Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism

Author: Tova Hartman
Published: 2007
Website: Amazon Page

Feminism is of deep importance to me, and Judaism has become increasingly so. As such, I approached this book, given to me by a feminist Jewish supervisor with some level of skepticism. For all the work being done in this intersection, it is quite easy to go awry in the analysis, either erring too far on the side of Orthodoxy, maintaining the ability of the spiritual power of Judaism to overcome oppression and second class status, or on the side of feminism, declaring that the entire system is a patriarchal waste of time. Both of these (well, not so much the former) may in fact be valid responses to the difficulty faced by modern people engaged with an ancient tradition, but that should not be the goal of a book targeted in the way this one was. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Far from it. This book blew me away. It is a sweeping, sophisticated, nuanced, thoughtful analysis of feminism, Judaism, various spaces in which these worldviews have crashed and possible responses and ways forward. Hartman essentially leaves no room for disagreement. She carefully and understandingly giving the “throw it all away” side with entirely believable sympathy while admitting without adornment that that is simply not a viable option for her or other religious/traditionally-minded women while at the same time laying out a possible reaction that feels neither capitulatory nor weak, but instead engages with the strengths of feminism, Judaism and humanity. She is at her best when she essentially asks of Judaism that it be the best it can be, pointing out ways in which it has changed in the past, for the spiritual needs of humans, as a result of historical and social flux and in response to a modernizing secular world.

The book’s commitment to spiritual empowerment combined with its rigorous treatment of halacha and Jewish history were enlightening as well as invigorating, showing clearly that there is a space for people who have had enough of unnecessary patriarchy without wanting to give up something that is so deeply meaningful to them. At the same time, the strident (I use this word as a compliment) critiques of rabbinic antifeminism and accounts given by traditional women of ways in which Judaism has oppressed them* were horrifying and enraging, and made me want to tear my hair out. So obviously, there is more work to do.

*Point of clarification: there were many many accounts, and indeed an entire section devoted to the stories of traditional women who do not feel oppressed or disadvantaged and the ways in which these stories are sometimes ignored by liberal feminist analysis

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