Feminist dialogue at its best
Last night was the first event in the Heirs to a Revolution: Intergenerational Dialogues on Jewish Feminism series from JWA and Hebrew College, and it was really provocative. Blu Greenberg and Devorah Zlochower addressed the topic “Feminism and Orthodoxy: No Longer Strange Bedfellows?”. Blu, the pioneer of Orthodox feminism, spoke about how she’s “sometimes burned up, but not burnt out.” Her comments made clear how she’s managed to sustain her activism over the past 30-odd years: she focused on the ways that feminism and Orthodoxy have managed to coexist, rather than on the conflicts. She spoke of needing to draw on the gentleness, as well as passion, of religious life, and to have radical ideas without being a radical. Her personal style – sweet, measured, humored, and steady – provides an important and effective model of how to make change from the inside.
Devorah, the Director of the Bet Midrash (Study Hall) at Drisha, the first institute for women’s advanced study of classical Jewish texts, spoke about Orthodox feminism as an experience of conflict, of being “in love and in despair.” She spends her days teaching and studying Jewish texts that were written by men for men, and dealing with this fundamental exclusion of women is, for her, the ultimate challenge. Her honesty and personal reflections really moved me (and the rest of audience).
What I thought was most beautiful about the event was that it actually succeeded in being a real dialogue! I often find panels boring because the speakers don’t engage with each other, they just grandstand. Blu and Devorah firmly expressed their disagreement over certain issues, such as Blu’s advocacy of “distinctive but equal” roles for men and women, and pushed one another to rethink and rearticulate, but they also revealed deep respect for each other and a clear sense of alliance in a common cause. They modeled what feminist dialogue should be, and the audience responded, asking difficult questions, and continuing conversations after the event was officially over.
Another highlight for me was when Devorah, in answering a question about gender roles, made passing reference to queer theory – as if this is something we hear every day coming from the mouth of a Talmud scholar who covers her hair! This, to me, reflected the coolest recent changes in Orthodox feminism: its comfort engaging with and applying radical ideas from different worlds to questions of Jewish law.
One of the refrains of the evening was the need to be able to live with the questions when there are no easy answers. This is a hard mandate, and Blu and Devorah’s honesty in admitting this created space for further dialogue – which is what feminism is about, don’t you think?