Jewish feminists attribute activism to their faith — book
The author of “Jewish Feminists,” Dina Pinsky, studied for her doctorate, simultaneously worked for a certificate in women’s studies and learned that many Jewish feminists attributed their being feminists to their Jewish identity.
Since this contradicted her own experience, she decided to learn more about these Jewish feminists and this led to the present book.
Pinsky interviewed 25 Jewish women and five Jewish men, all of whom were what she calls “second wave feminists,” people who participated in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as distinguished from early feminists who were preoccupied with the battle for women’s suffrage. The interviewees constituted what is called by researchers a “convenience sample.” They volunteered by responding to postings on e-mail lists or they agreed to participate after Pinsky obtained their names from others she interviewed. Thus, as she clearly indicates, this group cannot be considered representative of all Jewish feminists and, therefore, generalizations cannot be drawn. Her more modest objective is “to examine multiple discourses of Jewishness as they intersect with discourses of feminism.”
The findings from the research are presented in four chapters. First, Pinsky describes those feminists who achieved reconciliation with their Jewish identity by working to change Jewish religious practices by becoming rabbis, rewriting liturgy and becoming synagogue leaders. She calls them “Torah Warriors.” Others, described in the second chapter, were secular or cultural Jews, identified “with the Jewish people, culture, ethics, and history” but not with the Jewish religion. They do not belong to synagogues and many of them are hostile toward religion. However, they value the Jewish emphasis on social justice which they see as being echoed in the Jewish feminist movement.
The third chapter describes the experiences of some participants in the study who encountered anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the feminist movement. Hostile attitudes were especially expressed in
international women’s conferences, starting with the first one in 1975 when Zionism was linked with apartheid and with other expressions of racism and oppression. Five years later, this hostility was formalized when the conference adopted by a wide margin (94-4) the infamous “Zionism-equals-racism” resolution. The experiences of Pinsky’s interviewees “reveal a dance between being an insider and an outsider in feminist communities.”
Finally, Pinsky devotes a chapter to the five male feminists she interviewed men who referred to themselves as “profeminist men.” This somewhat problematic discussion considers “Jewish masculinity and its relationship to feminism.” She concludes “that Jewish norms of masculinity are in line with feminist critiques of masculinity.” This muddy generalization violates Pinsky’s early assertion that her limited sample precludes the possibility of making over-arching statements. Since she interviewed just five men, this is by far the weakest link in Pinsky’s presentation.
In a brief concluding statement, Pinsky asserts that her study turned out to focus on “narratives of identity” since many of her informants claimed that “Jewishness and feminism are both congruent and dissonant” with attitudes that vary through time. Perhaps her most important finding is that “Just as gender matters for understanding Jewish identity, Jewishness matters for understanding gender.” She has made good use of the information she collected through her interviews to add to our understanding of American Jews and the relationship between Jewishness and feminism. As these identities cross each other, they can produce a drive for equal treatment of women in Judaism or they can lead to a rejection of Jewishness.
In either case, there are changes as the women grow older, reflecting the complicated nature of Jewish identity through the various stages of the aging process. Pinsky has contributed significantly to our understanding the intricacies of this convoluted issue.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)