Emily Vetne, History, Classical Civilizations, and Religious Studies
Written for REL-R 152: Jews, Christians, Muslims
Instructor: Prof. Sarah Imhoff
Modern mainstream feminism seems to reject everything Orthodox Judaism represents. Feminists call for women’s sexual liberation, their equality, pay parity in the workforce, and they encourage women to explore fields previously closed to them based on gender alone. Thanks to feminist advocacy, the 21st century seems to be the best time to be a woman yet.
Why then would 21st century women abandon their hard-won liberties to join conservative religious groups that, to outside observers, seem to oppress women? This paper will explore why liberal Jewish women chose to move into Orthodox communities, adopt new lifestyles, and become fully fledged Orthodox women. I will argue that Jewish women join Orthodox communities because women’s bodies and personalities are more respected within Orthodox groups, because mothering is highly respected within Orthodox traditions and because their communities’ strict moral guidelines give women a sense of purpose. While it is unfair to say that secular communities do not value women’s bodies, I believe that these values are more stressed within Orthodox communities.
Modern women worry about living up to the unattainable depictions of women in the tabloids; they feel pressured to succeed in politics, academia, or business; and still feel the draw to fulfill their traditional roles as mothers and nurturers (New York Times). Religion offers a refuge for some. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood claims “…the desire to grow closer to God and create a more ethical world can be as meaningful and legitimate for some women as gender equality or progressive change is for others,” (Mahmood, cited in Fader 4). This concept of conservative religion trumping mainstream feminism echoes strongly with many women.
One reason women join conservative Hasidic Jewish communities—with their strict dress codes, gender segregation, and concrete gender roles—is that Hasidic communities value women as people, not sex objects. Like Muslim women, Hasidic women dress modestly, with high necklines, long sleeves, skirts, and hair coverings (Fader 14, 21). In Arranged, the film from class, Rochel was an Orthodox Jew who dressed modestly and liked it. She even defended her conservative dress to the school’s principal, who was incredulous that a 21st century woman would want to cover her whole body.
Dressing modestly helped Rochel present herself as a person with opinions and intelligence before being sexualized—at least by outsiders: “‘The current dating scene is a form of prostitution…. The guys take you out and they expect to be paid back in sex. A religious guy looks at me like a person, not a body.” This comes from a young woman interviewed by professor Myriam Malinovich), talking about why she joined a Hasidic community. She justifies joining a Hasidic community because women are more respected within conservative communities. By becoming Hasidic, this young woman will marry a respectful Jewish man from the same community, without having touched him before the wedding. Outlandish to some, but her reason rings true for many women. The desire for respect and order, it seems, is more attractive than the multitude of lifestyles her non-Hasidic peers could enjoy.
Another reason women seek refuge in Hasidic communities is because of the respect mothers are given. Feminism seems to suggest that women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers are lesser, because they’re not taking advantage of the progress that Second Wave feminists earned for them. One of the key platforms of Second Wave feminism was that women should be allowed to work outside of the home like men. By one strain of feminist logic, women who opt to raise children and work inside the home are disrespecting everything women have fought for since the 1960s (Guardian).
Staying home simply to raise children isn’t the only concern for feminists. The sheer number of children Hasidic women are expected to have raises red flags: “…they are also required to have as many children ‘as God will give.’ …I have a concrete sense of what having five, six, or seven involves. These young women don’t.” But converts to Hasidic and Orthodox communities know how women are treated in the order. They can choose to join knowing full well what’s expected of them.
“‘Judaism is a way of life and its focal point is the family,’” says Rachel, one of the women interviewed in by Malinovich, “‘Women’s religious functions center on the family—keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, observing the holidays, lighting the Sabbath candles. They are as important as men’s religious activities in the synagogue.’” While men must study Torah and Talmud all day, women have almost complete control of the household, (Fader 22).
Mothering and childrearing take on added importance in traditional Jewish life. Hasidic boys grow up to be “prominent in the Jewish public sphere such as the synagogue, the religious leadership structure of the community, and the social life of the yeshiva,” and “each girl’s everyday actions have the cosmic potential to help bring the Messiah,” (Fader 22 and 25). The Hasidim’s philosophy is that mothers raise spiritual guides and those who may hasten God’s return – that perspective creates tremendous respect for mothers and is a large aspect of why modern women join Hasidic communities. Rather than anxiously trying to juggle childrearing and a full-time, Hasidic mothers raise God’s chosen people.
Lastly, a compelling reason for modern women to join Hasidic communities is the freedom they receive. “‘The freedom of choices you have to make is almost shackling. Young people lack identity; they lack a sense of direction; they lack meaning; they are like wandering sheep.’” “‘You can die of freedom,’” say Joan Klein and an anonymous woman interviewed by Malinovich. American culture is so founded on the idea of personal choice and liberty that young people crack under the pressure (Guardian)What to major in at college, what career to have, whether to get married or have children—these choices are eliminated in Hasidic communities. Everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them. Rather than feeling stifled, the newly minted Hasidim interviewed by Malinovich find comfort in this “structure, order, and morality.” In a country which offers so many options — perhaps too many — living in a community where your role is predestined might not be too bad, and certainly not oppressive as it can be made out to be.
People look for comfort and happiness in all sorts of ways: creative hobbies, successful careers, marriage, and religion. To some, adopting the Hasidic lifestyle is one way to find true purpose in life. It’s a concept many modern people have a difficult time grasping, but it’s undeniable that Hasidic and Orthodox communities pull women who feel unfulfilled in modern society. Gaining respect from personhood and not sex appeal, being adored for raising children, and having a destined purpose to fulfill are all positive aspects of joining Hasidic communities. Modern women must spend too much time soul-searching and worrying about doing everything well – this type of religious atmosphere decreases much of the pressures they find in modern life.