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The Modern Orthodox Struggle

Does Judaism Fall Short?

Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: Resistance and Accommodation (University Press of New England, $29.95), a new collection of essays by Dr. Tova Hartman, is an important contribution to religious feminist studies and activism, shedding light on the exciting and nuanced phenomenon of Orthodox Jewish feminism. For those in her world, her book explores, in an erudite and insightful manner, many of the key issues that movement must contend with, such as the emphasis on tzniut (modesty) for Jewish females (alone), male God language in liturgy, the emotional and spiritual complexity of observing niddah (the laws surrounding menstruation), and the backlash against religious expressions of feminism in the Orthodox world.

The frame for this discussion is Hartman’s own journey as a feminist and a Modern Orthodox Jew — from her frustrated attempts to increase ritual participation for women in her liberal (yet not feminist enough for her taste) Orthodox synagogue, to her decision to start a new synagogue in Jerusalem, Shira Hadashah, that would better reflect her vision of an Orthodox community that incorporates the ethical claims of feminism into its ritual life and religious experience.

The overarching theme is the conjoining of two worlds to which Hartman feels committed: feminism and Modern Orthodoxy. From the book’s opening, she makes it clear that she will make no attempts to harmonize or even reconcile what are in her mind equally compelling — yet incompatible — world views. She offers only two options: remaining within tradition or leaving it. She decides to remain within (“reengaging tradition” through a feminist lens) thus resigning herself to being “permanently dissatisfied.”

She is willing to forgive her current community, which, she explains, is not fully egalitarian in order to remain Orthodox. If feminism represents Hartman’s vision of a truly ethical world, and if religion is meant to represent the divine by challenging human beings to better themselves and the world as a whole, an intriguing question arises: Why should she settle for a religion that may fall short of her own notion of right and wrong?

This book is a must-read for anyone interested or involved in religious feminism of any stripe, and it leaves a reader with much to ponder. For instance: When does one’s emotional, cultural, and even spiritual attachment to tradition justify compromising the redemptive possibilities of religion? And when does it not?

Haviva Ner-David is a privately ordained rabbi in Jerusalem. She is the author of Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (JFL Books, 2000) and Finding Chanah’s Voice: A Feminist Challenge to Religious Patrarchy (in process).