Monday, March 3, 2008

Frum and Feminism: A Match Made in Heaven

There have been occasions when some people have, in jest and not, called me a feminist. My answer? A heartfelt thank you. Because if you can call me a feminist then you are telling me that I am following in the footsteps of Jewish women throughout history. A commenter on the Gemach thread said the following: " The frum claim to have rejected feminism, but it has infiltrated their camp at times." Infiltrated? It's been there all along, thankfully.

Those not in the know seem to define feminism as a rejection of all traditional values, of a striving to be a man rather than a woman. They speak of women who would rather be in the workplace then at home. They use the words "strident" and "harsh" when describing feminists. They shudder at what they are seeing. But they do not recognize one basic truth: Jewish women have been feminists right from the beginning.

Let's look for a minute at the Eyshit Chayil.

Who can find a woman of valor? Her value is far beyond rubies. Her husband's heart relies on her, and he shall lack no fortune. She bestows goodness upon him, never evil, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax and her hands work willingly. She is like a merchant's ships, bringing her sustenance from far away. She arises while it is still night and gives food to her household and a portion to her maidens. She envisions a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard. With strength she girds her loins and invigorates her arms. She discerns that her business is good; her lamp is not snuffed out by night. She stretches out her hands to the distaff and her palms support the spindle. She spreads out her palm to the poor and extends her hands to the destitute. She fears not snow for her household, for all her household is clothed in scarlet wool. She made for herself luxurious bedspreads; linen and purple wool are her clothing. Her husband is distinctive in the councils when he sits with the elders of the land. She makes a cloak and sells it and delivers a belt to the peddler. Strength and majesty are her raiment and she joyfully awaits the last day. She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She anticipates the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of laziness. Her children have risen and praised her; her husband, and he extolled her: "Many women have amassed achievement, but you surpassed them all. Grace is false and beauty vain, but a woman who fears Hashem - she should be praised. Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her deeds praise her in the gates."

I have no reason to think that Shlomo haMelech, or whoever actually wrote the Eyshit Chayil, (there is apparently a machlokes) made up the behaviors of the woman described. The woman was a working woman, involved with commerce in addition to all of her responsibilities in the home. She clearly had household help--"a portion to her maidens." The fact that she "had a job" in addition to being responsible for her family seemed not to affect them negatively one iota--"Her children have risen and praised her; her husband, and he extolled her" Written centuries ago and yet a portrait of the modern working woman. Except we like to denigrate that woman for doing just what is described in Eyshit Chayil. Anything that can and does go wrong in frum families today is blamed on the "working" wife and mother who should be at home doing "motherly" things exclusively, as if the concept of "working women" was a new and modern one. It sounds as if the words of Eyshit Chayil were "business as usual" for those days. There is nothing "meek" or "retiring" about the ayshit chayil described. Maybe that is a lesson we should also be learning. "Working women" is not a new concept. Neither is "strong woman but frum."

From the Imahos on down Jewish women have had to navigate minefields not of their own making. They have had to "stand up and be counted" in the public sphere. (Might I remind you that it was the women who publicly did not accept the aygel zahav?) They have had to fiercely defend their families while still looking out for the good of the greater Klal Yisroel. They have sacrificed much so that Klal could prosper. They have been women of wisdom both behind the scene and on the stage. Shy and retiring? Timid? Afraid to speak? Afraid to act? Please, read the chumash again. Which of the women there was afraid to do what had to be done?

The ways of women are not the ways of men. This does not mean that there are not some shared characteristics. "Strength of character" is not a solely male characteristic. Neither is "determination." And "wisdom" is gender neutral.

All Jewish women are feminists by birth and by definition. And the man who is not thankful for that fact is the one who is acting against his own best interests. Where, I wonder, would Rabbi Akiva have ended up if he had not married a Jewish feminist? Where would any of us have ended up? Living with a feminist? Aren't you the lucky one.


Anonymous said...

You won't get an argument from me. I grew up with a mother and grandmother who were fully Jewish feminist and fully frum. They didn't see any conflicts and neither do I. My husband and I have a marriage that is a partnership, not a he orders I obey relationship. If that is feminism, then let's hear a cheer for feminists.

Commenter Abbi said...

Great post and I couldn't agree more. The concept of the mother at home alone, with no help, responsible for everything is a product of the 1950's baby boom. Well into the early 20th century most middle class women had help and the working classes were most certainly working (cottage industry, anyone?)

This is probably the most shocking line in Eshet Chayil: "for all her household is clothed in scarlet wool."

Isn't scarlet untznius? I wonder if charedim excise this line from their Friday night singing.

Anonymous said...

Scarlet was the color of royalty. How we got from that to the color being considered untsniusdik beats me. Clearly the line in Eyshis Chayil shows that her family was dressed by her not just in clothes but in clothes befitting royalty. She treated her family like kings and princes and princesses.

