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Judaism and Women

Women & Men's approaches to the Torah

a womanHistorical: There has been a tradition of Torah teaching and learning by and for men. They have come to accept and even value the limitations of that style and type of learning and come to view alternative methods as suspect. Women, having largely been deprived of such learning, are freer to develop their own approaches to the text.

Psychological: Women are different from men in their reading of texts. They are more likely to analyse the motives of characters, to seek levels of meaning pertinent to the human experience and to want to draw personal relevance – as opposed to legal rulings - from the text.

Literary: Women in the Orthodox world are generally better educated secularly than their male counterparts. They are more likely to have read extensively in the literature of the secular culture and are more likely to draw comparisons between the Torah and other literature. They are also more likely to appreciate the inherent poetic qualities of the text when they are not required to read it in an unchanging chant.

Legal: I would describe the lack of legal authority of women in the religious world as liberating in terms of Torah scholarship. Men have been constrained in their interpretations by fear that they could be leading to unintended halachic implications. Ironically, women who have no such illusions or constraints, have been freer to revisit the text and to delve into new or dormant interpretations.

Jewish writing by and for women

We can also observe that there has been a flourishing of Jewish writing for and by women.

Titles such as The Five Books of Miriam; And All your Children Shall be Learned; Standing Again at Sinai and Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach are just a few of those now offering serious analysis of the Biblical text from a feminine perspective.

Institutions of learning for Jewish women

There are numerous institutions for Jewish learning, from the conservative model Nishmat to the radical Bat Kol. There are scholars such as Dr Judith Plaskow, Leah Shakdiel, Dr Ellen Frankel, Tamar Ross and Dr Susannah Heschel. There are High Schools, foremost of which is Pelech in Jerusalem, whose principal visited Australia as guest of The Shalom Institute, which undertake to train Jewish women in loyalty to Halacha as well as commitment to Feminist values based in Western liberal thinking. These women who teach Torah are also academics in the Western sense of the highest calibre; their students are imbued with the dual tradition of learning.

The Biblical image of women

ESTHER - The Savior who becomes a National Heroine

An understanding of Esther’s deep commitment to her people changes any initial impression we may have received of her as a woman who  compromised her honour by going complacently to the palace, losing contact with her past, and becoming a woman of the harem.  Here, her role was to be pleasing in the sight of the king, to amuse and satisfy him – with all that this role implies.

The danger she underwent for the sake of the nation, and her declaration of a day of celebration and feasting, was the act of a woman who had carried out a dangerous mission and felt a need to perpetuate the mission, not only in the deepest social and national sense but also as something of profound significance in her own life.  She felt her deed had value as a sacrifice and epitomized the many tasks fulfilled for national or ideological reasons. Into this category must come those tasks, difficult and perhaps among the less pleasant, that women must sometimes carry out to achieve their goal: to surrender themselves totally, while protecting their identity and remembering where loyalty must lie.

In the case of Esther, she was not involved in a dubious temporary love affair but actually became the queen, reaching the heights of ambition and achievement which a woman in those days could hope for. Nevertheless, Esther felt that her task was more important, and that it was up to her to represent the Jewish people at this moment.

The sages have evaluated a role of this kind in connection with Esther:  “Better a transgression for the sake of heaven than a good deed which is not.”  This saying expresses an understanding of the spiritual dedication that goes beyond mere personal danger and involves also a degree of personal humiliation, a renunciation of self.

From the point of view of the Jewish woman, Esther’s role was not honorable.  Had she married a fellow Jew and become a decent housewife, the feeling would have been that she was fulfilling a mitzvah (for the sake of heaven or otherwise) in a perfect, dutiful way.  The very fact that she was in the palace to begin with was, in a certain sense, the result of a chain of “transgressions in the name of God.”

Other generations have maintained that when a man gives up his life while his soul is pure and unsullied, he has reached one level of sacrifice; and that there is a further level, where an individual not only gives up his life but also exposes his soul to a danger whose result none can foretell. 

This test of sacrifice, the hidden, unexplained test which is not stressed in the Scroll of Esther, changes this woman from a mere historical figure to a national heroine.  The mechanism of the miracle is plainly revealed and visible.  All its elements are clearly spread before us.  Esther is the woman around whom this miracle revolves, the saviour whom we later bless in the religious festival of Purim recalling her act of heroism.

