By Fruma Landa, Editor in Chief
Female empowerment has been a theme in my life since I was young. Even before understanding the concept of feminism, I recognized moments of empowerment in my life. However, these moments were not necessarily what most people I know would define as feminist. For example, pushing myself into a crowded room of men to serve plates of herring and crackers was one of the most empowering moments of my childhood. To me, walking into that room full of grown men was incredibly daunting. Pushing myself to take up space and weave between the shoulders of men to deposit the oily plate onto the table — a feat unto itself — before leaving back to the safety of the kitchen was empowering.
Throughout my life, I have found that sometimes the way women are told to empower themselves is done in a way that devalues the way other women feel empowered. Many people will tell you that serving a dish to a table full of men is not only unempowering, but rather oppressive or demeaning — the opposite of my experience.
In more religiously right-wing communities, like the one I grew up in, traditionally female gender roles are valued and may bring feelings of empowerment. Thus, women use their femininity as one of the ways they serve Hashem. A mother making soup for her family is said to be compared in holiness to the Kohen Gadol’s (Height Priest’s) Yom Kippur avoda, the service performed on the holiest day of the year. This mindset helps form a community that values stereotypical feminine behavior and empowers women exhibiting such behaviors. Taking care of one’s family, cooking, cleaning, and beautifying mitzvot (commandments) are some traits that fall into the woman’s domain. Many women in the community I grew up in use their creativity, another feminine trait, to serve God. Aside from keeping the Torah and mitzvos, they put their souls into ensuring their children are dressed in a way which honors the yuntif (holiday), cooking ritual dishes, beautifying their mishloach manos (ritual Purim food packages), decking their Shavuos table with flowers and elaborate cheese cakes, getting their nails done and working on exquisite table decor le’kavod Shabbos kodesh (in honor of the holy Sabbath).
Unfortunately, these actions which many women relate to and are empowered by are often dismissed as frivolous or shallow — in other words, they are devalued. In communities where women have other opportunities to serve God such as through the study of Torah SheBaal Peh (Oral Torah) or via performing public religious rituals, these domestic actions may feel like a shallow way to serve God. However, these can be fulfilling for the women who relate to serving in this way.
Two weeks ago, the Shabbos following Pesach (Passover), many women observed the tradition of making Shlissel challah, a challah containing a key in it. This year, I have heard many people dismissing this predominantly-women-performed custom. People commenting on this tradition fail to recognize the importance of this in the lives of the women who relate to this religious practice. Devaluing this minhag (custom) devalues a predominantly women’s religious experience.
Making shlissel challah has become like a religious ritual for many women. Since making the challah is an experience done predominantly by women to express their relationship with Judaism, devaluing the minhag essentially devalues an important religious experience for women, especially in communities where they may not feel connected to other traditionally male rituals.
As I noticed that trend, I found myself thinking of other predominantly women’s way of interacting with religious experiences and noticed that those were often devalued as well. Women who care about the flowers decorating their tables for Shavuos instead of learning all night are seen as less than women who do learn all night. Women who make an effort to do their wigs, makeup and nails before Shabbos are considered fickle. Women are made fun of for caring more about the way their sukkah decorations look than the way the esrog they use looks. Women who choose to present themselves tzniusly, in modest clothing they consider to be befitting a daughter of the King, are said to be allowing the patriarchy to regulate their bodies. The women who approach Judaism from a traditionally feminine perspective are seen as less than compared to those who engaged in these rituals from another angle; and often, women who do not approach Judaism from a traditionally feminine angle are deemed as too radical and considered to be throwing away tradition. Existing as a Jewish woman is a catch-22: be viewed as a prisoner, or be viewed as uprooting the tradition.
Some women, myself included, feel empowered when breaking glass ceilings and advancing women’s opportunities. That facet of feminism should be encouraged and supported, yet it does not need to devalue women who do not relate to this form of empowerment. It can be incredibly difficult to encourage women to try to explore new ways of serving God without devaluing the feminine, but it is not impossible. The goal of female empowerment should not be to only empower the women who are doing what you deem as empowered, but rather to empower all women in doing what makes them feel empowered.