How would the chareidim treat this line? Plenty of them and of other frum groups who don't say the eyshis chayil or don't say it aloud.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's right to say that feminism is a jewish idea or that you find feminism in our holy writings. Most people understand that the feminists today are militant and yes they are strident. They want the world to change to an unnatural way of doing things and they want to be the ones to decide what the world can do. This is not what frum jews are taught and not how bnos yisroel should act. You are mixing up jewish womens strength of character with the shtuss the feminists put out.

Maya Resnikoff said...

I find it ironic how many people think that women's paid work is a feminist cause- it was certainly prominent in Jewish life in Eastern Europe- especially for families with stores or the like.

I think much of the confusion lies in the differing opinions about what the term "feminist" means. I think that many people who generally disagree with "feminism" could get behind "the radical idea that women are people", and that perhaps women are as much entitled to some choice about how their lives run as much as men are.

Commenter Abbi said...

"Most people understand that the feminists today are militant and yes they are strident."

Who is "most people"?
Please site a public figure, magazine or newspaper article published since 1973 advocating militant or strident feminism. I doubt you can because even the most non-Jewish average American woman wouldn't identify herself as a militant feminist.

Are you against women receiving equal pay for equal work? Are you against women working? (if you're really frum, that would be hard to argue against)? Are you against women voting? Women getting a fair shake in civil divorce proceedings? Not being sexually harassed? Would you prefer a world where sexual harassment is still the norm? (speaking of "chang[ing] to an unnatural way of doing things and they want to be the ones to decide what the world can do".)

ProfK firmly established that working was a very natural norm for Jewish women through the ages. So what's unnatural about that? Please share what other unnatural things feminists have caused.

Anonymous said...

"She seeks wool and flax and her hands work willingly."

Sounds like sewing to me. Life was tough in the pre-gemach days ;-)

Re scarlet wool - 1) "all her household is clothed in scarlet wool." That sounds like males too. 2) Metzudas Dovid there says that those garments were very warm (so were used in very cold weather).

Anonymous said...

Oops, that was just me, wrong letter in the name box.

Anonymous said...

Can't swear that this is what anonymous was referring to but the feminist movement is associated by many with abortions, homosexuality, anti-marriage, sexual freedom, unmarried motherhood and decline of the family system. Those are not Jewish values. But then those are not mainstream feminist values either. It's not that Judaism doesn't have its extremists. But we don't judge all of Judaism by the words and actions of a few. Same thing with feminism or it should be. Feminism isn't about destroying society. It's about helping out one half of society that is not on an equal footing with the other half in things like job opportunities, salaries, child care, medical benefits, voting, representation and things like that. Where is there something that doesn't match Torah values in this?

Anonymous said...


I would tend to agree with you, but mainstream feminist organizations (like NOW) do in fact make some of those issues, particularly abortion, into litmus tests.

Anonymous said...

Mike, there is a big difference between the definition of something and the way it is used or misused by people. Feminism does not contain any mention of abortion or the like as part of the definition. A word cannot be held responsible for what some people do to and with it.

I still believe that the word feminism applies to Jewish women and that using it in reference to Jewish women is not in any way a slur on them and is not against any of our teachings. Consider the Eyshit Chayil as the "manifesto" of Jewish feminism. It says here is who we are, here is who we can be, here is what we can do and should be allowed to do, here is how others should treat us and speak of us. You cannot have the Eyshit Chayil and at the same time tell women to ignore it because we won't let it apply to you.

Commenter Abbi said...

Thank you Ariella for shedding some light, because I've seen these anti-feminist sentiments all over and I always wonder why women's equality is blamed for the world's and Judaism's ills.

As for "homosexuality" (why would you blame a recent social phenomenon for something that's been going on for thousands of years?) you'll have to blame the civil rights movement for really giving them more of a voice and making it more "normal" in society. From my studies of that era, it seemed that the gay movement was inspired by the civil rights one.

As for the other "ills"- these seem to be problems in larger society, but I don't see how they are destroying frum society- except from the standpoint that most frum women today won't accept remaining in an abusive and/or loveless marriage. Maybe frum men resent having women with higher expectations from relationships and marriages?

Anonymous said...


I agree to a certain extent, but most people who proclaim themselves to be feminists, and certainly the most prominent feminist organizations do define feminism to include support for abortion.

Of course I agree completely that Jewish values include equality and economic opportunity for women.

Anonymous said...

I would add that, halacha l'maa'seh we say all women are important (in that they may lean at the seder), but not all men are important (in the sense that they can effect kiddushin by the pleasure they give a woman by accepting a present from her)

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that one problem whenever you mention feminism is that we don't stick to feminism as it applies to Jewish women. We use what the secular world does with the word and then get all caught up in discussions of abortion and other problems that are not the way we apply the word as frum Jews. To be clearer about what we mean we should always refer to Jewish Feminism which is different from secular feminism even if they deal with a few of the same things.