Thursday, April 29, 2010

“Rabbi, I think you’re a feminist!”

A few weeks ago I delivered a shiur on the role of women in settling then-Palestine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, linking it to the midrashic (and later) praise of the women who emerged from Egypt and entered Canaan.

As part of that shiur, I re-capped the history of the female-founded institutions of that early modern age: The Women Workers Council, WIZO, Federation of Hebrew Women, the Sejera Collective, Women’s Organization for Cultural Work in Palestine, Kinneret Women’s Farm and so on. I contended that the pro-Israel tendencies of the women who emerged from Egypt were the spiritual forebears of those pro-Israel tendencies in modern women, even if the religious expressions of the different generations varied.

I also discussed the saga of women’s suffrage in that era, the debate as to whether the right to vote was a matter of halachah at all, and the ultimate resolution of that debate.

Afterward, a woman commented to me, “Rabbi, I think you’re a feminist!”

That conversation came to mind this morning, when I heard two (male) radio commentators discussing whether girls should be permitted to play on boys’ high school sports teams. They argued that should girls migrate to the boys’ team, that would perpetuate the inferior quality of girls’ sports and keep more girls from developing their talents. Better to keep the girls on the girls’ teams, and so elevate the level of their league’s play.

I was uncomfortable with this argument. I do think high school teams should be separate, but my arguments are about sexuality, not about the level of competition. The argument of “elevate the girls’ league” sounds like (1) wishful thinking, and (2) ex post facto rationalization by people who want to keep them gurlz out, rather than reasoned argument.

It kind of reminds me of the weaker arguments against ordaining women. There are substantive issues - tzniut, for example - but too often the debate is on less-substantive grounds.

Re: Sports - If the central decisive debate is really between the communal benefit of the girls’ league and individual benefit in a more competitive forum, I’d say to stop meddling. Let the girls play in the greatest forum for which they qualify, and quit the fence-building and social engineering. Do we force 55-year-olds to play in senior leagues in order to elevate the quality of senior play, or do we allow them to play in whatever league will take them?

So does that make me a feminist?


  1. My unscientific observation is that men who love their wives tend to be approving of the advancement of all women (subject to other competing loyalties). Men who hate or fear their wives are much more interested in repressing women as a group.

    Yasher koach to your rebbetzin, if you are a feminist, it's probably because of her.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous... although I think there is much to be said about the influence of having daughters, too.

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  4. In high school one of my teachers whose name I cannot recall right now had a simple approach for loaded questions. He advised us to always seek definitions of the terms prior to getting into any debate. For example, if we were asked if Orthodox Judaism is sexist he advised us to first agree on a definition of sexist. In this example, if we define sexist as making one gender more important than the other, than we would not define Orthodox Judaism as sexist, but if we define sexist as treating the genders differently then Orthodox Judaism would be sexist. The same thing would apply to the label of feminism. So, how do you define feminism?

  5. Marc-
    Definitely a solid approach, although in this case I didn't need to take the discussion any further. Although a very solid approach to essay questions...