Monthly Archives: March 2016

Interview with Daniel C. Matt – translator of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar

In a striking image, the Zohar compares the Torah to a princess sequestered in a palace tower. The student of Torah is her lover seeking her to reveal herself from the window showing her reciprocal love. The lover’s does catch a fleeting vision, a personal and private revelation of her secrets stirring his heart. A mystical approach to Torah yearns for this love and personal revelation.

This may be compared to a beloved maiden, beautiful in form and appearance, concealed secretly in her palace. She has a single lover unknown to anyone—except to her, surreptitiously. Out of the love that he feels for her, this lover passes by her gate constantly, lifting his eyes to every side. Knowing that her lover is constantly circling her gate, what does she do? She opens a little window in that secret place where she is, reveals her face to her lover, and quickly withdraws, concealing herself. None of those near the lover even sees or notices, only the lover, and his inner being and heart and soul go out to her. He knows that out of love for him she revealed herself for a moment to arouse him.

So it is with words of Torah: she only reveals herself to her lover. Torah knows that one who is wise of heart circles her gate every day. What does she do? She reveals her face to him from the palace and beckons to him with a hint, then swiftly withdraws to her place, hiding away. None of those there knows or notices—he alone does, and his inner being and heart and soul follows her. Thus Torah reveals and conceals herself, approaching her lover lovingly to arouse love with him.

A reader could understand this in a technical sense of a ritual to connect to the sefirah of malkhut/shekhinah but for many it is the mystical lyrical aspect of the passage that attracts readers. ” The scholar Michael Fishbane, wrote that the Zohar “pulses with the desire for God on every page.”

For those who cherish the work, Professor Daniel C. Matt has done an invaluable service in translating the Zohar into a vibrant glowing English, thereby setting a benchmark for translations  for contemporary Jewish culture. His Pritzker Edition published by Stanford University Press is easy to use and the website has samples and a full Hebrew/Aramaic text to download.

zohar cover

The Zohar as printed in the 16th century is a five volume set (3 volumes of Zohar, Tikkune Zohar, and Zohar Hadash) of over thirty separate books including the non-Kabbalistic allegorical Midrash Haneelam from the early 13th century, the 14th century Tikkune Zohar, the especially esoteric Idrot and Sitrei Torah by Rabbi Yakov Shatz. It also contains fragments and pieces of Ashkenaz esotericism, Bahir, and a work on palmistry. The work also has 14th century passages from Rabbi Yosef of Hamadan and his contemporaries, whose authorship was already noted in the traditional commentaries.  These works differ in language, protagonist, esoteric ideas, use of midrash, and especially religious worldview.

The part of the Zohar beautifully translated by Daniel C. Matt is the main narrative section of the first three volume.  The 9 English volumes cover 85% of the 3 Aramaic volumes of the standard edition(s) of the Zohar (except for sections such as Midrash ha-Ne’lam, Matnitin, Tosefta, Sitrei Torah, and Heikhalot, which are included in the English volumes 10-12, and Ra’aya Meheimna, which will not be translated.

(As a side point, the Soncino English translation (1934) was almost unusable, inadequate in both translation and passages covered. The Soncino actually selected as a translator a Volozhin Yeshiva alumna who had already converted to Christianity).

The contemporary attraction for the Zohar is in the narrative section whose passages offer the attractive merits of literary stories, heightened language, love of God, and deeper levels of reality. The work is a mystical midrash in which a circle of kabbalists travel and reveal secrets as they expound the verses of the Bible. The narrative invites the reader to share its vision by using the phrase “come and see’ (ta hazai), in place of the Talmud’s “come and hear.” Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby focused on the doctrine of the sefirot, but later academic readers look at the entire package of midrashic-literary-mystical-kabbalistic weave. The other parts of the corpus do not have these qualities. Current trends find multiple hands and opinions even in the narrative sections leading to seeing the work as a group effort. There is no early complete manuscript of the Zohar (and there never was. For more information, see my 2010 Forward review of Daniel Matt & Melila Hellner-Eshed, and some of my prior blog posts- here and here).

The narrative section reworks older materials into something new. For examples a Zohar section may quote two pieces of Genesis Rabbah then a piece of Tanhuma and/or Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer followed by a piece of Gerona Kabbalah and conclude with Rabbi Shimon presenting the position of Castillian Kabbalah. All of it set within a narrative story with rhetorical questions and vivid imagery. The Zohar reworks minor midrashim such as Midrash Wayissa’u, a story of the sons of Jacob warring against their enemies and Midrash Peṭirat Mosheh, on the death of Moses. It also has knowledge of various Second Temple period Pseudepigrapha books whether via midrash or some subterranean tradition. Nevertheless, none of these antecedents are the medieval sefirotic chart.

For those who are not acquainted with kabbalistic literature, there are dozens of seminal kabbalistic works. If one wanted to be informed about the world of the sefirot one would likely start with the Sha’arei Orah, by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, if one wanted to study the Gerona school then one would start with the works of Rabbis Azriel and Ezra of Gerona or one could study Nahmanides’ French tradition. One could even look at the texts as diverse as Moses ben Jacob from Kiev’s compilation Shushan Sodot or the Byzantium work Sefer Hatemunah. The Zohar is far from the summary or summation of the kabbalah and its many schools. (For those who want an introduction, see my YUTorah introductory lectures on the Kabbalah).

The Zohar had admirers and imitators at the start of the 14th century including Yosef Angelet and David b. Yehudah Hahasid, and it was quoted by Bahye and Recanati, however it was not the classic until the Spanish exiles in the 16th century who turned it into a canonical text by writing commentaries on the recently published text and then building elaborate systems using the Zohar as the basis. It generated ritual gestures such as Kabbalat Shabbat and inviting guests into the sukkah as well as the Yeshiva ideal of studying Torah day and night. In the 17th century, it was applied in a mechanical ritual manner (10 pieces of Chometz, 10 items on the Seder plate, 100 shofar blasts).At the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century, people study the narrative parts of the Zohar for its beauty and mystical worldview.

Those who are carefully reading through the volumes page by page will not agree with every decision made in the volumes, one can question some of his decisions of which Zoharic book a passage belongs to, as well as not always agreeing with his translation and commentary. At some points, Matt follows one commentator over another without citing the important alternate understanding. These points aside, Daniel C. Matt has done the Jewish community a tremendous service in his translation Below is a my interview with him and afterwards  I received a selection from his autobiographic essay.

1)      Why did you decide to make a composite text rather than a
stemma with variants? What were your criteria to choose which variant to use?

There is no complete manuscript of what we now call the Zohar, nor did such a manuscript ever exist, because the Zohar was composed over a long period of time by different authors. At first, I thought that I would translate from one of the standard printed editions and simply consult manuscripts when I encountered difficult passages. However, I soon discovered that the manuscripts (especially the older and more reliable ones) preserved numerous better readings. So I decided to reconstruct the Aramaic text based on those superior readings. There is undoubtedly a subjective element in choosing variants, but I came to trust certain older manuscripts. It is often possible to see how later scribes added material to the text, and I scraped away such later additions.

2)      Why did you include the Matnitin and Idrot if your goal was to
limit the volumes to “guf haZohar”?

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition includes many sections of the Zohar, not just what is called Guf ha-Zohar (The Body of the Zohar). This latter term refers primarily to the running commentary on the Torah, which is translated in Vols. 1–9. Certain other sections of the Zohar are also included in these nine volumes, such as Sava de-Mishpatim, the Idrot, Rav Metivta, Yanuqa. Many of the older manuscripts record the Matnitin as one unit, rather than how they appear in the printed editions (scattered throughout the Zohar), and we decided to follow the older manuscripts. We did not translate either Tiqqunei ha-Zohar or Ra’aya Meheimna, which were composed later as Zoharic imitations.

3)      Are you consistent in the words used to translate a
Hebrew/Aramaic term? For example, is tiqqun always translated as
enhancement? How did you come to translate alma de-atei the way you did? Why is heizu rendered as visionary mirror, rather than one or the other?

It would be a grave mistake to always translate Zoharic terms consistently. As I proceeded in my work, I composed a Zohar dictionary so that I could keep track of various possible nuances for the Zohar’s unique brand of Aramaic. For the root tqn, for example, I listed over fifty possible English equivalents, including “to mend, repair, refine, enhance, improve, prepare, correct, rectify, perfect, restore, arrange, array, adorn, establish.” I used the rendering “enhancement” only for certain passages in the Idrot describing the features (and curlicues) of the divine beard.

