Gender and Judaism: A Sophisticated View From Within
by Sarah Rindner
Recent debates about women and the Orthodox rabbinate yielded a range of interesting, impassioned and also banal observations by various Jewish professionals and laypeople. Although sociological and legal arguments abound, a broader philosophical discussion of the nature of gender roles within Judaism is lacking. The assumption in these debates seems to be that the challenge before us is how this issue in Judaism will play out alongside a movement from inequality to equality, from backwardness to progress, in American or Western society. Those who resist this movement and believe that a straightforward march toward gender egalitarianism is neither desirable nor in the spirit of traditional Judaism have yet to articulate what, precisely, a theory of Jewish gender difference could, and should, look like. That is, with the exception of a small coterie of mystically inclined haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, women based in Israel who have been exploring precisely this question for years
An outstanding contribution to this genre is Circle, Arrow, Spiral by Miriam Kosman. Kosman is a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University and also the mother of eleven children who lives in a haredi community in B’nei Brak, Israel. Her father is Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, the former longtime mashgiach ruchani of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Kosman lectures regularly for the international Jewish outreach organization Nefesh Yehudi. Circle, Arrow, Spiral is possibly the only book in the universe that could contain glowing book-jacket blurbs from both Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and member of the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudath Israel of America, and Dr. Ronit Ir-Shai, Chair of the Gender Studies program at Bar-Ilan and a prominent Jewish feminist activist.
The book draws on Jewish sources, particularly Kabbalistic ones, as well as second-wave feminist theory, postmodern thought, contemporary psychology and sociology, and offers a sweeping theory of gender as it manifests itself in Judaism. For Kosman, the traditional Jewish conception of male and female roles is not a challenge to be overcome, rather it represents a sophisticated and delicate framework for enabling the “female force” to manifest itself within individual relationships and within history more broadly. Obscuring the difference between men and women in the service of egalitarianism or other contemporary trends may actually have a counterproductive effect as it could, according to Kosman, serve to silence the feminine voice. Not all of Kosman’s conclusions will sit well with every reader, but her book is critical reading for anyone who is invested in the Jewish intellectual tradition and uncomfortable with facile dismissals of its wisdom when it comes to gender in the modern world.
At the heart of the book is a mysterious midrash, from the Talmudic tractate of Chullin, which also forms the basis of another book about gender and Judaism called The Moon’s Lost Light, written under the pen name Devorah Heshelis (who is apparently a close friend of Kosman’s). The translation I use is one that Kosman borrowed from Heshelis.
Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi asked: It is written, “And G-d made the two big luminaries” (Genesis 1:16) And yet first it says, “The big luminary and the small luminary.” (ibid.). [If they are both big, why is one later called small?]
[Rabbi Shimon answers his question by explaining how the two equal-sized luminaries became unequal in size:] The moon said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, “Master of the World, two kings cannot share the same crown.”
He said to her. “Go and make yourself small.”
She said to Him, “Because I said something proper before You, I should make myself small?”
He said to her, “Go rule by day and by night.”
She said to Him, “What is the advantage in this? What is the value of a candle at noontime?”
He said to her, “Go, so that Israel may count the days and the years through you.”
She said to Him, “The sun is also necessary for counting the times and the seasons, as it says, ‘And they [both the sun and the moon] will be for signs at the appointed time; (ibid.,14)
[He said,] “Go, so that righteous ones will be called by your name. Jacob the Small One, Samuel the Small One, David the Small One.”
He saw that she was still upset. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said, “Bring an atonement for Me that I diminished the moon.”
Despite its gendered language, this midrash is not about gender on its face – the moon’s pain at her diminishment here, and her longing for equality, has been understood most broadly to refer to the Jewish people and their longing for messianic times. Each month when the Kiddush Levana prayer is recited on the new moon, the Jewish liturgy references this mystical yearning for the restoration of the moon to her former glory.
Yet in the Kabbalistic tradition, and in a variety of ancient cultures, the moon is associated with women, and this midrash is also often understood to refer to male-female relations as they manifest themselves in the world. Most fundamentally, the sun bestows light while the moon receives it. Kabbalistic literature echoes biological reality in describing the male archetype as the “mashpia,” the “bestower,” and the female archetype as the “mikabel,” the “receiver.” Kosman is always careful to clarify that she is dealing with conceptual symbolic categories, and that every woman or man has both these feminine and masculine forces within her or him. Yet part of the thesis of her book is that we must appreciate these traits separately in order for them to interrelate in a meaningful way. Thus, the “circle” of the book’s title relates to the moon, and to the female archetype, while the “arrow” of the title refers to masculinity and to the sun. The “spiral” describes the ideal interaction that takes place between the forces, relating to one another in a dialectical manner but ultimately pushing forward to create a synthesis that is more than the sum of its parts.
