Torah Sociology: The Dangers of Liberal Feminism

The ultra liberal Beit Hillel organization has adopted radical feminism, but should be looking at the price when changing traditional structures, not just at the politically correct fad of the moment.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Beit Hillel ignores the dangers that liberal/radical feminism poses to religious family life

Beit Hillel, an ultra-liberal orthodox rabbinic association that is part of the religious Zionist sector, has issued a halakhic ruling allowing women scholars to issue their own rulings in Jewish Law, an authority that has so far been granted only to men.

By doing so, Beit Hillel is, without intention, declaring war on the gender role structure that for two thousand years has been the backbone of the two parent, multi-generational Jewish religious family.

By doing so, Beit Hillel is showing that it is in a state of naïve sociological denial to the dangers to religious family life posed by liberal feminism.

This article will begin by clearly acknowledging the benefits that liberal feminism has brought, and will then sociologically detail the dangers it poses. The article is not intended to convince liberal orthodox leaders to abandon their ideology of liberal feminism.  Rather, it is a plea that when they make the social-cultural/halakhic choice to endorse liberal feminism they clearly acknowledge the serious sociological dangers that they are chancing in making such a choice.

I hope this article will help them better understand that you cannot have your sociological cake and eat it too; ie. that dynamic, engrossing careerism (male or female) comes at the expense of the type of family life that will make G-d and his Torah a joyous and creative element of everyday family living.

The differences between liberal (often called radical) and conservative feminism

Liberal feminism is an ideology that advocates a gender egalitarianism that will encourage men and women to perform identical social roles; ie. women should be encouraged to be military pilots, financial bankers, rabbinic scholars in  the beit midrash, and chazanim in the synagogue. In the same vein, men should be encouraged to be equally present and involved in child care, and engage in the type of homemaking that converts a house into a home.

In contrast, traditional rabbinic Judaism has propounded a conservative doctrine of feminism based on the principle of 'separate but equal'; that men and women should have different gender roles, equal in worth, because man and women are created with different spiritual personalities. Men should be primarily responsible for the spiritual well being of the public sphere (synagogue, kehilah, beit midrash, and in our case halakhic decision making). Women should be primarily responsible for the spiritual well being of the family and home.

Modern day conservative feminism holds that while women may significantly contribute to the public sphere, and men significantly contribute to the home/family, the archetypical role model, and overall role responsibility, should remain based on the traditional principle of separate gender roles ,of equal worth, for men and women.

Acknowledging the benefits of feminism

I happily acknowledge that feminism has brought three important benefits to modern society. One, it has enabled women to express their talents and build their selfhood in almost every career and profession. For example, my wife and daughters are blessed by being active and creative in the fields of education, nursing and social work. They are much happier people, and better spouses and mothers because of their professional achievements.

Two, in every field women have contributed a unique, innovative knowledge base derived from adopting a feminine perspective to their professional practice. Three, by holding key positions in previously all male professions, feminism has created a more (but not yet) equal share of power and wealth in public life.

Why liberal feminism endangers the Jewish religious family

However it is these very accomplishments, when brought to an extreme, that endanger the family's ability to religiously educate their children.  Making G-d an alive, positive presence in our family life is practically 'a full time' parental job in the modern, secular world. And liberal feminism prevents the necessary  investment by strongly encouraging a very engrossing, almost addictive, mode of careerism that prevents both men and women from devoting sufficient time at home to the task of religious family education.

The educational task of the religious family is to be a behavioral and spiritual incubator, which develops in our children a) the ability to experience the spiritual presence and importance of G-d as a reality in our family/personal life, and b) the desire to do mitzvoth out of a creative joy of life.

Two family dynamics enable the religious family to accomplish these goals. One dynamic is that the parents live the Torah in a happy, creative manner, and that the children feel that 'the happiness of doing mitzvoth' is the most important value in their parent's life. They will then want themselves to internalize that happiness. The second dynamic occurs when children have faith that their parents accept them for who they individually are. Children will have faith in G-d, when they feel that their parents have faith in them.

