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Orthodox Israeli Feminists Meet Our American Cousins

A memoir of two currents of Modern Orthodox feminism in Blu Greenberg and Tamar Ross, with degrees of activism and tolerance at the heart of the difference

Tamar Ross
March 08, 2017
Photo: Karen Simon
Blu GreenbergPhoto: Karen Simon
Photo: Karen Simon
Blu GreenbergPhoto: Karen Simon

My connection with Blu Greenberg spans four generations. As a child, I often heard her maiden name (Genauer) mentioned in my home with great fondness. This stemmed from a long-term friendship between our parents that began in the years that her father and mine had shared as students in the Yeshiva of R. Yitzhak Elchanan (which later morphed into Yeshiva University) and continued during my father’s temporary stint as a teacher at the local Talmud Torah of Seattle, the Genauers’ hometown. Two years ago, this connection resurfaced in unexpected fashion when I discovered that my 7-year-old granddaughter (Nogah Ross) and Blu’s (Maayan Greenberg) are classmates in the same primary school in Jerusalem and have developed a similar relationship, totally unaware of the background family history. In between these generational ties, Blu and I have only had a few opportunities for direct personal interaction, and the paths of our own children have never really crossed. Nevertheless, it feels like the span of these sporadic points of contact, when taken in its entirety, represents in some way the saga of Modern Orthodoxy and its feminist offshoots.

My first meeting with Blu occurred in the early 1960s, when her husband, Yitz, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to cover a year of research and teaching in Israel. I believe that colleagues of Yitz in Yavneh, the world union of religious students that he helped found, suggested that he look up my husband, who at the time was teaching philosophy at Bar Ilan University. People who knew them both assumed (correctly) that two academicians coming from a strong Yeshiva background and engaged in the humanities (something of a rarity in those days) would undoubtedly have some common intellectual interests. Blu and I, in addition to being their wives, shared the experience of first-time motherhood with two newly born sons. Meeting off and on during that year, one of the memories that sticks most in my mind is Blu’s characteristic generosity—sharing her American baby-food jars with me, at a time when Israeli mothers had never heard of Beech-Nut and were still concocting and straining such foods from scratch.

Our next point of contact presented itself over 20 years later when Blu’s On Women and Judaism was published and brought to my attention in Jerusalem. By this time I, like Blu, had already had the opportunity to spread my wings a bit beyond the realm of the domestic, and remember reading her book with much admiration and empathy. Nonetheless, I regarded myself then as in a slightly different place. During my student days at Hebrew University, I too had written a few pieces in the local religious students’ journal expressing discontent with disparities between my status in general society and in my Orthodox Jewish context, and subsequently, as a young married woman, had devoured Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. All this, however, did not translate in my mind as a clarion call to join the ranks of Jewish feminists and political activists. Most likely this had much to do with differences in personal inclination. To this day, I am not a card-carrying member in any political organization and am generally averse to joining public demonstrations or signing petitions. As a philosopher, I tend to be stymied by a propensity for seeing at least two sides to every situation. But I believe this also had to do with subtle differences between our respective religious trajectories.

In my early teens, while still living in the States, I—unlike Blu—had imbibed some of the “Yeshivish” spirit that had penetrated the Bnei Akiva youth movement there. This influence morphed into a form of religious idealism that sought purist standards of ideological and halakhic consistency. Fired by more than a whiff of adolescent rebellion, my assumption of the Soloveitchikian stance of subjugation to heteronomous norms encouraged a conscious distancing from the bourgeois comforts and interests of modern American Orthodoxy, alongside romantic identification with old-world rabbinic figures and norms associated with the lomdish religious elite. Reading Blu’s book several decades later in the Israeli context, the feminist aspirations that she expressed conjured for me something of the world against which as a teenager I had rebelled. While many of the issues she raised overlapped with my own, her take on these tended to be phrased in practical and sociological rather than ideological, terms. They also assumed the lifestyle of modern American Orthodoxy as their frame of reference—a scene I had deliberately left behind.

Thus, for example, when Blu observed that even the sheitel covered wives of some yeshiva rabbis did not wear nylon stockings at synagogue services she attended at a religious kibbutz, whereas the American women present “wouldn’t think of showing up in shul with bare toes,” my knee-jerk reaction was that this was not a random matter of culture, but a practice based on firm halakhic reasoning. On this understanding, the obligation to cover certain parts of the body (as opposed to others) was not absolute but formally linked to local custom.

