If you haven’t read my previous post about the recent Pew survey and the changing demographics of Judaism, you might want to check it out because I reference it in this post. (Eventually. I get around to it.)

Both of these posts are by Abby by the way. In case someone wasn’t paying attention, I thought I’d make it explicit since I’ll be discussing beliefs that differ from my husband’s.

I grew up taking “egalitarianism” for granted and was surprised as a young adult when I found myself having to explain what it meant. Nowadays I don’t take it so much for granted, not because I go to an Orthodox shul, but because I’m not sure anymore that halachic egalitarianism should be the holy grail of Conservative Judaism. Halachic egalitarianism is the idea that women are identical to men under religious law, which traditionally requires men to perform many more mitzvot than women. With this exception (and a few others that the Conservative movement made), most of the rest of the traditional system is left intact.

When we were moving to Israel and discussed our decision on where to live–not within walking distance of the Masorti shul–people asked me, “Will you be okay going to an Orthodox synagogue where you won’t be able to lead services or read Torah?” Ultimately, we decided that cost and location took precedence over any of our other factors on where to live. (We actually thought we’d be able to walk to the other neighborhood, but it turns out it’s on a different mountain. Can’t tell just by looking at the map.) As a result, we haven’t even been to the Masorti shul. We’ll get there eventually; we have an invitation to stay with friends in Ahuza.

It’s been a congruent experience for me because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about feminism, another thing I used to take for granted. Since Rafi was born I’ve had to question a lot of assumptions about what it means to have a career when my husband’s career is more important and I have a young child at home. Obviously I’ve cut back on working a lot, some of which was my choice and some of which simply happened. Fortunately I’m in a career where I can keep my skills current even without a full-time job. When we find a place to live permanently, then I’ll bother to get a certificate in the state we’re in.

I’m learning–not only through reading but also through personal experience–that women have more power than men in relationships and family life, and to give men power in the public sphere is to give them a reason to live, work, and protect us.

It could be that I’m looking for self-confirming evidence, but people who are hardcore feminists are more likely my parents’ generation than mine. More likely. Not universally.

I was fortunate to have good role models in my parents. Even as a child I contrasted them with families where both parents had high-powered careers and moved out to McMansions in the suburbs while my mom bought generic tissues and made a home-cooked dinner every single night (okay, sometimes we had fish sticks). Some of those memories didn’t make sense until later when I knew more about the world.

Back to my question from yesterday: why is Orthodoxy retaining its youth, and why is Reform doing better than Conservative?

Answer: In a previous generation, people became Conservative instead of Orthodox for one of two reasons: either they wanted to be traditionally religious but felt left out as women, or they wanted to be less religious and felt Reform was too alien, too radical. Sometimes they just wanted to sit together as a family. I’m basing this on what I know of the history of Conservative Judaism, but if any of my readers have a more nuanced view, please let me know.

In contrast, most people my age either want to be halachic or they don’t. They don’t want to be halachic “except for how women have been marginalized.” I’m painting with a broad brush here. I did go to JTS after all, and there were plenty of staunchly halachic-egalitarian people my age there. However, JTS is not representative of the rest of the world. Also, it was ten years ago, and people my age were the first millennials to go to college. (For a bit of perspective, 9/11 happened during my second week of classes as a freshman.) Any trend that is strong now was only nascent then.

A word about Israel, which is not so different from America in this respect.

Feminist friends of ours hosted Israelis who didn’t understand egalitarianism, even after it was thoroughly explained to them, and they attributed it to an Israeli attitude that you are either secular or Orthodox, a lack of experience with anything else.

I wouldn’t say feminism has passed Israel by. Working mothers are the default in Israel, children are almost universally in daycare, preschool hours are longer. (All of that could be attributed to Israel’s kibbutz heritage, in which women were treated as “work units,” just like men, and the children were raised communally in the children’s home.) However, feminism certainly didn’t touch religion in Israel. The Masorti movement is an American transplant, and if it’s growing more popular, it’s not because Israeli women feel that traditional halacha is oppressive to women; it’s because there is a demand for religion that is not too religious.

Do you know why I miss reading Torah? It isn’t because I feel left out or treated unfairly as a woman. I miss reading Torah because I’m good at it. I don’t want to be strictly halachic, and that’s why I still prefer egalitarian shuls–because they’re liberal, not because I’m a feminist.

I recently read a book applying game theory to religion (actually he was talking about a literary analysis of the Tanakh, but I took it a little farther). If you follow rules that aren’t actually commanded, you have given yourself the worst outcome and a mythical being the best outcome. (I don’t use mythical as a pejorative but simply to mean non-scientific.) The rules I would like to follow are the ones that enrich my life, not the ones that limit my life.

This is in stark contrast to what I’ve heard in an audio lecture by Rabbi Artson, dean of the AJU Rabbinical School. He says that even if you don’t believe in being “commanded” in a traditional sense, a good reason to keep the mitzvot is to build a relationship with God.

I used to agree, but now I think that if you don’t feel “commanded,” then it eventually will take a toll on you to follow the rules anyway if you don’t enjoy them. I do enjoy being religious the majority of the time, and I have a very strong emotional attachment to a religious lifestyle. Jeff and I believe in being a unit together as part of a larger community. I’m not about to make any major lifestyle changes; these are not new thoughts.

I’ve just started to see halachic egalitarianism as the child of a particular movement in history, an activist feminist wave that is starting to wash away.

