- Between Feminism and Orthodox Judaism: Resistance, Identity, and religious Change in Israel by Yael Israel-Cohen
The main aim of Yael Israel-Cohen's book, the product of a PhD dissertation at Tel Aviv University, is to present the relatively new phenomenon of Israeli modern Orthodox women who struggle with the oxymoron of Jewish Orthodoxy and feminism. The author is a sociologist who analyzes these women's religious conceptions, identity formation, and various strategies for solving their inner conflict, as adherents to a patriarchal religion who resist its patriarchal nature. Israel-Cohen bases her study on theoretical writings concerning the question of religions and feminism and on 45 interviews with men and women who are active members of some innovative organizations who deal with this oxymoron. The book is well written and the many citations from the interviews are illuminating. I have to admit that since I am both orthodox and feminist, I was among the interviewees. Moreover, I was an active member of the most prominent organization which is dealt with extensively in this book—Kolech—and I also published a number of papers discussing Kolech.
For someone who is not acquainted with this topic, Israel-Cohen's book is an eye opener. In her introduction the author discusses the nature of religious change in modern times. It sheds light on Jewish Orthodoxy's stagnation or sometimes even its retreat concerning its attitude towards the status of women. The author explains that the rabbis' attitude towards women is not only a result of halachic considerations, but not less so seeing women's inferior halachic status as a symbol of adherence to the Orthodox way of life.
Modern Orthodox women dwell in a paradoxical world. They are considered equal partners in the secular world, but in their religious public sphere, they are considered inferior. How can they bridge the gap which lies between their two worlds? The author focuses mainly on the female voice, and on the ideas and actions which women developed in order to be able to live in their religious Orthodox world, while trying to reshape it.
The book describes new egalitarian synagogues, new institutions which promote women's Talmudic learning, new professions, like halachic consultants and female advocates in the religious courts, and above all, a new women's organization, Kolech, (your voice). Kolech's aim is to solve problems, like those of deserted women (agunot), prenuptial agreements, and many other issues including the problem of Orthodox women's right to practice as rabbis.
Most of the activists mentioned in the research are learned women who based their demands on a halachic basis. Israel-Cohen points out [End Page 145] their two strategies: passive resistance, which tries to avoid clashes with the rabbis, and active resistance, which causes some harsh clashes with the rabbinic establishment. Both strategies have brought about some desired outcomes. Passive resistance raised the consciousness of men and women alike to women's agony at being looked down at. Active resistance was instrumental in founding new creative ways to introduce equality into Orthodox rituals. Perhaps the best known achievement is the egalitarian synagogue named Shira Chadasha (a new song), in which women take part in reading the Torah for all the congregation together, men and women. This raised a lot of controversy, but it also attracted a few hundred followers and was the trailblazer of around twenty more similar synagogues around the world. Israel-Cohen concludes that both strategies, the passive and the active, were influential in promoting women's equality in the modern Orthodox world.
The author asks, why do these feminist women cling to Orthodoxy, even though they completely negate its patriarchal basis? The interviewees admitted that their attachment to their Orthodox community and their attachment to their Orthodox way of life outweighed their feminism. Moreover, they explained that their wish totransform Orthodoxy was conceived by them as a way of Tikkun Olam, of improving the world.
This research's interesting conclusion is that analyzing the issue of Orthodoxy and feminism shows the emerging...