Similarly, Blu’s rationale for retaining certain aspects of traditional halakhic sexual taboos while arguing for greater leniency in others seemed overly hospitable to subjective anthropological considerations. And her notorious statement (“Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way”), which eventually proved to be one of her greatest claims to fame, struck me at the time as somewhat cavalier, ignoring the self-perception of the rabbis regarding the degree of their interpretive freedom. Although Blu introduced some appeal to classical Jewish sources to buttress her suggestions for change, I suspected these would not pass muster in a rigorous halakhic discussion conducted by the generally acknowledged experts. Instead, such insiders would regard this as selective cherry-picking on the part of an unentitled laywoman, bending the standards of halakhic Judaism in instrumentalist fashion to more localized values of Western humanism, without acknowledging the presence of some inviolable constraints.

During the coming years, however, life in the Israeli context moved me away from interest in a religious ideology whose spiritual ambitions were centered on a posture of submission and defined primarily in formal halakhic terms. Instead of negotiating with a Modern Orthodox rabbinic establishment that appeared to be preoccupied with fixing the precise borders between the halakhic dictates of Jewish tradition and the attractions of modernity in order to control the nature and extent of their interaction, I was far more drawn to the expansive visions of Religious Zionism in Israel. Rather than compartmentalization, this version of Orthodoxy sought to overcome distinctions between the sacred and the profane in the broader context of Jewish national sovereignty.

Exposure to the more holistic visions of religious Zionism influenced the way I related to feminism as well. While the struggle of Modern Orthodox feminism in North America was focused on resolving pressing practical issues, my concern was how to justify the obviously changed status of women in my generation from an ideological point of view and to integrate its theological and spiritual ramifications for Judaism at large.

The key to resolving such issues was not political activism, but immersion in a range of classical sources and traditional conceptions that extended beyond the unique amalgam of Brisk, modern existentialism, and neo-Kantian philosophy articulated by R. Soloveitchik within the context of American Modern Orthodoxy. And indeed, my involvement in what has come to be known as “the women’s learning revolution,” advancing the cause of higher-level Torah study in Israel in a beit midrash atmosphere parallel to that of men’s yeshivot, provided me with the framework and incentive to do so. Although this enterprise certainly went against the grain of conventional Orthodox norms in Israel, its general temper was distinguished by a spirit of optimism and cooperation between the male and female faculty involved and a sense of continuity with the traditional Yeshiva world. Moreover, in such a context it appeared that rabbinic will could be changed—not by direct confrontation and pressure, but through grassroots developments that were willy-nilly transforming the nature of the constituency which the rabbis were now called upon to address.

Due to these disparities of interest, I was somewhat hesitant when Blu invited me to speak at the first Feminism and Orthodoxy conference convened in New York in 1995. The atmosphere of women’s higher-level Torah study in Israel did not jibe with the angry anti-establishment tone of the agunah activists. It was also not preoccupied with many of the other pressing political issues that featured prominently on the American conference agenda, with which I was not entirely au fait. I therefore agreed to speak on condition that I be allowed to present a theological paper, as it was this aspect of the feminist challenge that concerned me most. I think it is a tribute to Blu’s largess that she decided to take the chance and acquiesce. While no doubt an uncalculated by-product on her part, this decision proved to be a life-changer for me. Ever since that talk, I have been led by the nose to pursue this topic and to explore in an endless variety of formats the degree to which the feminist lens bears the potential for generating new visions of God, Torah, and the halakhic way of life.

Of greater interest than Blu’s influence upon my personal trajectory, however, is the fact that over time this odyssey has led to a reversal of roles between us. The dreams that Blu dared to envision for Orthodox feminism in the ’80s, and seemed so radical at the time, now emerge as remarkably prescient. Nevertheless, as a representative of the American version of Modern Orthodoxy, Blu remains to a large extent a proponent of liberal feminism in a Jewish idiom. While appreciative of the potential contribution of women’s distinctive voice to tradition, her primary interest continues to be focused on the achievement of optimal gender parity in the practical aspects of religious life. This is a goal that is largely defined by male precedent and pursued on strength of a stable a-historical perception of the biblical ideal of justice, which is perceived as attuned from the outset to current moral standards.

My involvement in the Israeli brand of feminism, by contrast, has led me to other pastures. The struggle to solve the problem of the agunot, to create more space for women’s active participation in communal prayer and ritual, to advance women to leadership positions, to educate toward gender equality in schools, to battle sexual violence, to promote positive attitudes toward women’s bodies and to sexuality as such by reconceptualizing the requirements of modesty are all worthy pursuits in my eyes. Nevertheless, I continue to occupy the role of outside observer with regard to these issues and tend to be far more reactive in the formulation of concrete political demands. Instead, my feminist sympathies align more closely with a learning community of women who remain, to varying extents, on the outskirts of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and of Kolech, its Israeli equivalent.


