Is religion good for women? The question—at once deeply Jewish, deeply human, and both ancient and modern—echoes across the religious spectrum. We talk to a range of women and men who have given it careful consideration.
Religion is a man-made institution, literally. Almost all religions were created by men, who therefore gave themselves power over women. So objectively speaking, it’s difficult to say that religion in a historical sense has been good for women. But it’s certainly the case that women nowadays are becoming a much greater force in defining religion for themselves. As that trend continues, the time will come when women can be empowered by religion instead of disempowered.
Reza Aslan is associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
There’s a fault line going through all of the major world religions today: between fundamentalist forms of religion—which are uniformly negative for women—and liberal or progressive forms of religion. The latter are not necessarily good for women, but hold open that possibility, because they allow more space for change, transformation, individuality and women’s participation.
Looking at certain forms of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and what’s happening in Israel with women being forced to sit at the back of buses, posters of women being defaced and women being attacked in the streets, it becomes dramatically clear that women’s bodies and sexuality have become the defining point in the struggle between different versions of Judaism. At the same time, feminism has completely transformed Jewish life in the past 40 years. We’re seeing women take on leadership roles, creatively express themselves, rewrite Jewish history and find new ways of entering and transforming the tradition. Judaism illustrates very well the clash between two different versions of religion that’s going on within Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and other religions as well.
Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of religious studies at Manhattan College and author of The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism and Sexual Ethics.
The big news of political feminism is that men and women are equal in value, but in Judaism, that’s old news. Two thousand years ago, our Sages taught that every person, a man or a woman, is judged solely by his or her actions.
Traditional Judaism is highly empowering for women, because not only does it view them as equal members of society, but ever since the exodus from Egypt, women have been perceived as the agents of change in historical and social developments. While Judaism charts a somewhat different path of worship for each gender, women are autonomous in their spiritual development, can lead rich religious lives, and have the power to reach the heights of spirituality.
The struggle to worship with traditionally male accoutrements, such as the tallit and tefillin, on the part of some Jewish feminists is a sad case of misplaced effort. The feminist ideals that we’re seeing in progressive Jewish movements are mimicking what’s been happening in the non-Jewish world, where the center of worship is the church. In Judaism, it is the home, not the synagogue, that is the focus of religious life. Judaism recognizes the woman’s ability to influence the spiritual connection of everyone around her and the power she has to shape her own and her family’s relationship with God. There is nothing more misogynist than presenting the male paradigm as the only one worth living and negating the female Jewish experience. Most traditional women are already empowered in their Judaism and don’t welcome efforts to “liberate” them. We were never oppressed to begin with.
Leah Aharoni is co-founder of Women for the Wall, a group that advocates for the preservation of tradition at the Western Wall.
Religion has been dreadful for women. One of the sources for our moral sensibilities is the emotion of disgust. This has great evolutionary value: We feel disgust for things that are unhealthy, sources of infections, matter that promotes harmful microorganisms. But through religion, this feeling of disgust has been metaphorically extended to spiritual disgust for the body, so much of the morality promoted by religion is actually disgust for the body. Since sexual desire reminds us of our bodily nature, it has to be controlled. And since from the male point of view—which is usually the only one to be considered—females are the focus of sexual desire, females have to be controlled, their bodies covered, their behavior limited. That male view of women as seductresses and temptresses has been transmuted into doctrine. All of the Abrahamic religions prefer to keep their women covered, and this is certainly true of Judaism, in which one of the primary female virtues is modesty.
One thing I find most upsetting in Judaism’s laws controlling women is the notion that the voice of a woman—kol isha—is a form of seduction that can’t be heard. I come from a very musical, Orthodox family. My older sister had a glorious voice, and she took singing lessons because my parents considered her voice a gift from God. But she was never allowed to sing outside of the house, so her magnificent voice was never heard by the world as it ought to have been. Human nature being what it is, people have found ways of turning weakness into strength. There have been creative ways in which women have turned this shame and impotence into their own forms of spirituality—but this is dealing with a bad hand and trying to make the best of it, as far as I can see.
Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. She is the author of Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.
I know that some look at Orthodoxy as primitive when it comes to women, but as an Orthodox Jew my entire life, I can easily say that Judaism has been good for women, as it has been for men. In fact, being a traditional Jew has added so much value that I cannot imagine where or who I would be without Orthodoxy’s daily anchors and covenantal meanings, personal rituals, community rites, family values, prayer, Torah study, modesty and core ethical structures—all of which I was given as a gift of birth into an Orthodox family. I would not want to trade off a single traditional Shabbat even without the growing reexamination of gender roles relating to Shabbat.
Besides, during my lifetime I have witnessed a great deal of mid-course correction, largely favoring women. So much do I think that Orthodox Judaism is good for women that I want passionately to pass on this way of life, this set of beliefs, to my children and grandchildren, and I admit to anxiety when I see the least sign of divergence from the norms I inherited and also freely choose to live by.
Yet, that does not mean there is no need for continued mid-course correction: A good deal of divine law and rabbinic explication was shaped in societies that treated a woman as second class, not as a creature created equally in the image of God. Thus, an unfair and imbalanced divorce law remains on the books. Women’s space at public prayer, women in study and in religious leadership, and even the quiet performance of ritual in home—all need to be reexamined against a yardstick of gender equality. It may be a slower process within Orthodoxy than in other denominations of Judaism, but it is underway, and my task is to support and press its forward motion even as I continue to celebrate the great blessing of Orthodox Judaism in my life.
Blu Greenberg is the co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and author of On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.