The rabbinic term alma de-atei is often translated as “the world-to-come,” but I usually render it as “the world that is coming,” in order to emphasize the eternal present. In the Zohar this term often alludes to the Divine Mother, Binah, who is constantly flowing. In the words of Rabbi Shim’on, “That river flowing forth is called Alma de-Atei, the World that is Coming—coming constantly and never ceasing” (Zohar 3:290b, Idra Zuta).

Occasionally I combine two possible meanings of a Zoharic term in order to convey its range of meaning. For example, the Aramaic word heizu means “vision, appearance,” but in the Zohar it also signifies “mirror,” based on the Hebrew word mar’ah (which can mean both “vision” and “mirror”).

4)      What are some of your most inventive words and hardest words that you used in your translation? 

One of the most charming—and frustrating—features of the Zohar is its frequent use of neologisms (invented words). The authors like to switch around letters of Talmudic terms or occasionally play with Spanish words.

One newly coined word is tiqla. In various contexts, this can mean “scale, hollow of the hand, fist, potter’s wheel, and water clock.” This last sense refers to a device described in ancient and medieval scientific literature, which in the Zohar functions as an alarm clock, calibrated to wake kabbalists at precisely midnight for the ritual stud of Torah. A similar device was employed in Christian monasteries to rouse monks for their vigils. How appropriate to invent a word in order to describe an invention!

The Zohar describes the primordial source of emanation as botsina de-qardinuta. The word botsina means “lamp.” The word qardinuta recalls a phrase in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 7a): hittei qurdanaita, “wheat from Kurdistan,” which, according to Rashi, is very hard. The Zohar may also be playing here with qadrinuta, “darkness.” I sometimes rendered botsina de-qardinuta as “a lamp of impenetrable darkness.” More recently, I chose “the
Lamp of Adamantine Darkness.” As the paradoxical names suggests, the potent brilliance of this primordial source overwhelms comprehension.

Many mystics record similar paradoxical images: “a ray of divine darkness” (Dionysius, Mystical Theology); “the luminous darkness” (Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses); “the black light” (Iranian Sufism). In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides writes: “We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the sun is hidden to eyes too weak to apprehend it.”

5)      What was the biggest surprise that you found in the many year

One surprise was the playfulness of the Zohar and its sense of humor. According to Rabbi Shim’on, a bit of foolishness can stimulate wisdom. In the section called Yanuqa (The Child), two rabbis encounter a little boy who is a wunderkind—and also a bit of a rascal. He alternates between amazing the rabbis and teasing them, impressing and then challenging (or stumping) them. This child prodigy spouts wisdom, spiced with humor.

I used to try and figure out what the Zohar “meant.” Now I prefer to let the rich language wash over me and through me, allowing it to uplift, confound, or transform me.

6)      Many people want to know: How does the Zohar influence your
spiritual life? Do you keep a mystical journal? Are you a mystic?

I don’t keep a journal. I don’t have visions. The Zohar enriches my life by teaching me not to be content with how things appear on the surface, by stimulating me to delve more deeply. I look for the divine spark in the people I encounter, in the phenomena of the natural world, and in everyday life, moment by moment. I am a mystic in the sense that I feel the oneness of all existence, the wondrous interplay of matter and energy.

7)      Why should we study Zohar? What does its  creative imagination of God offer?

In interpreting the Bible, the Zohar is willing to ask daring questions. Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about ourselves, about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse, asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.

The Zohar is a celebration of creativity—it shows how the Torah endlessly unfolds in meaning. Jacob ben-Sheshet Gerondi, a 13th-century kabbalist, said it’s a mitzvah for every wise person to innovate in Torah according to his capacity. That’s refreshing because you often hear the traditional notion: to accept what’s been handed down or to learn from the master because you’re not able to create on your own. But ben-Sheshet says (after conveying one of his innovations), “If I hadn’t invented it in my mind I would say that this was transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” He’s aware that his interpretation is new, but he thinks it harmonizes with the ultimate source of tradition—his creative discovery itself is somehow deeply connected to an ancient mainstream. An essential component of all creativity is tapping into something deeper than your normal state of mind.

We all know that near the beginning of Genesis there’s the famous story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the Zohar asks, “Who expelled whom?” It turns out, according to the Zohar’s radical re-reading of the biblical verse, that Adam expelled Shekhinah from the Garden!

This seems impossible, almost heretical or laughable. But the Zohar may be implying that we’re still in the Garden, although we don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. On a personal level, each of us becomes alienated by excluding the Divine from our lives. The Zohar challenges us to reconnect with God, to invite Her back into our lives, to rediscover intimacy with Her.

Ultimately, God is Ein Sof (the Infinite). In a striking interpretation, the Zohar construes the opening words of Genesis not as “In the beginning God created,” but rather “With beginning, It [that is, Ein Sof] created God.” To me, this implies that all our normal names for God are inadequate. What we call “God” is puny, compared to the ultimate divine reality.

8)      What do you like about the Idrot?

The Idrot present a detailed description of the divine anatomy, especially the divine head, face, and beard. This may be, in part, a response and reaction to Maimonides, who insisted on eliminating all anthropomorphic descriptions of God. But there is much more to the Idrot. In the Idra Rabba (The Great Assembly), there is a state of emergency, because due to human misconduct, the world is vulnerable to divine wrath. Rabbi Shim’on and his Companions set out on a dangerous mission to restore the balance in the upper worlds and to stimulate a radiant flow from the compassionate aspect of God, which can soothe the irascible divine force and thereby save the world.

In the Idra Zuta (The Small Assembly), Rabbi Shim’on is about to die, and he reveals profound mysteries. He concludes with a detailed description—graphic yet cryptic—of the union of the divine couple. As he departs from this world, he assumes the role of the Divine Male, uniting ecstatically with Shekhinah. Thus Rabbi Shim’on’s death becomes a joyous occasion, and a celestial voice announces his wedding celebration.

In the recent Zohar conference in Israel I read selections from Idra Zuta because I wanted the listeners to appreciate the dramatic power of this rich narrative.

9)      What do you do with the dualism and demonology of the Zohar- do you find it offensive? What do you do with the nasty parts of the Zohar such as the severe condemnation of masturbation? Many are deeply scarred by the effect of those passages.

The Zohar often describes the conflict between the divine and demonic forces. The demonic realm is called Sitra Ahra (the Other Side). This name can be understood as reflecting the terrifying nature of the demonic sphere—as if it cannot even be accorded a real name, but is just referred to as “Other.” However, this designation can also imply that evil is simply the “shadow side” of good, that you can’t have one without the other. We only recognize light because there is also darkness; we only recognize good because there is also evil. Ultimately, both good and evil originate within God. If there is a balance between the divine polar opposites, goodness flows into the world. If there is an imbalance, evil can lash out, wreaking havoc. Human behavior affects the divine balance, contributing to the manifestation of either good or evil.

I’m not offended by the demonology of the Zohar. I see it as an expression of human fear.

I don’t deny that the Zohar includes “nasty” elements. This masterpiece of Kabbalah is often lyrical and inspiring, but being composed in medieval times, it naturally reflects a medieval mentality, including aspects of chauvinism, misogyny, superstition, and various attitudes that we know find antiquated or harmful. To me, Kabbalah is a great resource for contemporary spirituality; but we should approach it with a critical mind; we should not accept all of its teachings as ultimate truth.


10)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that think that there is no fixed original text, rather the continual
accretion of material?

Certainly the Zohar, as we now know it, never existed as a single continuous text. Rather, it is the product of centuries of compilation and editing, which was proceeded by an extended period of composition by various authors. However, by consulting and comparing early manuscripts, it is possible to scrape away from the standard printed editions centuries of scribal accretion and at least come closer to a more “original” text, section by section.

11)  How do you relate to the various theories of recent scholars
that trace ideas back to earlier midrashic and Second Temple sources?

Although the Zohar was composed in medieval times, it is clearly based on numerous earlier sources, primarily various midrashim and the Talmud. Among the midrashim, we find particular influence of Pirqei de-Rabbi Eli’ezer, Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, and Bereshit Rabbah. The Zohar itself is a type of midrash, while sometimes it also an experiment in medieval fiction. The genius of the authors lies in their ability to use the earlier material to compose a more spiritual midrash, stimulating the reader to expand his consciousness, challenging the normal workings of the mind.

12)  How do you explain the different mindset of Rabbi Moshe de León from the Zohar? Do you have any new explanation of why Ramdal rejects opinions that are affirmed in the Zohar?

It is very interesting to compare the Zohar with the Hebrew writings of Ramdal (Rabbi Moses de León), in which he admits being the author. In these Hebrew compositions, Moses de León makes free use of the Zohar, often translating or paraphrasing Zoharic passages and introducing them with formula such as: “As the ancient ones have said….” He is completely fluent in the Zohar and seems to be promoting the “ancient” material for a wider public. He often explicates Zoharic symbolism. It is easy to conclude that the author of these Hebrew books is himself the composer of large sections of the Zohar.

