Where are the Jewish Feminists? by Ivy Helman

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oLast month in my regular post, I suggested that a lesbian who passes as an Orthodox man subverts Jewish traditional gender roles and understandings of sexuality at the same time she is conveying something true about her own relationship to the Holy One.  Not a single comment challenged me on that proposition.  Not one.  Why?  I think I know the answer.

While I absolutely love this site and have been a regular blogger now for three and a half years, I must say there are whole worlds of ideas, insights and conversations that we are missing. Whenever I write a blog on this site related to Judaism, it is rare that I receive a comment from someone Jewish (at least recognizably so).  And, as the above example illustrates (especially if you were to read the comments of said post), no one even recognized the problematic nature of such a suggestion or challenged me as to how I think it would accomplish subverting gender roles and traditional views on sexuality.

The fact that I am the only regular Jewish contributor writing about Judaism in this blog doesn’t help. The last one left over two years ago. Also as far as I can tell from regular reading and a few searches, the last guest blogger who was both Jewish and wrote about something related to Judaism was about this time last year.  Where are the Jewish feminists?  Not here.

Jewish feminism is a long, complex tradition.  It comes out of all the different streams of Judaism.  These feminists have much to contribute to feminismandreligion.com: perspectives, ideas, critiques, midrashim and (oh) so much more. There is such a depth, richness and diversity to Jewish feminism because of the myriad of ways we approach the mitzvot as well as our different heritages, experiences and minhag/custom. Yet, the truth is: if I want to learn other Jewish feminist perspectives on Shabbat, images of the Holy One, Holy Days, women’s roles, Talmud, Torah, etc., I have to read different resources, internet or otherwise.

Let me put this another way. As I’ve mentioned already, the only consistent Jewish voice on this blog is mine. That both bothers and concerns me for many reasons. First, one voice cannot and should not capture the unique strands and rich traditions of a religion that traces its beginning millennia ago. Nor can or should one voice speak to the many issues presented in thousands of pages of sacred texts and the traditions of commentaries on those texts. Neither can or should one voice represent varied experiences of different communities in countries across the globe.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Judaism as a tradition values the voices of many, including and often inviting the

Art work designed by Jaysen Waller
Art work designed by Jaysen Waller

voice that passionately disagrees. Those disagreements become dialogues that lead to a better understanding of the text, of the question(s) raised or of the issue at hand. In fact, traditional forms of Jewish learning, still present in most communities today, value the process of chavruta/learning in pairs. This chavruta is foundational to study, a fundamental Jewish value. Another fundamental Jewish value is tikkun olam/repairing the world, which includes tzedakah/justice, chesed/lovingkindness and shalom/peace among many other things. What I’m trying to get at here is that for so many reasons, Judaism is in no way an individualistic endeavor. It values community. The world cannot be repaired unless everyone works together. Nor can one hope to understand the depth of sacred texts without someone there to help. We need each other.

That being said, I think feminismandreligion.com is a community that both values study and works to further justice, love and peace. For as much as we share these similar values, there is only one consistent Jewish voice here. I would like to challenge this community to live up to its potential. If we truly are a community of dialogue at the intersection of religion and feminism, then we need more Jewish participants. I’ve shown here in very general terms both why we need more Jewish voices and some of the ways in which our values overlap. What I would like to do now is turn this blog over to you. My question for the reader, the founders and the regular contributors alike is: how do we include more Jewish feminists here?


Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.  She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department.  In addition to teaching and research, Ivy spends considerable amounts of time learning Czech, painting, drawing, creating new kosher delicacies and playing with her dog, Mini, and cat, Gabbi.

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

15 thoughts on “Where are the Jewish Feminists? by Ivy Helman”

  1. We need your posts, Ivy, for that very reason, because it strengthens FAR’s diversity and you are indeed an excellent writer. I am a photographer, and an illustrator, but not a very good essay writer. If I were I would write about Taoism and Zen, topics missing from FAR also, though they are magnificent paths of wisdom and compassion.


  2. Ivy, wouldn’t you be the best person to recruit bloggers? You know the faith, you know the community, whether local, national or international, you know the variety of voices that needs representing and you know the differences that need highlighting!
    Between your professors, your students, friends, fellow academics, religious leaders and fellow temple-goers, there has to be some interested in answering the call!


  3. We don’t have a Jewish community where I am and I don’t feel I can be much help, Ivy. Your statement about gender roles in Judaism at the beginning of the post seemed reasonable to me. Don’t we all challenge gender roles and determine our own relationship with the Holy One? I hope you can find someone to invite who can both challenge and enlarge on your thoughts.


  4. Ivy, I know that the Muslim bloggers have increased here because we’ve actively been pursuing other Muslim feminists to take part. We are not relying on the editors to find people from our community. And really that’s for the best because we are going to be aware of the most interesting voices (how would a non-Muslim have found Vanessa Rivera De La Fuente?). I myself came to this blog because Kecia Ali suggested me to the editors. It’s not easy to get others to blog, I’ve found several women who want to take part but don’t feel they can take it on just now for various reasons. I also tried to get a Jewish Feminist friend who works on gender and Kabbala to write here. While she was very interested, her work commitments keep her too busy. The plain fact is that the editors are swamped and we need to help build the community of voices here.


    1. I agree with Laury. Nothing works better than the personal touch (and some arm twisting, application of guilt, etc). If you have a friend who is a bit reluctant to take on blogging, just have them do one guest blog and let them see how the experience sits for them.


  5. Thanks for writing this, Ivy. I may have been the blogger you were referring to that left two years ago (I had to due to the job I took back then and I hope to start blogging again soon). In answer to your question, where are the Jewish feminists, I agree there are not nearly enough in this community. But they of course exist! There are tons of feminist Jewish cites like Lilith (http://lilith.org/) and so many female Rabbis and now Maharats that that practice and write about Jewish feminism. I think we need to reach out to them to write for this blog, but also reach out to the Jewish feminist community to READ this blog. It’s an ongoing effort but we also have to remember that there aren’t as many Jews as there are Muslims, Christians, etc. Let’s make a new concerted effort to spread the good news about this blog and begin more conversations with the many Jewish feminist communities!


  6. Hello everyone. Hi, Carol. I am replying to your post, Ivy, just before I head off to the gathering of Kohenet, Jewish Priestesses, next week. I am a regular reader and occasional commenter of FAR. I did not comment on your last post because, however much it contributes to safety, I do not believe that a woman passing as a man changes or subverts anything. What brings about change is openly defying/ protesting gender roles and modelling the way you wish things to be.
    Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean by passing. To me it means “to be accepted as a member of a group by denying one’s own ancestry or background”. A Jewish lesbian who “perform(s) gender in a way that she passes for an orthodox man” may express an inner truth, but this doesn’t disrupt what it means to be both lesbian and orthodox any more than a light-skinned person with African ancestors who passes for white disrupts the colour-based patriarchy. The exception (especially if it is secret) legitimizes the rule, it does not change the rule. It would be disruptive if she demanded, as a woman, the right to lead the Torah service for men, but that is not “passing”.
    For my part, I hang out with Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal communities and try to resist becoming entangled in the issues of Orthodoxy.


    1. Hi Judith, Will you please see if you can interest any of the Jewish Priestess group in writing for FAR? They can contact us through the website or contact me or Ivy personally. xxx


  7. HI Ivy —

    I’ve been out of town for the last 3 weeks, so I went back and read the post that preceded this one. I might have questioned your assumption that a lesbian who passes as an Orthodox man subverts Jewish traditional gender roles and understandings of sexuality, but I’m not Jewish, so my response wouldn’t have answered your final question in this post. If someone successfully “passes,” it seems to me there is no subversion. There is just a woman who acts out the role of man, thereby reinforcing that role. (It seems similar to the question “If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?).

    I think the discussion your last post ignited is very important. But it never got to the point of nuance. Transphobia is different from sexism. Each of the affected groups experiences their oppression in ways that are diametrically opposed to the other. And the mottos each group has adopted tend to conflict with the other. MFT trans folks tend to talk about how they knew from early on that they were women; that this identity was inborn; that their bodies didn’t fit their minds; that they were born into the wrong bodies; i.e. they use a type of biological determinism to define themselves. Feminists talk about how a sociological role has been imposed upon us; that we have been stereotyped as “feminine,” i.e. inherently gentle, sensitive, dependent, delicate, weak, demure, etc.; that these social assumptions indicate that we were born with inherently different brains than men; and that we protest that we don’t fit into those neat little boxes, i.e. we oppose biological determinism. (It also doesn’t help that Caitlyn Jenner came out with a photo spread of stereotypically sexy/sexist images in Vanity Fair). So…there’s a problem here. The question appears to be: Who gets to define “woman”? Until now the answer has been patriarchy. Of course, both of these groups want to change that, but the way they are going about it are in opposition.

    Personally I believe that you can’t untangle nature and nurture. What I mean by that, however, is not a combination of the two, but a slow process by which a child with all her inherent capabilities and limitations is molded into the adult that she becomes. Her experiences and her environment have as much impact on who she becomes as her genes (these days scientists guess it’s 50/50 nature/nurture). That means that MTF women will be different from women-born women. I also believe that we should accept the self-definition of any person, i.e. a MTF trans person who wants to be known as a woman, I accept as a woman. But she’ll be different from me in her nature and the nurture she experienced as a boy child. So…who gets to define “woman”? I think I get to define who I am, and she gets to define who she is. I just don’t want her definition to preclude mine or impose itself on me (nor vice versa). How do we figure that conundrum outt? I think we have to listen to each other, discover our differences, and discover our commonalities. We’ve been doing it across race, sexual orientation, age, religion, etc. I think we can do it across this divide as well.


