Gender and Judaism: A Sophisticated View from the Haredi Camp

Circle Arrow Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism by Miriam Kosman Targum Press (2014)

Review by Sarah Rindner

Recent debates about women and the Orthodox rabbinate yielded a range of interesting, impassioned and also banal observations by various Jewish professionals and laypeople. Although sociological and legal arguments abound, a broader philosophical discussion of the nature of gender roles within Judaism is lacking. The assumption in these debates seems to be that the challenge before us is how this issue in Judaism will play out alongside a movement from inequality to equality, from backwardness to progress, in American or Western society. Those who resist this movement and believe that a straightforward march toward gender egalitarianism is neither desirable nor in the spirit of traditional Judaism have yet to articulate what, precisely, a theory of Jewish gender difference could, and should, look like. That is, with the exception of a small coterie of mystically inclined haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, women based in Israel who have been exploring precisely this question for years

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Dancing in Chains: Deception and Destiny in Parshat Toldot

At the heart of this week’s Torah portion lies a kind of riddle “wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” the significance of which echoes throughout the remainder of the book of Genesis, and perhaps even further than that. The riddle in question relates to Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac in order to take his older brother Esau’s blessing. Isaac at this moment is aged and blind, and he plans to give his favored son Esau an important blessing after Esau brings him a meal he has hunted for him. Yet, as we learned earlier in the parashah, destiny is on the side of Jacob rather than Esau. When Rebecca is pregnant, God tells her in a poetic refrain: 

Two nations are in your womb.
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.

Despite Isaac’s preference for his oldest son, Rebecca knows very well that Jacob rather than Esau must be groomed for greatness, and she thus encourages Jacob to pretend to be his brother and take the blessing for himself.  When Isaac learns that Jacob deceived him, he is described as being “seized with a violent trembling” and when Esau discovers his brother’s dissimulation he weeps and responds to his father with the agonizing   “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!” We know from various events throughout the parashah about Esau’s unsuitability for continuing the legacy of Abraham and Isaac. Before this episode, he sells his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup, later on he displeases his parents by taking two Canaanite wives rather than marrying women from his own tribe. Yet it is difficult not to empathize with Esau’s cries here, and we naturally wonder, why couldn’t Isaac have blessed both Esau and Jacob in equal measure? Was Jacob’s guile the only way to address this imperfect scenario, or could an alternative solution have been found?

Isaac Blessing Jacob (Gustave Dore, from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)
Isaac Blessing Jacob  (Gustave Dore, from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)

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To Dwell in Possibility: Avraham, the Soil and the Clan in Parshat Chayei Sarah

Guest Post by Robert M. Blum

Last week, Sarah compared Walt Whitman to Avraham, whose “expansiveness” as a figure and founder of various peoples, including the Israelites, is exemplified by his hospitality in Parshat Vayeira. The conceptual key to this reading and comparison is Lewis Hyde’s notion of “gift exchange,” particularly with respect to art, which differs from market exchange in its spiritual underpinnings as well as the bonds formed through gifts. This notion of a gift economy was actually first developed by Marcel Mauss in his anthropological study of pre-modern societies also titled The Gift. A review of the Avraham narratives in light of Mauss’ broad conception of gift exchange reveals aspects of Avraham and his legacy that seem to be in tension with the expansive Whitmanian figure we encounter in Parshat Vayeira.

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