In 1982, noted Israeli thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote that “the question of women and Judaism is more crucial than all the political problems of the people and its state. Failure to deal with it seriously threatens the viability of the Judaism of Torah and Mitzvoth in the contemporary world.”
Despite the passage of 20 years, and several advances for Orthodox women, the question of women and Judaism — that is, Orthodox Judaism — remains just as pressing, if not more pressing, than it was in Leibowitz’s day. Tamar Ross, in her new book, “Expanding the Palace of Torah,” analyzes why feminism poses such a great challenge to the Orthodox establishment and why there has been no systematic resolution. Ross, an associate professor of Jewish thought at Bar-Ilan University, suggests an alternative theological framework, which, she believes, will allow the Jewish legal system, known as Halacha, to accommodate feminism while maintaining continuity with tradition. Her book is — per Leibowitz’s prescription — a brave, in many ways radical and essential, attempt to deal with the problem seriously, and is a model of erudition and scholarship. And yet, even Ross cannot provide an answer that is likely to satisfy Orthodox feminists unhappy with their lot.
Ross’s central contention is that Orthodoxy’s problem with feminism is about much more than men protecting their power or a community defending tradition. Feminism, she says, teaches that Jewish tradition bears a pervasive masculine bias — not just in its laws, the gender ascribed to God, or in the way the male is normative and the female is “other,” but in a very male way of thinking behind our image of God, our ideal relationship with Him and the kind of society He prescribes. This poses a severe challenge to the very notion of divine revelation: “[I]f the Torah’s portrayal of the world and God so clearly reflects a quintessentially male point of view, how are we to view the source of such a Torah?” Ross asks. “What sort of God would ignore the voices, insights, and experiences of half the human race? Because the perspective of the Torah is limited, can we really credit it with being divine?” As a result of this, the halachic system is also undermined, because it derives its authority from the divine origins of the Torah.
“In raising such challenges,” Ross writes, “feminism can be seen as undermining the deepest foundations upon which rabbinic Judaism — as an authoritarian system — depends for its survival.”
Much of the book is taken up by a survey of rabbinic and academic responses to this challenge. On the philosophical plane, either traditionalists have affirmed patriarchy by claiming that the male-biased structure was God’s will and must be submitted to, or they have offered apologetics claiming that the norm was in fact
benign and that reactions were misguided. These reactions, Ross says, are not persuasive for many women.
On the legalistic plane, Ross skims over the ultra-Orthodox system of “legal realism,” which leaves halachic decisions to the personal discretion of individual rabbis, and concentrates her analysis on the modern-Orthodox community’s “meta-halakhic ideologies,” or philosophies of Halacha. These “prefer to ground halakha on the proper application of a closed and static system of rules, conceptual categories, and/or values implicit in the codified source,” and are meant to be more “objective.”
Through an analysis of the halachic treatment of women’s learning and women’s prayer groups, however, Ross convincingly demonstrates that these legal systems are every bit as subjective as legal realism, applying textual readings and conceptual principles inconsistently to fit preconceived attitudes. As a result, they never will be able to provide a systematic solution to the feminist problem. Indeed, Ross writes, “Because even religious law is not immune to the vicissitudes of shifting historical contingencies and human biases, it is doubtful whether any systematic theory of halakha can, on its own, provide satisfactory solutions for women who sense injustice within its confines.” From whence, then, shall salvation come?
To answer feminism’s theological challenge to the Torah, Ross proposes an approach to divine revelation. She calls it “cumulativism, ” and it argues that the revelation at Sinai was no onetime affair. God has continued to speak with new messages throughout history, and can be heard through the rabbinical interpretation of Jewish texts. Although the new messages may appear to contradict the old, they do not replace them but rather build on them.
By refusing to dismiss old ideas, Ross can find religious meaning in them even if they are problematic to “modern ears.” In terms of the feminist question, therefore, she can accept that Judaism initially adopted a patriarchal model because it had certain benefits that were essential at the time — for example, helping preserve the traditional family unit that helped transmit tradition. But the new idea of feminism, she writes, should be seen as “the manifestation of higher moral sensibilities,” meaning, for men, “voluntarily ceding the privileges of hierarchy for the sake of greater equality and justice.” Rather than challenging traditional Judaism, it should be seen as a “new revelation of God’s will” and a “rare religious privilege.”
The obvious weakness of this argument — apart from its close resemblance to the theory of revelation of the Conservative movement — is that, short of a voice or text from heaven, what constitutes the next “revelation of God’s will” remains subject to dispute. Even in the unlikely case that Ross could persuade traditionalists to accept the idea of cumulativism, why should men who grew up believing that patriarchy was God’s will believe that He/She had changed their mind — on Ross’s say-so?
Men and women who are genuinely looking for ways to square feminism with Orthodox belief, however, will probably welcome Ross’s contribution, which relies heavily on ideas already present in tradition. And perhaps, according to the next stage in Ross’s thinking, that is enough to ultimately make a difference. For on the practical level, rather than suggesting an overhaul of the halachic system, she suggests understanding it differently. A legal system’s ultimate authority, she says, comes not from a set of objective rules or principles in the text but from the willingness of the community to understand the law in a certain way and live by it. Any group with an “alternative vision” of the way the law should be interpreted can, within certain limits, decide to live it out, hoping that they will create the conditions for wider acceptance and change. Within the limits of what Orthodoxy deems acceptable, feminists should, therefore, simply forge ahead with their innovations, hoping to create “facts on the ground.”
What her advice to feminists amounts to is, in essence, carry on doing what you’re doing. This is unfortunately a complete anti-climax, a terribly disappointing conclusion to a brilliant book. While in the past such a strategy has produced some changes, so far it has not managed to solve the major issues of the Orthodox feminists’ dilemma, as Ross’s book itself has demonstrated convincingly. At the current rate, real change could take generations. The question is, will women who are desperately unhappy with their lot today be willing to wait until their granddaughters come of age for satisfying solutions?
Reading Ross, it is easy to understand why so many Orthodox men fear female scholarship. Her book offers a powerful alternate theological vision that challenges some of the basic assumptions of the Orthodox Jewish world, and gives a glimpse of just how revolutionary feminism could be to Orthodoxy. In the end, however, Ross’s creativity is hampered by her unwillingness to rock the Orthodox establishment. For the moment, at least, the male traditionalists are safe.
Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism
By Tamar Ross
Brandeis University Press, 352 pages, $29.95.