Judaism Today: Jewish Women, Feminism, & the Conservative Future

As we think about building a politically conservative Jewish movement, I want to ensure that we pay attention to how we will persuade Jewish women to join us. The rabbis tell us that if a man who is inclined toward evil marries a virtuous woman, he will become more virtuous. Yet a pious man who marries an evil woman will sink to her level. So those of us who are interested in promoting the good of Jewish identification and observance, or persuading Jews that political conservatism leads to a more just and decent society, or some combination of the two, will not succeed unless we figure out how to convince Jewish women that these goals are in their interest also.

This is a tremendous challenge. After all, it’s not exactly news that Jewish women, in overwhelming numbers, regard themselves as liberals — and feminists — which is the same thing, only more so. By contrast, black women who vote Democrat in greater numbers are more likely to call themselves “conservative,” both in general and on many specific issues, when asked by pollsters. If you’re wondering why we should address Jewish women apart from the community as a whole, look around this room. One half, perhaps two-thirds of the conservative Jewish women I personally know in America are here today. Because so many of the people I love most in the world are Jewish women, it is painful to have to live with this enormous political and cultural gulf that divides our community. Having said that, I also believe that this moment is more auspicious than any time in the past century to foment a political realignment and return to a more traditional practice of Judaism. Which is not to say that it is happening yet, on any significant scale, or that it will be easy to make happen.

Although no group has been more tenacious and loyal to liberalism and its offshoots than Jewish women, the facts of their — our — lives no longer line up in the least bit with feminist or socialist models, or the generic revolutionary view of how the world works, that has dominated elite thought in this country for thirty years. The feminism to which Jewish women were initially attracted was not a radically anti-family movement, as it has become. It was not radically anti-male, though it was angry about some male privilege. It was not anti-rational, and it was not anti-democratic. It had a lot to say about issues of workplace justice and was appealing because Jewish women worked, and had always worked, in this country and in Europe. In the sixties and seventies, assimilated Jewish women were as attracted as everyone else to the sexual liberation that accompanied feminism. And, it seems to me, that the traditional explanation that revolutions happen at times of rising expectations among those who are better off, rather than the truly oppressed, applies as well. In many ways Jewish women had it particularly good: Our culture has always taught genuine, profound respect for women; Jewish women have always had significant economic freedoms; and at many times and places, certainly here in America this century, usually had good, if not entirely equal educational opportunities.

The key to our opportunity among liberal Jewish women is the aging of the baby boom. With the Clinton Administration in full flower it is painfully clear how long dead the revolutionary seventies are. Liberalism is visibly hollow. Radical feminism is in retreat; though it is a retreat that retains the lethal potential that the Talmud ascribes to the “last kick of a dying cow.” The sexual revolution is not only dead, but a failure. A great many women ultimately were not thrilled by an unregulated sexual marketplace, or the need to pour tremendous amounts of energy into finding a husband and building a family — things one feels ought to happen without undue anxiety and desperate measure in a well-functioning society.

The ingrained liberal politics of the highly politicized baby boomer generation are causing tremendous cognitive dissonance among a generation that is in the middle of raising families, about which they care deeply, in a society whose best values have been radically undermined — largely by themselves. Younger women, in their twenties, are not buying the feminist package. They are marrying earlier, and generally seem unimpressed with the politics and the work-life balance embraced by the boomers. These younger women don’t accept that there is ideological content to the fact of a career, or that feminism owns women’s professional achievements. They appear to go to law school and get married without much angst. Among older women it is safe to say that many will never change their minds. They are unlikely to become significantly more or less religious than they currently are. And whatever political views they hold are not open to persuasion either. The less political will absorb what is fashionable now. Is it a political statement or a fashion statement when women in their fifties and sixties, married or not, begin to use their maiden names as middle names after thirty-five or so years of disuse? As a rule the thing these women care most about is the grandchildren they have or are waiting for.

By now, the lives of a great many of the highly politicized baby-boomer Jewish feminists are characterized by enormous cognitive dissonance in the conscious cases, and mere confusion among the less politically aware. Though they still work, the advent of family life, coupled with a generation-wide disillusionment about the glory and daily satisfactions of high-powered jobs, caused many to reject careerism as an organizing principle for their lives. Though neither are they comfortable with anything that sounds like a purely domestic role. Only unmitigated cognitive dissonance explains how a mother of three can maintain unwavering conviction that the right to have an abortion is a central political value. In general, Jewish women are the most ardently pro-choice, and the least likely to have abortions — which takes dissonance to the point of utter irrationality.

So much for feminism. When it comes to the practice of Judaism, secular Jewish women are now both pushed and pulled back to religion more than at any time in the last three decades. The push comes from the increasingly urgent sense that the survival of Jews in our country is threatened by assimilation and intermarriage. Young parents, themselves often largely Jewishly illiterate, are more conscious now than in the recent past that if they don’t find some kind of religious affiliation, education, and observance to offer their children, they’ll grow up with nothing at all. The pull comes in the form of greater outreach by Jewish institutions to accidentally assimilated and disaffected Jews, many of whom seem to long for more religion, ritual, and spirituality in their lives. In the past decade and a half there has been a significant, though not numerically large, movement back to greater Jewish involvement and observance, at all levels. In my opinion, the more intense the form of Judaism you offer people who are looking, the better able it will be to compete with other options in an open society.

