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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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