Does traditional Judaism prevent women from being free human beings? Do the laws and customs suppress women, thus rendering them as inferior in status to men, thereby making them unable to enhance their Jewish identity, spirituality, and connection to Hashem? Is traditional halachic theology dogmatic and sexist?
The answer to all these questions is that it depends on one’s perspective. While traditional Judaism seemingly discriminates against women by excluding them from the Rabbinate, from making aliyahs, dancing with the sefer Torah, and from serving as judges in Batei Din, men are no more spiritually powerful than women by virtue of engaging in these public activities.
In fact, while the women’s role is much more private, one could argue that it is also much more important and powerful than that of men. The traditional female mitzvoth of bringing in the holiness of Shabbos, maintaining kashrus, the laws of marriage, and other laws and customs from the feminine realm are essentially those areas that have sustained the Jewish people over the centuries. Since these mitzvot are done privately, Jewish men, and even G-d Himself, need to depend on the knowledge and commitment of the Jewish women to carry them out properly. Judaism thus trusts the Jewish woman to be answerable only to herself and directly to G-d with the very mitzvoth that define the Jewish people, giving her an awesome amount of responsibility and power. Moreover, it is from the Jewish mother that the Jewishness of the child is determined, arguably the most essential aspect needed for Jewish continuity throughout the ages.
The cohesiveness and success of traditional Jewish family life has always been envied and admired. Pivotal to this success are the laws of modesty which apply to both genders. The Jewish ideal of modesty is not for the purpose of suppressing human sexuality, but rather to enhance and temper it. One of the effects of the laws and customs of modesty is the tempering of the male tendency to sexually objectify women. The mechitzah is one such example. Often misunderstood as a wall of inequality and a symbol of suppression of women, the mechitzah is, in fact, the opposite. Behind the mechitzah women are protected from being seen as sexual objects by men during prayer. Here a woman can pray without distractions, among her own gender, in her uniquely feminine way. Thia allows her to directly connect with her G-d without the self consciousness that naturally arises in mixed settings. Furthermore, according to Chassidic teaching, women are not required to pray with a quorum in a time-bound manner like men are, because of their higher spiritual sensitivity and closer connection to G-d.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, a great champion of Jewish women’s rights, put forth a feminist theology that never compromised on traditional Jewish laws and custom. His theological perspective of women was based on the concepts of holiness and an understanding of a woman’s special and unique role in the bringing of the Redemption or the Messianic era.
The Rebbe saw the feminist movement in a positive light since it was one of the indicators of the imminence of the coming of the Messianic era. Chassiuds explains that all events here on earth are directed from Heaven. When the Messianic era is upon us the feminine mystical attribute known as Malchut will become more dominant, thereby making the world’s energy more ‘feminine’ so-to-speak. The Rebbe therefore encouraged women to increase their Torah learning, as this would have a direct impact on the raising of the spiritual level of the generation towards Redemption.
Nevertheless, the Rebbe did not ask women to pursue a feminist agenda that would compromise halacha. According to Chassidus the purpose of the commandments is to make the world holy by elevation of the ‘sparks of holiness’ that G-d put into the world at the time of Creation. This elevation is the essence of that which is needed to transform the world from exile to Redemption. A woman could theoretically choose to break away from her feminine role (and perhaps go against Halachas as well) by becoming a Rabbi, making halachic decisions, having aliyahs in shule, dancing with the sefer Torah, praying without a mechitzah, and so on and so forth. None of these activities however, will accomplish what is necessary, since they are not the commandments prescribed by the Torah that women need to perform in order to make the world holier or more Messianic-like. In fact, these activities, however inspiring they may be, render women powerless by taking away their mystical ability to deeply influence the very nature of the world through elevation of the holy sparks. By breaking away from their traditional feminine role, women will lose use of the female soul’s mystical ability to make the world holier and more Messianic-like.
The Rebbe’s guidance of women encouraged them to remember their halachic obligations while being active participants in communal affairs. The Rebbe inspired women to be pivotal catalysts in Chabad outreach programs and he respected a woman’s role and understood that it ie as vital as a man’s. The Rebbe’s viewpoint constitutes a fusion of modern feminism with traditional Jewish laws and customs without compromise.