Gender, Judaism and Democracy
Edited by Rachel Elior
Men and Women: Gender, Judaism and Democracy is a collection of articles on the socio-legal status of women in Israel, the religious and cultural context of their rights, and their equality according to religious and civil law. The collection discusses various points of criticism on the legal, social and cultural situation in Israel. The significance of the heritage of the past, the challenges of the present, and constructive criticism aiming to suggest alternative outlooks for the future are elaborated on by eleven different writers.
Prof. Tova Cohen
Prof. Rachel Elior
Dr. Orit Kamir
Prof. Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg
Prof. Chana Safrai
Prof. Pinhas Shifman
Dr. Deborah Weissman
About the Editor
Rachel Elior is the John and Golda Cohen Chair of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Department of Jewish Thought where she is a professor of Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism. She has been a visiting professor at Princeton University, Case Western University, and Tokyo University. She has published and edited ten books, the most recent of which is The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism (Oxford: Littman Library, 2004). Professor Elior is a senior fellow of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute where she participates in the Framework for Contemporary Jewish Thought and Identity.
Praise for Men and Women
Rachel Elior's books, articles and lectures are hallmarked with a unique combination of poetry and philosophy, academic precision and mystical inspiration. Pofessor of Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism at the Hebrew University, author of several internationally acclaimed books, on her way for teaching a semester at Princeton, Elior spent time in Australia. She talked at the 2002 Adelaide Writer's Festival, was interviewed several times on ABC and gave an outstanding course in the Melton program.
Elior is considered the world's foremost experts on Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah and, with her groundbreaking theory, on Kumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
But in Israel she is also widely regarded as one of the most important activists and theoreticians on behalf of women in Israel.
This book is based on a conference with the same title, held in July 1998, with the aim of no less than the changing meanings of gender reality within Israeli culture. Elior initiated a small revolution among a group of modern orthodox women, forming a new organisation, called Kolech (your voice) which became a meaningful framework for religious women who wish to shape their life as equals.
"When I organized this conference in 1998 there was hardly anything and there was no public consciousness to the connection between past and present," she writes.
Covering a wide range of viewpoints and speakers, the conference heard various approaches. Some spoke for maintaining patriarchal order and perpetuating male prerogative and the subjugation of women, some demanded segregation between men and women and the establishment of a separate system of rights and obligations for each. Still others advocated equal rights.
The many voices present in this book clearly demonstrate the existence of a new dialogue, offering an array of absorbingly interesting and often provocative writings. Deborah Weissman for instance, in a wonderfully absorbing essay reviews the issue of suffrage and the respective positions taken by Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel.
Elior published another book earlier in 2004, entitled The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism, on the significance of the unity of holy time. Gender and democracy seems to be a huge leap from mysticism to modernity. But not to Elior. The common thread is time. In Men and Women, Elior discusses the exclusion of women from the traditional institutions of learning, jurisprudence and leadership. Reading Elior what emerges is that women were denied the mastery of time. With no time for study allocated for them in the traditional world, their lives were dictated by males, (fathers, husbands) who ordered women should spend their time as mothers, housewives, always serving their men.
This fine and thoughtful book is a valuable contribution to the examination of the complex interaction between shared and distinct values within the mesh of Judaism and democracy; between sacred traditional and contemporary values and between prevailing norms rooted in the past and changing consciousness.
~ Dr. Vera Ranki, Australian Jewish News
[Men and Women has] made crucial contributions toward understanding women's complicated status and role in society....
Rachel Elior's Men and Women: Gender, Judaism, and Democracy is an...explicit study of gender - of the structuring of both masculinity and femininity and the relations between men and women. Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism at Hebrew University, is widely regarded as one of the most important activists and theoreticians on behalf of women in Israel.
In her introduction, she writes: "In the millennia-old literary tradition of the People of the Book, not a single book written by a woman, or reflecting a woman's point of view, appeared before the late 19th or early 20th century."
This collection of essays originated in a conference held at the Van Leer Institute in July 1998 which was devoted to the changing gender reality within Israeli culture. The conference, she notes, aroused a great deal of interest, and the atmosphere in many sessions was intense, at times even tension-filled and impassioned, reflecting the feeling shared by all participants, men and women alike, that they were taking part in a decisive moment of change.
The collection discusses criticism of the legal, social and cultural situation in Israel, while attending to the importance of the past and tradition, and the complex interaction between shared and distinct values within the mesh of Judaism and democracy, between sacred traditional and contemporary values, between prevailing norms and changing consciousness. It is composed of 11 articles in four areas: The Law: Patriarchy and Equality; Past and Present: History and Culture from a Gender Perspective; Socio-Religious Encounters in the Past; and the Educational Process from a Gender Perspective.
The contributions, by both men and women, religious and secular, academics and practitioners, theoreticians and activists, are varied and challenging. Some of the more subjective articles deal with personal experience and are almost poetic; others take a more distanced and analytical stance. Some authors are rooted in a halachic perspective, while others adopt a more secular approach.
As Elior notes, they are all part of the ongoing Israeli-Jewish dialogue between tradition and progress, and between Judaism and democracy. The various approaches reflect frustration, criticism, doubts and debates, as well as hopes...
[Men and Women is] important to anyone -- scholars, professionals, religious authorities and practitioners -- who cares about equality and the relationships between men and women in Israeli society.
~ Eetta Prince Gibson, The Jerusalem Post
Compiled, organized and edited by Rachel Elior (Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Mysticism, Depart. of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), and published in cooperation with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Men And Women: Gender, Judaism And Democracy is an impressive and diverse collection of essays and articles contributed by eleven scholars and writers on the socio-legal status of women in Israel; the religious and cultural context of women's rights in Israel; and women's equality within the context of the religious codes and civil laws of Israel. A seminal contribution to Women's Studies, Judaic Studies, and Contemporary Israeli Social Issues Studies, Men And Women is especially recommended reading for students of the legal, social, and cultural issues under debate in Israel, along with insightful commentary with respect to the religious and political heritage of the past.
