Jewish (But Not Feminist)

When we set out to re-examine the books which influenced us religiously, we needed to ask, where are the girls and women? Many otherwise good books wound us with their absence of female characters. Although these works were very important to our development as Jews, the Judaism they model is incomplete.

Chaim Potok, for example, gives us novels for teens and adults about traditionally observant men who grapple with complex religious and emotional issues. The Chosen and The Promise tell of two friends from different religious backgrounds (read: Chassidic and Modern Orthodox) who confront divergent expectations for their futures. My Name is Asher Lev is a narrative of a young ultra-Orthodox painter who must reconcile his artistic impulses with his strict religious teachings. These books (often assigned to junior high school students) delineate the conflicts these men feel between their personal aspirations and their religious fervor.

The novel which most influenced my own religious development was Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven leaf (Behrman House, 1939, recently reissued), the fictionalized and spiced-up story of the sage and heretic Elisha Ben Abuya, which I read at 14. This book shows Elisha grappling with whether belief in God should motivate his religious observance. While I disagreed with his conclusion—if you don’t believe, you shouldn’t practice Judaism—I definitely empathized with his inability to see God in his everyday life. But there is no female counterpart to Elisha. Even Bruriah, a potential female Tannaitic role model, is Just used as a love interest in the book, following the theory that only men have earth-shattering religious struggles.

These few books are key in defining the challenges which face intellectual religious Jews. Where are the novels about women wrestling with these spiritual crises? Potok’s underappreciated Davita’s Harp has its eponymous female character, but she rarely grapples seriously with the religious issues which so absorb the men in Steinberg’s and Potok’s books. Although these texts can help us develop into thoughtful Jews, they’re little help transforming us into aware Jewish women.