Inventing A Jewish Feminist Theocracy

Shayna Weiss on Alexander Kaye

Cover for The Invention of Jewish Theocracy
Alexander Kaye, The Invention of Jewish Theocracy. Oxford University Press, 2020. $40.00 (hardback)

In Alexander Kaye’s masterful The Invention of Jewish Theocracy, we learn that Rabbi Isaac Herzog was especially concerned about the legal rights given to women under secular law, even more than non-Jewish men, and what that portended for a future Jewish State. His doubts, especially the ability of women to render judicial decisions, were not limited to his co-religionists. Many in the secular world shared his opinions about the inherent unfitness of women to hold public roles. While his dreams of a halakhic state were never realized, the current system, influenced by his notions of legal centrism, gives near exclusive control over issues of personal status exclusively to religious courts. The inherent gendered nature of the halakhic system still affects Israeli men and women differently, with the ramifications different for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. Traditional notions of Jewish law do not treat men and women equally in a host of matters, including marriage and divorce. Since there is no civil marriage in Israel, those who seek a marriage outside of the realms of halakha, including same-sex couples, must go abroad, and for those who wish to divorce, the solutions are far fewer. The Invention of Jewish Theocracy’s greatest contribution is to demonstrate that criticism of this so-called millet system threatens not just the laws surrounding personal status. For those invested in Herzog’s unrealized vision, a secular legal supremacy threatens the future of the Jewish people, and with it any notion of a fully Jewish state.

However, halakhic feminism, Orthodox feminism—whatever one wishes to call it—has focused on the status of the individual, the female halakhic subject, to the near exclusion of all other concerns. Of course, I am not the first to critique Orthodox Jewish feminism despite my own personal sympathies. (You might say some of my best friends are Orthodox feminists.) These groups are often dominated by upper-class Ashkenazi women. Their focus on women’s status in halakha and access to Torah learning often ignores the socioeconomic concerns of Haredi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and less privileged Israeli citizens. These are the local version of a larger issue—the critique of white feminisms by people of color—and are incredibly important. There also remains much work to be done in the realm of practical action, reforming institutions so that they are more friendly and egalitarian, such as the example of female rabbinic court advocates. Yet what I have not seen is a feminist counterpart to visions of Jewish autonomy, an invention of Jewish feminist theocracy that speaks to Herzog’s vision of legal centrism. The one exception is Tamar Ross, whose 2016 essay “Radical Feminism and a Theology of Jewish Autonomy: An Anatomy of Unexpected Alliances,” has inspired this essay, although I too depart from it in significant ways.

Not all Jewish feminists desire such inventions. One prominent Haredi feminist, Racheli Ibenboim, argues that her feminism, by design, is based on a separatist ideology that allows for values such as a secular education or fighting poverty. Her compartmentalization is reminiscent of the legal pluralism Kaye discusses, with different values for different spheres, all while leaving untouched the realm of Torah. But there are those of us who desire a Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook-inspired Jewish feminism, rejecting compartmentalization and borders without the fundamentalisms of some of his contemporary followers. Of course, this itself requires a rejection of Kook’s views on feminism and gender, which many scholars have noted. Nevertheless, his thinking illuminates a path forward and, paradoxically, allows the reader to understand Kook’s own blind spots. In addition to the critiques above, Kaye’s book inspires me to dream of a larger tent for Orthodox Jewish feminism. Instead of proposing solutions, I think incremental solutions can point to the repairs needed without losing sight of a utopian goal. While my focus is Israel, these lessons should be meaningful for Orthodox Jewish feminists wherever they dwell.

First, a Jewish feminist theocracy will recognize the wisdom beyond the four cubits of Jewish law, as Kook and Herzog did. With a hyper focus on halakha, these feminist groups often ignore innovations that represent significant forms of female authority, such as Amen Meals, where women recite multiple blessings for food and drink in a communal setting and answer amen to one another in order to rain blessings and good luck upon its participants. Orthodox Jewish feminists need to recognize that women clergy are necessary but not sufficient in dismantling power structures within the halakhic system. I realize the irony of this suggestion in a review essay about legal centrism and theocracies. Nevertheless, there is rich meaning to be gleaned from the lived experiences of women, much of which developed apart from access to halakha and traditionally male spheres of Jewish learning. If one only counts book learning as expertise, the casual observer misses a host of lived experiences. Orthodox feminists must create a larger tent to include multiple forms of religiosity, including the wisdom found outside of traditionally male models of piety, looking to the embodied female body as a form of religious knowledge.

