism and how to balance the two. I am not denying the need for us all to come up with our own approaches just for the sake of harmony a unifying umbrella is not an excuse for inaction on the part of each individual. If we all only focus on universalizing, then we will universalize the whole movement, and any chance for real positive and lasting change that it brings, into some saccharine greeting card. But a basic, overarching definition and personalized, specific plans of action are not mutually exclusive.

From where I stand on this mountain, I can’t think of a better way to define and unify the myriad of wonderful women of Orthodox Feminism than with a definition that truly encompasses us all: We’ve been there, we hear you, we cry with you, we rejoice with you. We understand.orthodox-feminism