Conservative Judaism was big a generation ago because people with Orthodox parents who grew up with a traditional service found Reform to be “too drastic.” In this generation, the vast majority of people who grew up Conservative don’t find Reform to be so drastically different, and Orthodoxy is retaining better because egalitarianism is no longer a driving force for change. Halachic egalitarianism is conservative with a lower-case c.

I guess I’m falling victim to the fallacy of young adults everywhere, at least in the modern era, that the world is dramatically different from the way it was when they were growing up.


9 thoughts on “Egalitarianism

  1. Very interesting. “Generic tissues”? LOL. And don’t forget you didn’t have a cell phone either. We did spend money on what was important to us–children’s education, books, music, shul membership… I think Reform Judaism is attractive if you don’t have the Hebrew background to hack the Conservative service, which is sadly more and more true these days. A McMansion doesn’t come with auto-translate.

  2. hi, Abby,

    I read this with interest.

    I grew up Orthodox. I was certainly taught that we are commanded, and though my understanding of that has certainly changed, I still live my life that way, absolutely. I wanted to do everything, and more of everything, not because I was a feminist, there was no such thing, and certainly not in my world. And I am a feminist Jew because I still want to do everything, and more of everything, because I love it, as you say about Torah reading.

    I don’t want my Jewishness to be diminished by my being a woman. Not in the practical world, of what I do or don’t do, and not in principle, because to live like that is to diminish my humanity, and to diminish the image of God, in which we are taught, we are all created.

    I am a feminist Jew because I want both, my being a Jew and my being a woman, to be realized fully and upheld.

    BTW, women are NOT, under classical rabbinic halacha, commanded to “many” less mitsvot than men– at all. That is a very common misconception. It is a total of FOURTEEN mitsvot out of 613. It is not that the rabbis exempted women from just a few mitsvot– it’s which ones, and it’s the FACT of exemption from even one, the consequences legally, under rabbinic law, of being exempted from any. First, the mitsvot that men– and who were they to take on themselves such an act, when we were all at Sinai?– exempted women from include the mitsva of limmud torah, of study of torah. This of course, is not only the only route to authority in the traditional world, it is also the highest form of worship of God and of access to the divine (see Maimonides). This mitsva– which by the way, is positive and NOT TIME BOUND– that distinction is also a much misunderstood, mis-represented pile of xx– bifurcates the Jewish people into those with status and an underclass, there to serve the ones with status, and in doing so, gain merit for the world to come, as opposed to men, who gain it through study. You cannot see a clearer way that women were derogated in this system and relegated to subservient, literally, status.

    To be exempted from ANY mitsva, even one, means legally in this system to be in a lesser status. Look at the three morning brachot, the infamous shelo asani. What is the common denominator in these three categories, goy, slave, women? Goyim are not obligated to mitsvot at all, poor things; slaves (the bracha is speaking of Jewish slaves), are like women, exempted from some mitsvot, because their first obligation, like women, is to serve their masters and they can’t be off in minyan or learning Torah if massa wants his shoes shined. And women– are like slaves. At least the classical rabbis are honest about all this, as they actually are; it’s recent rabbis who feed us bs about all this, women having “higher status” naturally and not needing mitsvot, and other patronizing and dishonest bs.

    The difference between the first two categories and women is that the occupants of the first two can change their status and be fully obligated: non-Jews can become Jews and if they men, and clearly, the brachot are talking about men in the first two cases, they are full Jews, being men; slaves eventually are freed of that status and can be full Jews. Women are women are women, alas; and so are assigned a bracha which is a form of tsidduk ha-din– what you say about the death of a loved one, oh well, must accept this, it is God’s will.

    This is an insult to Torah, never mind women.

    So feminist Judaism comes to make Torah, and women, whole.

    And that is why I am one.

    shabbat shalom,


    • You are, of course, completely right. If you accept halacha as a unit, there are all sorts of problems with it. Most people are not as thoughtful as you are and accept the whole thing if they want to be “traditional.” More and more, I am inclined to say that I don’t consider myself bound by halacha. Your comment demonstrates that feminist halachic Judaism still fulfills a need for many people.

  3. Great Post Abby!It make all the sense to me and you should do what you like and you read from the Torah beautifully and I love when you do too! I love you so much!

  4. This will not be a comprehensive reply, but 3 points:

    (1) I think the membership decline of Conservative Judaism is based most importantly on their hard line on intermarriages (whether one likes it or not). This is an issue that touches almost every family, and people wind up going to a Reform rabbi and joining the Reform congregation.

    (2) Those three “shelo asani” brachot, I learned this year, were the three things you swore to when you gave testimony in a Greek court: I’m not a foreigner, a slave, or a woman. So rather than being sui generis from our religion (no doubt mi-Sinai), they are just 2400-year old assimilationism.

    (3) Abby: Your questioning about being bound by halacha speaks directly to me (and Mia). The problem is that halacha is seen as an on-the-bus/off-the-bus issue. But that’s not exactly how you (or I) wish to live our lives. For a different take on this, I recommend Rabbi David Hartman’s last book, The God Who Hates Lies.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughtful perspective.

      I think I read the God who Hates Lies. Was he the one who asked, “What kind of God is implied by your actions?” Or, “What God do you believe in if God requires such-and-such?”

  5. Abby,

    What is the name of the game theory book? I think David might enjoy it.

    As always, I enjoyed your thoughtful thoughts.

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