Israeli Feminism

Article excerpt

The Impact of Women's and Gender Studies on Jewish Studies

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. …