JOFA: Beyond Belief - Part 3
In her final interview before leaving JOFA, Elana Sztokman talks about Orthodox feminism and JOFA. This is the final part of our three-part series, posting weekly.
Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Susan Reimer-Torn: Do most JOFA women want full inclusion in Jewish ritual life as currently practiced by men? Or are they looking for another, more woman-oriented approach to the communal or spiritual experience?
Elana Sztokman: This tension between the feminism of equality and the feminism of difference transcends Orthodoxy. Among feminist scholars around the world there is a debate about whether there is a such thing as a “women’s way” of doing things, and whether the goal of feminism should stop at full inclusion or move beyond that goal into a societal transformation based on a kind of unique ethos that women bring. The same debate takes place among Orthodox feminists, in which some women advocate for not only inclusion but also transformation of some of the rituals themselves.
So from my perspective, I believe in the goal of transformation—but with certain reservations and caveats. Certainly I believe that once women get “inside”, so to speak, we bring a particular cultural history and baggage that offers a critique of the way ritual is conceived and conducted. Women talking about the laws of childbirth and sex will certainly bring perspectives that are missing from the halakhic literature. I think the same is true in prayer, for example. Women have been so excluded from the whole process of defining prayer and worship that just by bringing all the women back into the center of the sanctuary, the community now has the benefit of a whole perspective from those who were formerly excluded. And that can bring fresh approaches to what it means to have voice, what it means to be at the center versus the periphery, what it means to communicate with God when communication is private versus communal, etc. So certainly our cultural heritage gives us perspectives that can be transformative for communal practice.
However, I just want to make clear that when I say that women may bring a unique perspective, I am not at all suggesting that women have different brains than men. In fact the entire discourse of brain differences is extremely damaging to women—and men. The assumptions of essential or innate difference have been the source of enormous pain for women for centuries. So I just want to make it clear that when we talk about a “women’s way”, we are talking about perspectives gleaned from generations of collective experiences.
SRT: You have said that there is a tension between transformation and inclusion. Can you elaborate?
ES: You can see this tension between the approaches of inclusion and transformation very clearly with bat mitzvah, for example. There is a wonderful push to enable girls to celebrate bat mitzvah “like boys”—that is, read from the Torah, give a drasha (sermon that interprets sacred text), and be celebrated for the fulfillment of commandments around synagogue and learning. All of that is great and really important. But along with that is a movement to make something more out of the entire coming of age ritual that has until now been so focused on a particular kind of performance—e.g., rather than just being about learning to perform in synagogue, the celebrant incorporates more hesed (lovingkindness), creates meaning around relationships and community, and broadens our understanding of what Jewish life is about beyond the synagogue. So in that sense, feminism is not only about inclusion but also about rethinking the way it’s been done until now and helping bring about a transformation of our idea of what makes us a member of the Jewish community.
SRT: Do you believe in hard-wired gender differences?
ES: The discourse of gender differences is very problematic, and that’s why we have to be really careful when we talk about a woman’s “way.” The second we start talking about a “women’s way,” we run a risk of falling into old patterns and traps of seeing women as “less,” as “softer,” as less capable of dealing with pressure, as less assertive, as less logical, or whatever. When we start to couch this in language of brain differences, we are basically turning sexist attitudes into some kind of pseudo-scientific data. I highly recommend Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender. She is a neuroscientist and psychologist and does an expert job of debunking the pseudo-science of gendered brain differences.
So again, I want to reiterate that when we talk about women’s contributions to transforming society, it’s based on culture, not biology. If men are typically acculturated into a kind of sterile individualism, women are acculturated into relationships, caring, and other-centeredness. Both of these personas are part of the human spirit, and all human beings need access to both characteristics, that is, individualism and connectivity. So the point is that bringing a “women’s culture” into Jewish life is not about “femininity” as an essence but rather about restoring cultural balance to a world that has overly valued the culture of sterile individualism that has been typically owned by men.
SRT: When you embrace an alternative approach to ritual, do you not run the risk of sending women and girls backwards?
ES: Yes, there is a real danger of sending girls backward. And it’s another version of patriarchy. For example around bat mitzvah, for example, some people will say to girls, "You don’t need to read from the Torah; that’s the boys’ thing: just stick to hesed." Or there are some people who believe in girls’ rights to read Torah “like a boy” so to speak, but then give girls an “out” and let them read only a small portion—as opposed to boys who are usually pushed to read the entire portion. So by focusing exclusively on transformation, we run the risk of using the language of essential gender difference to go back to excluding women. That’s why it’s important to say that the feminist approach is BOTH about inclusion and about transformation. Because the idea of a "women’s way" without first addressing patriarchal exclusion is damaging. Inclusion first, then transformation.
SRT: In your book Educating in the Divine Image, co-written with Chaya Gorsetman, you emphasize awareness around gender stereotyping in Orthodox day schools. But how can gender equality be meaningful while God is still referred to as male, the liturgy excludes the foremothers, men still thank God for not making them a woman and in the Hebrew language the masculine routinely subsumes the feminine?
ES: The gendered language of the liturgy is another topic, like the topic of counting women in a minyan, that the Orthodox feminist movement has not yet taken on as a central element of the platform. But hopefully that will start to change soon as well. We have a lot of work still ahead of us, but we’re on our way.