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.

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