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"Orthodox Feminist": An Oxymoron?

The current issue of Lilith magazine includes a conversation between our own Melanie Weiss and London-based author Sally Berkovic, titled “Orthodox and Feminist: The Dreaded ‘F’ Word,” about this year’s Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference.

This brought to mind two other recent articles in other publications: Noah Feldman’s by-now infamous NYT Magazine piece “Orthodox Paradox” and a lesser discussed, but for our purposes more important, opinion piece by Efrat Shapira-Rosenberg in YNet News a few weeks ago, “Is There Such a Thing As a Religious Feminist?”

In the latter, Shapira-Rosenberg argues that the answer is no, that the “strange hybrid creature called the ‘religious feminist'” is “an oxymoron if ever there was one.” She sees the religious feminist as being rejected equally by secular feminists, who see her as buying into the inherently patriarchal construct of organized religion that places women on the lower rungs of its hierarchical ladder, and by the religious world, which sees her as being “a fifth column of the abominable western world with its ‘progressive’ views, which threatens to eliminate the 2,000-year-old religious world.”

Shapira-Rosenberg is not necessarily wrong about the way religious feminists may be viewed by staunchly secular feminists and staunchly orthodox religionists, but she is wrong in accepting the acceptance of others as the measure of the validity of her own identity. Religion and feminism may seem incompatible, but that’s why the hybrid is necessary: to view it in Hegelian terms, from the thesis and its antithesis comes the synthesis of a new idea, which moves things forward. Religious feminism can be its own identity, a necessary identity, that does not conform to the standards of any other group.

Take “Modern Orthodoxy.” Noah Feldman points to the same kinds of paradoxes in the concept of Modern Orthodoxy, the same kind of “daily schizophrenia” between religious authority and modern liberalism that Shapira-Rosenberg describes, but despite those contradictions, the Modern Orthodox experiment has grown strong enough to breed the Orthodox feminist, which is nothing if not a more refined, and perhaps more contradictory, version of the Modern Orthodox, taking that idea to its next natural step, even if there are still those who identify as modern orthodox who would balk at the idea.

As Weiss and Berkovic point out in their discussion, the idea and practice of Modern Orthodoxy are essential to the idea and practice of the Orthodox feminist. Since both are relatively new identities that are still being forged, they will naturally be accompanied by growing pains, that schizophrenia that adolescents so often feel, but that doesn’t mean those identities are not worth pursuing. Anything worth having is worth fighting for, after all.

It’s also possible these still-experimental labels may be chucked at some point in the near future, just as a teenager may change her professed identity every other day, but that doesn’t mean the ideas behind those labels will be discarded. Rather, the labels may become unnecessary as the contradictory ideas behind them synthesize more wholly, and are replaced, no doubt, by new contradictions and questions to resolve.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman