TO THE EDITOR:
In his review "Feminism and Orthodox Judaism" (Judaism, Fall 1998), Joel B. Wolowelsky takes issue with Michael Kaufman, the author of the book Feminism and Judaism: Women, Tradition and the Women's Movement. Wolowelsky maintains that "the bulk of the book is ... inconsequential for those women within the halakhic community who are pushing for greater involvement in religious ritual." Kaufman, according to Wolowelsky, "has postulated that the overriding motivation for women increasing their religious participation is masculo-feminism, that is, the desire to be like men." In fact, Kaufman correctly discerns the overriding motivation of these women, except that he calls it "masculo-feminism," instead of egalitarianism, defined as equal access to all the resources of a community.
However, Wolowelsky insists that this "most Jewishly educated group of women in Jewish history ... are exploring how this rich education should be reflected in their everyday religious life." He asserts that "there are many aspects of the feminist movement that are indeed offensive to traditional Jewish values and some of them look and sound on the surface like the demands being made by well-educated Jewish women who are simply seeking an increased involvement with Torah." "Masculo-feminism" seems to be as much of a bogey to Wolowelsky as it is to Kaufman. I doubt if he would venture to ask these "well-educated Jewish women" for an honest answer to the question of whether it is the concept of egalitarianism that influences them to participate more fully in Jewish ritual. In fact, he would like the feminist movement to disappear from the face of the earth, judging from his final sentence: "It is time to grasp the significance of living in a post-feminist era." That this is a "post-feminist era" is wishful thi nking, Mr. Wolowelsky.
Incidentally, this is the first time, in all my years as a feminist, that I have heard the expression "masculo-feminism."
JOEL B. WOLOWELSKY replies:
Ruby Rohrlich accurately quotes what I have written and correctly notes that Kaufman's idiosyncratic term "masculo-feminism"--which I too had not heard before--comes pretty close to the more popular term "egalitarianism." But Rohrlich is off the mark regarding the other points mentioned.
A discussion has to take place within a context, and--as the title of my review points out--the framework here is Orthodoxy, or Halakhic Judaism. Egalitarianism might well mean equal access to all the resources of a community. But Halakhah speaks of obligation and not simply opportunity. This impacts not only on the choices open to individuals in their private lives, but also on the way the halakhic community and society organizes itself. When the purpose of religion is personal fulfillment, then, indeed, equal access to all the resources is of paramount importance. However, when halakhic obligation is the underlying motivating principle, opportunity of access--as important and vital as it generally is for both men and women--becomes secondary to halakhic constraints. Those who operate from a halakhic perspective should, of course, maintain a respectful dialogue with those who do not share such a commitment, but they need make no apology for their frame of reference.
Of course, in many ways it was the fervor and ferment of feminists in the general community that sparked a good part of Orthodox women's greater involvement in Torah. It forced people to focus on whether specific existing restrictions stemmed from fundamental halakhic considerations which were not easily adjusted or from sociological concerns that no longer apply. We should be grateful for that catalyst, as it has to a significant extent pushed women to reach out for greater accomplishments in Torah. But even as specific new opportunities for women emerge from this welcome prodding, there will be a great divide separating those women who are seeking an increased involvement with Torah from those who see unfettered access to personal fulfillment as the summum bonum. …