The surrounding secular society makes this educational work very challenging. Secular society is actively hostile to instilling spiritual sensitivities and love of mitzvoth in children because the secular world encourages hyper materialism and ego centered achievement. For the religious family to successfully counteract these negative influences, parents have to be very much present at home. For many religious families, as long as the children are under the age of  sixteen, a family may have to temporarily become a one-and- a half career family so that they can succeed in creating  a reality of G-d in their home   At least one of the parents may have to temporarily forgo rapid career advancement and achievement. There are no 'free religious educational lunches'.

Liberal feminism makes it difficult for parents to give home religious education top priority in their lives.    One, it gives priority to feminine career advancement. It does not emphasize the critical role of the mother as chief home family educator.  Second, it rejects conservative feminism's understanding that men and women have different types of spiritual personalities, and thus have been given by the Torah different family educational roles.  Fathers must be present at home and be educationally pro-active. But, conservative feminism maintains, the ultimate responsibility for creating the religious educational home environment is that of the mother. This liberal feminism refuses to admit.

Beit Hillel refuses to acknowledge the sociological fact that liberal feminism is dangerously weakening the traditional, two parent family

Thus when Beit Hillel rabbis adopt liberal feminism's ideological emphasis on identical gender roles for men and women, in order to  encourage women to take upon themselves the traditional male role of halakhic decision  making, they should realize the very heavy price that they are asking the religious community to pay.

The last forty years have given liberal feminism of Western secular society a very clear sociological track record. And this track record is one of strategically, maybe irreparably, weakening the two parent, multi-generational family, which is the corner stone of Jewish family life.

In Western secular society the classic 50 year wedding anniversary picture of three to four generations of descendents sharing common values and life style is very rapidly becoming a nostalgic memory.  Sociological research of the last twenty years clearly establishes that the price that the national religious community will pay for adopting liberal feminism will almost certainly be:

·         An increase in the number of unmarried singles over 30 (from 6% to over 10%)

·         an increasing late age for marriage (from 25 years to close to 30)

·         smaller families (from an average of  4-5 children to three plus)

·          a higher divorce rate (from 15-17% to well over 20%)

·         A radical increase in the number of single parent families, either by necessity or choice

·         Increased marital infidelity (in the secular world close to 60% of couples  report extra-marital affairs)

·         Increase difficulty to maintain Torah prohibitions on pre marital intimacy (today over 40% of national religious singles say they do not follow the Torah prohibitions in this area).

·         Increase difficulty in maintaining Torah standards of modesty concerning the mingling of men and women in public events

·         Increased prominence of the religious-ethical dilemma of homosexuality in the religious community

·         Decreased male self confidence that they can successfully function as fathers and spouses, and thus an increasing reluctance to enter marriage

The social phenomenons of increased sexual freedom, moral relativism, and radical individualism have all contributed to the weakening of the traditional two parent family. However liberal feminism has been the most powerful sociological engine pulling the train of social change in modern society.

Summary: Beit Hillel, please publically acknowledge the price of liberal feminism

The conservative feminism of traditional rabbinic Judaism encourages religious women to have careers and practice professions. However it cautions that at certain periods of life, careerism may have to be moderated in order to give priority to developing the religious family.

It also maintains that it is wise to maintain the traditional gender role differences between men and women with regard to religious life in the public, and family, spheres. When Beit Hillel rabbis encourage women to serve in the army and act as halakhic decision makers, they are openly attacking the social philosophy that has maintained the Jewish family for two thousand years.

They feel that the benefits of liberal feminism justify this abandonment of Torah social precedent. Making such a sociological judgment is their right, they may even consider it their obligation, as educational and religious leaders.  I just plead that they be up front and openly acknowledge the sociological cost-benefits of their decision.

This will help our national religious community to decide down which road it wants to go.