- Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition, and: Active Voices: Women in Jewish Culture
Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition, edited by T. M. Rudavsky, and Active Voices: Women in Jewish Culture, edited by Maurie Sacks, offer some of the finest recent scholarship on women and gender issues in Judaism. Each collection provides exciting pieces regarding women in Jewish history, literature, religion and culture. Equally important as the individual scholarly contributions, however, is the debate on the nature of feminist scholarship about Judaism which emerges when the two volumes are considered together. Although both books are firmly based in feminist methodologies, they offer quite different approaches for understanding gender, women and women’s experience in Judaism.
Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition emerged from a conference of the same name held at Ohio State University in 1993. The word “gender” in the title implies that the essays are about both men and women in Jewish life, which is true of several essays, but unfortunately neither the Introduction nor the articles discuss the boundaries or connections between feminism, gender studies and women’s studies. The subtitle, “The Transformation of Tradition,” reveals an underlying assumption found in the Introduction and several of the articles: that Jewish feminist scholarship strives to “transform” traditional Judaism. (The precise nature of that transformation is never directly discussed, however.) Thus, while this volume offers a wide variety of feminist scholarship in Jewish Studies, the title, Introduction and, in particular, first section of essays all link the study of women and Judaism with the transformation of Judaism itself. In this respect, this volume follows earlier, now classic, Jewish feminist anthologies (Elizabeth Koltun’s The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives and Suzannah Heschel’s On Being a Jewish Feminist 1), presenting some essays which [End Page 271] critique the patriarchal nature of Judaism and others which rethink traditional Jewish concepts with an eye towards creating equitable power relations between men and women in Jewish life.
If Gender and Judaism’s organizing principle is Jewish women’s marginalization and the gendered power relations which support it, then the thread that connects the essays in Active Voices is Sacks’ insight that women are, in fact, at the center of Jewish life and always have been. Noting that, despite feminist critiques, many Jewish women have experienced their lives as rich, meaningful, spiritual and satisfying, Sacks presents essays “that address women as agents within Jewish cultural systems.” 2 (Hence the title.) From the perspective of an anthropologist, she argues that, 1) insofar as scholars focus on “religious texts or . . . the formal Judaism of the synagogue and house of learning,” 3 women indeed appear to be marginal; and 2) women’s experience of being marginal is true primarily for women in a particular cultural milieu: late 20th century, middle-class America.
Regarding the first point, Sacks strongly insists that scholars study women’s religious lives in the broad cultural context in which they exist and that the categories of women’s lives shape our analyses. If we are only willing to look at Jewish women’s lives in comparison to the public and communal lives of Jewish men, then we have no other choice but to term Judaism “misogynistic.” But, when looked at in a wider context, women’s lives can be seen for what they are: central to Jewish life and culture. 4 In short, what scholars look at determines our categories of analysis and we need to look at Judaism from women’s perspectives if we want to truly understand either Jewish women’s experiences or Judaism itself. In effect, Sacks is pointing out that when trying to understand women’s lives by focusing on those areas of Jewish life dominated by men, feminists perpetuate patriarchal categories and definitions of Jewish life.
Sacks’ second critique of much feminist scholarship questions the applicability of feminist values to all women. She suggests that the problems...