Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies

Considering the role of gender in producing knowledge about Judaism.

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Reprinted with the permission of Yale University Press from Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies.

Gender Hierarchies

Feminist scholarship in Jewish studies builds on and contributes to feminist knowledge in the mainstream disciplines. 

The authors [discussed] in this [article] begin with the basic assumption that gender implies a hierarchy of values in which males have more power, their activities are seen as more important, and their traits are privileged. These differences are socially constructed rather than biologically determined. The authors show that although gender arrangements in Jewish life are rooted in classical sources, they are also shaped by the structures and culture of the larger societies in which Jews live.

Not All Patriarchies Are Equal

By specifying how Jewish patriarchy in its various incarnations is linked to the gender hierarchies of the surrounding cultures, they sometimes conclude that Jewish culture is actually less patriarchal than is typically assumed. This assertion is particularly important in light of Christian feminist arguments that the ancient Hebrews are responsible for the death of the Goddess and therefore for the origin of patriarchy.

For example, [Tikva] Frymer‑Kensky writes that "one of the significant results of feminist studies of the Bible has been the realization that the biblical text itself, read with nonpatriarchal eyes, is much less injurious to women than the traditional readings of Western civilization." Compared to the texts of other cultures in the ancient world, such as Assyria, the Bible was clearly not the worst perpetrator of patriarchy.

In chapter 3, [Judith] Hauptman similarly challenges the feminist notion that the Mishnah is a thoroughly androcentric [that is, male-centered] document. In fact, she claims, the framers of the Mishnah attempted to "abandon the Torah's extreme androcentrism and view women as members of the Jewish community who have the capacity to assume religious responsibilities but who function at a lower level of religious obligation than men."

woman studying a bookDespite their recognition of the patriarchal nature of these texts, Frymer‑Kensky and Hauptman conclude that the texts must be interpreted with an awareness of the factors that shaped them: the religious texts of surrounding cultures, the patriarchal nature of other major historical civilizations at that time, and the intentions of the framers of the texts, which were often to advance women's rights.

In contrast, [Judith] Plaskow's chapter emphasizes that the Torah is "itself in bondage to patriarchy," and argues that the "feminist relation to the Torah begins in suspicion, critique, and the refusal to assign revelatory status to the establishment and reinforcement of patriarchy."

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Shelly Tenenbaum

Dr. Shelly Tenenbaum is Associate Professor of Sociology at Clark University.

Dr. Lynn Davidman

Dr. Lynn Davidman is Professor of Judaic Studies and American Civilization at Brown University.