Secondly, a Jewish feminist theocracy must adopt a wider socioeconomic agenda. As I wrote this, I thought about an anecdote during fieldwork for my research on religious Jewish women who serve in the Israeli army. When I interviewed one of the seminaries where women learn Jewish texts before their military service, the head of the seminary told me that in her years as head, she had not received one request for financial assistance. While that vignette is years-old, and my skepticism for military service as a feminist act has increased, I still remember the impact it had as me as a young researcher, realizing that class was and remains a barrier to Jewish life. All too often, Orthodox feminism is doubly othering for Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, as it is based on an Ashkenazi model of Orthodoxy, which also excludes those of a different class for whom public participation in synagogue life, or access to advanced Torah learning, may not be their top priorities as they struggle to support themselves and their families. While some of this work has begun, especially in the struggle against sexual violence, and advocacy for LGBQT Orthodox Jews, there remains much to be done.

Finally, any vision for a Jewish feminist theocracy must include all who reside in the land of Israel. A Jewish feminist theocracy cannot ignore its non-Jewish citizens and the millions of Palestinians under Israeli control. Herzog recognized the linkages between rights for (Jewish) women and non-Jews, and Orthodox feminism is lacking if it ignores these connections as well. This is not the place to propose an all-reaching solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that also solves the gender inequality in Orthodox Judaism, nor do I have one. But there are steps to be made, and connections to be forged. Jewish Studies scholars and community activists often forget that in addition to the Jewish courts, there are also roughly a dozen or so theocracies in Israel that also control the lives of its citizens. Yet here too there have been victories. In 2017, the Ministry of Justice appointed a Muslim woman, Hana Khatib, to serve as one of the nine qadis, judges, in the Israeli Sharia courts, following similar developments in other countries. Knesset Members from Haredi parties attempted to block her appointment, worried that the precedent Khatib’s appointment set for Jewish courts. While she was ultimately appointed without legislation, preventing any formal precedents, her case proves that the fate of Jewish and Arab women, whether Muslim or Christian, are interconnected under the current Israeli system.

However, these connections do not need to happen only on the level of interfaith relations. Efforts like the Crisis Group, a new organization to provide a platform for unheard voices during times of national emergency, bring together female Arab and Haredi activists to brainstorm on how to utilize local governments to better respond to Covid-19 and its socioeconomic fallout. The wife of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, Hadassah, and several of their children work towards dialogue in the West Bank with their Palestinians neighbors, including daughter-in-law Michal Froman who expressed her empathy for the Palestinian teenager who stabbed her. Neither of these models are perfect. But they expand the palace of Torah to all peoples.

Alexander Kaye and The Invention of Jewish Theocracy encouraged me to deeply re-examine the notion of a halakhic state, an idea I had long relegated to the dustbin of history, largely belonging to a certain strain of politics not my own. Kaye’s work argues that a halakhic state, which has never existed, deserves its place not just in the pantheon of scholarship. It also convinced me also that its underlying principle, the notion of legal centrism, can motivate those who work to build a better society. Whether one is more drawn to the Talmudic version of tikkun olam, which is mentioned specifically as a reason to prevent agunot, or the modern version, more broadly applied to visions of a just world, Kaye’s work makes me think that ultimately, these seemingly competing visions are distinctions without a difference. I am reminded of the wisdom of Pirkei Avot, whose authors embrace these tensions between universal and practical: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Shayna Weiss is the Associate Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Previously, she was the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Israel Studies at the United States Naval Academy.  Her research interests include the history of Israeli Haredim as well as the politics of Israeli popular culture. Currently, she is completing a book on gender segregation in the Israeli public sphere.