Striving for Clarity: A Complicated Comparison between Judaism & Islam Made Clear

By Rudisill, Nicole | Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Striving for Clarity: A Complicated Comparison between Judaism & Islam Made Clear


Rudisill, Nicole, Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources


Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet & Beth S. Wenger, eds., GENDER INJUDAISM AND ISLAM: COMMON LIVES, UNCOMMON HERITAGE. New York University Press, 2015. 384p. notes, gloss, index, pap., $30.00, ISBN 978-1479801275.

Both Judaism and Islam have long traditions of religious scholars (usually men) debating the meaning of sacred texts and arguing over the application of religious laws" (p. 3). This sly remark at the beginning of Gender in Judaism and Islam, about men typically being the ones to debate the intricacies of Judaism and Islam, sets the stage for the entire collection of essays. Although one male scholar (Hamid Dabashi) numbers among the contributors, the rest of the collection is produced by prominent female scholars of gender, religion, law, culture, and more. Editors Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet and Beth S. Wenger focus on these voices, declaring that it is time for women's analyses of religion to be taken as seriously as men's.

The essays in this anthology are grouped under four overarching themes: "Comparative Perspectives" (Part I), "Limits of Biology: Bodily Purity and Religiosity" (Part II), "Crimes of Passion" (Part III), and "Cultural Depictions of Jewish and Muslim Women" (Part IV). Each part is prefaced with a brief synopsis, written by the editors, which ties the essays together and also provides simple summaries for readers as they progress throughout the book. Although each part offers deep insights into very specific aspects of Judaism, Islam, or both, the most interesting parts are I and IV because of their accessibility to readers and connection with everyday life.

The two essays of Part I ("Jewish and Muslim Feminist Theologies in Dialogue: Discourses of Difference," by Susannah Heschel, and "Jewish and Islamic Legal Traditions: Diffusions of Law," by Amira Sonbol) waste no time putting the religions in conversation with one another. Heschel pushes to explore the parallels between past and present Judaism and Islam writing, "using its treatment of women as evidence, Judaism was denigrated as oriental' and 'primitive,' placing Jewish feminists in a difficult position, similar to the one Muslim feminists in the United States and Europe face today" (p. 21). Although both Heschel and Sonbol write for those with some background on Jewish and Islamic traditions, their writing is fluid, easy to read, and engaging, offering useful and captivating perspectives for readers at all levels of scholarship.

Parts II and III, while interesting, did not captivate my attention as much because of the more academic writing style and subject matter. Part II ("Limits of Biology: Bodily Purity and Religiosity") includes essays by Marion Katz, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, and Soraya Tremayne that address power relations in Islamic and Jewish culture relating to the body and sexuality. Katz's essay, "Scholarly versus Women's Authority in the Islamic Law of Menstrual Purity," is perhaps the most straightforward example of traditional gender studies, untangling the struggle between male religious scholars and women for authority over the female body. Fonrobert ("Gender Duality and Its Subversions in Rabbinic Law") and Tremayne ("Gender and Reproductive Technologies in Shia Iran"), on the other hand, push the conversation temporally, first taking readers to the past to discuss rabbinic law on "those considered neither men nor women, but a combination of both," and then bringing them back to the present to discuss infertility, reproductive technology, and gender roles as seen today in Iran (p. 71). KashaniSabet and Wenger sum up this section wonderfully by saying, "For women, who have traditionally been defined in Islamic and Jewish cultures by their reproductive roles, the ability to exert control over their bodies and to delineate their social position independent of their biological functions remains an ongoing challenge" (p. 72).

Part III, "Crimes of Passion," includes the works of Lori Lefkovitz, Catherine Warrick, and Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, who come together to explore how writers of religious texts could not account for the ways society would change over time. …

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