What is feminism? Betty Friedan encapsulates it in a word—the “personhood,” she puts it, of women. On that everyone can agree, and it may be that we ought to stop at the definition that promotes agreement. But definitions that may promote disagreement are not without their importance. The revelation implicit in the study of Talmudic method is that, though not all analysis is equal because only one will carry the decision, all analysis is open to view. In that spirit, then, I want to offer a perhaps controversial definition of feminism—but not before taking a Biblical look at an instance of “personhood.”
The beginning of “personhood” is not, contrary to what we often hear, that Johnny-come-lately term “humanism.” The beginning of personhood lies in Jewish civilization. Without the Jewish religious idea— and this I offer without apology to the Marxists—no concept of personhood is possible: it could not have come into the world.
Consider, by way of illustration, Hannah, the mother of Samuel: a heroine of Jewish civilization. She is counted as a heroine because she was a barren woman who prayed to have a child and got one. Now a hard case can be made that none of this is exceptionally heroic, however exceptional the child turned out to be. What it is, in fact, is a story of conformity in an age not very different from our own, an age when woman’s personhood is defined by her ability to be the mother of a son. Hannah in her story is a woman of conventional expectation—she wants to have her dignity, and the only way under patriarchy she can aspire to it is through achieving motherhood. Without motherhood she has no personhood—she is nothing. And she is, accordingly, treated as nothing.
She goes up to the House of the Lord and speaks a prayer “in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard”— so immediately, of course, Eli, the man in charge of the House of the Lord, thinks she’s a bag lady, a drunk, and advises her to “put away the wine from thee.” Well, she certainly looks like a drunk, muttering away to herself like that—no woman, after all, is expected to own a spiritual dimension.
And yet is this the only reason Eli is crucially misled? Hannah is not suspected of an act of prayer; she is suspected of an act of drunkenness. Why? It is not only because a woman of no visible prestige is off mumbling in a corner. It is also because the House of the Lord, in this period, has not yet become a bet tefilah, a House of Prayer.
The synagogue has not yet made its appearance in history, and neither Eli nor anyone else in his world has ever been witness to inward prayer sent out within sacred walls. The Tabernacle, predecessor of the Temple, is a place of high ritual, of incense and animal sacrifice: a summing-up, so to say, of ancient styles of worship, all expressed on one site in one collective voice, so as to bring an end to the multiple loci of such rites, with their temptation toward multiple genii loci, or polytheistic backsliding. Until the moment Hannah speaks “in her heart,” all liturgical speech in the Tabernacle has been public, representative, communal, a gathering-platform to inculcate a teaching vision of the One Creator.
Hannah is a heroine of religious civilization because she invents, out of her own urgent imagining, inward prayer. Without bringing a sacrifice, without requiring priestly attendance, soaring past every liturgical convention, she rides her words up into the holy air of the House of the Lord; and in that instant she alters forever what we mean by “prayer.” Hannah is an originator, a genius of envisioning: she imagines a Lord of History who not only can command event, but who can also listen to a still, small voice; she imagines the power of that still, small voice itself to influence event. On a lesser plane, one might say that she is the inventor of the inward force of psychology.
But the content of this inward force is less innovative. Hannah, genius of lyric outcry though she is, originator of prayer-speech though she is, is nevertheless perfectly conventional in her most pressing desire: she wants to do exactly what society expects her to do. She prays to have a son; she prays to own prestige through motherhood. The inventor of prayer is, simultaneous with her genius, a woman obedient to the rules of patriarchy.
Hannah is the first we would take for a religious heroine. She is the last we would take for a feminist heroine. Hannah’s gift is incandescent; but there is nothing feminist in her story.