In addition to connecting the sun with power, hierarchy and conquest, Kosman relates it to Western civilization more broadly. This idea is manifested in, for example, the statement that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” or the use of the term “enlightenment” to characterize the European movement of philosophical and scientific revolution. The moon, on the other hand, represents dependence and interconnection. It is about knowing how to listen and in turn validate whoever is doing the giving. Kosman connects this with the spirit of the “East” (her conception of which may involve some oversimplification). This ability to receive, or “empty oneself out” is far from a passive stance, and it’s no secret how much energy and rigor is demanded by a life seriously devoted to one of the Eastern mystical traditions. Yet when placed directly beside the sun, it is easy to see how the contributions of the moon might get overshadowed. There are echoes here, in this distinction, of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik’s characterizations of Adam I, technological man, and Adam II, the “lonely man of faith.” In some sense, Kosman replaces Adam II with Eve.
Kosman reads the midrash in Chullin as presenting two stages. The first stage is a cosmic ideal of equality, represented by the notion that G-d originally created the sun and the moon as the same size, as it says toward the beginning of Genesis 1, “and G-d made the two big luminaries”. Yet it is challenging to sustain this ideal, as even the moon herself fears that no one is going to take her contributions as seriously as that of the sun. The second stage offers a revision of that original plan. In the second stage, G-d responds to the moon’s frustration by, counterintuitively, diminishing her. She is baffled by this response, but He assures her that it is not punishment, rather it may offer an even more dynamic solution to her problem. With her diminishment comes her ability to wax and wane, to at times reflect the sun’s light and other times be separate from it. There is a kind of active reciprocity that results between the sun and the moon, a dynamic relationship that gives the moon a degree of autonomy in when she will reflect the sun and when she will not.
Moreover, the moon’s smallness allows her to be present in both “day and night.” While the sun by its nature eviscerates the darkness around it, the moon is conditioned to exist in both darkness and light. The moon also has a particular awareness that results from her diminution, and this is in regard to her relationship to G-d. In Judaism, righteousness is not solely a product of great abilities or accomplishments. In this midrash, G-d reminds the moon that in the Bible great Jewish heroes like Jacob, Samuel and David, are called “small.” What distinguishes these men is not primarily their external achievements, though they are extensive, but that despite these achievements they sensed their own smallness and vulnerability and were thus able to make room for G-d in their lives.
Kosman dissects this midrash at even greater length, but the reader is nevertheless left with some lingering questions. Why does G-d ask the moon to bring an atonement for Him (in the form of the Rosh Chodesh sacrifice)? Despite everything that has transpired, does G-d ultimately still regret diminishing the moon? The fundamentally mysterious nature of this midrash notwithstanding, the dynamic described within is a powerful one. While many are quick to characterize traditional religious notions of gender and gender difference to be outmoded and even immoral, Kosman draws on this Talmudic story to present a more complex picture. Equality is clearly a value here, but so is vulnerability and interdependence. When the moon is diminished she obtains a heightened sensitivity of how underappreciated her message of “receiving” really is, and this goads her into making it more manifest in the world. Thus the imbalance between genders, while far from the ideal, creates a structure in which both forces exist separately and can then interact meaningfully with one another. According to Kosman, G-d in this midrash is saying, “Know, somewhere deep in the pain of smallness, that underneath the surface of the entire flow of history, the months and the years, your quiet presence will be a lodestone drawing humanity back to Me. You will be small. Your life will be painful, but in the end, it all depends on you.”
From Theory to Practice
When Kosman speaks of the diminishment of women in history, she is not primarily talking about within Judaism. She is speaking about the diminution of women more broadly – the mistreatment of women and devaluing of female contributions that has taken place throughout human history. In this regard, Judaism has generally been among the least egregious offenders, although it’s inevitable that Jewish texts will to some extent reflect surrounding cultural conceptions. Yet Kosman also believes that Jewish practice contains within it the tools to address, and ultimately remedy this unfortunate state of imbalance. In the separation and distinctions of gender within halakha, Jewish law, Kosman sees a sophisticated system that distinguishes male and female archetypes from one another in order to enable a sort of dialectical relationship between them. As she says, “the goal is not the proverbial melting pot, nor yet the multifaceted picture that includes many colors. The goal is a powerful, proactive crash between opposites, who, by maintaining their disparity even as they meet the other, create something entirely new.”
