Feminist Theologies

Ronit Irshai

The entry summarizes and analyses some of the main theological trends within Jewish feminisms. Taking a broader sense of theology as the conceptual religious underpinning that serves as a lens through which new options for interpreting the Jewish canon emerge, it focuses on five main themes: God’s ‘masculinity’ and the marginality of women and nonbinary persons, feminist Midrashim, God’s image and transgender theology, revelation, and Halakhah (Jewish Law).

The contributions of feminist theologies include an expanded range of gender references to God, attention to the attitude towards the feminine, and the inclusion of nonbinary persons; the creation of a theological infrastructure that supports more intimate and immanent ideas of divinity; a broadening of the concept of revelation to reconcile the tension between the deep masculine bias that permeates scripture and the divine and revelatory status of the word of God; and new readings of the traditional texts, including the normative Halakhic works, so that they can incorporate feminist ideas.

1 Introduction

Theology, in the restricted etymological sense, is the attempt to understand the deity or God’s way in the world. Theology has a broader sense as well: the conceptual religious underpinning that serves as a lens through which new options for interpreting the Jewish canon emerge; ideas of how Halakhah, Aggadah, and Midrash, in their patriarchal attributes, may change; and ways of relating to new developments and incorporating them into or banishing them from the traditional canon. In this broad sense, Jewish feminism has set off a theological earthquake, challenging not only the patriarchal infrastructure that until recently was the main exegetical option, but also its very foundations, such as the notion of a transcendent and omnipotent deity; the idea of revelation; and other topics derived from these, like the attitude towards the spiritual and its position vis-à-vis the body perceived as feminine, or, in the last generation, the attitude towards the gender binary. Space does not allow us to include the vast body of Jewish feminist writing produced from the 1970s to the present. This entry necessarily focuses on the main theological texts of Jewish feminism.

One of the most conspicuous attributes of Jewish feminist theology is the belief, held by most of its advocates, that the repair can come from within, and that the main effort is to propose a theological structure that does so (Millen 2007). Even if Jewish feminist theology can be radical, as will be seen below, there are almost no calls for a ‘post-Judaism’ – in contrast to Christian feminist voices from the early 1970s onwards, which called for ‘post-Christianity’ (Daly 1973; Hampson 1996).

Even transgender (trans) theology, one of the most significant developments of the last decade in Jewish feminist theology, rests on interpretations that already existed in Jewish tradition. The clear common denominator between the emergence of trans theologies and the earlier feminist theologies is the understanding that Jewish tradition, by means of its own exegetical tools and in particular its understanding of the image of God, can incorporate respectful and egalitarian ideas about women and about the trans category as well. In the words of Joy Ladin:

As I hope this reading and other readings in this book show, religious traditions based on the assumption that everyone is simply male or female, can and do speak to the lives of those who do not fit binary gender categories – which means that religious communities can include openly transgender people without abandoning or betraying those traditions. (Ladin 2019: 7, emphasis added)

The present survey traces and analyses major trends in Jewish feminist theologies from the 1980s through the present.

2 God’s ‘masculinity’ and the marginality of women and nonbinary persons

For Judith Plaskow, the central theological challenge is the masculine imagery associated with God and its problematic ramifications, which permeate the entire Jewish tradition (Plaskow 1983: 223–224; 1991). That imagery led to the definition of women as the Other and their marginalization or exclusion from public communal life. Put differently, because Jewish monotheism posits a hierarchical relationship between God and humanity, and because God is conceptualized exclusively in masculine terms and humanity in feminine terms, there is a causal connection between the conception of God and the patriarchal social structure. The inevitable result is injustice to women, because only men are deemed to be like God, whereas women are in some way less than the human standard. Although Plaskow highlights this injustice and severely critiques this masculine conception of God, she is not willing to give up the monotheistic idea of revelation. Instead, she addresses the injustice to women by adding feminine imagery to the ‘God talk’. For her, feminine imagery does not jeopardize monotheism, given that all anthropomorphic language expresses the inevitable limits of human cognition; in this regard, there is no difference between masculine and feminine imagery. It is therefore false to argue that masculine imagery does not undermine monotheism, but feminine imagery does (Plaskow 1983; this was in response to Ozick 1983).

