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Several years ago, Rabbi Ari Shvat wrote an influential article in the journal Tzohar headlined "Orthodox Feminism = Religious Egoism."
Shvat argued that feminism represents an affront to the uniquely feminine traits of women, denigrating their primary task of child-rearing and family nurturing.
As opposed to this "essentialist" perception, today's feminists seek to counteract what one might call a naive understanding of sex.
Differences between men and women do not necessarily derive from innate physiological or biological differences. When speaking about the differences between men and women, we must distinguish between sex (which such feminists generally regard as a given) and gender (which they regard as an artificial cultural construct or intuition acquired through socialization).
Biological differences between male and female are much less significant than the similarities. Civilization imposes a cultural halo upon these differences in order to establish distinctions in behavior, rituals, dress, mating habits, nutrition and role stratification. Social, legal and religious pressures are then created to enforce conformance to these mores.
Shvat represents the widely accepted view that motherhood is the primary role of women. Any attempt to undermine this natural order is perceived as a threat to the fundamental values of Judaism.
True, there have been radical feminists who have opposed the undue emphasis placed on fertility and on child-rearing as preserving dualistic distinctions (between private and public spheres and between material and spiritual activity) that work against women's interests, positioning them at the bottom of the social ladder. Most of today's feminists, however, embrace the traditional ideal of motherhood. All we want to do is eradicate the oppressive idea associated with it which values women exclusively in terms of their childbearing functions, positioning them firmly in the domestic sphere.
Such a view deprives women of the ability to find their rightful place in the job market, leaving them bereft of adequate means for improving their social and personal status. Common to all feminists is the conviction that motherhood is not the only means for realizing womanly potential.
FEMINISM IS not out to destroy family values. Nevertheless, Orthodox feminism suffers an especially bad press, since family values are considered a fundamental tenet of religious faith, and anyone perceived as challenging these faces a fortified wall of hostility.
Thus, the phenomenon of women's batei midrash has raised the question of whether the production of female Torah scholars is at all desirable. Even if, in theory, women are not precluded from serving as halachic decisors, how can they possibly devote themselves to intense study of the Talmud without neglecting their primary task of wife and mother? How can they fulfill their spiritual potential as "Woman" - as Rabbi Yitzhak Arama put it - without hampering their function as "Eve"?
Moreover, feminism is perceived also as a challenge to basic religious tenets, such as the divine and eternal nature of the Torah. After all, feminists typically expose the hierarchical and patriarchal aspects of Jewish tradition, which perpetuate women's subordinate social status.
Alongside non-traditionalist feminists, even those who profess loyalty to the tradition often point to the extent to which patriarchal norms and values have permeated the religious corpus, and exerted a crucial impact on culture in general. As such, feminism seems to undermine the biblical world view and its claims to divine authorship.
What sort of God would fail to take women's interests into account and choose to reflect reality solely from a male perspective?
THE MOST common solution to this feminist critique is the historicist response: that the patriarchy of Israel was part of an inherited social structure from the ancient world and not essential to Jewish belief and practice.
But this solution is highly problematic as it implies that the Bible contains a fundamental moral flaw. If biblical morality is conditional and must be tempered with the authority of our experience as human beings and our contemporary understanding of justice as equality for all human beings, does this not detract from the ultimate authority and value of the Torah?
If divine law is indeed the product of a flawed environment and culture and susceptible to zeitgeist shifts and changes, when, how and why should it take precedence over human law?
Today and Monday, May 21-22, Bar-Ilan University will host a conference on "Gender, Religion and Society," which will grapple with these fascinating questions. The aim is to acknowledge the complex interaction between religion, history, society and the law.
We need to explore the tension between contemporary feminist theory and religion so that we can arrive at a deeper understanding of how this tension is reflected and negotiated in all aspects of life.
Ronit Ir-Shai recently completed her doctoral thesis Fertility, Gender, and Halacha: Gender Aspects in Contemporary Halachic Ruling under the guidance of Prof. Tamar Ross and Prof. Noam Zohar in the Program for Gender Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
Ross teaches in the Department of Philosophy, the Program for Gender Studies, and the Midrasha for Women at Bar-Ilan University, as well as at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.