Sunday, November 12, 2006

A "package deal," but with wings--A few words about Tamar Ross's "Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism "

Rabbinic law is a wonderful thing. It gave us the ketubbah, the marriage contract, (the original purpose of which was) to protect women in marriage.

Rabbinic law is a terrible thing. It continues to find reasons why it's impossible to enact a ruling that would reinterpret permanently the Torah/Biblical law that gives the right to grant a get (Jewish religious divorce) to the husband exclusively. (A woman who remarries without a get is considered an adulteress.)

One of my problems with rabbinic law is that it's a "package deal." One can't pick and choose what one is going to accept. Or can one? It's a matter of interpretation (literally speaking) and/or circumstances.

Me: How can you say that a man is forbidden to hear a woman sing because a woman's singing voice is considered provocative, when the rabbi who said that also said that looking at a woman's pinky was the functional equivalent of looking at her completely naked? Why can't I just say that Rav Sheshet was having a bad day? Why can't I say that the notion that looking at a woman's pinky is the functional equivalent of looking at her totally nude is patently absurd, and/or that the rabbi who said that was either a hard-core male chauvinist or reflected the blatant sexism of his era?

Anonymous Blogger A: One doesn't say such a thing of rabbinic law. I would look to see whether there’s a different interpretation. (He found one, apparently, in this case—he's already told me that he listens to the music of Neshama Carlebach.)

Anonymous Blogger B, part 1: Remember that the rabbi who said that a woman's singing voice is provocative also said that a woman's pinky was provocative. (In the context in which it was posted, this comment was intended to be dismissive.)

Anonymous Blogger B, part 2 (from a different post): But I can't allow my daughter to sing in the presence of men (other than family), lest, by giving her permission to do so, I undermine the authority of the rabbis. So I find myself in the dubious position of having to enforce an interpretation of halachah (Jewish religious law) that I, myself, don't accept.

I can't give a real book review of Tamar Ross's Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism because I finished reading it right before Rosh Hashanah, and I have a sieve for a memory, these days. But this is her basic premise, if my so-called memory serves me correctly: Halachah (Jewish religious law) is authoritative, but not all of halachah was given at Har (Mount) Sinai, nor did Matan Torah (the giving of the law) stop with the early and later scholars (rishonim and acharonim?)--Matan Torah is a continuous, and continuing, process. Hashem's will is revealed to each generation. We look to the scholars of the past for guidance, and accept their authority, but that which is revealed in each generation through scholarship is no less authoritative. Therefore, the questions currently being asked concerning laws regarding women, and the answers being given and/or sought, are as much a part of Matan Torah as what we inherited from previous generations. And the answers may very well change over time, as more and more women become qualified Torah scholars, and more and more women learn Torah from qualified female Torah scholars. (Please correct me if I've misinterpreted Dr. Ross's premise.)

Here’s a fundamental part of Tamar Ross’s approach, in her own words (pages156-157):

“Any interpretation must contend with certain existing frames of reference in order to qualify as relevant and worthy of consideration in the eyes of the traditionalist. Irrespective of more specific and substantive considerations of content, three elements are indispensable: appeal to the consensus of experts, solidarity with the larger community in which the transformative narrative is to be played out, and acknowledgment of the law’s clams to transcendence.”

And her quote from R. Kook (page 193): “we should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather should expand the palace of Torah above it, and through this exaltation the ideas are revealed.”

Tze u-l'mad--go and study. This book, while not always the easiest of reading, is well worth the effort. As a feminist, it gives me hope that the efforts of those Orthodox women seeking expanded roles and/or more control over their own marital lives may bear fruit in the future, though I probably won't live to see it.


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