Jewish women scholars

Nehama Liebowitz-teacher of Israel

Nehama Leibowitz, who died in Jerusalem on Shabbat, 5 Nisan, 5757 (April 12, 1997) at the age of 92, was a phenomenon in the world of Torah study and education. A Russian-born graduate of the University of Berlin who immigrated to Israel in 1931, Nehama became the instructor of three generations of teachers and acquired an extensive and profound influence on Torah pedagogy worldwide — no mean feat for anyone, let alone for a woman. She taught thousands of others inside and outside Israel, including leading public figures.

From 1942 to 1971 Nehama issued her renowned "gilyonot" (circulars) on the weekly Torah portions, for which undertaking she was later awarded the prestigious Israel Prize. Nehama would pose questions about the Torah text and selected commentaries, and students from all parts of the world and all walks of life would respond. No correspondence course ever had so many diligent participants over so long a period of time; no other teacher could have sustained such interest for so long. Nearly twenty years after the "gilyonot" ceased to be formally circulated, her "students" would send in their replies to her questions, and Nehama, red pen in hand, would read them, assess them, and return them. Over 40,000 sheets were counted before she gave up that particular effort after only a few years!

Aviva Zornberg - leading living woman Torah scholar

The leading living female Torah scholar today is Aviva Zornberg. In the introduction to her important work on the Book of B’reishit, The Beginning of Desire, she writes the following: “essentially my way of reading sources is highly untheoretical [should we read “instinctive”?] the work of interpretation is done “in the field”, in close attention to themes and motifs I sense within the words on the page. It is a kind of listening for the meta-messages of the text. My assumption is that the narrative block that constitutes a Parsha has thematic integrity”.

I would suggest that most earlier scholars did not think of the text in that way at all. It is interesting to note that scholars, such as those at Bar Ilan University, who are grappling with the integrity of the text and each Parsha, are drawn primarily from former students of Nehama!

Zornberg explains that her sources “include areas such as literature, literary criticism, psychology, philosophy and anthropology.” Anyone who has had the privilege of learning with her knows that this is no exaggeration. She explains that she uses various sources to “set up a field of tension and mutual illumination with the Biblical text”. Explaining her use of Rashi (and how it differs from the traditional use), she cites an example. When Rashi comments on Joseph’s abstention from sexual intercourse during a famine, [male] Jewish scholarship has expounded on this basis laws about the proper behaviour. Aviva, on the other hand, reads the commentary to gain insight into the person who was Joseph, his inner conflicts and personality. She does not reject or belittle Rashi’s greatness; she puts it to new use.

For Aviva and for Nehama, it is the integrity of the text that is beyond criticism. No commentary can possibly cover all the possibilities and all the richness of the Torah. The task of the reader is to bring as many resources as she can to bear on the text so that it is a living source of Jewish life, values and joy.

Leah Shakdiel - Israeli teacher of Jewish Feminism

Born in Jerusalem in 1951 to a family of Modern Orthodox pioneers, Leah Shakdiel moved to Yeruham, a small devleopment town in the Negev Desert, in 1978, with a group committed to Halacha, social responsibility, peace, and ecology. Married to psychologist Dr. Moshe Landsman, and mother of Rachel (19), Tzvi (17), and Pinchas (15).

BA from Bar Ilan University in English and French Literatures. Other studies include Bible and Oral Law, Jewish Thought, Jewish History, and Education. Taught Hebrew and Jewish studies, developed teaching materials, trained teachers, coordinated and directed projects and institutions in the areas of education and community. Socially and politically active on behalf of peace, empowering the disadvantaged, civil and human rights, and feminism. As a School for Educational Leadership Fellow (1994-6) developed a model for feminist pedagogy for Israel. 

Currently works in teacher training in Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, gender equity programs for the Ministry of Education, and teaches Jewish feminism in The Shechter Institute in Jerusalem. She is on the faculty of Bat Kol and writes extensively for Judaic academic journals and popular journals, including online publications. In 1988 became Israel’s first female member of a local Religious Council, following a successful struggle that ended with a landmark Supreme Court decision.

The following newspaper article gives some idea of the struggle that was involved in this and the importance of this achievement.

December 2, 1998

Battle Looms in Israel Over 'Mixed' Religious Councils

By DEBORAH SONTAG

JERUSALEM -- For years, the Israeli government has resisted court orders to place Reform and Conservative Jews on the all-Orthodox, taxpayer-financed religious councils that wield tremendous power in every town and city of this country.

