Friday, July 15, 2011

Orthodox Feminism or Back to the 1950s

I was just shown a brochure for a women's baalat tshuvah (newly religious) yeshiva called Shirat Devorah. I have never been to the place, I am not affiliated with it nor do I even know anyone who is. Perhaps it is a wonderful program, but some things in the brochure struck me as troubling.

For example:

Shirat Devorah engages each student's intellect, heart, body, and soul in her education. We honor the intelligence of all these aspects and use them as tools for integration. For example, the laws of Kashrut [kosher] and Shabbat can be learned from a book, but are best absorbed and understood through hands on application. In our Kitchen Laboratory, students apply these laws by cooking nutritious meals to experience what it means to live Jewishly

I am certainly not opposed to hands on education, but this suspiciously sounds like good old fashioned home economics. If you are making this the center of your school system as opposed to "mere book learning" then forgive me if I suspect you of simply training girls to pull in a man, one of few tasks in life in which being able to cook as opposed to being able to produce an independent thought and argue for it can be an advantage.

The school's non-interest in book learning show up again.

At Shirat Devorah, we use women's connection to intuition, creativity, community, and processing to create a holistic environment. During hikes, Lab, and workshops students practice the Jewish women's tradition of imparting meaning through focused intention. We thus create tangible memories that students can draw upon in the future.

How do you run a lab with a "women's intuition?" I guess the same way you gain an education through hiking. It is a mystical sort of learning beyond the understanding of non-intuitive people like me.

For a school claiming to be about using Judaism to empower women, there is surprisingly nothing about sitting down and critically interpreting texts. Instead what I hear is that women are special; since they have this intuition they do not need a solid background in in critical thinking honed through reading books and analyzing texts. I would accuse them of being sexist except that historically I know the real conclusion of this sort of thinking; women are little more than children, beautiful to behold (as well as do other things to) and can be trained to do useful tasks around the house like cooking and cleaning, but never to be taken seriously as a social and intellectual equal.  


Candi said...

This blog showed up in my sparks today on Google+. I would love to see the pamphlet that you're referring to! I like your commentary on, but as a scholar on women in the media in the late 19th and early/mid-20th centuries, I would love to see the rhetoric that they employed to discuss the woman's place here. Where did you get this pamphlet? Thank you!

Garnel Ironheart said...

> How do you run a lab with a "women's intuition?"

Same way as you run it with Spidey sense!(TM)

Izgad said...


A friend of mine gave me the piece to ask my opinion about the program. I imagine you can contact the school (I put a link up to them) and ask them to send you information. I would love to get the reaction of someone who actually does women's studies.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Looking at their schedule (, it looks like they do learn. Not as much as one might in a yeshiva, but then again, not all men are able to learn as much in yeshiva as they supposedly do, so ...

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I suspect that very few baal tshuva yeshivas, for men or for women, do very much "sitting down and critically interpreting texts." Instead, they try to give the students information regarding basic halachos and the Orthodox lifestyle. As such, Shirat Devora provides what baalei tshuva, male or female need. The language of the brochure reflect realia involved in the socialization of women in the Orthodox community. You may think that they should get more book learning, but very few baalei or baalot tshuva get much of that.

Anonymous said...

This Women's Yeshiva exists to fill a niche (which also exists in the world of Men's Yeshivot) for students wanting a more experiential and emotionally focused post-high school Israel year. Not every woman wants to spend a year at (e.g.) Midreshet Lindenbaum, and not every man wants to spend a year at Sha'alavim. Shouldn't those who are never going to want to spend 60 hrs/wk learning also have some options?

Yuki said...

I am a baal teshuva who just returned from a year of post-college seminary. I did not attend Shirat Devorah, but I knew a few (very smart) girls who did. I don't know that much about the school, but I think Anonymous is right that it is a "niche" school targeted to women who do not "fit the mold" in terms of learning style. Izgad, keep in mind that it's one of many options and a quite small program (initially shutting down only a month or so after opening) and is in no way representative of any kind of trend in baal teshuva Torah education

Simon, I particularly take issue with your comment. Unfortunately what you say has some truth to it, in that many of the larger BT institutions are very practical and black-and-white in their learning and don't delve deeply into texts, but to say that that type of education is what baalei teshuva "need" is underselling us. Yes, we may need more basic classes in halacha and practical Jewish living than an FFB would, but our intellectual needs to critically engage with Torah are at least as great as those of any other Jew. Personally, coming from a rigorous secular educational background, I would have been turned off from orthodox Judaism if I hadn't been fortunate enough to find a BT seminary that focuses on text skills and encourages critical, independent interpretation.

Finally, to imply that teaching in a way that takes into consideration women's unique spiritual strengths is sexist is to ignore both "difference feminism"--a widely accepted stream within the feminist movement--and much of what Judaism has to say about gender. I don't like the phrase "intuition" any more than you do, but the overall concept of unique feminine strengths and even learning styles is not pure chauvinism. Next time you want to post something critical of a school, I would encourage you to look into it at least a little deeper than its brochure.

Izgad said...

I do not deny that this school fills a niche nor do I question the intelligence of anyone who attends this school. I neither have a positive or negative view of the school. All I am doing is commenting on the brochure, which may very well give an inaccurate view of the school. (I know many movies poorly sold by their ads.)
If you read this blog, you will find that one of the major themes is that I am a classical liberal, with a healthy dose of contempt for modern liberals like the third wave school of feminism. I see them as conservatives with a heavy dose of hypocrisy. For me, any concept of rights and equality is a product of a belief in human reason. If you do not define human beings, men and women, as fundamentally rational beings then you might as well put the clock back to the Middle Ages.