Until we have a look at her husband, Elkanah. He, after all, is living in the same patriarchal society. He has another wife, Peninah, who does bear children, and no doubt Hannah is jealous of Peninah because Hannah, in common with her society, cannot conceive of personhood without motherhood. Not so Elkanah. “Hannah,” says Elkanah, “lameh tivki? Why weepest thou? And why eatest thou not? And why is thy heart grieved? Am I not better to thee than ten sons?” Now nothing is more valuable in the world of Hannah and Elkanah than a son, and ten sons ten times that—so that in asserting the value of his individual personhood to Hannah, Elkanah is also asserting the value of Hannah’s individual personhood to himself, even without the achievement of motherhood. Hannah has value even if she cannot be the instrument of generation.
It is a tremendous metaphysical moment, the earliest declaration of intrinsicness, a new idea of woman, an unconventional idea, a radical idea—metaphysical in the transcendent sense, and also in its non-attachment to physicality. Hannah, cries Elkanah, with or without sons you have value in yourself! What Elkanah—a feminist hero found in the first paragraphs of the First Book of Samuel—has discovered in himself is the first principle of feminism: the ethical passion that expresses itself against instrumentality, against woman-as-instrument, against woman-as-the-instrument-of-societal-policy.
It is a transcendent moment: it precedes Immanuel Kant’s formulation of the same principle by several thousand years. Kant spoke of a Kingdom of Ends: let every human being be treated as an end in herself or himself. Intrinsicness declares itself against instrumentality.
But where does this ethical passion against instrumentality derive from? From the Enlightenment? No, it is older than the Enlightenment. From “humanism”? No, it is older than humanism.
The ethical passion against instrumentality—intrinsicness, “personhood”—derives from the beginning of the beginning of Jewish civilization. We will find it in the first sentence of Chapter Five of the Book of Genesis: The human being is made in the likeness of the Creator.
And this is where I want to offer a view of feminism that is not entirely in consonance with the views of many self-designated feminists today. I want to affirm what I have been repeatedly told is an “old-fashioned,” an obsolete, idea of feminism. I think of it, however, as classical feminism, and consider that departures from classical feminism have been departures from feminism itself. I speak of the idea of feminism as the transcendence of biology. Now we have heard it said again and again in the current mode of corporeal feminism that “biology is a factor.” Yes, biology is a factor. How can it not be a factor? Each of us is a kettle of organs; the brain, the seat of human thought, is a mere organ; we are all biological creatures; we are organisms.
But the urgency of classical feminism, which many have forgotten, or ignore, or dissent from, or believe we have evolved from, was precisely the fight against the notion that anatomy is destiny. If anatomy is destiny, then every woman, and every man, is by definition an instrument of blind biology, and the human being no longer lives in the aspiring Kingdom of Ends, but wholly and savagely in the Kingdom of Instrumentality. If feminism is not meant to transcend the biological, then there is no feminism. We have heard Jewish “feminists” call for the renewal of New Moon ceremonies as an innovative pursuit for the advancement of Jewish women: is the celebration of the recurrence of the menses feminism, or is it a ceremony honoring instrumentality? We have even heard a call for a technological disclosure that would extend the capacity of women to bear children into old age, as a pursuit of so-called biological equality with men—an ideal, it seems to me, so regressive that it strips Hannah once again of intrinsic value.
Classical feminism took as its starting point two inviolable negative principles: first, that woman was not to be considered an instrument for policy goals, whether explicitly of the state or implicitly of the society; and second, that biology was not to be the governing motif of a woman’s value.
What these negative principles led to was a definition characterized by simplicity, strength, and purity—namely, that feminism means equal access to the great world, access founded in capacity and merit. It means participation in the professions and in the arts, and in every other human enterprise that makes the world go— and all the rest is private life, filled with private choices. For classical feminism, tyranny enters in with the politicization of the personal. For classical feminism, when biology enters in, at that instant feminism ends. In this view, if rape is considered a “women’s issue” rather than a societal issue (it is, after all, the crime of a man who victimizes a woman, and might better be termed a “men’s issue”), if abortion is considered a “women’s issue” rather than a societal issue, if day care is introduced solely as a “women’s issue” rather than a societal concern, what all that marks is not the beginning of a wider feminist arena, but the erosion, at its absolute center, of feminism itself.
