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Jewish Political Thought

Response to Marie Syrkin on
"Does Judaism Need Feminism?"

Daniel J. Elazar

Marie Syrkin's article, written by a woman who did not need the women's liberation movement to open the doors for her great accomplishments in life, has written a senstivie piece reflecting the perplexities of women's liberation for a truly liberated woman in the best sense. Perhaps some of the answers to the questions she poses lie in her own statement.

In Marie Syrkin's case, as in the case of Golda Meir, her good friend and classic example, Zionism, the Jewish national movement, was, indeed, the source of their liberation, a true liberation, not merely the pursuit of private gratifications, which are no better when pursued by women for presumably ideological reasons than when pursued by men for less noble ones. Meir and Syrkin achieved because they were committed to Jewish national needs. They had a cause to which they committed themselves and which brought out their substantial talents.

Now that so many goals of the women's movement have been attained, the time has come to clarify those goals, to separate out those which are really demands for the right of self-indulgence and those which are demands for the right of partnership and achievement. Is there a conflict between feminism and the national survival of the Jewish people? To the extent that feminism pursues individual self-indulgence the answer is yes, but that is as much true for every other form of individual self-indulgence. All people, men and women, once they commit themselves to a larger cause must give up some of their individual desires. Not only women must assume responsibilities that they may or may not have chosen had they been concerned only with their own passions (for that is what we are talking about: passions, not needs in any objective sense).

Thus, the feminist question is really a larger question as to whether any national cause or, for that matter, any other cause that requires collective effort is worth the sacrifice of individual desires. Those of us who see Jewish national needs as central to our lives know what the answer has to be, nor is that simply a matter of personal preference, as the other side could easily argue: "Fine, you choose to surbordinate your individual desires to national needs, that is your choice. But if someone chooses personal gratification, that is theirs." We would argue, I believe quite accurately, that the pursuit of individual passions ends up, in the last analysis, to be empty and unsatisfying. It is only in commitment to something larger than oneself that one fulfills one's real needs and achieves truly human dimensions. It is sad, if not surprising, that the initial thrust of American feminism has gotten the two confused. Sad, because it leads away from fulfillment, but not surprising, given the trend to radical individualism and paganism in contemporary American society, which has emphasized the gratification of individual passions, no matter what.

The real womens' libbers were the Zionist pioneers whom Prof. Syrkin describes. They were not concerned with demanding the right of self-indulgence, or even individual careerist achievement, but the right to share in the same tasks of national rebuilding as the men. What Prof. Syrkin describes as the result of their experience, a "regression" to women's roles, should be instructive to us all. Israel is, in many respects, a post-lib society where the right to equality has long been established (the day that the United States has the same percentage of women doc- tors and lawyers as Israel is still a way off, I would guess).

Hence, Israeli women, certainly those from the groups that passed through the women's lib stage, are appropriate models for learning where biology does win out, not to speak of national need.

All the women in my circles in Israel pursue careers which they have chosen (at least as much as it is possible to choose in Israel, for men or women), ranging from traditional women's careers in education to contractor (my wife), yet all have children -- most, three or more -- and are not worried about having to maintain households. Some, indeed, have chosen home-making as a career, apparently without the hangups confronting the recent generation of feminists in the United States.

Since we are all religiously observant, all of us, men and women, share a commitment to the limits which that observance imposes upon us. I am confident that my women friends have made choices, even hard choices, when it comes to questions of career and family, but so have their husbands. Every one of them could live outside of Israel, make far more money, rise to equal if not greater eminence in even larger ponds than this one, and not have such burdens as military reserve duty and super-heavy taxation. Many of us who came from the diaspora gave up much of that. Obviously, for those whose whole philosophy is summed up in such phrases as "you only live once," we are all fools. On the other hand, there are those of us who believe that precisely because you only live once, one's life needs to be given real meaning and that comes from linking with a cause larger than one's self.

It is certainly easier for American men and women to avoid confronting this problem. American society is so big that one hardly feels the same sense of urgency that the little Jewish people and its even smaller segment in Israel must articulate, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but the imperative of limiting self-indulgence for the sake of national need is no less in the United States. Indeed, it is a civilizational need that is shared by the entire Western world.

It may not seem to the young American women deciding not to have children that her decision has any effect on the future of civilization. But in a world in which the West is a minority and has now become a kind of decadent elite, declining demographically as well as losing its will to survive, there are indeed barbarians waiting in the wings to inherit us. Even the best of them offer a way of life which is, in most respects, the antithesis of Western values, including most of the values which the feminists espouse, beyond those of feminine self-indulgence. For those of us who have children and thus have made a commitment to the continuation of our human race and our civilization, it is a frightening prospect that the freedoms we cherish are likely to go under for sheer demographic failure. This may not concern people who have decided that their only obligation is to themselves and they have to do nothing to continue the species. In my opinion there is no justification whatsoever for that attitude, feminist or any other.

Footnote: One word on Marie Syrkin's interpretation of the celebrated "woman of valor" passage from the Book of Proverbs. A husband sitting at the gates of the city with the elders of the land is biblical idiom for engaging in governance. That may be even more sexist than her understanding that he is sitting there in idleness, or perhaps in study. But he is not being idle but engaging in what the author of that passage may see as man's work, although the Bible itself has at least exceptional women participating in that work as well.

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