One example that Kosman cites is the historical Jewish practice of differentiating between the types of Torah study done by men and women. Traditionally, Talmud study is the domain of men, though Kosman points out, at length, the many prominent examples of women in Jewish history who were highly versed in Jewish texts. Kosman connects the legalistic aspects of Talmud study to the male archetype, “the halakhic aspect of Talmud requires shakla vetarya, the verbal give-and-take process of accessing the truth through argument in order to be understood.” Kosman dismisses any notion that women are intellectually incapable of such study. Yet she contends, and in this respect I strongly relate, that women will often (and certainly there are exceptions) be inclined toward a different mode of Torah study, one that emphasizes insight over argument, and experiential knowledge over abstract hypothetical scenarios. The Talmud itself contains both dimensions, both within particular legalistic give-and-takes, and in the broader weaving together of halakha with aggadah, stories that enrich, deepen and even sometimes undermine the halakhic discussions at hand. Appreciating aggadah is challenging and requires careful study, but it is ultimately not a conquest of reason, rather an experience of delighting in its subtle insight. One senses this with the midrash in Chullin about the lost light of the moon – Kosman offers a compelling interpretation of the story, but there still remains an air of mystery to the midrash that rational analysis cannot fully explicate. Anyone who has heard Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg discuss midrash can attest to the way in which it can move and delight us without necessarily offering a tight logical progression of ideas. For Kosman, the interplay between female and male forces is built into the Talmud and is part of what gives it its resonance and its power. The fact that more Jewish women study Talmud in the contemporary world is a positive development that can potentially highlight and bring these feminine elements of the Jewish tradition into greater relief. But there is a danger in emphasizing male Torah study paradigms for both men and women, as it risks sublimating the female voice. Kosman suggests, somewhat radically, that “discovering a paradigm for women’s Torah study, which validates and strengthens those gifts that women bring to the world, may require an entire restructuring of thought.”
Women and the Rabbinate
While Kosman does not specifically discuss the topic of women’s ordination, I imagine her reaction might be something along the following lines. While the impulse behind the ordination of women Rabbis may be related to a noble desire to make the female voice more prominent in the world, it is problematic to try to do this through a male paradigm of leadership. While the male voice, in Kosman’s schema, traditionally emphasizes hierarchy and power, the women’s voice is the one that quietly whispers into our ear that “the emperor has no clothes.” To dress up the female voice in male garb does not elevate it, rather it risks denigrating the female voice’s unique contributions. Many have argued, quite compellingly, that the American Orthodox Rabbinate is not solely about religious authority – that it also involves pastoral counseling, or caring for and supporting congregants in their times of need, and these are roles that one could conceivably imagine a women fulfilling as or even more successfully than a man. But for Kosman, this would not be an argument in favor of women’s ordination, rather it is proof that the system is working as it stands. For a male communal Rabbi to be successful, he must incorporate male and female elements into his work. This give and take between male and female forces is built into the structure of Judaism and should be present in all of its major expressions. The fact that men are traditionally the ones who gather each month to sanctify the new moon in the Kiddush Levana service does not represent a bewildering omission of women but rather precisely the opposite. Judaism presents an exquisite structure in which the “sun” is made to sensitize itself to the loss and yearning represented by the moon. Women don’t need to look as far to detect the male force, it is present and often deafeningly overwhelming in the Western world. The challenge, then, is how to nourish and cultivate these forces separately without losing sight of the ultimate goal of their interacting with one another in a way that will propel the Jewish people, and humanity, upward.
I had the privilege of meeting Miriam Kosman this past summer and learning from her at the Tikvah Institute for Women in New York City. It was a wonderful experience – I was blown away by her intellectual seriousness, creativity and the wide breadth of her Jewish and secular knowledge. At a certain point over the course of the institute she admitted, in her characteristically honest fashion, that at the end of the day a good deal of her defense of traditional Jewish gender roles may come down to “emunah,” to faith. Because she believes that the haredi lifestyle is beautiful, and that it is true in an irreducible way, she can’t help but view the vast array of sources she invokes as aligning in her favor. There may, however, be an extremely wide range of readers who could potentially relate to Kosman’s nuanced theology. I recently ran into an influential professor of Jewish thought who is familiar with Kosman’s work. He confirmed my intuition that there is something special about Kosman – in his view she is “light years” ahead of anyone else in the Orthodox Jewish world who is interested in women’s issues, including those in the progressive camp. I think active supporters of female ordination would have a great deal to learn from a book of this nature, both in terms of viewing Jewish gender distinctions in more generous terms, and also in appreciating the complicated nature of their task at hand. While many have touted recent innovations in women’s formal leadership within the Orthodox community as an exciting wave of the future, Circle, Arrow Spiral quite poignantly reminds us of what might potentially be lost in this move “forward.” Kosman demonstrates the potential for what serious and broad thinking about Judaism can look like within a context of deep faith and commitment. It would be wonderful if major debates in the Modern Orthodox community would take place within, or at least respond to, such a well thought-out conceptual framework.
Sarah Rindner teaches English literature at Lander College for Women. She writes about the intersection of Torah and literature for The Book of Books Blog