If you are a Jew, you are a feminist

Argument, debate and decision- making are essential to both Judaism and feminism

By Ellie Levenson, July 9, 2009

For all the talk of Judaism being a patriarchal religion, there is a case to be made for feminism — though I suspect many of us would not use the word — as an essential aspect of being Jewish. On the other hand, it can be all too easy to pay lip service to the idea of being a feminist without thinking it through.

We can fall back on two basic arguments. First, we can name-check the matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — as proof that we have a tradition of strong women. And the more erudite among us can go on to name other powerful women of the Bible — Deborah, Naomi and Esther, for example. Or Bathsheba, grappling with what we see as a modern dilemma: betrayed by the man she says is the father of her child, but who wants nothing to do with her.

And, secondly, we can point to the vital role women play in everyday Jewish life — as keeper of the home, wife and mother, lighter of the Shabbat candles. This is a common enough perception of Judaism, both within the Jewish community and outside — a warm, efficient lifestyle with strong women at the helm.

But the reason why feminism is such a significant part of Judaism, one that all identifying Jews in the modern world should acknowledge, goes beyond the visibility of women in our narrative stories and the key role of women in our homes.

For women born in and after the 1960s — whose mothers had access to the pill and could have had a legal abortion, whose grandmothers worked, joined the military and could vote on the same terms as men — feminism is about being able to make life choices. The choice of not changing our name if we get married, of not even getting married, of whether or not we have children. The choice of the clothes and toys we buy for those children. The choice of working or not working, of deciding whether or not we feel safe coming home after a night out, of whom we sleep with and the contraception we use when we do — and even whether to wash our husbands’ pants.

So how does all that fit in with being Jewish in the modern world? Well, the fact is that the modern Jewish woman — visibly successful, strong and influential — feels able to make her choices out of genuine belief and not token attachment to fashion.

It follows that her choices may well be different to those normally considered feminist. But there is no weakening of our feminist credentials by deciding on such traditional things as getting married, taking our husbands’ names, staying at home with the children, ensuring a steady supply of chicken soup, so long as they are our own, conscious choices. And if we decide to do just some or none of these things, that is OK too. Either way, if we have made true choices in these matters and not been dictated to by other individuals — male or female — or by society at large, then we are feminists. That is to say, if I think I am a feminist, then I am a feminist.

Being a feminist in modern Britain is very similar to being a Jew in modern Britain. In choosing the parts that work for us — whether or not to observe festivals, keep kosher, even to believe in God — we are not surrendering our Jewishness.

Like my Judaism, my feminism impacts on my life the whole time without me even thinking about it. Just as my Judaism affects the jokes I laugh at, the food I eat and the way I look, my feminism affects all these areas, too. Feminism and Judaism both help us to construct and interpret our personal identities.

Judaism has always encouraged debate. Men and women are expected to think for themselves and to challenge ideas, to have an individual as well as a communal sense of what is right and what is wrong. Which is why all Jews, men and women, should be proud to call themselves feminists.

‘The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism’ by Ellie Levenson is published by Oneworld

Last updated: 4:54pm, July 9 2009