- Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives by Nelly Las
Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives
English translation by Ruth Morris
Lincoln–London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 261 pp.
The term “transnational” in feminist scholarship usually denotes an attempt to transcend the limits of Western feminism by exploring the material and ideological effects of a globalized corporatist economy on women in underprivileged countries, in migratory movements and in diasporic communities. In Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives, Nelly Las uses the term in its less specialized sense, referring for the most part to two Western countries, the United States and France, as her main contexts.
To some extent the exploration of the similarities and differences between American and French Jewish feminisms recalls an earlier attempt, dating back to the 1980s, to identify philosophical and historical differences between North American and French feminisms. Transnational feminist theory, however, seeks to transcend national boundaries, highlighting the experience of the “other” within the nation, the experience of migrant, refugee or displaced women, and the assimilatory pressures on naturalized immigrants. It seeks as well to transcend the comparative frame which typified earlier stages of feminist analysis, seeking instead to create dialogue, communication and alliances between feminist communities across national, racial and class boundaries. Since these are not the goals of Las’s book, her use of the term “transnational” in her title is not entirely appropriate; however, her book goes a long way toward introducing cultural and political difference into the concept of “Jewish feminism,” which tends to be limited to its religious meaning and to a mostly American location. The consideration of an international compass broadens the meaning and extends the implications of what it means to be a Jewish feminist today.
Las’s comparative approach focuses for the most part on analogies and differences between American and French Jewish feminisms. Her main concern is with the relative success or failure of each feminist community to integrate Jewish versus feminist commitments and priorities. Her general argument is that Jewish feminism has enjoyed broader social and political acceptance in the United States, while in France “it is still very much a private affair, expressed almost exclusively in private [End Page 132] conversations” (p. 64). Las explains Jewish feminism’s higher profile in the U.S. as resulting, on the one hand, from the greater integration of feminism in American political and social life, and on the other, from the active involvement of Jewish women in the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Movement. Drawing on citations from Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Elly Bulkin, Evelyn Beck, Alice Bloch and others, she argues that American women have been drawn to feminism by its emphasis on social justice and equality and its struggle against oppression, themes they identify in their Jewish heritage, history and memory. Rather than leading to conflict and tension, she asserts, feminist activism in the United States led to greater commitment to Judaism and Jewish values: “The introspection encouraged by consciousness-raising sometimes helped Jewish women discover or affirm their Jewish identity” (p. 71). The threats to Jewish feminist identity, she implies, emanate from totalizing or dogmatic definitions of either feminism or Judaism.
According to Las, the otherwise successful Jewishness/feminism symbiosis was threatened in the American context by the interreligious confrontation with biased Christian feminist theologians who indicted Judaism for its patriarchal intolerance (pp. 116–142). Las recalls the largely debunked beliefs that Judaism brought an end to a primordial matriarchy and that Jesus was a feminist, which she traces back to one of the founders of the American suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and specifically to her highly controversial book, The Woman’s Bible, which presents Judaism and the Jews as the root cause of women’s oppression (pp. 121–122). She credits Jewish feminists like Judith Plaskow and Susannah Heschel for denouncing these anti-Judaic feminist myths and praises Christian theologians like Katharina von Kellenbach for condemning the invidious competition between the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible (pp. 127–130). However, Las’s recommendation that feminist criticism refrain from questioning the Hebrew Bible (pp. 132–133) contradicts her own valorization in...