The idea of classical feminism was to bring an end to the segregation of women; to the notion of women
as a separate class or species with a separate outlook, a separate psychology, a separate destiny. In this view, insofar as emphasis on segregation and psychological separateness is promulgated, to that extent is feminism eroded.
What is the source for this uncompromising exclusion of the biological?
The source is the great feminist source itself, the first source in the history of all civilization to declare against instrumentality and for the Kingdom of Ends—and that is Genesis, Chapter Five, Verse One: those words about being made in the likeness of the Creator.
In the Jewish vision, the Creator has no likeness in any terms that human beings can see or know or imagine. The Creator is an imagining of the unimaginable. The revolution in the Jewish idea is that the Creator is not an incarnation, neither of man nor woman nor beast nor of anything else that can be found in biological reality. Since the beginning of the history of the world, there is no other religious vision on the planet, from animism straight through Zoroastrianism—that’s A to Z—that does not incarnate or image divinity in physical or biological reality. In the Jewish vision, and only in the Jewish vision, the nature of the Creator is dissociated utterly from the biological: because the biological is the fount and origin of instrumentality.
For Jews, to be made in the likeness of the Creator means that you may not be made into the likeness of anything or anybody else; that no one may fashion you into an instrument for his or her own use.
This is the power of Torah—that it declares against instrumentality.
And if Torah itself declares against instrumentality, then it is clear that Torah in itself may not be made into an instrument; that the rabbis are obliged to serve the Torah, not that the Torah is to serve as an instrument of the rabbis; that the rabbis are obliged to express the soul of the Torah, not that the Torah is obliged to express the soul of the rabbis. To put it otherwise: religion must be kept clear of the infiltration of transient politics.
The so-called secularists may ask: well, and is there ever a time when there is a congruence between the soul of the rabbis and the soul of Torah—a time when the rabbinate is not politicized, when religious values are not hierarchical?
The student of Jewish history will reply: yes; and yes; and yes again. Intrinsicness is precisely the theme of Jewish history.
We are met in Jerusalem, in this city luminous with holy continuity, because of Jewish steadfastness and Jewish intrinsicness, because every day in every generation there were those, women and men, who passionately and yearningly pronounced the name of Jerusalem. This happened because Torah entered the souls of some rabbinical spirits and some Zionist spirits and some who were only of the plain follower-tribe of Israel. “We will no longer be buffeted, we will no longer be the instruments of the policies of others,” said the soul of the Jewish people, set in the likeness of the Creator.
And now it is the turn of Jewish women to say the same.
I want to dare to observe that if Jewish feminism does not emerge from Torah, it will disintegrate. For Jews the Enlightenment is an idol that will not serve women as it did not serve Jews; Voltaire was an anti-Semite. For Jews humanism is an idol that will not serve women as it does not serve Jews: in the West it is mainly the self-declared humanists who stand in the gutter with other Jew-haters to support Arafat.
Those who say that Torah offers only “male models,” forget that justice is neither male nor female, but an idea; and ideas have no anatomy.
Those who say that Torah as a source of feminism cannot possibly appeal to them because religion is the opiate of the people are themselves opium-eaters who have shut out insight into the origins of ethical civilization. They lack the moral imagination.
“Woman as Jew, Jew as Woman.”
Now let us add to these: Torah as feminism, feminism as Torah.
Cynthia Ozick is a novelist, essayist, and critic. She is the author, most recently, of The Cannibal Galaxy, a novel, and Art and Ardor, a collection of essays. This essay is adapted from a paper delivered at the American Jewish Congress’ America-Israel Dialogue, the theme of which was “Woman as jew, Jew as Woman”; it originally appeared m Congress Monthly. Ozick authored the germinal “A Vindication of the Rights of Jewish Women” in Lilith’s #6.