On the other hand, his Hebrew writing lacks the lyrical power, creativity, and playfulness of the Zohar. This can be explained partly by the fact that in these Hebrew writings, Moses de León is working within his normal state of consciousness, whereas in the Zohar he has shed this persona and taken on the identity of ancient sages. This switch apparently liberates his poetic instinct and enables him to create a unique, otherworldly masterpiece.

Moses de León was certainly not the sole author of the Zohar. Most likely, he did not express the Zoharic opinions that he rejects in his Hebrew writings.

13)  How does the universalism of mysticism relate to the very particular ritual focus of the Zohar? Why Zohar rather than Vedanta or Buddhism?

There are many similarities between mystical teachings of the various world religions: God as the oneness of it all, the goal of reuniting the apparently separate self with this divine oneness, the potency of the divine word and of human meditation. While the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, each religion expresses these insights through the unique forms of its own tradition and culture. A Jew should explore and appreciate the wisdom of his own tradition, while also being open to other spiritual teachings.

However, while the insights are frequently similar, or even identical, the mystics of each religion express these insights through the unique forms of their own tradition and culture. More basically, the particular forms and practices of one’s religion provide pathways to experience mystical states and discover mystical truths. For example, a Jewish mystic finds God through Torah, the celebration of Shabbat, and the mindful observance of other mitsvot.

In certain mystical traditions, one sees the desire to leave the material realm, to seek seclusion and to focus on meditation. Although there is a rich stream of kabbalistic meditation practices, Jewish mysticism emphasizes life in this world and cooperation with others. Participation in the community remains vital, for example, davening in a minyan. In general, the regimen of Torah and the mitsvot helps the individual to stay rooted.

14) How can we apply Kabbalah to modern day Judaism?

I don’t recommend that we become complete kabbalists. Rather, we should draw on the spiritual insights of Kabbalah in order to enrich our spiritual lives. We can reimagine God as the energy that animates all of life. We can balance the patriarchal depictions of God with the feminine imagery of Shekhinah. In our prayer services, we can focus on the mystical implications of verses such as “In Your light we see light,” or “Taste and see that God is good.” Furthermore, we can make room for moments of contemplative silence within prayer. This will help us comprehend and experience the profound verse in Psalm 65: “To You, silence is praise.”


Selections from an Autobiographical Essay

My interest in Kabbalah and the Zohar certainly has something to do with the fact that my father, Hershel Matt, was a rabbi. He never urged me to delve into Jewish mysticism; on the contrary, he was somewhat suspicious of mysticism and always insisted on maintaining the gap between human and divine. But he conveyed and embodied an intense spirituality, and this undoubtedly inspired me to search for the mystical element within Judaism.

The writings of Martin Buber introduced me to Hasidic tales and teachings. In my undergraduate years at Brandeis University, I took a Hillel course in Hasidic texts taught by Arthur Green. These texts often quoted phrases or lines from the Zohar, which intrigued me. Then, during my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I began delving into Zohar. Realizing that I had only one year in Jerusalem, I took a course in Beginning Zohar and simultaneously another one in Advanced Zohar. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the latter, but that didn’t matter so much because I was also overwhelmed by the former! Overwhelmed, but also captivated.

Returning to Brandeis, I completed my B.A. in 1972. I  returned to my alma mater for graduate work in Kabbalah, under the direction of Alexander Altmann. My Ph.D. dissertation consisted of a critical edition and analysis of Sefer Mar’ot ha-Tsove’ot (The Book of Mirrors), written by David ben Yehudah he-Hasid, a thirteenth-fourteenth century kabbalist. I chose this text because it contains the earliest extensive Hebrew translations of passages from the Aramaic text of the Zohar.

I discussed the choice of my dissertation topic with Gershom Scholem when I served as his teaching assistant at Boston University in 1975, and he encouraged me to proceed with it. I recall someone telling me around this time that a doctoral student should be very careful in selecting his topic, since this will likely determine the focus of his entire academic career. I chafed at that notion and responded, “Not necessarily so!” Little did I know then how translating the Zohar would enthrall me.

During these years (early-to-mid 1970s), I was a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass. I still cherish the wonderful friendships, rich learning, and inspired davening that I experienced there.

Soon after receiving my Ph.D., Art Green invited me to compose a volume on the Zohar for the Classics of Western Spirituality. After selecting approximately 2 percent of the immense body of the Zohar, I proceeded to translate and annotate these passages. My intent was to demonstrate how the Zohar expounds Scripture creatively: applying the ancient biblical narrative to personal spiritual quest, and imagining (or, at times, recovering) mythic layers of meaning.

I recall someone asking me, “When are you going to translate the other 98 percent of the Zohar?”But I had other projects in mind.

Subsequently, I became interested in the subject of negative theology. The kabbalists describe the ultimate stage of Divinity as Ayin, “Nothingness,” or “No-thingness.” This paradoxical term implies not an absence, but rather a divine fullness that escapes description and language: God is beyond what we normally call “being.” After publishing “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” I later compared the Jewish notion of ayin to Meister Eckhart’s teachings on Nichts and the Buddhist concept of sunyata (“Varieties of Mystical Nothingness: Jewish, Christian and Buddhist”).

In the mid-1990s, I was invited by HarperCollins to produce a volume entitled The Essential Kabbalah. For this project, I composed annotated translations of Hebrew and Aramaic passages culled from several dozen significant texts ranging from the second to the twentieth centuries. The translations are grouped into themes such as: Ein Sof (God as Infinity), the Sefirot (Divine Qualities), Creation, Meditation and Mystical Experience, Torah, and Living in the Material World. This book has been translated into six languages including a Hebrew edition (Lev ha-Qabbalah).

I spent several years working on a book entitled God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality. Here I do not make the simplistic claim that kabbalists somehow knew what Stephen Hawking and others would eventually discover. Rather, I explore several parallels between scientific cosmology and Kabbalah, such as the creative vacuum state and the notion of fertile mystical nothingness, or broken symmetry and the kabbalistic theory of “the breaking of the vessels.” Given that the theory of the Big Bang has become our contemporary Creation story, I seek to outline a “new-ancient” theology, drawing especially on the kabbalistic idea of God as the energy animating all of existence. A revised edition of God and the Big Bang is about to appear, incorporating some of the recent discoveries in cosmology.

In 1995, I was approached by the Pritzker family of Chicago, who invited me to take on the immense project of composing an annotated translation of the Zohar. I was simultaneously thrilled and overwhelmed by this opportunity. After wrestling with the offer for some time, I decided to translate a short section of the Zohar to see how it felt; but I poured myself into the experiment so intensely, day after day, that I was left drained, exhausted, and discouraged. How could I keep this up for years? I reluctantly resolved to decline the offer, but finally agreed to at least meet with the woman who had conceived the idea: Margot Pritzker. I expressed my hesitation to her, and told her that the project could take twelve to fifteen years—to which she responded, “You’re not scaring me!” Somehow, at that moment, I was won over, and decided to plunge in.

I began working on the translation in 1997 in Berkeley (while on sabbatical). Between 2004-14, Stanford University Press published eight volumes of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, and last month Volume 9 appeared, concluding the Zohar’s main commentary on the Torah. Two other Zohar scholars are composing Volumes 10–12, which will include various other sections of the Zohar.

3 Responses to Miriam Kosman-Haredi Feminist- Miriam Gedwiser, Shira Wolowsky, and Gene Matanky

To continue the discussion of gender from the interview with Miriam Kosman. In my last post, I refrained from including various interesting issues in the introduction. For example, Dr. Mendel Hirsch, building on the thought of his father Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, wrote that today all learning should be from the feminine perspective of home, children, and family and not the traditional learning. Alternately, Rav Shagar stated that the original open-ended Talmudic discussion was a feminine style and that in  he post-modern age we need to return – away from the closed and definitive male Yeshiva style – back to a women’s discourse. On a very different level, in 1535, Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulkhan Arukh, received a message from his Maggid, his angelic visitor, that his wife had a male soul of a great Talmudic scholar that had to return as a female in order to learn charity and sharing.