On the surface, the marginal circle of Orthodox women surrounding the hard core of liberal feminism in Israel appears to be far more cautious and conservative in its demands than their American sisters. Nevertheless, I believe that in the long run they unwittingly promote a brand of feminism that engages with far more systemic challenges that the feminist critique bears for the future of halakhic Judaism. On the one hand, the greater Jewish literacy of such women enables them to engage tradition on its own terms and in its own distinctive language. This gives their involvement with the classical Jewish sources an authentic feel. On the other hand, the intensity of this confrontation has given rise to an unprecedented burst of creativity, which proudly bears a uniquely feminine imprint.

Women in the Religious Zionist sector in Israel are exhibiting striking new patterns of leadership, art forms, midrashic exegesis, and approaches to halakha, ritual, and Jewish theology. Such efforts, even when striving to function as organic outgrowths of the tradition, implicitly undermine its patriarchal bias from within. Beyond its sheer volume, the novelty of this phenomenon and its spiritual implications, even when initiated by women who vehemently object to any association with the feminist label, move the Israeli brand of Orthodox feminism to a new, profound level. In this respect, it joins forces with a subtle spiritual revolution spanning broader sections of the Jewish population in Israel, with respect to which it serves as both catalyst and participant.

Notwithstanding the religious philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whose extreme theocentrism resembles that of R. Soloveitchik in many ways and appeared on the Israeli scene during the same time frame, the dominant influence on the spiritual temper of religious Zionism in Israel has until recently been the theological legacy of Rabbi A.I. Kook. R. Kook saw in the Zionist agitation for a massive return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel the beginning of the redemption and a realization of the Messianic dream. While uncompromising with regard to the importance of halakhic observance, he envisioned the significance of life in the Holy Land as facilitating an expansive understanding of Torah that would overcome the dualities between prophetic inspiration and legal pedantry, divine command, and natural morality, the striving for holiness and immersion in the material world. More significant for our purposes is the fact that his wish to mitigate such dichotomies mirrors a comparable opposition to binary distinctions characterizing radical feminism. The resemblance between R. Kook’s theology and this brand of feminism runs even deeper once we realize that the distinctions that R. Kook cites between opposing forces are derived from Lurianic myth, which associates the dialectic tension between them with primordial linear and circular modes of being (lights and vessels, content and form, reason and intuition, nurture and nature) that have characterized masculine and feminine prototypes since creation.

R. Kook’s holistic worldview, which was not incidentally assumed by other religious Zionist thinkers of his time, highlights a striking correspondence between the features of a theology that reinforces Zionist negation of Diaspora Judaism and the spiritual sensibilities generally attributed to women. R. Kook’s God is an approachable God, vulnerable to and affected by interaction with his surroundings. The divine presence is not to be found in abstract principles, but in the ability to relate the colorful diversity of everyday life to its all-inclusive source, thereby enhancing the vitality of both.

In consonance with these views, and contrary to R. Soloveitchik’s understanding of the binding of Isaac as the ultimate paradigm of religious commitment, the purpose of God’s decree was not to induce an exemplary model of religious subservience. Rather, it was a pedagogic exercise designed to rid Abraham of pagan notions that pit the needs of the gods against natural morality and to teach him that love of God can never be in conflict with the instinctive love of a parent for his child. R. Kook’s blurring of the distinction between the human and the divine also encourages an open-ended understanding of Torah. It allows for the possibility of shifts or even revolutions in Jewish concepts of morality (including the status of women) and for relating to such developments as a form of ongoing revelation and surrogate prophecy. Even the importance of grassroots initiative and the part it has played in the achievements of religious feminism are echoed in R. Kook’s appreciation of the importance, in the Zionist context, of antinomian breaches of the law initiated by the unlearned masses, in cases where halakhic authority has not yet caught up with historical need.