Now, with all appeals exhausted, the Religious Affairs Ministry faces a Supreme Court deadline to integrate the councils by the end of December and fierce pressure from Orthodox groups here and in the United States to defy it. Ultra-Orthodox politicians are so outraged that they have threatened to bring down the government if the councils -- which the courts consider administrative rather than religious bodies -- become "mixed."

"We don't believe in this pluralism business," said Avraham Ravitz, leader of the United Torah Judaism Party's four-member faction in parliament. "Why should we let in the Reform and the Conservative? To us, it's like if a Lutheran or a Baptist would go to the Vatican and say, 'Hey, we're all Christians.' They would be thrown down the steps."

Under the court order, the newly integrated Jerusalem council, the country's largest religious council, must be appointed by Thursday. The names of the new Tel Aviv and Haifa councils were published last week. All must be seated by the end of the year.

On the surface, this is a cultural debate about sectarian pluralism in a primarily non-Orthodox Jewish society where the Orthodox control everything from restaurant inspections to marriage ceremonies, burials and conversions. Just beneath the surface, with tensions between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox rising, it also reflects a new anxiety about the close relationship between religion and the state in the Jewish homeland.

Given the fat budgets and bloated staffs of the more than 160 religious councils in Israel, it is also a prosaic political battle over an inefficient, costly and sometimes corrupt patronage system.

This casts the whole issue in an odd light, since the people fighting on principle to integrate the councils do not believe they should exist.

"I don't believe there should be state-financed religious councils," said Anat Hoffman, a leftist Jerusalem City Council member who filed the first lawsuit to integrate the councils in 1989. "If they are financed by the government to provide services, they should be incorporated into the municipalities. But still, if they are to exist, then they should be open and democratic and representative."

The councils operate as a kind of auxiliary municipality, providing services affecting both religious and non-religious people. On the one hand, they sustain the neighborhood synagogues and ritual baths of the Orthodox. On the other, they control the marriage bureaus -- Orthodox ceremonies are the only ones recognized by the state -- and the kosher inspections vital to almost every restaurant and food shop here. (The ultra-Orthodox privately maintain a second kosher inspection system, which grants seals according to their stricter rules.)

Each city's religious council has two chief rabbis -- one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic, each with a driver -- and a chairman who earns the same salary as the deputy mayor.

In Jerusalem, where the council meets in a room decorated with Wailing Wall wallpaper, the chairman takes home about $70,000 a year, as do his four deputies. The Jerusalem council oversees a $12 million budget for daily operations and development, with 600 kosher inspectors, 50 neighborhood rabbis, 12 ritual butchers, and 23 men charged with checking whether every green grocer has tithed 10 percent of his fruits and vegetables to the poor.

With the deadline looming, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the leader of the Conservative movement in Israel, said he was hopeful but not optimistic that he would finally be allowed to take his seat on the Jerusalem council.

"After almost 10 years of battle, I want to believe that eventually reason will prevail," Bandel said. "Of course, it is true that they have not been welcoming. They have in fact used public funds in order to slander us. Prior to the High Holy Days, the Jerusalem religious council put paid ads in newspapers warning the public not to be tempted by the propaganda of the Conservative movement."

But Bandel remains hopeful. "Still, if only we had a chance to work together, I'm sure they would come to realize that the things which unite us are far greater than the things that divide us," he concluded.

Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag, the Jerusalem council chairman, sounded far more skeptical about the possibility of a working relationship. "Believe me, if one woman or one Reform sat at our council table, they'd have less to say than I would at Bill Clinton's table," he said, using Reform as a generic term for non-Orthodox. "So what does it mean to them? It gives them legitimacy. They sit side by side with Rabbi Ralbag, who went to the finest, greatest yeshivas."

Many Orthodox religious leaders and ultra-Orthodox politicians see the move to integrate the councils as an attack orchestrated by American Jews, whose non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have, in their view, assimilated into the Christian world and diluted the religion.

Echoing that sentiment, Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization of Orthodox groups, sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a sharply worded letter urging him to prevent the integration of the councils and to avert granting "official credibility" to Reform and Conservative movements. It said that these movements, given their high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, "appear likely to lead to Jewish oblivion."