The September issue of Hadassah magazine illustrates the post-feminist, Jewish confusion quite well. The issue is devoted to Jewish women’s lives. It features a self-described feminist writer going on at fulsome length — even if you are committed to “family values” — about her discovery of the joys of motherhood, and her newly intensified commitment to Judaism and tradition. Finally she has gained respect for her own mother, who raised four children with no domestic help, because even with her Latin American nanny, it’s hard. The only fact in her life that allows the writer to continue to call herself a feminist is that she works. What stands out most clearly reading this autobiographical piece, is that the writer does not have a political vocabulary that would allow her to place her experience in anything but a feminist context. She is unwilling to repudiate feminism, because it is tied to her self-definition, but she is also aware that feminism and its concerns are deeply irrelevant to her actual life. So now she is trying to conflate her feminism with her Judaism.

There are many such women, living fairly traditional, bourgeois lives, who are blinkered by the feminist ethos that dominates New Class thought. Our job, it seems to me, is to offer them a new social and political paradigm that actually reflects their lives, and their concerns, as women and Jews. If I were designing this movement, I would set up two parallel institutions, not explicitly related. One would have a religious and cultural focus, the other would be clearly political, within a Jewish religious/cultural context.

While I believe that religion and politics are ultimately two sides of a cultural whole, the goal is to set up as many entrance ramps as possible. Some will come for the religion, others for the politics, yet others for the general cultural ambience. It doesn’t matter why someone finds our movement attractive, or what ideological differences they bring to it. Our goal is to get them inside.

We must think of this as a very long haul. It is not likely that Jews who now conflate Judaism with liberalism will immediately move to conflate Judaism with conservatism. However, if they become more religiously observant, the odds are that over time their politics will come into line as they come to understand what God and his laws want from them. Similarly, it is possible to convince secular Jews of the merits of political conservatism without making them any more Jewish; that doesn’t seem like much of a goal for this group. As we think about wooing people, we face a few contradictions ourselves: It is important to discuss right and wrong clearly, in traditional moral language. Yet, people are rightly suspect of claims from the political sphere that any politics will lead to a more moral, decent society. At the same time, to be effective with Jews, it is important to stress the real morality of various underlying principles of conservatism, as opposed to arguments, however true, from self-interest.

To reach liberal women, we must offer an attractive Jewish model of strong, mature womanhood, functioning well in the realms of both family and work, to supplant the feminist model of radically autonomous, sexually liberated girlhood. We should challenge the meaning and primacy of careerism, and we must stress Jewish family life which is the most attractive card we have — considering how rightfully insecure women are about the worth of investing in family life which is all too unstable in this country. At the same time it would be counterproductive to offer an ethos of pure domesticity — as Beverly LaHaye and Phyllis Schlafly do. Jewish women simply look down on that model, even when their lives are identical to the actual lives of members of Concerned Women for America. In a society where “the messenger is the message,” we will of course want to put women in visible leadership roles in such a movement, something the liberal Jewish institutions have rarely done, which is one reason that they have had to cave to activist “women’s committees” which are militant about abortion and similar issues. I would avoid the subject of abortion entirely, and by no means make it a litmus test, else many women will run screaming from the room, and never hear all that we are offering. The most successful Modern Orthodox outreach programs in New York make perfectly clear what the Jewish views on premarital sex are, and yet the rabbis know that if they come down too hard on it among ba’al Teshuvas (returnees to faith), they risk losing them entirely. More perfect understanding comes in time, with marriage and monogamy, which are the real goals of the rabbis and the women.

As a concrete matter, in a society that offers women almost all of the intellectual, and professional options it offers men, we will have to beef up women’s education programs in Judaism. The modern Orthodox have been pretty good at this for the past 15 years or so, but that isn’t enough. Every time a curious girl is told that she can study chumash (Bible) while boys study Talmud, you lose someone — and perhaps a family later on. I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who excelled at the Brooklyn Jewish school she attended, went on to the finest law school in the land, and ultimately became a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Her entire career demonstrates a deep seriousness of purpose and devotion to many things which we respect. Had Justice Ginsburg wished, instead, to pursue her Jewish education, she would have been discouraged. Judaism cannot compete with sex and drugs and rock and roll, or a Pepsi generation notion of fun for those girls who are so inclined. But we really ought to be able to compete for jurists.

Finally, we must create a vocabulary and a politics that Jews will be comfortable with, in order for them to feel that they can “own” conservatism. It can borrow from various Jewish traditions. It should be respectful and intelligent; after all, these are accomplished women we are addressing. And regardless of the contempt that we may feel for what seems like willful political — and moral — blindness from our liberal sisters, we should always remember that we will win more allies if we treat them with love and respect, than with insults.


  • Lisa Schiffren

    Lisa Schiffren, a former speechwriter for Vice President Dan Quayle, now writes from New York.

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