First, some homework: read Rachel Josephowitz’s article on Jewish Women’s Learned Ignorance.
This morning I was considering several questions that I consider most mornings as I look at myself in the mirror. Would I be traditionally halakhically* observant if I were a man? What’s the positive Jewish content for a traditionally observant woman? Is she defined as much by how she’s restricted than by how she’s involved? Is my view of the religion so informed by my existence in a post-second wave feminist world that I cannot comprehend the benefits of gender based role definition within traditionally observant communities?
According to chabad.org, a woman’s role in Judaism is defined by the home: “It is largely – and in many respects exclusively – her great task and privilege to give her home its truly Jewish atmosphere.” A Jewish wife and mother is honored with the task of maintaining a Jewish home through kashrut**, lighting candles, and brightening the home with Torah and mitvot*** beacause, “It is largely in her merits that G–d bestows the blessing of true happiness on her husband and children and the entire household.” Not to mention Taharat Hamishpachah****, regarding the ritual laws of purity, specifically nidda.
“In the same vein, there can be no greater fulfilment for a Jewish girl than to prepare herself for her vital role of building the House of Israel as a worthy descendant of the Matriarchs.”
Which leads me to another much pondered question: Am I only valued to the extent that I can procreate?
Jewfaq.org thinks that feminism in a Jewish value; so long as "feminism" is formulated to include the “separate, but equal argument.” Not that I have an a priori disgust of apologetics, but I don’t know how convinced I am that “Women have held positions of respect in Judaism since biblical times,” when the evidence rests on Miriam, Devorah, Sarah, Hannah, and Esther (and Abigail and Huldah, each of whom is mentioned once in the Tanakh). Or that the fact that rabbis periodically consulted their wives constitues evidence of “learned women of note,” even if one of them, Beryurya, is mentioned by name. Jewfaq notes that these women were called rebbetzins, which is “practically a title of her own, which should give some idea of her significance in Jewish life.” Practically a title of her own. Wowee. On the one hand, Jewfaq would like to note that Jews treated women way better than their contemporaries, allowing them to own property and make contracts. On the other hand, the separation of women’s roles from men’s is an explicit Jewish value, meant to honor women, not degrade them. So to the extent that women's rights were different from men's, it was within the framework of their different roles, their different holiness, their different, but complementary Judaisms. Totally unlike the argument against truly equal rights for women in secular societies.
I have no doubt that the laws exempting women from time-bound mitzvot were originally created to give women the leeway to perform their primary functions as mothers and wives, which required they be freed from time constraints. A historical parallel for this type of protective legislation rests in American labor law history. Limiting the number of hours women could work and providing them a minimum wage were necessary protections that were eventually extended to men. Unfortunately, “The legal result [of this legislation] was that men and women were treated differently in the work place… [Legally,] protective legislation gave courts the grounds for rendering inequitable decisions.” (source: Law Library of Congress) The result of separate rules for men and women in prayer? Men and women are treated differently in the synagogue. Differentiated treatment in the workplace was unequivocably bad, but that does not mean the same is true in the synagogue. The brilliant Judith Hauptman wrote an intensive delineation of the rabbinic literature concerning Women and Prayer. (For similarly academic approaches to the issue of women and Judaism, check out Jewish Women Resources.)
Can separate and equal ever coexist? Is it a viable goal to separate Judaism from its patriarchal past or to reimagine that past to promote women's equality as a historical value? When I say the Amidah and insert the imahot*, am I making a positive statement about my feminist attachment to my Jewish identity or am I conspiring to closet an uncomfortably male-dominated past?
At least it's a discernable Jewish value to endlessly question.
*Halakha is Jewish Law, traditionally defined as laws found in the Torah and elucidated in the Mishna, and Gemara
**Kashrut are the dietary laws, most well-known is the prohibition against eating pork
***Mitzvot literally means commandments (of which there are 613) but can also mean good deeds
**** Taharat haMishpacha literally means family purity, and refers to the period when a woman is nidda, on her period, and for the time afterwards before she goes to the ritual bath
*****Imahot are the mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. They are not generally given the same pride of place in traditional liturgy as their male counterparts