In order to skirt the High Court's final ruling, some, including the country's chief Sephardic rabbi, have gone so far as to propose eliminating the councils altogether, which puts them in accord with the left. But unlike the left, they would propose turning over the councils' responsibilities to the rabbis. 

In five separate judgments over a 9-year court battled waged by the Israel Religious Action Center for the Reform movement the Supreme Court has repeatedly, and unanimously, held that the government cannot discriminate on the basis of affiliation in appointing representatives to the religious councils.

In every city, the religious council, appointed by the religion minister, the local chief rabbi and the municipal council, is supposed to reflect the make-up of the population. The municipal representatives are supposed to be nominated by the council members, mirroring the results of municipal elections.

But they have been bastions of power for two Orthodox religious parties: the National Religious Party and Shas. And, as a Jerusalem Post editorial calling for the councils' abolition said, they have also "played a starring role in the annual State Comptroller's Report on political patronage, profligate spending and corruption in governmental institutions."

Until 1987, the councils were not only all Orthodox, but all male as well. Following a court order, Leah Shakdiel, who is Orthodox, became the first woman seated on a religious council, in the tiny town of Yeroham.

Two years after that hurdle was crossed, the leftist Meretz Party filed suit to place Reform and Conservative Jews as their representatives on the councils in Jersualem, Tel Aviv and a few other municipalities.

But the court judgments were consistently sidestepped by the government, with a few exceptions. Last year, Joyce Brenner, a social worker and Reform Jew originally from Brooklyn, won a battle to be seated on the religious council in Netanya. In response, Eli Suissa, who was then the religion minister, resigned for 24 hours in protest so that Netanyahu would have to sign the appointment.

Even after the appointment, however, it took another court order to compel the members of the Netanya council to hold a meeting. They essentially recessed for eight months in order not to sit down with Dr. Brenner.

The first meeting was a screaming match. "They said horrible things, like it's worse to have you than an Arab, a Muslim, a Christian," Dr. Brenner said. Gradually, though, they got used to having her around.

"They don't dare sit near me," she said. "I sit at one edge and everyone else at the other. But at least they're polite. They greet me. They offer me tea. And before the last meeting, one member actually called me and lobbied for my vote on a particular issue."

Still, Dr. Brenner said she believes most of the council's work goes on outside the meetings, and that she will never be more than a minority voice during the formal sessions.

"It's a matter of principle, my presence," she said. "As a reform Jew and as a watchdog."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Blu Greenberg - Author, Lecturer and Orthodox Feminist

Blu Greenberg is an author and lecturer who has published widely on the issues of feminism, Orthodoxy, and the Jewish family, as well as on other subjects of scholarly interest. Greenberg is the author of "On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition," "How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household," "Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust," and "King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba," a children's book co-authored with the Rev. Linda Tarry.

Since 1973, she has been active in the movement to bridge feminism and Orthodox Judaism. She chaired the first International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in 1997 and the second in 1998. She is the co-founder and first president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and has served on the boards of many organizations, including EDAH, the Covenant Foundation, Project Kesher, U.S. Israeli Women to Women, and the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers.

She is the current chair of the Petschek National Jewish Family Center, and a former president of the Jewish Book Council of America. She serves on the editorial board of Hadassah Magazine and on the advisory boards of Lilith, the Jewish Student Press Service, and the International Research Institute on Jewish Women.

She was a participant in Bill Moyers' "Genesis" special on PBS and a consultant to the film "The Prince of Egypt," and she serves on the Board of Religious Advisors to PBS's "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." She lectures widely in Jewish communities and at universities in the U.S. and abroad.

She is married to Rabbi Irving Greenberg. They have five children and 12 grandchildren.

The impact of Orthodox feminism

a womanJudaism's Orthodox feminist movement has succeeded in opening doors for women committed both to Jewish law and gender equality. After 30 years of steadily pulsing its messages into the culture, feminism has reached deeply even into the most traditional religious communities. The radical transformation of divorce law in Egypt--making it easier for women to end a marriage--is but one example. Discussion among American Catholics about the ordination of women is another.

Orthodox Judaism, too, has been touched by this new social movement. Orthodox feminism, once considered an oxymoron, is a fact of life. Questions about women's roles and rights are raised daily on issues that were uncontested for centuries.

