Feminine, not feminist

The highest achievements of Jewish femininity are accomplished specifically through fulfilling the traditional role of women in Judaism, writes Chana Bracha Siegelbaum.

Women 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Women 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The essays in this collection began as group e-mails Siegelbaum wrote “in a great surge of creative energy” in 1996-1997, the productive time period in which she founded Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin for women’s holistic Torah study and gave birth after 14 years of secondary infertility.
Each essay explores a topic from the weekly Torah portion that relates directly to women.
Judging from her feedback, Siegelbaum perceived “the unquestionable need for a feminine perspective on Torah” to establish “an intimate connection with the Torah texts.” It is important to underline the word “feminine” above, as distinct from “feminist.” Siegelbaum celebrates and exalts Jewish womanhood in keeping with her “outlook that the highest achievements of Jewish femininity are accomplished specifically through fulfilling the traditional role of women in Judaism, rather than by attempting to imitate the more masculine Jewish rituals.”
She adds that “while Western society may accuse Torah of being too old fashioned or downright denigrating to the modern day woman, this very misunderstanding can become an impetus for clarifying controversial Torah laws and concepts in a deeper way.”
To her credit, Siegelbaum is not hesitant to elaborate. One case in point is the power afforded fathers and husbands to nullify daughters’ or wives’ vows under certain conditions. “On the surface level, it seems as though the Torah denigrates woman by regarding her as unable to take responsibility for her own decisions,” writes the rabbanit.
But Siegelbaum perceives in this arrangement an acknowledgement of a woman’s greater emotional sensitivity, which enables her to nurture and empathize. “In her selflessness and zeal to give, she might not always realize her own limitations.
A woman could, therefore, easily come to take upon herself more than she can handle.
Her husband’s ability to annul her vow serves to protect her altruistic nature from going overboard.”
Other “politically incorrect” topics she addresses – unapologetically and with straightforward wisdom – include women’s attire and head covering, spurred by the Torah portion about the high priest’s clothing.
“Some people confuse the notion that a Jewish woman must dress modestly, and think that she is obligated to make herself unattractive,” she writes. “The purpose of wearing modest garments is not to make oneself look ugly” but to achieve “a dignified outward appearance that goes hand in hand with inner spiritual attainment” befitting a person created in the divine image.
A native of the Netherlands, Siegelbaum expresses her insights in lucid English, an achievement she credits to guidance from her “Anglo” husband over the past 30 years. Using textual and talmudic/midrashic sources on the Five Books of Moses, Women at the Crossroads offers a positive, from-the-heart perspective on the inherent qualities and capabilities of Jewish women. Its tone is simple but not simplistic, educated but not academic. Women relatively new to traditional Jewish thought and observance would likely gain the most from this book, but it has much to offer “veterans,” too.
Siegelbaum cites an impressively broad group of Torah commentators – 52 of them are enumerated at the end with short biographies – from classical medieval, mystical, hassidic and modern schools of thought. Oddly, she does not include female scholars such as Nehama Leibowitz.
But she does bring in contemporary women’s voices, as when she quotes from Mindy Schwartz’s Holocaust memoir, Strands of Fire.
The Schwartz excerpt, used to illustrate the curse that “10 women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver your bread again by weight,” leads to Siegelbaum’s observation about a difference between Israeli and Diaspora culture: “Life in a Jewish community in Israel...
facilitates unity among women.
In contrast to the Western suburban mind-set of self-sufficiency, neighbors get together here to use each other’s ovens, washing machines and dryers... Over the years of living this way, I have come to treasure the closeness of sharing.”
The author sometimes accepts a particular view as a given rather than as one possibility among several.
Thus she presents as fact the opinion of Yonatan ben Uziel that Joseph’s wife Osnat was the daughter of Dinah, and the midrashic view that the Hebrew midwives “Shifra and Puah must be Yocheved and Miriam.” Unfortunately, readers unacquainted with alternative sources would not know that such assertions are challenged by other authoritative commentaries.
Siegelbaum’s “pure delight in womanhood” remains realistic: “As mothers, we must realize our great responsibility in building the character of our children... On the other hand, we must keep in mind that we can only do our best. Many unknown factors shape the final outcome of our children.”
An emphasis on traditional roles may initially turn off women who use hired help or do not bake halla. However, a careful reading reveals that Siegelbaum does not exclude anyone in encouraging “Jewish women to connect our mundane tasks of career and homemaking with the spirit of building a dwelling place for God below.”