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Feminism and Judaism

Feminism and Judaism

Modern Feminism created a society in which women's contributions are largely unrecognized.


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.


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.

Claiming men's rights is like claiming a kamikaze pilot as an equal job opportunity.

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.


"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.

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Feminism and Judaism

January 8, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 69

(67) sara, January 21, 2015 7:20 AM

you're arguing with 1981

I honestly don't know what you're talking about. I'm a single Jewish mother with a career and an excellent cleaning woman. The only thing that would make things better here is more money -- the salaried world is still set up for men with wives and part-time work, even if it's the same as the fulltime, pays much less, so if you need to break up your workday it costs big and you wind up working much harder for a living wage. The answer to that is more feminism, not less.

Nobody is telling you not to be a housewife. Be a housewife if that makes you happy. Just don't stand in the way of other women when it doesn't make them happy. There's also no need to be insulting about it or to staple femininity to household work. I thought we got past that 45 years ago.

(66) Roy Dixon, March 13, 2014 11:10 PM

Good Job!

Attn: Tziporah,
Like your name's nailed it...I happen to be doing some research on a topic when I accidentally decided to read the instant article. I was delighted with your expose that I said to myself "you need to submit at least a comment," so here am I. Keep up the Good work!!! your writing skills are magnificent...what I thought I would peruse....I had to stop and begin reading word by word.

(65) JS, September 19, 2013 2:44 PM

What are you talking about?

You lost me in your opening paragraph.

Yes, women are happier now. Yes, women are more fulfilled. What are these "women's contributions" that you claim are unrecognized? Do you mean being chained to the sink and stove washing dishes and cooking all day long, every day, while pregnant constantly, because women have no minds?

Women's contributions include all the academic and career achievements we are now fully allowed to engage in. It's people like YOU who create the false divide between women's spirituality and women's work that men do not have.

Trotting out some tired old trope about how feminism was intended to make every woman everywhere blissfully happy all the time and that if it didn't it of course was an abject failure does nothing to convince me of your intelligence or honesty. This leaves me with a sneaking suspicion that you are actually opposed to women's liberation and think it was a mistake to ever let us out of the kitchens in the first place. I am sorry to say I am left with no good feelings toward you as a result.

Esther, October 2, 2013 4:20 AM

some examples of "women's contributions".

Today I helped my four-year-old son say a blessing thanking God for keeping his body healthy. I coached my 12-year-old daughter in baking cookies to celebrate her bas mitzvah with her class. When she noticed that our Hispanic cleaning woman looked stressed and down about the mess, she offered her some cookies (without any prompting from me: totally on her own!) When my 14 year old son told me about a scuffle he had with some classmates I engaged in active listening. This helped him get some perspective on what he might have done differently. Although I engaged in professional work today as well, none of it comes close to the above examples in terms of making this world a better and more Godly place.

(64) Lynn, May 26, 2013 9:42 PM

feminism is the answer, not the problem.

Feminism has helped women gain the vote, access to safe healthcare, access to higher education, better working conditions, maternity leave, the right to own and inherit property, the right to pursue nontraditional careers.... Really the list goes on and on. Without feminism women would still be "chattel" ....unable to own property, unable to vote, with the same legal status as a cow. remember how Help Wanted ads in the newspapers used to be divided into men's jobs and women's jobs? Remember when women were barred from attending medical and law school? The Rule of Thumb was a legal standard that allowed men to beat their wives as long as they used an object no wider than his thumb! Feminism (I.e., the desire for equal rights) changed all that. there is a lot of work still left to be done. sexual harassment, and even assault are commonplace at work, at home and at school. gender discrimination is still rampant. Women are still held back by glass ceilings. violence against women, domestic violence and violent and demeaning images of women still exist on television and in movies. Feminism seeks to eliminate these problems so that women can be free to make their own choices. Feminism does not disparage motherhood and marriage. It seeks to protect it and promote it. feminism is not responsible for the divorce rate. In fact conservative Christians have the highest divorce rate of any group in America. feminism celebrates stay at home mothers as well as career-oriented women. Any woman or man who disparages women in traditional and non-traditional roles can not call themselves feminist. Those people who do are merely confused and misguided souls, the product of an unbalanced and violent world culture that seeks to oppress women. Feminism is currently working to end this global war on women, tackling issues such as genital mutilation and sexual slavery around the globe. You don't really think men yare going to take that on do you?

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