The consciousness of the entire modern Orthodox community has been raised, with rabbis readily acknowledging women's issues to be a primary concern in their congregations. Conferences on feminism and Orthodoxy in 1998 and 2000 turned out record numbers of participants, 2,000 strong; many showed up unregistered, boarding planes the night before as if impelled by some mysterious force. The explosion in Jewish women's higher learning is unprecedented, with women studying Talmud as if by natural right. One would not guess that these texts were virtually closed to women for 2,000 years.

New Orthodox synagogue architecture reflects the desire to create space in which women will not feel at the periphery, creating a women's section on par with the men's section. Orthodox women's prayer groups, though not universally welcomed, have grown in number and in size. Models of women's leadership--congregational interns (the female equivalent to assistant rabbis), presidents of synagogues, principals of Jewish day schools, advocates in the Jewish divorce courts, advisers in halachic (Jewish legal) matters--all are new to the Orthodox scene.

Yet, just as all these gains are being made, "feminism"--the very word itself--has increasingly become a red-flag word inside Orthodoxy. When feminism mattered not at all, it was not a subject for discussion. But suddenly, feminism is at the door--or halfway through the door--of modern Orthodoxy. And many inside have squared off.

Some examples: A mainstream Orthodox women's organization was invited to join as co-sponsor of the 1998 Orthodox feminism conference, a role that same group had played the previous year. The organization's leadership said yes, but only on condition that conference organizers drop "feminism" from the title. (They refused.) And this year, women from 11 countries met to form an international Orthodox feminist organization, but the issue of whether "feminism" should be part of the title went unresolved. Probably half the Orthodox women who would be described by any objective standard as feminist shy away from the word in defining themselves.

At some level, I understand this. During the first 10 years of the women's movement, I often used the word "feminism" to criticize excesses; during the next 10, I'd begin statements with "I'm not a feminist but..."--though clearly I was speaking the movement's values. Perhaps the expedient thing to do would be to drop this internally fractious word. Yet each time I consider the idea, I reject it, for many reasons.

To excise "feminism" from the lexicon of Orthodox Jews would constitute a colossal act of ingratitude. Like all women of these times, I have reaped the fruits of the labors of the founding mothers. They took a dedicated and lonely stand for many years, electing to make themselves vulnerable while others lashed out or clucked their tongues

A second reason not to run scared is that the movement has undergone a great deal of fine-tuning. Men are no longer perceived as the enemy, nor is the family considered the locus of abuse for women. Indeed, feminism serves as a model of how all social movements need time to mature and rebalance.

But there is yet another reason to retain the word: precisely because it continues to rankle and irritate. Even in the midst of fundamental societal change, the temptation to pull back to the old ways is always there. Feminism, with its steady beat of cognitive dissonance, prevents that slide.

Carrying the term also offers an Orthodox feminist the opportunity to define what she is, namely, a woman who believes in: the equal dignity of women within Orthodoxy; expanding the spiritual, intellectual, ritual, and communal opportunities for women to the fullest extent possible within halakah; the elimination of all injustice and suffering for Orthodox women arising out of hierarchical laws, such as Jewish divorce law (which puts power to end a marriage totally in the hands of the husband). 

What is she not? A nullifier of women in family roles, as the stereotypical charge goes. Nor does she reject the chain of authority; rather, she stays within community, observes halachah, and attempts to resolve complaints by engaging those who hold the interpretive keys in their hands, the rabbis.

But as Orthodox feminism is also a movement in its infancy, so it must remain open-minded. As we seek to redefine the role of women in Orthodoxy, we do not yet know what will be preserved as distinctive-but-equal gender roles and what will be judged as hierarchical and unjust, and therefore discarded. Thus, the more dialogue, the more input, the more well-intentioned criticism, the sooner will we be able to sort out matters. All voices should be heard in this process of discovery, even oppositional ones, and they should be heard in the presence of each other, rather than in whispered campaigns and innuendo. Despite the fact that some believe feminism will destroy or water down Judaism, Orthodox feminism should be understood as a service to the community, a building up of faithfulness and commitment. Women are asking to enter the tradition more fully, not to walk away from it.

Thus, feminists should see themselves not as supplicants at the door, but as bearers of a great tradition, refreshing that tradition with women's new spiritual energy and revitalizing it with the ethical challenge of equality for women, thus bringing us one step closer to perfection of the world.

 

This text reproduced (with slight adaptation) with permission from Peta Pellach-Jones.

 

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