To directly return to the last blog post, many commented in the typical manner of second wave feminists who say to third wave feminists: How can you do theory when there are still glass ceiling to break. yet, I received three different and complimentary replies that go beyond that complaint. The first by Miriam Gedwiser Esq. is perspective of asking how this would apply to her life. The second by Professor Shira Wolosky accepted the use of gender categories in her studies of literature but still finds Kosman’s approach lacking. Finally, Gene Matansky points out how the contemporary theory of Judith Butler and Daniel Boyarin is different than Kosman’s complimentary position.

gender_quizMiriam Gedwiser is a faculty member at Drisha. She has a BA from the University of Chicago in the History and Philosophy of Science and a JD from NYU School of Law. She studied in the Drisha Scholars Circle as well as at other programs in Israel and Boston. She practiced commercial litigation at a large law firm, and completed a judicial clerkship in the Southern District of New York.

Miriam Kosman’s work, or something like it, could potentially open up a discourse that could be fruitful for the circles I inhabit (let’s call it, for identification purposes only, Modern Orthodoxy). The status quo seems to be that we must all affirm that “halakhah sees men and women differently” – but then tread on eggshells when attempting to conceptualize those differences in any way, and more often than not avoid such conceptualization all together.

The result of this avoidance in coeducational settings, further, is not neutrality. When girls and boys are together for everything in school, the Modern Orthodox impulse seems to teach everyone a Judaism that centers on communal prayer and Torah study. No one talks about what happens when you graduate and move to a neighborhood where the women’s section is locked during the week and the Torah classes are for men only. Nor do they talk about what happens for the decade (or so) when “going to shul” for many women actually means “going to Tot Tefillah.”

Partly because of the assumption of this traditionally male perspective, and partly for reasons endemic to the American professional classes from which Modern Orthodoxy draws so heavily, domestic tasks, and anything stereotypically feminine, are sometimes denigrated; Challah baking generates eyerolls.

So the work of creating the cyclical experiences of the Jewish week and year is largely ignored. The laws of pesach are a topic for halakhah class, but the work of making pesach, the thing women learned from their mothers, is in practice frequently outsourced in whole or part.

The closest we sometimes get to an alternative is a male rosh yeshiva speaking about tznius (modesty). Framing the broadly “internal” values of femininity in terms of tznius may be intended to lift tznius beyond the realm of four-inch skirt rulers and collarbone-effacing diagrams. But, for a large portion of the audience it serves less to uplift than to taint any larger ideas being proposed.

Any discourse about gender differences that is going to succeed for women like me, then, should (a) include women’s voices, (b) provide a frame that does not reduce to “tznius,” and (c) provide a way of thinking about, and valuing, the parts of the mesorah (tradition) that have historically been delegated mostly to women.

Kosman in many ways fits this bill. She makes an emphatic case for a male-female dichotomy that centers the affirmative virtues of the feminine side, and she vigorously upholds equality as the ideal.

Yet it is on the level of the practical, as-applied implications that Kosman strikes me as far from complete. A book on gender and Judaism is interesting to me to the extent that it explains what needs explaining, and here I feel that Kosman is only a very beginning.

What needs explaining is not the abstract differences between “metaphors” of feminine and masculine – though those can be of interest, much as a discourse on din vs. rahamim, or hesed vs. gevurah would be. Rather, the question of gender dichotomy is pressing because of how it plays out in the realities of women and men doing mitzvot and learning Torah. Kosman recognizes as much in her book when she moves back and forth seamlessly between the conceptual framework and practical examples such as the blessings in the morning and at the wedding canopy.

Even a theoretical presentation, then, should shed light on real-life tensions. For me, the two main tensions are: (1) Tensions between gendered halakhot and the religious aspirations of many women – (aspirations often generated by their own Orthodox education!). The bridge does not need to be practical (women can now do XYZ!), but it needs to name the problem and then offer a way of either acting or thinking differently that lowers the level of dissonance. (2) Tensions between the gender hierarchy that I think is clear in many traditional texts, and the self-understanding of contemporary women that we are, in Kosman’s words, “equal.”

Here, too, naming the problem is key, at least for me.
First, at the level of halakhah, Kosman speaks of feminine and masculine archetypes as “metaphors” and acknowledges that the distribution of natural “circle” or “arrow” inclinations does not map onto gender. But living according to halakhah is not a metaphor.

Her answer seems to be that halakhah demands that people consciously activate their masculine or feminine potentials according to the dictates of their bodies. “Judaism,” Kosman says, “has an interest in making sure each of these poles remains alive and kicking in our world.” I think I agree. But I remain unconvinced that assigning people to a “feminine” or “masculine” pole is either the best or only way to ensure that both poles continue to have power in the world – especially if, as Kosman agrees, we resist the notion that “men and women are necessarily essentially different.”

Indeed, Kosman herself notes that the two poles emerge in non-gendered dynamics, such as the tension between Shabbat and the rest of the week, the mindset of prayer, or the different spiritual profiles of different communities. What Kosman presents as an ex-ante justification for gendered halakhot, then, strikes me as, at best, an ex-post explanation. And it is an explanation much more likely to “work” for those already bought in than for those who experience a secular world where gender is not the most fundamental distinction between humans.

On the second question-the hierarchy implicit in traditional texts, Kosman states axiomatically that “the ultimate goal is mutuality and equality,” though also that “the circle/female represents the higher level.” For her, this is the message of the Torah, and history is moving toward a time when both “circle” and “arrow” agree with her.

The weight of rabbinic literature does not support Kosman’s claims of “equality,” and certainly not her assertion that “the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface.” If so, can these claims go beyond convincing women with vested interests, and convince Torah-literate men as well? Or are the women in the position of the husband in an old joke who lets his wife make “small decisions” like who his friends are and where he works, as long as he can make the big decisions like whether their family supports the balanced budget amendment.

Relatedly, if the very nature of “circle” values is fluidity, and anything coercive is “arrow,” how can women effect change in a man’s world? I would love to see an exploration, for example, of whether a desire to include women in leadership roles while technically complying with prohibitions on public leadership (serarah) might lead to new models of (less hierarchical) communal leadership.
Circle/feminine approaches cannot, by definition, push hard enough to be taken seriously without giving up their essence. Kosman seems to rely on God to move men toward greater recognition of equality, but accepting this answer requires a lot of faith in her paradigm to begin with.

Kosman does address the question of leadership roles for women:: “The question is what price do we pay as a culture by saying that publicly endorsed- leadership is the only worthwhile kind of influence? Or that if you don’t have an official title or a public persona you don’t exist?”

This was one of the many places where I felt that she was speaking to a different reality than mine. From where I sit, “we” have already basically conceded that public roles are the important roles, and now we are just arguing about who can be important. The Modern Orthodox thought leaders who argue against certain public roles for women have generally failed to offer a compelling vision of what the important, affirmative, nonpublic roles for women actually are and why they are incompatible with public positions. So while I wholeheartedly agree that we need to make space for other models of influence, I come at it more from a position of rebuilding than preserving. And in the mixed-gender universe I inhabit, it seems counterproductive to limit that reconstruction by biological sex.

As a question of style, I didn’t always feel like the intended audience for Circle, Arrow, Spiral (CAS), which contains hundreds of endnotes with rabbinic source material, in Hebrew, while at the same time defining basic terms like “tanakh” in the main text. The body of the text veers too close, at times, to unsupported pop-psychological assertions for my tastes. At the same time there is a refreshing candor, and the footnotes bring in a surprisingly (if also irregularly) broad array of texts and authors – from Maharal to Soloveitchik to Feyerabend, with a guest appearance by Yertle the Turtle.

Ultimately I think Kosman lost me in her first answer, where she highlighted woman’s “mission of being ‘the other’ ‘kneged’.” I do, actually, see a big part of the Torah’s message as a call to remain critical and contrarian about many dominant cultural assumptions. But that critical distance is not the end in itself, but rather enables an authentic role as ovdei Hashem (servant of God), or am segulah (chosen nation). The male-female relationship is not “mutual and equal” so long as women are expected to experience ourselves primarily as “other.” I also want to be able to live in my own skin.

Shira Wolosky (Ph.D. Princeton University) was an Associate Professor of English at Yale before moving to the Hebrew University, where she is Professor of English and American Literature. Her books include Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War; Language Mysticism; The Art of Poetry; Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community; Poetry and Public Discourse, Among other awards, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow at the Princeton and the Israel Institutes for Advanced Studies, a Tikvah fellow at NYU Law School, and a Drue Heinz Visiting Professor at Oxford. Prof. Wolosky uses feminist theory and asks questions of gender and women’s space in her literary studies.  For example of her studies of the poetry of Jewish women- see here and here. 

The question of gender remains one of the most challenging within society, both secular and religious.  Does the desire for equality mean erasing all difference? In what way can gender be respected in its difference yet not undermine respect, justice, and dignity?  Both secular and religious societies use norms to enforce inequalities that may not be inherent or necessary according to the values they themselves are committed to and desire to uphold.

Miriam Kosman is a voice of feminine difference, following the work of Gilligan, Miller, and Held.  Her appeal to ‘feminine values’ is I think an important recognition of how the lives women have led have indeed embodied many of the highest commitments of Judaism.  That women have in fact been fundamental builders of community is something that has rarely been recognized, with the notion that women remain in the ‘private’ sphere while men act in the ‘public’ one concealing the work women have traditionally performed to build community and care for its members: the child, the elderly, the sick, the orphan, the male.

In my book Feminist Theory Across Disciplines: Feminist Community and American Women’s Poetry, I have argued that raising children is itself a public service, a foundation of community without which society itself cannot survive.  This is dramatically visible in the stunning drop in birth rates that has followed the elevation of the ‘individual’ as a free being without obligations to others.  Judaism, as a life in community, has always valued many of the activities that women traditionally have performed, in terms of care and responsibility for others and for each other.

Kosman does not, however, either solve or really address how some of the practices within Jewish traditional communities restrict women and undermine the justice and dignity Judaism is committed to.

I wholeheartedly agree that ‘feminine’ values are indeed Jewish ones that should be embraced by both genders, that feminine voices have been a vital  critical correction  against the atomistic individualism that threatens community in the Western world.  Such a critical view of the sale of the self to materialism, the pursuit of selfhood at the cost of relationship to others, which ultimately also impoverishes the self, has been a continuous pressure in women’s writing.

Women have been barred from almost every public forum.  They have not been priests, ministers or rabbis, journalists or professors, lawyers or judges, politicians or witnesses.  Literature has served as one of the few arenas in which women’s gained public voices, although even this became possible only after women achieved education, something that came very late in both the secular and religious worlds (although the history of Jewish women’s literacy is still to be written).

These voices, however, have in fact not been very much heard through the history of Jewish life.  This is of course true of every other society as well.  The revolution of recognizing gender as a central category of analysis, of recovering, exploring, and attending women’s viewpoints and voices, is very recent.  For practicing Jews, the relation of gender to tradition must be, I think, cautious and delicate.  One cannot be traditional by throwing over tradition.  Change must proceed within the discourses, norms and forms of Jewish heritage and life.  Kosman very much respects this caution, affirming the value of both Jewish tradition and feminist recognition.

Furthermore, her sense of the reality of the body as a condition of human existence in this world I think is an important one: that “gender technically exists on a continuum, we live in a physical world and the body that G-d gave us is the medium through which our soul interacts with the world.”  But again: how do we not attempt to escape our body and yet also not let it define who we are?  Something contemporary culture, with its idolatry of beauty and youth, sorely attempts.

Nevertheless, Kosman pretty much leaves Jewish gender practices as they are, in ways that border on the apologetic.  I think that her claim that “by using the fact that one is born into a male or female body to channel men in a particular direction and women in another, Judaism makes use of the most stable and objective standard to maintain tension between the two poles” evades issues of gender inequality even where traditional discourses can be appealed to.  This of course involves Agunoth, but also women as Torah authorities, women as being seen and heard in public fora, and other issues so prominent among those who are committed both to tradition and to feminist justice.

There is I think a strong relationship between Jewish and feminist values, as I have explored in my article “The Lonely Woman of Faith,” taking feminism to mean the lives women have lived in devotion to others as an enrichment of the self; although this should not be one sided to women, but should also, as Kosman writes, be the values of men; while women, too, should have opportunities to pursue projects that develop their talents, combining creativity with contribution in Jewish as in other spheres of life.  To say this, however, is to live inside the question of gender and justice, not to offer easy answers.


Gene Matanky is currently finishing his degree at Herzog College, Alon Sh’vut and has an interest in Jewish thought and gender theory. He plans on beginning a master’s degree in Jewish thought in the following year. Currently he translates Jewish academic works.

From the interview it is apparent that Kosman has a firm grasp of different types of feminist thought and uses them positively when examining Judaism. This response is not in any way meant to undermine this point. A very interesting aspect of Kosman’s work is that she integrates many “outside” viewpoints in her discussion of gender in Judaism. The fact that she doesn’t only base her opinion on strictly “Jewish” sources is a positive development within Orthodox Judaism. Her radical opinion that, “the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface” may even be subversive, to say the least.

In this response I would like to explore her position in regard to gender essentialism.  Kosman states in regards to essentialism, “Actually, I have a very strong aversion to the idea that men and women are necessarily essentially different. Instead, I see the two forces as archetypes for different ways of interacting.” From this answer it appears that Kosman equates gender essentialism with the view that biological sex is correlated with gender identity, however, gender essentialism is not only expressed in this biological form.

Gender essentialism is the view that femininity and masculinity have essential (and unchanging) characteristics. For instance, in kabbalah, “As complex as kabbalistic symbolism can be, the issue of gender is surprisingly simple: Male and female are correlated consistently with the activity of projection and the passivity of restriction.” (Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being, p. 95), meaning that the essence of masculinity is activeness and the essence of femininity is passiveness (or as Kosman writes, “The arrow is doing, the circle is being.”).

Her essentialistic stance is prominent in her discussion of transgender, noting how in prayer one must enter a mode of “feminine being” and that positive time commandments require a “masculine mode of being”. This is reminiscent of “gender reversal” that the kabbalist undertakes. When he is receiving from the Shekhinah he is engendered as female, but when he arouses the Shekhinah to unite with Tif’eret he is engendered as male. This view of gender is essentialistic and as scholars have shown it is precisely through this essentialism that the gender reversal is possible.

Another area in which her essentialism may be noted is in her discussion of the Maccabees. She writes that “as Jews, we have generally valued the feminine prototype over the male one.” She continues by contrasting the Jewish men sitting in caves and learning Torah with the “strong Greek army.” Arguing against this  “feminine” perception of the Jewish man, Daniel Boyarin, building on Judith Butler’s work, has shown in Carnal Israel and Unheroic Conduct that masculinity in Judaism has been constructed differently than Hellenistic masculinity and Western masculinity, and that Torah learning is a form of masculine performance. Due to Kosman’s essentialist views in this case she characterizes Torah learning as a feminine activity, which is not the case within Judaism, where Torah learning, until recently, was an only-male activity. In this area it makes much more sense to use Boyarin’s Butler-influenced view of constructed gender.

In addition, I question Kosman’s conception of difference. Due to her rejection of the postmodern trend of “negating any unitary standpoint,” her notion of the masculine and feminine is complementary. She writes, “I feel like the female force always represents immanence and not transcendence—to me greatness in a woman would be more of a greatness of spirit than a greatness of intellect,” as well as, “hassidut, which put a big emphasis on meditative prayer, joy, dance and submission to a Rebbi– can be seen as a more ‘feminine’ approach to Judaism. Others, like the very rational, analytic ‘Yeshivish’ approach seem to set a value on the more confrontational, independent minded ‘masculine’ mode.” In both of these quotations masculine and feminine are complementary, feminine/ immanence/ mysticism/ spirit, in contrast to masculine/ transcendence/ rational/ intelligence. The issue is that there is no true difference here.

As Levinas stated in regards to the Hegelian synthesis, an antithesis that can be combined with a thesis to produce a synthesis, was never truly different, true difference cannot be inferred from the ‘same’. In Kosman’s rendering of gender difference, the feminine is merely the opposite of the masculine. Therefore we must also examine Kosman’s synthesis and see what role the masculine and feminine play in it.

The passage in which the synthesis/spiral is dealt with is in her discussion of Gan Eden and the World to Come. She writes that creation and redemption are characterized by the feminine, yet this world is characterized by the masculine. It is important to note that the past and future (both temporalities that are absent) are feminine, while the present is masculine. Although she writes that the present world must be tempered by the feminine, it is clear the masculine is the more powerful one in the equation. Therefore it appears that although the feminine acts on the masculine by making it into a spiral like form, this form resembles the arrow more than the circle.

I think it would be helpful to contrast Kosman’s formulation with that of some poststructuralist feminist thinkers. Luce Irigaray’s conception of a feminine language is not complementary to “masculine” language, rather it threatens it. The same can be said of Julia Kristeva’s conception of the semiotic chōra – an indeterminate space that refuses symbolic representation. Kristeva takes the word chōra from Plato’s Timaeus, in which he defines it as a maternal receptacle. For the purpose of this discussion what is important to note is that the chōra is not complementary to the symbolic, but rather prevents the subject from firming a “fixed identity”. Although these thinkers may disagree with each other, they all seek to formulate the feminine as a constructed absolute difference.

According to Elliot Wolfson, a formulation of gender difference can be found, in the eschatological vision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson. As he writes in Open Secret, the feminine is not reabsorbed into the masculine within Ḥabad’s conception of tiqqun (reparation), but rather both the feminine and masculine remain in a non-synthesized form and in a non-hierarchal formulation. It should be noted that Schneerson’s view of gender is not constructed, but essentialistic, however due to the essence of the Infinite being conceived as that which cannot be reified, the essences of masculinity and femininity in their “repaired” state are also indeterminate and therefore are not complementary.

Kosman’s view and formulation of gender is an important and positive step within Orthodox Judaism and in many ways is anything, but traditional. However, in regards to her relation to gender essentialism, in my opinion, her view of gender is essentialistic as well as complementary. Due to the importance of gender difference, I think that poststructuralist thinkers should be seriously engaged within the interpretations of Jewish texts.

Interview with Miriam Kosman: Haredi Feminist Thinker

Female and male dichotomies are common in the modern apologetics of Haredi world. Many scholars have noted the importance in the rhetoric of outreach Orthodoxy of Carol Gilligan’s A Different Voice (1982), in that she offered a gendered view of reality. But what if the use of gender categories went beyond window dressing through intense study by a Haredi author? What if a Haredi author actually mastered recent third-wave difference feminism using these recent works as a source of a new religious worldview?

In a new book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, Miriam Kosman actually does just that; she uses feminist theory to work out a Torah worldview. Miriam grew up in Baltimore on Yeshiva lane as daughter of Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, the former longtime mashgiach ruchani of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. She is the mother of eleven children and  has lived for 32 years in a haredi community in B’nei Brak, married to a Rosh Yeshiva.  Despite these bona fide Haredi credentials, Kosman started an MA in Bar Ilan five years ago, taking courses in philosophy and feminist theory, and is now working on her doctorate.


Kosman’s book Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism clearly started as an apologetic work in style but as the book progresses the reader finds entire subsections grappling with third-wave feminism, footnotes to Camille Pagllia, and seriously fluid gender ideas, by the end we find themes that would be progressive by any standard. A free excerpt of the apologetic section is available online at her website.  But she is continuing her studies and writing, hoping to write a more universal version of her ideas as well as a doctorate on feminist metaphors in Jewish texts. In the interim, this interview reflects her current thinking about gender categories.

This interview was long in gestation. In the interim, one of my former students independently came to the same conclusions about the novelty of the book and wrote a widely circulated review in the Forward.

As this interview shows, Kosman is not simple gender essentialism or complementarianism, in which each sex has specific roles to play. She starts with the obvious dichotomy of men as arrows and women as circles making one fear for the apologetics, then swerves into the idea of the spiral, in which both genders needs to acknowledge the other elements and work in harmony as individualized gender fluidity, even making space for transgendered identities.  As the author grew in her knowledge while writing the book, the book incorporated more third and fourth wave feminism.

The following is a widespread typology of feminism. The First Wave (Approximately 1840–1920) of feminism grew out of the movement to abolish slavery, and then turned to women’s rights, suffrage, white slavery,  and child labor. These feminists changed our culture through dress reform, birth control, and granting to women the right to own property, get divorced, be educated, keep their income and inheritance, and retain custody of their children.

The Second Wave (Approximately 1960–1988) was the women’s liberation movement (the preferred term of this band of feminists) whose goal was equality and having equal access to domains that had been exclusive to men. Second Wave feminists demonstrated that, given the opportunity or necessity, women could do what men did. These feminists declared that they were the experts—not male doctors, religious leaders, fathers, or husbands—when it came to abortion, rape, pregnancy, and female sexuality. They created language and resources for atrocities once just called “life”—such as date rape, domestic abuse, and illegal abortion. They lobbied for laws and court decisions to strike down legal inequality.

The Third Wave (Approximately 1988–2010) grew out of an enormous cultural shift. By the late 1980s, a cohort of women and men who’d been raised with the gains, theories, flaws, and backlash of the feminist movement were beginning to come of age. Whether or not these individual men and women were raised by self-described feminists—or called themselves feminists—they were living lives changed by feminism. For example, Kosman in her role as a public teacher of Torah, a new role, benefited from the advances in society as a whole.

Scholarship on women’s studies, feminist studies, masculinity studies, and queer studies became prolific generating theorists rather than activists. Third wave is about giving women options and not forcing all women toward egalitarianism. As part of this wave, Post-structuralist feminists see the binaries of male and female as constructs. Some develop difference feminism further and others seek to go beyond them with new ideas of gender.   (See Daniel Boyarin and Judith Butler).

For the typical feminist, the constructs were created to maintain the power of dominant groups. In contrast Kosman, despite following this trend toward theory, sees the binaries as a step in Hashem’s plan to create an ideal society followed by Hashem’s vision of greater fluidity. Her Orthodox approach is not to seek new narratives, rather to reread the old, so too she does not seek new rituals, rather a new  set of reasons for the commandments.

The Fourth Wave (Approximately 2008–Onward) was a critical mass of younger feminists shaped by the 1980s backlash, Take Our Daughters to Work Day initiatives, of the ’90s, and 9/11.

Kosman follows a movement called “difference feminism” – developed in the 1980s, in part as a reaction to popular “equality feminism”, which emphasized the similarities between women and men in order to argue for equal treatment for women. Difference feminism, although it still aimed at equality between men and women, emphasized the differences between men and women and argued that identicality or sameness is not necessary in order for men and women, and masculine and feminine values, to be treated equally. Difference feminism holds that gender-neutrality harmed women “either by impelling them to imitate men, or by neglecting women’s distinctive contributions.

After reader her writings, one becomes certain that the authors of the approbations –from Roshei Yeshiva in Gateshead and Ner Israel, as well as from rabbis opposed to secular studies and their evil influence– had no idea what is written in the book or her ideas.  Even her more modern Yeshivish promoters probably would be surprised by the interview below.  And even one of her well-meaning friends wrote an embarrassingly ill-informed review stating that the work shows how “kabbalah refutes feminism.”

Similar to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan or Rabbi Abraham Twersky, her writings will serve as a conduit for the integration into the Haredi world of ideas formerly seen as beyond the pale.  Because of her affiliations, she has an appropriation from the outreach organization Ner LeElef despite the quotations from sources as wide spread as Nietzsche and the Buddha. Yet, she noticeably uses secular feminist authors to enhance Torah ideas unlike those fearful of feminist and secular books. In addition, unlike the well-known typical apologetics, she envisions a future of new understandings, new roles for women, fluidity of categories, and speaks of the neglect of the women’s voice in Orthodoxy.

Kosman openly relies on the difference feminism as an “ethics of care” such as Carol Gilligan and Virginia Held, the politics of difference by Iris Young, and feminist psychoanalysts Nancy Chodorow and Jean Baker Miller. She uses socially conservative Catharine MacKinnon who asks the legal and political questions, for whom gender is constitutively constructed with reference to changing social factors

These citations are not window dressing, rather the core of Kosman’s grappling, which thereby brings us to her uniqueness.  One is hard pressed to find discussions, or even citations, of these feminist thinkers among Modern Orthodox authors and community advocates who are generally pragmatically oriented toward (or against) egalitarianism.  They are still following the second wave as reflected in the pioneer feminism of Judith Plaskow, accepted by all liberal Jewish denominations. Plaskow wrote “Jewish feminism is praxis-oriented. Its goal is to move Jewish religious law, history, practice, and communal institutions in the direction of the full inclusion of women.”

But what about comments on the vast amount of feminist theory taught on every campus including Bar Ilan, do we ever hear gender concepts and feminist concepts of self discussed?  Kosman is a kaleidoscope of difference feminism theology sliding toward fluidity.

In order to encourage further conversation, I have invited several respondents to comment on the interview-  Read three responses here.

kosman 5

1. What is feminism? Which works on feminism do you find useful?

I see the beginning of feminism as the stirrings of the female voice. . The first stage was where women had to reinstate herself as equal.   Writers on that note like Simone De Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, espoused the view that there was nothing intrinsically different about women and that any difference between the sexes were a result of socialization or cultural construction.  This parallels the stage where women had to reinstate herself as equal—if she so chose to she could be as capable, intelligent, abstract, forceful, creative, etc. as he was.

This was a necessary stage. But once a level of practical equality was achieved, feminist thinkers were open to exploring differences.

To me this is the more interesting stage where woman comes into her own, and her mission of being “the other” ‘kneged’. What is the voice that she brings? In what way is she not like a man? The feminist thought that I get the most out of are the wide swath of feminist thinkers—heterogeneous and irreducible to each other—but who share the common denominator of a critical interest in what differentiates the specifically feminine.  Some of them see the differences rooted in culture, others in biology or early life experience, but they share a willingness to name and analyze specifically feminine traits, as well as to explore the possible social, ethical, ecological, moral and philosophical ramifications of a feminine perspective.  I think these thinkers have been transformative, casting new light on basically every area of human activity.

One obvious example is the works of gender feminists like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Sara Ruddick as well as Virginia Held who focused on differences in approach to morality. But also postmodern feminists like  Luce Irigaray, who see the human body in more metaphoric terms. I found writers like Nancy Chodorow who look at Freudian psychology with a new lens, offered fascinating insights into the difference between boys and girls psychosocial development, . I also got a lot of out of feminist epistemologists—just having different types of knowing put into words, their emphasis on the  relationship between the knower and the knowee, the importance of gathering numerous standpoints.

I very much resonated with eco-feminst ideas about an approach to nature which is based on mutual respect and interdependence—and not on conquering and exploiting.  I found it stretches the applicability of the particularly feminine way of being and interacting to every aspect of life.

On the other hand, , the postmodern trend in feminism  to  dismantle all the “grand narratives” by negating any unitary standpoint at all,  effectively opens the door to any definition and    I am not the first to point out that opening the door to every definition also erases the concept of definition completely.   So today, I think the challenge might be not to get lost just in the female perspective. The male voice of hierarchy needs to be a player also.  Everything is not relative; everything is not in the eyes of the beholder.  Holiness implies impurity, good implies bad, etc.  The goal is synthesis between the two voices.

  1. How can a Torah perspective use these feminist works?

To me these works have been invaluable in bringing the feminine into sharp focus. Reading them emphasizes the power of words and the ability to name things.   Until you know how to call something you don’t even really know it exists.  Insights about aspects of femininity and the ramifications of this way of looking at things have opened up avenues of thought that were completely new to me.   From a very personal perspective, I have found that often my understanding  of Torah has been enriched by outside sources.  Often they have made me aware of nuances and depth in Torah that I would never have even noticed without it.

One example that comes to mind is something I recently read by Iris Young about the difference between touch and sight. One is interactive—you can’t touch without being touched—and one is objectifying, there is the object and the subject.  After reading that insight in her works I began to pick up on references to what different senses represent that I would have just missed before.

  1. How does feminism apply to your thinking?

It underlines the importance of a ‘different voice’. Every thing changes when you look at it from a different angle.  There is an element of imbalance without a female standpoint. Understanding and articulating that voice makes the voice stronger and more of a presence in making the world more human . It is  very easy to betray that voice in the ‘male oriented’ world we live in.

Because I look at the feminine as a metaphor for a way of doing and being, and see it as representing a higher way of being, a lot of the practical ramifications or activist agendas of feminist thought  just roll off me. It is interesting how an idea, once expressed belongs to the world and is no longer owned by the thinker—I am sure many feminists I quote would totally disagree with my conclusions, but their insights can support many different perspectives.

In my book I talk about humanity’s progress towards perfection in which the female voice always represents the voice of truth agitating under the surface but there are various stages of development.

Woman’s curse after gan eden was ‘you will yearn for him and he will rule over you’. People forget that a curse  is not a good thing.  It is a description of reality after the sin–a painful reality– that we would want to change if we could. The reality for women was: you will yearn for him: for relationship, exclusivity, intimacy and closeness but the male approach will rule; the focus will be on conquest, progress, aquisition, etc.

  1. Should frum Jews be scared of feminist writings?

I think there is what to be scared of, but interestingly, it is not the issues of gender roles that people usually worry about.

First of all, I think most of us are blissfully unaware of the extent to which feminist thought has already infiltrated our consciousness—because many of the changes wrought go way beyond the typical gender issues.

More challenging to my way of thinking are issues like the interaction between power and knowledge, the toppling of hierarchy, and the questioning of the possibility  of objectivity  all of which  present challenges to traditional thought.  And as is usually the case in post modernity, good and evil are all mixed up.  There is a lot that feels right—and Jewish—in a feminine way of looking at things.

You always need both a male and a female voice.  The male voice brings the holding power of the absolute, and the female voice brings the dynamic, fluid voice of human reality. Each one without the other is terrifying. The male voice alone creates a rigid, narrow, closed, authoritarian world view, and the female voice alone creates an amorphous, fluid river to nowhere.  I see Judaism as an entire system that seeks to engage both these aspects.

5. Can you explain you three image shapes in your title and their value?

The idea is that the arrow represents a male energy and force. It connotes progress, action, force, productivity, constant striving to have more and get more. The circle represents the female force which symbolizes the idea of wholeness, harmony and relationship. The arrow is doing, the circle is being.

The ideal in Judaism is the spiral which is a synthesis of these two forces. We want to progress, advance, do and accomplish but we want to do it in a holistic way without turning ourselves into a caricature of ourselves, where we are very advanced in one area and very retarded in other areas.  By the way, the circle/arrow/spiral model is not original.

There are many examples of this spiral in the whole structure of Judaism. One classic one is the dynamic between Shabbat and the days of the week. The days of the week would be a male/arrow–progressing, accomplishing, doing.  Shabbat would be a circle/female–being, reveling in the experience, etc. The spiral would be the synthesis between the two:  the building and accomplishing we do during the days of the week creates  the person we bring to the relationship of ‘being’ on Shabbat, and the experience of Shabbat sends us out to our work week from a higher place.

Synthesis is the first theme of the book.  The second theme is that the circle/female represents the higher level.   Gan Eden was a world characterized by a feminine/ circle voice, and the World to Come is also a feminine/circle  world.   So to draw the diagram correctly there would have to be a circle at the bottom of the spiral and a circle on the top.   In the meantime we are in a male world (and we need to balance that with the feminine in a spiral like form).

I believe that as we get closer to the time of perfection, the circle voice needs to get stronger. I see feminism in this context. The circle voice is gaining much more influence.  The challenge is to stay true to that voice and not run after the arrow. It is a fine line, because in our current reality, the arrow is also crucial to the synthesis

  1. What is the female voice and how has it been suppressed?

The female voice is the one that calls for reciprocal mutual relationship.  It sees the process as the goal—meaning it sees greater importance in how you get there than that you got there—the relationships you develop on your way up, not that you make it to the top. The female voice is not interested in status or hierarchy. It zeroes in on authentic, real, immanent reality. It sees the whole world as interconnected and interdependent and every situation as a dialogue.

Our world is characterized by a constant struggle between that female voice and the male voice that puts the emphasis on autonomy, independence, status, accomplishment, end results, etc.  There are midrashic sources  for the idea tht that  every day of creation hides within it another enactment of this  battle between the male and female force–and the male force won the battle every time. But it didn’t win the war—the female voice continues to agitate under the surface and as we get closer to a time of perfection it is getting louder and more influential  in every sphere.

7. You discuss gender separately than biology and point out that the people of Israel can be feminine and so too Jewish males as female. Can you explain that point?

First of all, I see the whole concept of male and female as metaphorical and for this reason it is pretty fluid.  The Jewish people are feminine towards G-d like in Song of Songs, and this might refer to attributes like receptivity, longing, accepting influence, etc.  Obviously this would apply to the males as well.

But there is a much deeper point.  My whole thesis is that when G-d said ‘it is not good for man to be alone, I will make a helpmate opposite him’ he was saying that the male always needs a female as a counterpoint to him.  The female always represents the other, the one who is not mainstream who stands outside and offers an alternative.  So I see that as a statement about the world in general.  The mainstream is male and the female is the other; the one who needs to constantly pull the rest of the world in a direction of health.

And if you think about it,  as Jews, we have generally valued the feminine prototype over the male one.  Jewish male heroes over the centuries were never particularly masculine and certainly not macho. Look at the Chanukah story, a bunch of men sitting around in a cave learning Torah, and the strong Greek army with their elephant tanks and military strength. Even today, what we often choose to praise about a rabbi or great person is their sensitivity—their ability to care, to feel and even to cry.  Crying is not macho, but a Jew who doesn’t know how to cry—in davening, or over other people’s suffering, is in big trouble.

This fluidity between the two poles is very important because the ultimate goal is mutuality and equality. The first verse in Song of Songs talks about a kiss—which is reciprocal—one of the main themes of my book is that real relationship creates a reciprocal flow where hierarchy is less relevant.   On a certain level, the lines between who is the influencer and who is the influencee become blurred.

  1. Are you just a return to Essentialism?

Actually, I have a very strong aversion to the idea that men and women are necessarily essentially different. Instead, I see the two forces as archetypes for different ways of interacting, which once understood can be consciously chosen or activated. Interestingly being born a female in no way guarantees an understanding of or an affiliation with feminine (circle) values and virtues (and vice versa). In fact, I think that femininity is a conscious choice—and as representative of an ideal in Judaism is often incumbent on men as well as women. Notice that not only the woman is compared to the moon, but the Jewish people are as well

In my experience, an essentialist approach, that claims women are like this and men are like that, at the end of the day, always paints itself into the corner. We are just too complex as human beings to be pigeonholed in any way and there is so many other axis of comparison—level and type of intelligence, interests, social standing, country of origin, familial background—that one wonders how much weight gender should even play in the equation.

I always think about the young newly married man at one of those marriage classes, shrinking into the corner because he is the type who yearns for a high level emotional relationship with his wife, but is married to a matter of fact, down to earth practical type, who can’t for the life of her understand what he wants to talk about so much.

On a completely different note, I have found Virginia Held’s comparison of Western society’s approach to birth and death to be very helpful to me in navigating the fine line that divides the  attempt to define the feminine from essentialism. Held points out that while death has often been cast as distinctly human—how a person dies is often seen as the defining feature of life— birth is seen as a natural, unconscious   biological event. Held attributes this distinction to the fact that men were the authors of our culture, and from a male perspective, birth is viewed as a kind of pre-human period,  a necessary stage to go through before men step into their privileged role as completely autonomous beings.

But birth does not just happen to the one being born. There is another active player here, and Held points out that how one gives birth, why one gives birth and, even,  if one gives birth—are just as much defining features of humanity as is how one dies, what one dies for, and how the knowledge of  death affects your life.

This insight helped me to get beyond  the concern that using biology as a model to delineate differences  would end up pigeonholing men and women  into cramped boxes—as it has so many times in history.  Held’s essay helped me to see that a conceptual framework of gender  based on the physical model  may—paradoxically allow woman to redeem her physiological experiences from the fog of  “nature” and free her to consciously choose to align or not align herself with a particularly feminine way of being. We are human when we use our intellect, our awareness, and our very souls to decide the influence that physicality will have on who we are as people.

It is important for me to note, that this “theology  of gender” is not about insisting that men and women are different because they have different types of  brains, or trying to prove that women are good at multi-tasking and men not so much. This is an understanding that there are two pulses that animate our existence, and that Judaism—the ultimate goal of which is synthesis—has an interest in making sure each of these poles remains alive and kicking in our world.

 9) How would you approach transgender orientations?

The idea of feeling connection to more than one gender, on some level, does define  the life of a Jew—who is consistently stretched in both directions. Prayer and Shabbat, for example, require entering into a female mode of being, which is applicable to men and women; the positive commandments require discipline and action—metaphorically male traits– from both men and women.

There are also some fascinating sources which lend themselves to a discussion of whether gender is as firmly entrenched as one might think.  One source that comes to mind is a  Talmudic discussion of whether there is any point in praying for a child to be born a particular sex after the first forty days of pregnancy (when presumably the sex is already decided). According to the opinion that holds that prayer can change the fetus’s sex, being born male or female may be less rigid than we might think.

At the same time, even if gender technically exists on a continuum, we live in a physical world and the body that G-d gave us is the medium through which our soul interacts with the world.  Speculating whether we have a “male” or “female” soul, is like the oft-heard discussion among  mystically inclined folks about whether any of us is a reincarnation.  While it may make for interesting discussion , practically there is little relevance to the discussion. We are still required to get up every morning and keep the mitzvot that are incumbent on us right here in our prosaic world whose borders are the physical, tangible world in which we live. I think the same kind of approach would apply here.

One of the painful aspects of being human is having to fit the enormity of our souls into our physical bodies and one of the challenging aspects of Judaism is fitting the vastness of our spiritual yearning in to the circumscription of halacha. Yet, as in any other creative endeavor, it is specifically the narrow straits that becomes the conduit—the  instrument, if you will– through which the music of our soul makes access with the world.

On another level, by using the fact that one is born into a male or female body to channel men in a particular direction and women in another, Judaism makes use of the most stable and objective standard to maintain tension between the two poles.

At the same time, in day to day life there is an allowance for  a wide spectrum of expression. It is interesting to note that various subcultures within the Orthodox world—for example some types of hassidut, which put a big emphasis on meditative prayer, joy, dance and submission to a Rebbi– can be seen as a more ‘feminine’ approach to Judaism.  Others, like the very rational, analytic ‘Yeshivish’ approach seem to valuate the more confrontational, independent minded ‘masculine’ mode.  People—both men and women—tend to gravitate towards streams within Judaism that resonate with their natural inclinations. These two forces are existentially constitutive elements within every human being, at the same time, the reality of our physical selves create the borders and limits of that fluidity.


 10) Can you give some more examples of how you use feminist authors?

In the context of this interview, I would point to the work of Jean Baker Miller, a feminist thinker and psychologist trained in psychoanalysis. In her ground-breaking book Towards a New Psychology of Women, she points out that ever since Freud, we have been engaged in uncovering the feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability that lurk beneath the surface.   In an insight which, to my mind, really pulls the rug out from under some of our received notions about the human psyche, she wonders if perhaps the reason so much effort is needed to dig up those very human experiences is specifically because of the excellent campaign job that Western society has done, in both forcing men to disassociate from vulnerability, as well as in projecting vulnerability on to women and children.

It is easy to see how women, who are encouraged to cultivate exactly those traits which society derides, might be at a disadvantage.  Miller points out, however, that the real victim of this dichotomy is the male oriented culture in which we live, which is being deprived of exactly the traits that a person needs to access the most meaningful and pleasurable of human experiences.

In an intriguing twist, Miller points out that growth, development and progress itself are dependent on vulnerability.  This is because growth is always measured in terms of  not-there-yet;; you are always looking towards a goal which you can  never be sure you will actually reach.  Breaking through current barriers to a higher level of being, is one of the most exciting qualities of being human but it requires the courage to accept vulnerability.

Jean Baker Miller’s vision, which resonates with me, is that as the feminine voice gets stronger, we can pluck vulnerability out of the corner to which it has been relegated and instead place it front and center stage as humanity’s most defining feature.  Instead of schlepping along these feelings for the rest of humanity, perhaps women can be the facilitators for others to move away from the alienation, which is the curse of modern society, towards connection.

11. What about women who took Torah learning upon themselves as individuals?

One of the ideas I point out in the book is that one of the obvious differences in Halacha between men and women is their obligation to Torah learning.  Men’s obligation is more demanding and more objective. Woman’s obligation has fluctuated over the centuries, but especially after the Chafetz Chaim’s psak, using the language of my book it can be formulated as ‘women need to learn as much Torah as they need to keep within in the ‘circle’ of the relationship with G-d’.   So, historically there were women who didn’t know how to read and write and yet Hashem was a major presence in their live, and on the other hand, there were women who were great Torah sages.

I personally have friends who rarely open a book and friends who spend a lot of time learning.  I don’t necessarily admire a lot of Torah knowledge in a woman—I don’t look at the Torah learning for a woman as an ideal in and of itself.

For me, personally., Torah learning  is crucial, not only in order to stay in the circle, but  because much of the joy of the circle would not be accessible to me without learning. But I see very clearly that for a lot of women that is not the case.  If  a woman is intellectual, then she will probably have to learn Torah in order to feel  close to Hashem. But I feel like the female force always represents immanence and not transcendence—to me greatness  in a woman would be more of a greatness of spirit than a greatness of intellect..

12. How do you differ from those Jewish Feminists, and even Orthodox ones, who think that after feminism we have to change the narrative, evolve and see patriarchy in the Bible and Talmud?

In many ways. .  Firstly, I do not see Jewish gender conceptions as problems that need correction. On the contrary, understanding the value of the dance between these two  primal forces upends the idea that gender difference represents a flawed, chauvinistic approach that needs to be updated. To me, adopting a flat egalitarianism robs us all of the richness, depth and insight that gender difference can yield.

While there is a lot of room for fluidity for individuals who don’t fit the system—I recently picked up a pamphlet in a Hassidic shul and was extremely surprised to see that the lead article was about their late rebbitzin whom, it was discovered after her death, had donned  tzitzit every day– as a whole,  I see value in women upholding one side of the story and men the other.

For example, the question is obviously not can a woman be a public leader? Obviously she can. There is no reason to insist that a particular woman could not become as great a Torah scholar or public leader as a particular man could. The question is what price do we pay as a culture by saying that publicly endorsed- leadership is the only worthwhile kind of influence?  Or that if you don’t have an official title or a public persona you don’t exist?  Do we honestly want to move women—who are the last bastion of internality– into that public-accolades-arena?

I do see women’s growing prominence as a positive thing, and I want that to continue. My ideal is for the woman’s voice to influence and impact society through transforming the way in which people think and approach life. Primarily focusing on an external equality between the genders ultimately devalues many of the gifts that women have to offer.