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  • Leah Alpern

Orthodox Feminism: A Contradiction in Terms?

Leah Alpern reviews Tamar Ross' Expanding the Palace of Torah 

When Tamar Ross’s seminal work of Orthodox Jewish feminist theology Expanding the Palace of Torah was published in 2003, readers were unsure what to make of it. Was the work feminist? Was it Orthodox? Was the combination of the two a contradiction in terms? The unmistakable rigor and seriousness of Ross’s thinking, coupled with the simplistic cultural narrative about the confrontation between Orthodoxy and feminism, made it difficult to evaluate properly. Twenty years later, with the book’s second edition just published, the same tension remains.

The set of questions Ross poses has not been resolved and likely never will. But the philosophical richness of the work, its triumph, comes from Ross’s successful method, threading the needle between Orthodox modes of textual interpretation and the feminist critique of biblical misogyny, so that the boundary between them becomes ambiguous. This method was genuinely groundbreaking, with obvious stakes for Orthodox ways of life.

As cultural and social movements, “Orthodoxy” and “feminism” develop central aspects of their identities by practicing mutual hostility. The former sees itself as a staid and sacred by-the-Book way of life, allegedly unchanged and unchanging for centuries, and the other as an upstart form of hermeneutics fomented in modern secular institutions that, in its desire to disrupt the social order, threatens to wipe out the entire Sinaitic chain, the only access Jews have to revealed knowledge of the divine will. According to this story they are, like two live wires, not to touch. But if orthodoxy and feminism refuse to be conversant on the cultural plane, Ross finds common language on the philosophical one.

Tamar Ross. Expanding the Palace of Torah. Chcago University Press, 2004. pp. 352 $40 (paperback)

In Expanding the Palace of Torah Ross attempts to reason her way into existence as a Jewish subject, using the master’s (interpretive) tools to build a theory of revelation that materializes a place for herself, and all women, as valid halakhic (legal) interpreters within the Torah’s palace. An account of Ross’s cultural significance begins by recognizing the overlap between her life and work: as a woman developing Orthodoxy theology, Ross is an emblem of the fraught encounter between change and continuity that her work seeks to resolve. One need not be a Torah scholar to see that buried in Ross’s work is a radical reread of the past. She wants to disrupt the notion that the exclusion of women from the halakhic process in the present is an inevitable consequence of Orthodoxy’s adherence to past interpretation and claims that authoritative sources support evolving conceptions of the divine will, read: change in the present and future. Her simultaneous reach for change in community thought and practice and the full maintenance of Orthodox interpretive traditions stirs up radical questions about what Orthodoxy, as a mode of thought and culture, is and means.

Ross cuts across and through easy distinctions between “conservative” and “progressive” scholarship and dispels the ahistorical notion—presently widespread and fuel to flames of cultural antipathy between Orthodoxy and feminism—that one type of interpretation valorizes and upholds past ways of life and thought while the other condemns and despoils them. Her work challenges conceptions of ‘old’ and ‘new’, showing us, first, that Orthodoxy evolves as it iterates, and second, that feminism’s core attitude toward biblical text is not new to Orthodox interpretation. By placing her own ideas and those from the two worlds she bridges in deep historical perspective, Ross cuts a middle path that forgoes and dissolves the culturally antagonistic framework. And with the fragile and ambivalent position Ross occupies—suspended between Orthodoxy, on the one hand, and the landscape of progressive feminist and queer theologies that has flourished in the last two decades—Ross implicity offers her reader a more composed picture: differences in interpretive choices made across the denominational spectrum today are merely different responses (prompted by different circumstances) to a core set of questions that have animated Jewish scriptural-interpretive traditions since antiquity.

These are of the Second Temple questions: when the status of the revelatory message is challenged, and if the harm might be fatal, how can it be revived? When the text goes silent to its followers, how can it be made to speak again? The mandate to reinterpret and regenerate the message is clear, and Ross accepts. Engaging the feminist critique on these terms making her forebear to more progressive feminist and queer theologians since. But while they go on to generate far-reaching interpretations and render them as revolutionary breaks, Ross seeks a newer message that might look to the community like a perfect continuation of the past. For this reason, the real thrust of Ross’s work bears on the age-old, internal tensions of Orthodoxy and belongs to that tradition, even though the way she cracks it open is still both unwelcome and uncomfortable to many.

In Expanding the Palace of Torah Ross responds to the feminist critique by developing a theory of “cumulative revelation,” according to which human comprehension of the divine message received at Sinai accumulates as further meanings appear over time. The particular aspect of the critique that Ross engages challenges the Orthodox belief that the Torah is perfect by claiming—convincingly, according to Ross—that the text shows an ineluctable bias towards men, privileging their experiences, concerns, and lives above womens’. But Ross does not accept the underlying position from postmodern critical theory, namely, that language (and narrative) inevitably stores and expresses a particular, limited standpoint of the speaker (and excludes others) and thus is not something that can claim universality. This is critical because for Ross, the Torah does hold the universal: it is the revealed word of God. But she finds early theological texts from the rabbinic era describing the transmission of the Torah from the divine realm to Sinai, which share similarities with feminism as a way of reading, in particular, in their sense that language refers to more than what a single interpretation can disclose. Adopting this stance, she claims that the language of Torah stores the entirety of the divine message, or revelation, which has inexhaustible expressive potential.

