Tikkun Magazine, September/October 1999
Israeli Feminism: The Impact of Women's and Gender Studies on Jewish Studies
By Deborah Greniman
In Israel, where the rabbinate together with the army give patriarchy a stranglehold on civil society, the potential impact of the feminist study of Judaism is of far more than personal significance. Nevertheless, it is only recently that the isolated efforts of a few scholars working in different institutions have begun coming together to form a vibrant and distinctive Israeli branch of feminist Jewish women's studies, bringing a breath of fresh air and activism to a field dominated by conservative Judaic studies faculties and yeshivas. This in itself is one of the most important messages to emanate from the conference on "The Impact of Women's and Gender Studies on Jewish Studies" held in Jerusalem in June 1999.
Another extra-textual message to emanate from the conference was the possibility, in a feminist context, for multi-leveled dialogue of a kind that cannot be taken for granted in present-day Israel, or even in the Jewish world. This was emphasized by the cooperative sponsorship of the conference by the Schechter Institute, which is associated with the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement, and the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism at Bar-Ilan, Israel's national-religious university. Also taking an equal part in the discussion of Judaism's sacred texts were a number of Israeli-born, non-religiously-identified women scholars, including talmudists Tal Ilan and Shulamit Valler, who cordially shared a panel with Orthodox scholar Chana Safrai and Conservative scholars David Golinkin and Judith Hauptman.
Running through all these levels of interaction was the intellectual trialogue between Israeli feminist Jewish scholarship, its American older sister (represented by several visiting scholars), and the theoretical tools and ideologies generated by feminist and gender studies - and, more broadly, by postmodern schools of historical and cultural/anthropological inquiry and literary critique. This interplay was highlighted in the session on Bible studies, as panelists debated whether the feminist interpretation of the Bible should be viewed entirely as derash, the infusion of new meanings into old texts, or whether it can also yield peshat, a new understanding of the original meaning(s). Speaking in an Israeli context that has emphasized historicism, Ilana Pardes argued passionately that feminist interpretations hold their own with other modes of critical Bible scholarship in yielding "sparks from the past" - new versions of a peshat which, as midrashist Galit Hasan-Rokem remarked, can no longer be viewed as monolithic.
The session on rabbinic literature crackled with the excitement of women - including secular women - seeking to break the hegemony of the rabbinate by asserting their own expertise, using the academic setting as an alternative path to the yeshiva. According to panelist Chana Safrai, the unprecedented numbers of women now studying rabbinic literature on an advanced level are already creating the "base of the pyramid" upon which women experts can rise to the peak. For this revolution to succeed, however, the yeshiva model of learning must make room for alternative, more focused, and time-efficient models, suitable to women's life paths. Judith Hauptman and Tal Ilan debated Rabbi Eliezer's assertion that "one who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her tiflut [obscenity according to Hauptman, triviality according to Ilan]," often used as an argument for denying Jewish learning to women. Their learned disagreement about the meaning of tiflut showed how feminist scholarly critique not only yields a more profound understanding of the text, but can also defuse or redefine the text's normative implications for Jewish practice. This dual set of implications, both academic and political, which is typical of the impact of feminist scholarship in every field of study, will work changes in both the collective memory and the contemporary practice of Judaism, as visiting historian Paula Hyman and anthropologist Vanessa Ochs later emphasized.
Two further sessions highlighted the uniquely Israeli context, its difficulties, and its promise. In the session on modern Hebrew literature, panel participants emphasized that, in a literary tradition stretching back several millennia, it is only in the modern period that women have emerged as writers. Israeli scholars, arriving late on the scene of feminist criticism, have the difficult task of trying to introduce and apply a feminist literary theory that has yet to be translated into Hebrew and adapted to the Israeli context, while simultaneously retrieving almost-forgotten women's voices for the Israeli literary canon. Their struggles to establish a new field of criticism, in comparative geographical and linguistic isolation, were echoed in the conference's closing symposium by descriptions of the difficulties faced by their colleagues in other fields of feminist Jewish study in Israel. Particularly in the humanities, even as the fruits of their research burgeon, women are faced with academic departments that refuse them tenure, publishers that reject their books, and universities that fail to recognize their programs as full-fledged academic fields.
Perhaps the most moving session was that in which Howard Adelman described the differences between his students at the Achva teacher training college in Israel and those he had taught as a tenured professor at Smith College in the United States. Adelman's non-university students in Israel, most of them Mizrachi women, initially perceived feminist (and other) critiques of Judaism as threatening cherished traditions and memories. The educational and cultural differences between them and their instructor - often the first generation in their families to participate in higher education - raised the difficult issue of how feminist concerns could be put to them "at eye level," without patronization. Some of the most interesting and radical feminist thinking in Israel is today being carried out by faculty members at teachers' colleges, many of whom found themselves unable to get tenure at universities. This raises the exciting prospect that large numbers of Israel's elementary and high-school teachers - also in the religious school system-are being trained in feminist thinking about Judaism, and, concomitantly, in understanding the multiple meanings of oppression in society. Moreover, as emphasized by panel chair Debbie Weissman, head of the Kerem Institute of Education, in Israel this kind of study and involvement in Judaism is necessarily political. Here lie seeds of change for Israel's future, and they are being well watered.
This brief report has not done justice to the array of ideas presented at the conference, in particular to those offered by the visiting American scholars, several of whom gave their talks in fluent Hebrew, indicating their desire to be part of the new feminist discourse developing in Israel. I have chosen to stress those aspects that highlight what is fresh and distinctive about that discourse, in the hope that future, more comprehensive surveys will be able to focus on the common issues being studied and debated by Jewish feminist scholars internationally.
Deborah Greniman is managing editor of Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues.
Greniman, Deborah. 1999. Israeli Feminism: The Impact of Women's and Gender Studies on Jewish Studies. Tikkun 14(5): 60.