  8. First, a big thank you for all of the comments. I think the idea of out-reach is important, yet, equally if not more important, are keeping the new Jewish feminist bloggers around and building a community of Jewish feminists who follow the blog (which commentators have mentioned here). Both of these issues are related I think. We won’t have a Jewish feminist community here without regular bloggers and we won’t have Jewish feminist bloggers if we have to go elsewhere for community. Clearly, we need the outreach to individual writers, but we also need to reach out to the community.

    Second, I hear the voices that say to me to ask the Jewish feminists I know to write. I have asked quite a few, but they have so many other responsibilities that no one has agreed yet. Nonetheless, I will continue trying.

    Third, I agree that the comments from the last post did spark great conversation and I’m happy they went that way even if it wasn’t exactly how I envisioned it.

    Finally, thank you to all of those who mentioned something about my suggestion about lesbians performing as Orthodox men. Yes, it is problematic for a number of reasons, but it can also be subversive for many more. I think the question of passing is part of the issue but not all of it. In fact, I think almost passing, but not quite, (if I can call it that) is actually more subversive because it sparks the question in people’s heads about gender identity, expression and sexuality much more so than passing people do. Yet, another example of subversive gender expression (in Jewish terms and not necessarily only in modes of dress) is the Jewish feminist group, Women of the Wall, for whom defying gendered norms (like reading the Torah, carrying the Torah, laying tefillin, etc.) have accomplished much to break down the hold of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox men at the Kotel.


  9. I’m not on the gender train, and don’t support sex role stereotypical uniforms as changing anything. People see you based on what they expect to see. Half the time people don’t know if I am a woman or a man, I don’t smile at men in public, don’t flatter men, don’t wear make-up or dresses at all. I truly find femininity itself just male pleasing. That said, I am subverting nothing. My unsmiling face just keeps strange men out of my space, my brutal one line kick butt commands to any man who approarches me is just safety and sanity.

    It doesn’t change male supremacy at all. Men who delude themselves into thinking they can cut their bodies up and put on womanface, is also not going to get us a feminist revolution either. So I read that article you wrote awhile ago, and thought, “Well dress the way you want and the heck with the world.” That is just ornamental.

    It might actually be protective coloration, so that men ignore you, always a good thing in public.


  10. I deeply admire the radical feminists and powerful voices like Andrea Dworkin. Jewish lesbians always seem more interesting and politically powerful for some reason. Jews in general seem more powerful and engaging than Christians. But that is just a broad brush stroke. I am a strong voice of gender atheism, I believe it is a total social construct, and must be destroyed. There are no lady brains or gentleman brians. Women are supposed to look submissive and men dominant. But I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in ending patriarchy.

    Radical lesbian Jewish feminism is a force in the world, and it generally has more credibility with me. But then again I love lesbian raw intellectual power. This place seems pretty Christian pleasing to me, rather conservative and it let’s in the male to trans colonizers without blinking an eye— it let’s gay men post that nonsense.

    Maybe more Jewish lesbians or Jewish women in general would come here if it weren’t so conservative, male accomodating and lesbian feminist erasing, but hey what do I know, I’m only half Jewish oy.


  11. I am a Jewish regular visitor to this site and really appreciate this post and conversation, in part because I learned some stuff about Judaism and also because it invited me to think more deeply. I’d love to read more posts from Jewish feminists. I don’t sense that this site is in any way unwelcoming to us. I’m not sure why there are not more.
    I am not and have never practiced the Jewish religion, other than Hannukah food and candle rituals (my parents and grandparents were atheists) but identify as Jewish ( and don’t have a firm answer as to what I mean by that!).
    This piece made me reflect on my experience with contemporary neo-Paganism (I use this term loosely, which I think is the best way), which is one of the ‘places’ I do practice): in the books I’ve read, courses I’ve taken, etc, I have encountered a rich weave of Celtic, Greek, Roman, Slavic and occasionally Asian, African and aboriginal deities, as well as practices for ritual, worship and transformation from those traditions (especially, it seems, Celtic and aboriginal), but very little that comes from Judaism (with the exception of Kabbalah, which is not easily accessible due its complexity). And yet there seems to be plenty of powerful Jewish women involved in this movement!
    My observation of contemporary neo-Paganism is that it is a consciously constructed blend of spiritual traditions which are being reclaimed in a way that honours and supports the earth, human diversity, social justice and equality, healing, self-determination, and that powerful, hard-to-define thing we call magic. Neo-Pagans (at least the ones I mix with) tend to be anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchy, and anti-dogma. So it makes sense that they/we tend to avoid established religions of all kinds and in particular, I think, the religions of the Old and New Testament. So maybe that’s why Judaism has not been explored and ‘mined’ the way many other traditions have.
    But I think Judaism in its rich history must have many jewels that could be woven into the neo-Pagan tapestry.
    As I said, this post and discussion has got me thinking! I’m going to do some digging around to see what I can learn about Pagan-friendly Jewish traditions, symbols, and practices (with as much respect as possible for complex issues of cultural appropriation, the pitfalls of taking these things out of context, etc).
    I’d welcome any thoughts on thoughts!
    (I am not an academic nor involved in religion but stumbled across this blog and love it.)


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