Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice

By Alexander, Elizabeth Shanks | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice


Alexander, Elizabeth Shanks, Shofar


Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice, by Rochelle L. Millen. Hanover: University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press, 2004. 246 pp. $27.50.

This book examines how women draw on and engage the Jewish tradition at the tender and momentous occasions when life is given and taken. The author identifies five different domains within which the tradition structures women's experiences of birth and death: 1) in its attitudes towards birth control and conception, 2) in its embrace of childbearing and responses to infertility, 3) in the rituals it supplies for acknowledging the birth of a daughter, 4) in the recitation of kaddish for a deceased parent, child, or sibling, and 5) at the funeral and gravesite of a deceased parent, child, or sibling. Each of these topics forms the rubric for a single chapter, except for the last two topics, which are combined in a single chapter. With a single exception, each chapter follows a standard format in which the author surveys the traditional sources and Orthodox approaches to the topic with a focus on ritual and legal concerns. Having established a so-called "halakhic baseline," the author then reviews the recent developments in the Conservative and Reform movements. Finally, the author analyzes where the traditional frameworks place women on the spectrum between public and private domains and how they impact women's realization of autonomy and/or subordinate them to community norms.

The most successful part of the book, in this reader's opinion, is the survey of traditional sources and their legal interpretation amongst Orthodox decisors that form the core of each chapter. It is here that the author seems most in her element. Her mastery of a vast range of sources from rabbinic to medieval, modern and contemporary responsa is truly breaktaking. Her analysis of the legal issues at stake is also very clear and informative. These sections of the book provide a valuable resource for anyone interested in or researching life cycle events in the history of Judaism.

This reader did not find the sections of each chapter in which the author examines the development of the women's participation in the Conservative and Reform movements to be as strong. Too often it seems that the analysis of Reform Judaism consists of the observation that this movement has rejected the binding authority of halakhah, and so the concepts and issues discussed in the earlier part of the chapter are not relevant for Reform Jews (e.

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