Reading like a Girl: Gender and Text in Jewish Bioethics

By Zoloth, Laurie | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Reading like a Girl: Gender and Text in Jewish Bioethics


Zoloth, Laurie, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Is there a Jewish Medical Ethics for Women?

THE EMERGENCE OF THE TRADITION OF JEWISH MEDICAL ethics into the academic and clinical field of American bioethics has taken a number of forms. The classic texts of halakhic medical reference have been interpreted by men and have followed just behind the normative bioethics crises generated in the issues as "seen" by physicians. The dilemmas typically raise questions about the moral gestures of the self-as-doctor toward the body of the patient as other. In virtually all such cases the observed and vulnerable body is read as female, and the central moral actor is read as male. Consider this from Sir Immanuel Jakobovits: "For many centuries, rabbis and physicians, often merging their professions into one, were intimate partners in a common effort for the betterment of life." [1]

Shaped by this gaze of a presumably naturally given male authority, the scholars who then respond to the normative questions answer from within their doubled male stance--both as counselor to physician and interpreter of halakhah. Patients are regarded as female subjects and thus weak, powerless, bleeding, supine, penetrated, and deviant, often in terms of their issues of reproductive crisis, of treatment withdrawal. The stance of the physician is gendered male--authoritative, vertical, and controlling not only of the medical event but of the narrative itself. It is a stance so pervasive that it is invisible within medical scholarship.

In what follows I explore the question of how we might look at Bioethics differently were we to speak from within the embodied gaze of the other, in particular from the embodied gaze of the female subject. What occurs if we focus on the yearning of infertility rather than the issue of the waste of fecundity when sperm is spilled? What occurs if we focus on the bearer of the pregnancy in the issue of cloning, rather than the angst of the scientist? What occurs if we look for the halakhic prooftexts not in texts of war, or the marketplace, but in texts of family relationships?

That women's relationship to the Jewish tradition is markedly distinctive from that of men, and that this position of difference emerges out of the historically marginalized status of women is certainly not news. [2] Nor is it a novelty to note that the generically referenced texts written about Jews and their obligations and lived experience address the situation of men as subject and that of women as object in large measure. [3]

What I am asking in this discussion is something slightly different: given that the normative considerations of the most embodied of discourses, that of Bioethics, begins for Jewish ethics not with a consideration of the body but with a close attention to texts, how does the subject-as-reader shift when the reader is gendered female? [4] If "Bioethics is a world of talk, of rational discourse, of story, and as cases reconstructed as narrative," [5] then we need to pay close attention to the performance and entrance into the talk itself. If we can say with certainty that one lives, speaks, and discerns from a gendered stance, can we then ask: is there a Jewish medical ethics for women? [6] Now that Jewish bioethics has entered both the emerging national conversation of academic bioethics and the clinical world, how can feminist insights become a critical part of the canon? In this essay, I argue for six ways that gender might effect this, and three reasons that it matters when we read texts in this way.

Different Access to Texts

The standard response to this--that of course women's voices have not been but need to be heard--has been best articulated by Dena Davis, in her review of Jewish women's writing in bioethics (at that time, two) in the article "Rabbi Hiyya's Wife." Since women have historically been excluded as scholars in a culture that values complex linguistic analysis and ritual authority above all, their perspective and insights in the halakhic discussions about medical ethics are not regarded as rigorous. …

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