Too often, the term “feminist” gets co-opted to mean something that it is not. In the minds of its opponents, “feminist” and “feminism” are catch-all terms reserved only for individuals who loudly (and bluntly) seek to destroy centuries of gender norms without respect to the past. This isn’t the case historically, and it surely isn’t the case for the present time. Indeed, the need for feminism isn’t only social but spiritual as well.
One of the great tragedies of human history, and perhaps of the human condition, is that the needs of men and boys are consistently prioritized over those for women and girls. Wherever one looks, gender inequality is rampant in every segment of societal and communal life. From politics, business, the arts, and academia to religious institutions and major league sports, women are undervalued for their contributions, their effort and their natural talent. Discrimination of female workers is rampant in the labor force, despite women occupying nearly half of the working population. And though there is some evidence that the pay gap is narrowing, the notion that women should be paid less than their male counterparts persists.
But even more so than strict workplace issues, there are still lasting issues with how women are portrayed and depicted in modern culture. Despite the normative societal factors, female bodies are used as platforms for merchandise, political demagoguery, and empty glamor. Millions of women are left vulnerable because their needs are not seen to be on par with those of men.
Religious communities, the world over, have their issues with the feminine component of their religious structures. The Jewish community has its own share of problems with recognizing gender parity on a communal level. How often have we heard stories of an Orthodox man refusing to sit next to a woman, or stories of women being photoshopped out of newspaper photographs under the banner of modesty? Or a lack of gender parity among senior leadership? Or, indeed, the baffling recent case of a marriage announcement where the name of the bride wasn’t even mentioned at all. These instances are not what the Torah has in mind when it talks about all people being given Divine purposes in the world.
To be sure, the rabbis teach that God is a feminist:
“And the daughters of Zelophehad drew near” - When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land of Israel was being divided among the tribes with portions given to the males but not the females, they gathered together to seek counsel. They said, “The mercies of God are not like the mercies of people. People have more concern for males than females. But the One who said and brought forth the world is not like this. Rather, God’s concern is for both males and for females. God’s concern is for all, as it is said, “God gives sustenance to all flesh” and “who gives beasts their food” and “God is good to all and God’s mercy is upon all God’s works” (Sifre Bamidbar 133).
But through it all, to be a socially conscious feminist means that one recognizes sexism and calls it out fervently. It means seeing sexism in the workplace and combating it forcefully. No one should be treated as inferior based on gender (or supposed gender roles). To be a feminist means that one sees the plight of women and stands in solidarity with other women. We advocate passionately for wage equality, girl’s education, and women’s healthcare access. In this Midrash, the rabbis explain that people may have the capacity to be sexist but that God completely and utterly rejects such views. God understands that the male and female beings of Creation have real differences yet God desires equal rights for both since they are created with equal dignity. We are instructed to follow God’s compassionate ways. While in prior eras, our understanding of revelation was still evolving alongside historical progress, embracing a discriminatory ideology in our time, is to reject the God of Israel. In so doing, we are not only calling out injustice and rooting it out for the benefit of future generations but also fulfilling the holy mitzvah of halachta d’drachav (imitation Dei).
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.