A Feminist Among Philistines

01/20/2016 - 6:45am
I look to the achievements of Devorah, the judge, to navigate a Torah and modern way of life.

A 17th-century painting by Salomon de Bray of Yael, Deborah (in the middle) and Barak. Wikimedia Commons

There has been a spiritual struggle on my mind. I feel incredibly lost in my role as a Jewish woman in the 21st century. In my life, I have two main influences on my psyche and subconscious that are disparate in almost every way: the Torah and modern society. I would really love to meet the prophetess Devorah to discuss, understand and reconcile the differences between Torah feminism and modern feminism. We read about her in this week’s haftorah, chapters four and five from the Book of Judges.

As a woman, I feel that the Torah tells me that my greatest contribution would be to raise a family devoted to serving God. But in current society, I’m told raising a family is but one of the ways to contribute to the world and that having a career can be of equal benefit. The Book of Judges does not mention any children for Devorah and Barak, which can mean either that she didn’t have children or that she did and they were not relevant. If Devorah did have children, then I would ask the classic question of how to balance work and life. How did she balance taking spiritual care of the entire nation versus taking spiritual care of her family? What sage advice could she offer to women today, when deciding on full- or part-time careers in addition to having a family? If she did not have children, I’d like to know if she felt bad about it or if she felt she made her best possible contribution as a leader of klal Yisrael.

Unfortunately, due to my lack of knowledge and the society I live in, I often feel restricted by the ideologies and laws of the Gemara. In the grand scheme of history though, I am the most liberated female generation yet. My knowledge of the way things are and can be, leads me to desire more and more inclusion. While Devorah was a shofetet (female judge), she still couldn’t inherit from her parents, according to Jewish law. If they were in financial distress, fathers could sell their daughters. How can the dichotomy of leading the nation and not being able to inherit be resolved? I believe and want to know that the Torah does treat women fairly, but I simply do not understand how to interpret and comprehend laws and allowances that seem to marginalize women. I wonder what Devorah, a tzaddeket (great woman), would say to help me through my sense of limitation and injustice. What did she believe and how did she live her life to such a great capacity within the world she lived?

She was an extraordinary woman, and as the only female judge to guide the People of Israel she was clearly unusual. I doubt she dreamed of being a shofetet; did she feel this was a great privilege bestowed upon her as a woman, or did gender not cross her mind since the appointment came from God? I won’t have God assigning me a position as a full-time mom or a career woman. How can I know what is best for me?

The journey of self is a dual process that consists of finding and creating oneself. In my life I work to find the balance between the two, to discover the strengths God gave me, but also to develop new strengths. The same goes for my place in Judaism. The Torah mandates we find a place in a community, yet it is equally important to not lose our individual views. Devorah found her place in Judaism, but she also created the place she found. She was the first shofetet to lead the people and she was accepted and respected by the Jews.

Devorah is a role model to me. Whatever struggles she went through, she maintained her identity as a Jew and found her place in the system. For all of my questions, doubts, concerns and feelings, at the end of the day I too want to find my place in the system of Judaism. I want God and Torah to be the center of my life; I’m just not sure how to get there. I know a critical part of that journey is experiencing different hashkafot (worldviews) of Judaism and seeing how each resonates with me. I firmly believe, though, that hashkafa is not black and white and to be Orthodox does not mean to be limited to a specific set of beliefs. I plan to use my year of studying in Israel after graduation and the rest of life, to find a place for me to solidify my faith and find a way to exist as an individual woman within a large, complex whole.

I’d like to create an informed opinion about where I hope to see the Jewish future in regards to women. There are so many things I have yet to learn and many topics I have yet to discover I need to learn. I daven continuously that God should help me understand the history and evolution of the social culture of the Jews and be humble enough to accept the Gemara for all of its laws. I hope that if I could meet Devorah, she would be able to enlighten me about some of my struggles and act as a role model for how to live a meaningful life dedicated to the service of God, no matter what form it may take.

author's bio: 
Rachel Eckstein is a senior at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth, N.J.