Many American Jews have followed the on-going battles and recent triumphs involving the Israeli organization Women of the Wall (in Hebrew, Neshot HaKotel), which, as stated on its website, seeks “to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.” Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink offers readers a unique opportunity to learn about the group and its history from a core founder. Bonna Devora Haberman writes beautifully about her motivations and ideology, in part through the story of Women of the Wall and in part by drawing on the collective experiences of the Jewish people, and especially Jewish women, across time. These essays engage with a broad spectrum of religious theologians and secular philosophers to construct Haberman’s theology of equality for women, which is both relevant to understanding the events at the Western Wall as well as insightful and meaningful for the activist soul.
Even more compelling, Haberman presents her writing using a technique that frequent readers of feminist academic literature will recognize and welcome. The narrative is flowing and surprising, and intensely personal. Chapter eight, Conceiving Exodus, is a particularly strong example of insightful narrative written using this technique. Haberman moves expertly from the Biblical Exodus of Moses, Miriam, of Sarah and Joseph, culminating in a personal yet universal analysis of birthing and being. And — all the more so – the subsequent chapters are intensely personal as the author describes the stories of her children’s births.
No less personal, yet written in the academic style, Fertility and Jewish Law: Feminist Perspectives on Orthodox Responsa Literature describes the spectrum of rabbinical legal opinions on birth control, abortion, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy. Irshai’s analysis is feminist in that she highlights and critiques these opinions for their biases against and omissions of women’s perspectives. A particular strength is the writer’s presentation of framework and background. Irshai contrasts feminist approaches to these issues with the range of more-conservative and less-conservative (arguably liberal) responsa, both longstanding and contemporary. Readers will find the discussions technical, well-researched, and presented with appropriate foundation; the reader who already knows a reasonable amount about this subject will come away with a greater appreciation for the difficulty of Irshai’s task and with new ideas for interpretative openings in this field. Indeed, the descriptive style is praiseworthy because it leaves room for the audience to form our own impressions, and only after that to hear from Irshai where she thinks the opportunities for liberal, more permissive interpretations might be.
In stark but necessary contrast, Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War offers a human portrait in the clash between Jewish law, as traditionally interpreted, and lived experiences. Weiss and Gross-Horowitz present the stories of six women to demonstrate the range of people caught up in the difficulties of divorce in contemporary Israel. Many readers will have heard of the plight of the agunah, the woman whose husband will not willingly give her a Jewish bill of divorce and so she is still married to him in accordance with Jewish law. This book gives an excellent introduction and history of the problem from the Bible to the modern Israeli state, where this approach to divorce is still practiced. Mainly, though, the authors focus on the six types of women — the clueless agunah, the scarlet agunah, the ping-pong agunah, the accidental agunah, the agunah pawn, and the reluctant agunah—to demonstrate how this happens and also to illustrate the roadblocks put up by the official Israeli rabbinate to resolving divorce cases in ways that respect the human rights of the women involved. The stories are powerful, and the excellent legal analysis makes the conclusions about the need for civil marriage and respect for the rule of law all the more persuasive.
Separately these books are different but strong, yet read together they offer perspectives about the status and experiences of women in Israel from which US-based readers will learn much. The Israeli authors — and in particular these Israeli feminists — demonstrate that, despite the challenges that longstanding interpretations of Jewish Law pose to women, there exist opportunities for reinterpretation and growth. The conversation is fascinating, and these books are a good way to be a part of the re-birth.