Caution vs. Revolution

expandingthepalaceoftorah

A close look at what it is in feminism that Orthodoxy finds so threatening
by Shulamit Reinharz

Book Selection: Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism by Tamar Ross (Brandeis University Press, 2004)
Gracing the cover of Expanding the Palace of the Torah is the famous painting by Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) entitled “Sabbath Afternoon.” In the segment of the painting reproduced on the cover, four attractive young people in a wealthy home are gathered around a table, studying. The cover designer washed out the boys and highlighted the two girls. In the 19th century the girls were present at the table, it is true, even if they were sitting at the side. If Moritz Oppenheim were alive to create a new painting for Professor Ross’ book, one of the young women would be sitting at the head of the table and studying the heavier (literally and figuratively) book, the Talmud, rather than the smaller and lighter book the 19th-century women have in their hands.

The book’s author, Tamar Ross, is a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, and the HBI was delighted to have the chance to publish her profound work and bring it to English-speaking audiences after the original appeared in Hebrew. It’s fun to read the Table of Contents with its four stages: Acknowledging the Problem, Working Within the System, Revamping the System and Expanding the Palace of Torah. I’ve read so many feminist books that present the same framework from problems of abortion to xenophobia, although Torah is not always the final stage, to be sure.

So what’s the problem she wants us to acknowledge? Or, as Professor Ross put it at the end of a very personal preface to the book: what is it in feminism that Orthodoxy finds so threatening? The answer is that the implications of whatever questions feminism raises require more than a “mere” change in this or that religious law. Rather, the implications are monumental and get to the core of our “vision of ourselves, the nature of human sexuality, the family and society at large.” The feminist challenge, Ross tells us, gets to the heart of Jewish spirituality and its moral sensibilities. And this should not be surprising, given that we are calling feminism a revolution.

Revolution has another attribute: it is sudden and urgent. “Critical problems require immediate and global solution” but the typical religious response is caution. That response creates even more of a problem.

One of the delights of this book for me is that Ross writes on many levels. She explains the core ideas of feminism and Judaism in a way that might work in a Jewish Women’s Studies 101 course, with everything laid out to understand. From there, she takes you on an intellectual rollercoaster of ideas, exploring, advancing, returning and turning everything upside down. But you can be sure that the car in which she has placed you will let you land safely at the end of the ride.

Another metaphor might be the quilt. Ross has so many threads and patches from so many different fields of inquiry that she assembles to produce a very large blanket of ideas. You don’t have to read the entire quilt; you can go with a patch at a time and feel that you’ve learned a lot.

Ross is uniquely equipped to write this book. She is as firmly rooted in feminist ideas as she is in Orthodox Judaism. She was raised in the United States and has spent her adulthood in Israel. She teaches at a university, but also leads classes for young women in a special Yeshiva-like school. She speaks all over the world. And thus, based on her knowledge and experience, we can find comfort in her optimism for the future: “The challenges that feminism presents are challenges that carry within them the potential to enhance Judaism and make it more meaningful for all its believers, male and female alike.”

About the Author

author_s_reinharzShulamit Reinharz
Shulamit Reinharz is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University and the founding director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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