~ Midwest Book Review
In July 1998, a conference devoted to changing the meaning of gender within Israeli culture was held in Israel. It was sponsored by The Framework for Contemporary Jewish Thought and Identity of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
Men and Women: Gender, Judaism, and Democracy, edited by Rachel Elior, is a compilation of 11 articles from that conference. The articles cover four areas: 1)The Law: Patriarchy and Equality; 2)Past and Present: History and Culture from a Gender Perspective; 3)Socio-Religious Encounter in the Past and 4)the Educational Process from a Gender Perspective.
They are erudite and interesting and provide an examination of the role of women in traditional Judaism from linguistic, legal, religious and cultural perspectives. The authors are drawn from the ranks of male and female academics and activists, religious feminists, and Torah and legal scholars.
The editor, Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and mysticism, in the John and Golda Cohen chair of Jewish studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the department of Jewish Thought.
~ Dr. Carol Poll, Jewish Book World
Elior's most recent edited publication, Men and Women: Gender, Judaism and Democracy, is a collection of essays originating from papers prepared for a 1998 conference held in Jerusalem. The conference, of the same name, was organized to explore "the changing meanings of gender reality within Israeli culture" (p. 11), and was sponsored by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. The contributors to the book, and former participants in the conference, are engaged in an "ongoing dialogue between tradition and progress and between Judaism and democracy" (p. 14). The Framework for Contemporary Jewish Thought and Identity at Van Leer conducts the ongoing dialogue. As a (U.S.) political philosopher whose training is in democratic theory and whose work crosses critical theory and Jewish political theory, I am one feminist theorist who would love to participate in such a dialogue. Given the range of fields of specializations covered in the collection, I am sure many U.S. scholars would appreciate such an opportunity to meet over time for concerted discussion under similar auspices. With this slim volume, some of the fruits of what I can only assume is a lively and challenging exchange are now available to those beyond the circle meeting through Jerusalem's Van Leer.
As is often the case in volumes produced from conference papers, the articles are uneven: in length, in method, analytic frame, etc. Also, the use of gender as a somewhat "unifying" lens does not necessarily mean that each piece offers a "feminist" analysis, that the writers all understand themselves as feminists, nor that there is a single feminist approach among the feminists. This, however, does not mean that there aren't many significant contributions made in the collection, and much material that could not be very useful for additional feminist work.
The volume is organized into four conceptual sections: pieces addressing questions of law, history, socio-religious encounters in the past, and the educational process. Many use what the editor and authors term "a gender perspective." Clarification of what that means, and its relation to various forms of feminist scholarship and debate in the academy and society, would have been helpful. The volume offers interesting pieces on such wide-ranging subjects as suffrage, divorce law, a religious minyan, the Haskalah, and monogamy from a variety of gender-based perspectives. Orit Kamir presents a constructive argument for using the notion of "human dignity" in legal arenas in the Israeli context where appeals to gender equality have little efficacy, such as in religious courts. Many pieces in the volume attempt to make sense of a divide perceived between secular democratic arenas and what are called religious or traditional oppressive arenas in Israel. In a poignant example, in forming a minyan on a kibbutz, Chana Safrai asks why Israeli men may make inegalitarian presumptions regarding representation even within highly egalitarian contexts.
Although not every piece addresses operative challenges to gender equality in Israel, it is interesting to note the tone and nature of the explorations coming from scholars for whom political analyses occur within the context of a Jewish state. Worthy of analysis itself is the comparative need for and nature of gender-based political philosophy where Judaism, as in the title of the text, is inherently central (though certainly in different ways) to authoritative structures and in diaspora contexts where what is called Jewish may or may not be religious and must make a claim as authoritative. Living outside of Israel I find this potential comparison a fascinating, probably unintended, sub-text of the volume. I also find the intensity of the need for democracy as a strategy for gender justice palpable in the essays in a way that I would venture would be less so in Jewish feminist collections outside Israel.
Elior and some of the contributors are clear that "democracy" is not static and that there may be differences between democratic ideals and democracies in practice. The tradition of critical democratic theory has not, however, been integrated into the general frame of the analyses. Activist and scholarly analysis of the ways that democratic theory has long been extremely anti-democratic, especially when viewed for signs of gender equality, for example, is largely absent. Absent are critiques of the ways that nearly all (though again with tremendous differentials) existing self-proclaimed democratic regimes have not in the slightest achieved gender justice. Instead, democracy and Judaism are set up generally in the volume as opposites. The frames "modernity" and "tradition" function similarly. Democracy is largely presented as the antidote to the injustices of Judaism, or "religion." Again, one feels the urgency of Israelis to meet the challenges before them in the Jewish state and how theory generated in such a context may diverge from Jewish political attempts to address gender issues outside of Israel.
For instance, compare these pairings to the U.S. example, where gender injustice is also a norm within a supposedly secular democratic polity. Here many Jewish feminists seek to draw on Jewish paradigms and lesson as alternatives to the particular mode of gender injustice in a supposedly "neutral" liberal political system. Scholars and activists are mobilizing feminist and other liberatory interpretations of Jewish (historical, theological, liturgical, cultural, ontological) sources and traditions to transform the continuing systems of oppressions, indignities, marginalizations, and exclusions of this practicing democracy.
In all, therefore, this collection is a welcome contribution to Jewish feminist political scholarship. In addition to the analyses provided within the specific articles, this volume produced in Israel offers rich material to the growing field of Jewish feminist work across geographic location.
~ Marla Brettschneider, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies