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Changing Jewish Laws About Women?

Orthodox feminists live with a conundrum. The revelation of Torah at Sinai, the foundation of their belief, occurred more than 3,000 years ago, when equality for women was unimaginable. AH subsequent Jewish law and literature derive their authenticity from that event, and the further we are from that time, the less significant any authority or text is considered to be.

So what are we to do with a tradition that always gives the greatest weight to its sexist past? Many in the Orthodox world either deny the need to equilibrate the gender scales, claiming that the denigration of woman is part of God’s plan, or try to show that the system is not sexist. Orthodox feminists, in contrast, recognize the inequality in Judaism, and try to reform the religion from within.

In her new book, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (Brandeis University Press, $29.95), Tamar Ross does a superb job in describing the forms of discrimination women suffer in Judaism: their unequal obligation to perform mitzvot (commandments), inability to participate in public ritual, dependent personal and family status, and inequality in marriage and divorce laws. This section of Ross’ book, as well as the one in which she describes the first stirrings of feminist consciousness amongst Orthodox women, is the best I have read on the subject.

Ross goes on to describe the impact the agitation from Orthodox women has had on Jewish law. Based on her understanding of Jewish legal philosophies, she explains how Orthodox authorities have responded to the challenges of feminism. Unfortunately, her forays into jurisprudence are simplistic for the professional, yet far too detailed and confusing for the lay reader. Her forced placement of “modern” Orthodox responsa into one philosophical box and “ultra” Orthodox into another fails to capture the rich diversity of Jewish law.

In her analysis of “Third Stage” feminism, or the stance that Jewish sources can never be exorcised of their sexism, Ross brings up theologians such as Rachel Adler, and neo-paganists such as Jenny Kien. Also included are those who try to depatriarchalize the Bible and rewrite the prayer book. The ideas for reform range as broadly as the sources of sexism. Ross makes the critical point that those who wish to relativize and rewrite the Torah rob it of its value. “Torah can function as the source of a living religion based on passion and commitment only to the degree that it makes some compelling appeal to truth and a connection with the divine.” So what are Orthodox feminists to do with an intractably sexist system that claims it is unchangeable, yet sits uncomfortably with modern notions of justice and morality?

Ross draws on Rav Kook’s idea of “cumulative revelation” to find her own answers to these difficult and uncomfortable questions. Kook was the spiritual leader of the Religious Zionists, a group that broke radically from the past and from its contemporaries. Kook’s philosophy allowed Revelation to be a continuous process, an idea that Ross believes can help navigate to the conflict between Judaism and feminism. If modern authorities are given weight, feminist voices will be able to participate in the continuous process of interpreting Jewish law.

Although Ross’ idea has some appeal, I would question its persuasiveness to those who will carry the mantle of tradition into the next generation. Jewish tradition is pragmatic and fragmented; each legal decision is made based on the facts at hand and the learning of the rabbi who has been asked the question. Our law and literature are like an archaeological dig into all the places and eras Jews have lived, and we find fossils of other civilizations littered throughout our tradition. The women’s question will be added, more or less slowly, onto the ever-growing archaeological mound of our tradition. It will be incorporated inconsistently, unexpectedly, and without a solid theoretical framework. Though the contributions of Ross and other feminist scholars are intellectually interesting, they are unlikely to be the catalyst to cause change in Jewish law and society. The triggers will most likely be the increasing education of women, the growth of their political power and, most important of all, and their economic power in the outside world.

C. Devora Hammer has written for The Washingtonian, The Forward, Los Angeies Jewish Journal and, of course, LILITH.