Ross braids together canonical Orthodox and secular modes of interpretation such that their distinctions become harder to see than their shared qualities, and asserts that the feminist critique understood as a theological one is very familiar to Orthodoxy, having been around since biblical times. However, in challenging the premise of a universal perspective, feminist criticism not only demonstrates successfully that men, at least, are not synonymous with the universal--not gods--it also undermines the premise of theology and Orthodox belief in the universal truth of revelation. Ross manages to turn this critique into an asset by flipping it: the Torah’s revelatory message holds and points to a universality which we can only ever see in parts, concealing as it reveals, and thus ongoing scrutiny is required to grasp further aspects. Like this, the critique echoes the tenet of Rabbinic Judaism mandating interpretation.

Ross claims revelation occurs as a “successive unfolding” across historical eras, citing medieval kabbalistic theories of time and history also found in the moral thought of 20th century Orthodox Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (also called Rav Kook). Each period is characterized by an interpretational paradigm in accordance with which different partial aspects, or images, of revelation become visible to interpreters. The revelatory image is understood to be “the picture that stands behind the religious form of life,” or the image in accordance with which the community shapes and regulates itself. According to Orthodox adherence to Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah chain of transmission, only rabbinic authorities can validate new aspects, but Kook’s thinking gives Ross precedent to claim that moral urges of the community members themselves should also be considered. In all this, Ross implies that we may be on the brink of a new era, where community senses of justice urge us to reconsider the role of women, and where a regenerated revelatory image may bubble up among the people like a spring. The practical ramifications are enormous. Ross suggests an emergent image of revelation would disrupt the hierarchy that renders women to men as men are to God, divinely subject, removing the prohibition against women participating in the compact nexus of Torah scholarship and law (halakha) that regulates Jewish communities. As such, women would have an entirely different halakhic status: not merely objects of law, they would be valid interpreters and participate in shaping the rules of their communities.

But it is not so simple: new views of revelation do not simply replace old ones, but must be read through them and as part of a composite whole. The “ultimate test” for new images is whether the interpretive community accepts them as “progressive revelations of a preexistent ideal”. Ross employs this sneaky functional ambivalence as the fulcrum of cumulative revelation: the process of generating a metaphor does not create something new per se, it posits a relationship of likeness and carries forward past comprehensions of its referent even as it reaches for future ones. As the emergent image cracks open the door to a different future, it must also lug the past along with it. The new image must pass for the first and be seen as a truer and better version of it, or at least befacially interchangeable in the eyes of the community. Ross goes to great lengths to make the subversive claim that Orthodoxy lives through iteration, but in placing this keystone, one fears she’s leveled all she’s built.

Ross peels back the surface to show us the function of aesthetics within Orthodoxy, particularly regarding change, with which women in the tradition have long grappled. A classic example is the Bais Yaacov movement for girls’ education, begun in early 20th century Poland. The movement framed a major departure from the past and a fracture of social norms—girls leaving the home to receive formal religious education—as a safeguard of traditional community against threats of secularism and modernity. In Naomi Seidman’s words, the movement staged a “revolution in the name of tradition,” putting forward “a metaphorical expansion and displacement of the language and practices of the family and the home”. When running the home meant going to school, a circle was effectively squared. Hidden by necessity, this is the dialectic that gives birth to invisible change within Orthodoxy, and it is the condition faced by women (and indeed any innovator) seeking change within this interpretive tradition. And though change is the motivation, or telos, of this work, it can’t be named. In Ross, it almost has an air of augury.

At the turn of the century, Ross attempted to uphold the intellectual robustness of Orthodoxy by taking the feminist critique seriously and made a theological framework that enabled altering womens’ social and legal existence to bring them into the studyhouse and courthouse. Her method of finding common ground between traditional modes of interpretation and feminist critiques of bias created possibilities for more progressive feminist and queer theologies, which Ross has since disavowed. To remain part of a community that prizes an "unbroken" link with past eras, where revolutionary projects like hers (if they may be called so) operate under an aesthetics of invisibility as a condition of their success, perhaps she must. 

Continuity is Ross’s theme: evolution so subtle as to be imperceptible. In her context, the extent to which conceptions about the content of revelation can change depends on the extent to which the surface of the revelatory image appears tranquil, undisturbed by the winds of time. But as her work helps us see, "continuity" and ‘rupture’ are themes that obscure more complex realities. By granting herself authority to interpret Torah, Ross has simply done the project she is attempting to justify: she has already slipped into the rooms most hostile to her, face framed by a headscarf. Twenty years on, Ross’s work shows us that what seems like a seamless replication of the past may be just that—an illusion. By venturing past the stillness of the surface, Ross participates in - and reveals her culture to participate in, despite appearances - the dynamic unfolding of Jewish traditions, and she points us to where the boundaries of revelatory image are being stretched and explored across the denominational spectrum today.


Leah Alpern studied Classics and Jewish intellectual history at the University of Oxford. They live in Brooklyn, New York.


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