Desperately Seeking Dialogue

I am an Orthodox Jewish feminist, and I am lonely. As a member of a small Jewish community, I do not have many opportunities to talk with individuals who are both committed to traditional Judaism and actively struggling with feminist principles in their lives. Thus it was with great anticipation that I attended a conference on Judaism, feminism and psychology. Yet, during most of the conference, I remained lonely.

While I was excited to participate with over 300 Jewish women from all over the world, I was disappointed to note that only a handful of us were Orthodox. When I asked why Orthodox women failed to participate in such an event, I was given two answers. First, many do not identify with or feel a need for feminist values. (While I don’t agree with this stance, I intensely respect these women’s sense of security in their lifestyle and their right to their choices.) Second, Orthodox women generally do not feel welcome or acknowledged in feminist circles. After my experience at the psychology conference, I feel great sympathy with this latter point of view.

The conference spanned three and a half days, and included the presentation of over 70 papers (including mine), and experiential workshops; there were also egalitarian religious services. Though many of the presentations were enlightening, I felt disillusioned, and as a “good” psychologist, I wanted to understand why. After all, I’ve attended other professional conferences where my needs are only partially met, yet I don’t leave these experiences feeling disheartened. What was going on for me?

To start with, I think my disappointment was colored by my high expectations. My feminism is a commitment to “choice”—I believe that we must free both women and men from often crippling stereotypes and focus more on the individual. I therefore expect feminist circles to exhibit a respect for pluralism. Since this conference was not only feminist, but also focused on psychology, I assumed there would be an even greater tolerance for diversity based on philosophies promoting self-growth.

In addition to all of this, the conference was “politically correct.” There was a written policy stating an effort to accommodate all types of special needs, from those of the disabled, to those who had brought children, to those with specific dietary needs. (Thankfully, I was able to observe Shabbat and obtain kosher food.) Most of the lectures represented acceptance of diversity, including talks on Palestinian rights, sexism and circumcision, and Jewish lesbians raising children. Yet despite this range, there was little opportunity for me to discuss my dilemmas as an Orthodox Jewish woman. My language and points of references felt too different. Most important, I didn’t feel safe.

In all fairness, most participants were either neutral or respectful towards me, and during positive moments I found myself in an educative mode, explaining my practices and beliefs to women who were simply curious. Yet I also encountered much prejudice, ignorance and misinformation about Orthodox Judaism in general, and about Orthodox Jewish women in particular. I felt the need to defend and/or correct misconceptions that characterized my Judaism as archaic, subjugating and unfulfilling.

At one point a workshop leader pejoratively told me that she knew what I was about to say—because I was Orthodox. I would never consider making such a statement to a Reform Jew, a gay Jew, a disabled Jew, and I doubt such a statement would have been tolerated in reference to these classes of people. Why was it all right to say such a thing to me?

I left the conference with the strong sense (that both saddens and embarrasses me) that many of my feminist sisters consider “Orthodox” and “feminist” to be oxymoronic. We are pigeonholed and stereotyped as pregnant, “barefoot” and in the kitchen. We are seen as having poor self-esteem, poor body image, and as being intellectually unstimulated, devalued, and oppressed by the patrilineal structure.

In contrast, most of the Orthodox women I meet, feminist or not, are happy, fulfilled, and respected by their male and female community alike. Their lives feel not only willingly chosen, but deeply meaningful. Those women who have incorporated feminist principles into their lives do not generally feel a need to redefine tradition.

I personally am Orthodox because I believe that the Torah was directly transmitted by God at Sinai. Orthodoxy, on a day-to-day basis, adds a great deal to my life. I feel a profound spiritual connection to God, to tradition, and to my community. I feel respected and equally valued as a woman. I cannot in good conscience easily dismiss Jewish laws of the past; while tradition does grow and evolve, I cannot participate in rewriting an entire tradition.

As a result of my beliefs, the dilemmas I face as an Orthodox feminist psychologist are different from those of my less traditional sisters. Workshops I would have profited from might have included: traditional women’s mitzvot [commandments]; sensitizing rabbis to the needs of women; promoting women’s Judaic education; helping women take on leadership roles in the Jewish community; designing meaningful bat mitzvah ceremonies; struggling with feminism within heterosexual relationships, marriage and parenthood; and affecting change within a traditional religious structure. In contrast to solely egalitarian services that did not speak my liturgical language, I would have enjoyed the chance to participate in a traditional prayer service for and by women.

Would I attend such a conference again? Actually, despite my loneliness and disillusionment, yes. I’m not one to throw out a baby with the bath water. First and foremost, I consider myself an observant Jew. Yet feminism, like psychology and other scientific and political movements, enhances my identity as a woman, a Jew, and a member of the human race. I believe that religious and humanistic growth always involves struggle, and eventually change and transformation.

When we stop struggling, we stop growing. Community involves dialogue. I invite Jewish feminists to consider my point of view. Let’s continue the struggle and the conversation.

Robin B. Zeiger is a clinical psychologist and consultant to Jewish Family Services in Richmond, Virginia