Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism

By Tikva Frymer-Kensky | Go to book overview

18 / The Feminist Challenge to
Halakhah

1994

Halakhah1 has faced many challenges during the several thousand years of its existence, some of them quite fundamental and far-reaching, that have resulting in major changes in the way we look at halakhah. An example is the dialogue with Aristotelianism which has so much to do with the codification of Jewish law and the change of halakhah into a statement of norms rather than a record of processes. Todays challenge, which comes mostly from feminism and other forms of postmodernism, is just as radical and far-going as any that have come before. Feminism challenges halakhah on a number of different levels.

The simplest feminist challenge is on the level of the many halakhot, the many individual norms and roles that are detrimental to women. Many of these have been discussed widely—and I understand that you have heard about some of them in this series and are aware of the problems of the agunah (the “anchored woman” who cannot get a religious divorce) and the question of inheritance. There is a whole checkerboard of practices which disadvantage women. These are being identified, and in many segments of the Jewish world (somewhat reluctantly in some circles and somewhat more eagerly in others) there is a serious attempt to try to rectify most of the gross inequalities perpetrated on women by the legal system. But this layer of individual laws and rulings is just the very first layer of the challenge of feminism to halakhah. It is the layer most often spoken about by Orthodox feminists who are concerned to work within the system to effect change, and by rejectionist feminists who are eager to find points of disagreement on which they can walk away from the system. But it nevertheless just scratches the surface.

At the same time, the deepest level of the feminist challenge to law and ethics, the feminist distrust of the deep structure of legal systems,

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