Judaism: Feminism and Chazaka
The Talmud derives from this week’s Torah reading the basic halakhic principle of chazaka – the presumption that what was before is now as well. The Talmud inferred this from the fact that the kohein/priest, when declaring a house to be impure because of plague or pure because the plague had not spread along its walls, did so only upon leaving the house and standing outside of its premises. How can the kohein/priest be certain that there was no change in the mark or size of the plague during the instant that he left the house - outside of its premises?
From this, the Talmud infers the concept of chazaka – what was just before is now as well – which is binding in halakhic issues. The Talmud goes so far as to say that this concept of chazaka is “great” and necessarily logically strong. Yet the Talmud itself recognizes that life forces upon us the realization that circumstances do change and that what was may no longer be what is.
How to square this circle has been a matter of halakhic debate and consideration in all scholarly rabbinic works over the ages. But in a broader sense, this discussion applies even outside of the realm of rabbinic halakhic discussion. There are certain norms in Jewish life and practice that are immutable and never subject to change. Their chazaka is “great” and powerful and whatever was is what it is today and will be in the future as well.
But there are norms that are basically only societal mores and may no longer apply in different social settings and under different circumstances of life. How to decide which norms fall into which category is part of the ongoing debate that exists within the Jewish world today.
Perhaps the area of greatest contention in today’s world regarding these matters relates to what is generally called “women’s issues.” There is no doubt that the status of women in today’s society – even in the most rigorous and conservative Orthodox society – is far different than what it was in eighteenth century Eastern Europe. But after all of the sloganeering and current political correctness is removed from the equation, the basic fact remains that Judaism recognizes and legislates gender equality in human terms but does not favor gender sameness.
The differences in the psychological and emotional makeup between men and women are innate – part of their biological and mental nature. This is a chazaka that is strong and “great.” It teaches us that what was before is now as well, and will also be in the future. One of the great failures of the feminist movement over the last 50 years, in my opinion, is that it tried to make women not only the equal of men in the work place and society but it also tried to make them the same as men.
This flew in the face of human nature. This same error is repeated in many Jewish circles today. Almost all of the feminist demands made upon Judaism today are based on the fallacious idea that women are the same as men.
These efforts have not resonated within the broader observant Jewish community and have only led to disappointment and eventual alienation from Judaism itself. One must be wary of the power of chazaka.