Join our email list

Jewish Women Can Be Both Religious and Feminist

The embarrassingly shallow contention that women can be religious or feminist, but not both, is a textbook example of the problem with a particularly ideologically purist left
Dr. Yofi Tirosh is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is the Vice Dean and an Associate Professor at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law and the former Dean of the Sapir Academic College School of Law in Israel’s south (Negev) region. Her research on antidiscrimination law, feminist jurisprudence, and law and culture has been published in leading international and Israeli journals. Her current research focus

Yofi Tirosh

Anat Kam, a prominent Haaretz editor and columnist, feels that a woman cannot be both feminist and religious. Reacting to the criticism voiced by religious women against Israel’s incoming government’s plans to expand sex segregation in the public sphere, Kam writes: “Dear religious women, at the least don’t pretend. Don’t lie to yourselves and to us… There is no such thing as a religious feminist.” Religious women must decide, argues Kam, “either religious or feminist.”

This stance is disappointingly shallow. We all live with contradictions. So does Kam. We could direct the question back at her: “Dear leftist, don’t lie to yourself and to us. It is impossible to be a leftist and an Israeli, to live and pay taxes in a country that has been an occupier for over half a century.” What would Kam answer to that? She would probably reply that it is complicated. It is indeed. We all negotiate between conflicting commitments and affiliations. But Kam denies membership in the feminist club from those whose lives she does not make even the slightest effort to understand.

There is a famous line from a song by the late singer-songwriter Meir Ariel. The Arab speaker in the song teases Israeli Jews, reminding them that “at the end of every Hebrew sentence you say lurks an Arab smoking a hookah.” Likewise, every sentence we say in Hebrew is immersed in patriarchal structures, as is the case with ancient languages. So what are we to do? Should we avoid speaking Hebrew if we are to remain faithful to our feminism? What language will be left for us to speak? Likewise, every institution in which we function – the market, academia and the kinds of knowledge it validates, family formations – all are steeped in historical power structures designed by men and for them. Are we to avoid participating in these institutions because of they face us with unavoidable and sometimes intolerable contradictions? All of us, religious and secular, try, each in our own way, to dismantle the master’s house from within. There is no other place from which to take action. My observant feminist friends stand firm in the middle, remaining faithful to their religious commitments, and at the same time insisting on deconstructing every unnecessary sexist power structure within religion.

Kam’s op-ed embarrassed me especially because religious people may mistakenly associate me with that reductive position. To an undiscerning eye, Kam and I, two secular leftie women, are of the same demographics. But my liberalism respects religious freedom even when I do not always understand. That’s the deal with liberalism.

Numerous religious and ultra-Orthodox women have been uprooting mountains in recent decades, resolutely revolutionizing the Jewish world. They are fighting the rigidity of Rabbinical courts and the silencing of sexual assault victims. They object to sex segregation and to extreme “modesty” demands. They absorb enough fire, blasphemy, ostracizing, and belittling inside their own communities. They are struggling to become halachic arbiters and Talmudic scholars. They are educating new generations of stronger and freer women.

And after they are condemned by their own communities, secular people explain to them that if they want to read the Torah in the synagogue or object to sitting at the back of the bus, then they are neither “authentic” nor “representative” religious women. And if they miraculously survive all of these forms of belittling, oh then comes Anat Kam and mansplains to them that they are not real feminists. Thank you very much indeed.

The common denominator that should connect all of us in this challenging time for Israeli democracy is our commitment to human rights and minority rights, to government transparency and to the rule of law. Instead of targeting those who are determined to return women to their “natural place” at home, as many of the newly elected representatives in the upcoming Israeli government wish to do, Kam attacks the women who stand up against them because these women do not speak her dialect and are not part of her exact minuscule ideological circle. This, please excuse the cliché, is a textbook example of the problem with the left.

* Dr. Yofi Tirosh is the Vice Dean of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law

Originally published in Haaretz.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics