We have previously discussed (here and here, and see this post by Menachem Mendel) some Torah perspectives on a single woman choosing to become pregnant via artificial insemination. In the course of Rav Aharon Feldman’s critiques of Orthodox feminism in his “Angry Book” (the coinage is Gil Student’s; Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has a similar take on the book), he repeatedly denounces feminist legitimization and even “advocacy” of such by the contributors to Jewish Legal Writings By Women:
If increased spirituality is the agenda of the advocates of [women’s] prayer groups, how is it that many of these same women advocate reducing women’s role as wife and mother, encouraging birth control for any and all reasons, and permitting artificial insemination for single women?1
It is curious, therefore, that many upstanding Orthodox women (among them the contributors to this book [JLWBW]) seem to be on a quest for holiness, and value motherhood and family, yet they slavishly echo a philosophy that is incompatible with their own belief system. These women certainly will not accept those parts of the feminist agenda that directly oppose the Torah’s commandments, but they believe they can safely accept many of its underlying premises.
Among the goals of Orthodox feminists, as gleaned from their speeches and writings over the years, are the following:
1) To counter male-dominated halachah by producing a generation of learned Jewish women who will serve as posekot, female experts in Jewish law.
2) To re-examine Jewish tradition for opinions – especially through utilizing minority views – that will bring modern Orthodox women more in line with the lifestyle of secular women. This includes efforts to demonstrate that domination by male Rabbis has resulted in “misreadings” or in unecessary stringencies in their interpretations of the sacred text.
3) To adapt Jewish practice with an eye to the removal of differences between men and women in the performance of mitzvos.
Nearly all of the articles in this book seek to advance this agenda. They deal with: the Rabbis’ alleged control of women with respect to their use of cosmetics; advocacy of articial insemination for single women; the implications of birth-control pills for menstrual laws; the training of female experts in Jewish law; and the abolition of differences between the sexes with respect to the obligation to study Torah, and rituals involving tefillin, tsitsit, kaddish, bat mitzva, and the blessing she-lo asani ishah.2
Finally, the editors claim with unabashed hyperbole that this book [JLWBW] is the culmination of the movement for Jewish women’s education begun by Sarah Schenirer. After tracing the movement in its various forms in the last eighty years, they conclude: “And it all culminates here, with the publication of Jewish Legal Writings by Women.
One of the major elements of Sarah Schenirer’s teachings was respect for Rabbinic authority; she herself took no steps to implement her vision before first receiving approval from the Torah leadership of her times. She emphasized tzeni’us (modesty). She trained her disciples to be teachers, but taught them that their main role was to serve as Jewish mothers and wives. Her vision was, in the editors’ words, that “greater knowledge would then surely lead to a strengthening of the Jewish woman’s commitment to Jewish life and family.”
This book does everything to contradict these principles. It advocates artificial insemination of single women (with extremely dangerous implications for the Jewish family unit); stigmatizes Rabbis who advocate tzeni’us as engaging in the social control of women; and in general seeks to blur the halachic differences between the sexes concerning mitzvos.3
I do not have access to JLWBW, and in any event, Rav Feldman does not specify exactly which statements regarding artificial insemination by single women he has in mind, but even if we grant the seriousness of his worry about the “extremely dangerous implications for the Jewish family unit”, his overall implication that the primary motivation behind the advocacy of the practice is a pernicious feminist agenda seems terribly unjust. Is the misery of a forty yeal old woman who has unfortunately failed to marry and build a family in the traditional way not a sufficient motivation to try to permit the practice? While I have no doubt that some of the advocates in question do, indeed, have a problematic ideological basis for their position, Rav Feldman’s implicitly sweeping condemnation of the proponents of the idea seems to me an unfair over-generalization.
Regarding Rav Feldman’s flat assertion that:
[Sarah Schenirer] herself took no steps to implement her vision before first receiving approval from the Torah leadership of her times.
I am not sure that the matter is quite so simple; while I admit to very little knowledge of the relevant history, here is how Dr. Yoel Finkelman puts it:
As a lone, female individual, initially without ties to the rabbinic establishment, she was able to begin more or less independently, and thereby avoided much of the political opposition that had plagued the rabbis who had made similar suggestions. Early on, she started out on her own, with little fanfare and attention. Realizing that she was unlikely to succeed without some measure of rabbinic backing, and under the guidance of her brother, a Belzer hassid, she turned very early on to the Belzer Rebbe for support, and his words “berakhah vehatzlahah” (blessings and success) were encouraging and helped her to gain support. However, as Manekin notes, in Schneirer’s own description of the meeting, she earned the rabbi’s blessing by explaining that she wanted to “lead Jewish girls in the path of Judaism,” without specifying that she planned to open a school and teach Torah.
Agudat Yisrael became an official supporter of Beit Ya’akov shortly after Schneirer opened the first school, but it was only after Agudat Yisrael’s conventions in 1923 and 1929 that the Agudah began expending significant energies and monies on Beit Ya’akov. The rabbinic support of the Hafetz Hayyim and others came primarily after schools were already founded and growing (Zolty 284-285) – click here for the Hafetz Hayyim’s letters of support. This rabbinic support did not create the movement; it supported it after the fact and helped it grow. Indeed, the rabbinic support may have been most important not in creating Beit Ya’akov, but in serving as a ready response to the ever-present opposition among Polish Orthodoxy. (The Hafetz Hayyim’s first published comment on women’s education appeared in his Likkutei Halakhot, but that comment was a general one, focused on girls’ and women’s education in general, without specific mention of the Beit Ya’akov schools that had yet to be founded. After the founding of the system, he regularly published letters in support for the system in the school’s Yiddish-language journal, Beis Yakov. The text of his comments in Likkutei Halakhot and one of his letters appear in the appendix.)
I also wonder about Rav Feldman’s claim that “She emphasized tzeni’us (modesty).” I am certainly aware that her followers today in the בתי יעקב do so, but is there really evidence that the issue was a priority of Schenirer herself?
- The Eye of the Storm, pp. 69-70.
- ibid. pp. 81-83.
- ibid. pp. 101-102.