Fer­til­i­ty and Jew­ish Law: Fem­i­nist Per­spec­tives on Ortho­dox Respon­sa Literature

Ronit Irshai; Joel A. Lin­sid­er, trans.
  • Review
By – October 8, 2013

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.

Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

Discussion Questions