Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Feminism in Halakha- 2 points


I had an interesting class on feminism yesterday. The professor raised two ideas I hadn't thought about before, and once I did spend some time reflecting on them, I found them to be worthwhile.

What is feminism, in terms of Jewish halakha? Or rather, how does or did the feminist movement interact or oppose halakha? I'm sure this depends on what you mean by feminism. My professor suggested some of the more common problems/ questions: women wanting aliyahs, women's prayer groups, women wanting to wear a tallis or tefillin.

We are going to be studying pure halakha in the class, but he began with some ideas. These are the two points I found interesting:

1. The idea of rights. When it comes to the feminist movement, or any movement really, you will hear picketing people (or even soft-spoken gentle people) clamoring for rights. "Rights for women!" or "The right to vote!" Whatever it may be, our speech is laced with this idea- the idea of a "right." And the fact is, that if you look at Judaism, you do not see evidence of these rights. Rights are a secular idea. What does he mean by this?

Take, for example, our Declaration of Independance. We are told we have the "right" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But do we truly have that right in the Torah? My professor suggests that this is like the question of the chicken and the egg. What came first? There are two approaches. Here are examples illustrating the approaches:

1. I have a right to my property, and therefore you cannot steal from me
2. You are not permitted to steal from me, and hence I have a right to my property

He contends that the latter is the correct stance. Jewish law is filled with obligations and/or privileges, but it does not have rights. Priests, for example, have an obligation to serve in the Temple, or if they are unfit, to perform the duties that remain for them. We have obligations for the Kohen, the Levi, the Yisrael. Privileges, too, if you like to think of them that way. But not rights.

In fact, we are almost against rights of this nature. Look to Korach and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's depiction of what he terms the "common-sense rebellion." Korach was no fool. He was a man fighting for equality. He wanted rights! He claimed that Moses had worked matters out to his own advantage and profit, but it was more than that. Korach was using common-sense and logic to explain his claims. Sensibly speaking, a house full of holy works should protect in the same manner that a mezuza does. Logically speaking, a garment that is entirely blue should suffice for one blue string. (This is all from Reflections of the Rav, which I would quote directly if not for the fact that I don't have access to it.)

Perhaps (and certainly at one point in time) women would argue in the same way. "Men had control of the religious community," some might claim, "which is why they made mitzvot or customs (depending on the belief) in their favor/ created practices only they could fulfill." Similar to Moshe's working to his own advantage, isn't it? So too by women's desire to achieve their logical "rights."

2. The second approach is for people to claim (and this does not refer only to women) that one mitzvah or another is "meaningful" to me. It is "meaningful" for me to wear tzitzis, or to be a chazanit, "meaningful" for me to wear a tallis. The problem with this approach is that "meaning," which is defined by a subjective emotional perception, usually based on a psychological coveting of what one cannot have, does not enter into the equation. Mitzvot must be performed with or without meaning. I may dislike the mitzvah of marror and not find it meaningful, but only irritating. That doesn't matter when it comes to my performance of the mitzvah. Dry, boring, irritating, "meaningful" or not, the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and that is all that matters.

R' Soloveitchik writes about this frequently. He addresses it in the Common-Sense Rebellion by Korach as well. To tie religion to the idea of the "meaningful" is to abuse it and later to allow it to schism and fall apart. Because everyone has a different perception of what is "meaningful." This is subjective, a judgment upon the mitzvot, not something that is inherently part of the mitzvot- if it were, then we would find all mitzvot meaningful! We may reach emotional highs of passion or spirituality, but that is not enough to allow a religion to persist. The same might occur with the reading of a particularly wonderful book, or the meeting of a relative from the past.

My professor told a story in which a woman wanted to wear a tallis. R' Soloveitchik allegedly told her she could, but she should start with the tallis without the actual strings or tzitzit. After a period of a week, he asked her how she felt. "Oh," she stated, "it is wonderful, rapturous...I really feel closer to God." "If so," R' Soloveitchik replied, "it has nothing to do with the tallis. The tallis is nothing without the strings, its corners, and hence this love for God you feel has nothing to do with the mitzvah itself."

Mitzvot, as we understand them, are not "feel-good" mechanisms. We can't decide to practice them as therapy or a form of self-help. Perhaps some mitzvot DO make us feel good, but that is a byproduct and not necessarily the goal. And hence, to argue in the terminology of our secular world by using the word "rights" or to attempt to argue in favor of that which is "meaningful" must necessarily be doomed from the very beginning.

Of course, as one of my classmates pointed out, an adherence to Halakha does not solve all the problems that arise. What about the idea of a woman becoming more involved in the way the shul functions as opposed to receiving aliyos and so on? What about having a woman treasurer, or a woman reciting the announcements after shul has concluded? How come we can't be more expansive in that way? And that, I think, is still a question.