The claim that the Kookist theology animating Religious Zionism and its vision of political autonomy contributes to the disparity between more radical manifestations of feminism in Israel and its liberal counterpart in the States might understandably raise an eyebrow or two. The obvious elephant in the room is the decidedly non-egalitarian character of R. Kook’s thought. This was reflected not only in his notoriously conservative stance regarding women’s right to vote or hold public office in the first election of the Yishuv in 1920. It is also evident in more general remarks he made regarding the essential nature of women, which certainly do not sit well with the aspirations of radical feminism. While such feminists may be divided regarding the nature/nurture debate, even those who view women’s uniqueness as innate would oppose a gender hierarchy which fixes women at the bottom. Although R. Soloveitchik’s understanding of the sexes is also essentialist in principle, radical feminists might understandably prefer to rely on the more pragmatic attitude that he displayed in practice in many of his rulings (as for example, in his forthright support of women’s advanced learning), rather than on the grandiose eschatological visions of Religious Zionism, whatever their feminine proclivities on the theological plane. Yet even such feminists might draw sustenance from more recent developments in the theology emerging from Religious Zionist circles in Israel today.

Following the Yom Kippur War, the enforced evacuation from Gush Katif, the disintegration of the peace process, and the morally debilitating effects of rule by force, disillusionment with a nationalist ethic based on a comprehensive meta-historical narrative has affected various sectors of Religious Zionism. In the eyes of a growing segment of this population, many aspects of R. Kook’s ideology appear to have outlived their day, and can be defended, at best, as inspirational visions, but not as accurate descriptions of the present-day reality of the State of Israel. This trend, which has been dubbed by one of its chief exponents “nondelusional Religious Zionism,” is supported by a more general move away from the certainties of modernity and its optimistic belief in the progressive march of history toward some predefined ideal.

The truth is that support for an ironic view of “truth” and its concomitant rejection of essentialist views can be found in the thought of R. Kook himself. Despite constant reference to metaphysical concepts, R. Kook’s mystical orientation gives rise to a contrary attitude that is deeply skeptical of all definitions, regarding these as necessary but limited constructs that ultimately have no ontological grounding as such.

A few contemporary Israelis (including myself) expand upon these whiffs of postmodernism in his writing and that of other traditional sources that reject the notion of a fixed and universal truth unaffected by the subjective lens of the viewer and the broader historical context in which it is framed. This understanding encourages an open-ended view of Torah. It also allows for the possibility of shifts or even revolutions in Jewish concepts of morality (including the status of women), and for relating to such developments as a form of ongoing revelation and surrogate prophecy. Others amplify upon the futility of a religious life that is based exclusively on dogma or on the ideological ethos of nationalism, favoring instead the softer, more experiential, intuitive and personal forms of spirituality fostered by pre-modern Hasidism and other streams of mysticism, and linking these expressly with the virtues of femininity. A more recent factor entering the equation is a nascent Haredi feminism partial to essentialist views of women that may nevertheless align more easily with a muted post-Zionist version of Jewish nationalism that is free of messianic pretensions. These fascinating twists and turns bear promise of enriching the cultural fabric of Orthodox feminism in Israel even further, and moving its ideological ramifications well beyond the circumscribed political goals of its North American counterpart.

This having been said, the fact that we now live in a global village contributes to increasingly symbiotic relations between American Modern Orthodoxy and its Israeli counterpart, whereby any development in one center produces a domino effect in the other. The distinctions between the variety of liberal feminism that Blu has promoted under diaspora conditions (where religious life is centered mainly on the synagogue and pulpit rabbis retain a greater degree of control in sanctioning or vetoing feminist innovations), and its more radical manifestations in Israel (where Jewish institutional authority enjoys less prestige, and the multifarious aspects of national life raise a broader spectrum of issues) are likely to gradually diminish, meshing their respective destinies more than ever before.

Without any professed connection to feminism (indeed, far from it!), the educational network hosting the girls-only school in Jerusalem that our two 9-year-old granddaughters attend, and where they have befriended each other without any inkling of the feminist interests uniting their respective grandmothers, could be regarded as a reflection of this process; as testified in its original mission statement, this network seeks to foster a vision of religiosity that combines serious halakhic commitment with an element of softer, more soulful spirituality that allows for experimentation, and tolerates a broad spectrum of Orthodox practice. This amalgam may open a can of worms no less threatening to halakhic stability than Blu’s original problematizing of the objective constraints of rabbinic interpretation. While I have no “magic bullet” solution to the challenges to halakhic stability that this mode of religiosity raises, I anticipate that my Nogah and Blu’s Maayan will be forced to take up the cudgels in due time and formulate new versions of their traditional Jewish identity in its light. When that day comes, I look forward to grasping Blu by the hand and asking her to join me in peeking down from our respective perches in feminist heaven. Hopefully, we will revel equally in the results.


This essay is adapted from You Arose, A Mother in Israel: A Festschrift in Honor of Blu Greenberg, Ed. Devorah Zlochower, 2017 for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and reprinted here with permission of the author. You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Tamar Ross is Professor Emerita of Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University.