Feminism, in Plaskow’s opinion, demands a new understanding of the Torah, God, and the Jewish people, an understanding that reflects a renewed definition of Jewish humanness. This can be achieved by renovating the Jews’ historical memory, revising the language of prayer, and creating new women’s ceremonies and liturgy, as well as by writing feminist Midrashim. Taken together, all these can provide the basis for a theology that makes it possible to annul women’s otherness in Jewish tradition. It should also be mentioned here that the Jewish renewal movement, which since its inception has been committed to incorporating women's experiences into Jewish life, turned to the figure of Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God according to Kabbalah), as part of its commitment to feminism. However, one can also find in this movement a critique of the ‘myth of Shekhinah as expressing essential feminine qualities’ (Weissler 2007: 72).

3 Feminist Midrashim

Plaskow’s programmatic call for a new religious language, and for basing Jewish theology on feminine foundations, provided an impetus to the new phenomenon of the last four decades in which women compose feminist Midrashim as part of a new Jewish feminist theology.

This adoption of Midrash for theological objectives is motivated by the idea that, although the sacred texts are fixed and canonized, their interpretation is not (for a comprehensive survey of Jewish feminist Midrash literature, see: Myers 2000; Umansky 2009; Graetz 2005; Irshai 2017a). In reaction to the absence of half the population from the official record of the Jewish people, these feminists set out to fill the lacuna by creating Midrashim in which they retold biblical stories from the perspectives of their female characters. To quote Plaskow:

The open-ended process of writing Midrash – simultaneously serious and playful, imaginative, metaphoric – has easily lent itself to feminist use. Feminist Midrash shares the uncomfortable self-consciousness of modern religious experimentation: elaborating on the stories of Eve and Dina, we know that the text is partly an occasion for our own projections, that our imaginative reconstructions are a reflection of our own beliefs and experiences. But if its self-consciousness is modern, the root conviction of feminist Midrash is utterly traditional. It stands on the Rabbinic insistence that the Bible can be made to speak to the present day. If it is our text, it can and must answer our questions and share our values; if we wrestle with it, it will yield up meaning. (Plaskow 1991: 53–45)

Hence the various streams of Jewish feminism turned to Midrash as a tool for expression – in order to add the woman’s voice that is generally absent from the biblical and other traditional texts, but also to erect a bridge between their religious or intellectual commitment and the androcentric and patriarchal text (Fonrobert 2006). Orthodox women too, as Jody Myers (2000) has shown, were involved in this enterprise. But, as she notes, Orthodox writing was marked by apologetics, an essentialist approach to womanhood and motherhood, and acceptance of theological constraints (Myers 2000: 124–128). Modern Orthodox feminist Midrash has changed since then. Less apologetic and essentialist, and less inhibited by theological barriers, it now dares to advance trenchant criticism of the portrayal of women in the Bible and Talmud (Irshai 2017a).

In recent years, the writing of feminist Midrashim has become popular in Israel, too, as attested by the publication of the two volumes of Dirshuni (Interpret Me; Weingarten-Mintz 2009; Biala 2022). These volumes collect hundreds of Midrashim written by women affiliated with various denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) or with none. However, because most of them come from the Modern Orthodox community in Israel, it should be viewed as a new phenomenon for this stream. What is special about those volumes, beyond their being the first collections of feminist Midrashim written and published in Hebrew, is that they are among the first fruits of the women’s Torah study revolution taking place in the Modern Orthodox sector in both Israel and North America. This revolution has led to women becoming more familiar with, and developing expertise in, the Rabbinic literature. As a result, they feel free to employ the style and tools of traditional Midrash to create a feminist alternative, informed by intense criticism of the image of women in the Bible and Talmud.

The impression is that, despite their declared commitment to Halakhah, these feminist interlocutors are not limited by theological qualms. On the contrary: for Rivka Lubitch (1999), one of the leading creators of these Midrashim, acceptance of the text’s sanctity and timelessness produces the certainty that one can and must produce insights that make it possible to extract the story of women from the normative male narrative and from between its lines. Viewing discrimination against women as directly related to their irrelevance in religious life, Lubitch considers feminist Midrash to offer a solution in two senses. First, it produces heroines with whom readers can identify; second, it demonstrates that the speaker’s voice may be a woman’s. Her writing illustrates how ideas first advanced by liberal Jewish feminism in the 1970s have now trickled into Orthodox feminism as well (Lubitch 1999; the resemblance to Umansky’s criteria for feminist Midrash is telling, see Umansky 1989: 193–196).

4 God’s image and transgender theology

Joy Ladin, a Jewish academic and trans woman, sees trans theology as a direct development of Plaskow’s call to broaden the image of God to include feminine attributes (Ladin 2018; 2019). Ladin advocates the development of a comprehensive theology of transgenderism that includes experiences of trans people that can illuminate religious texts and traditions:

I am building here on Judith Plaskow’s argument for feminist theology, particularly her insistence that redefining humanity to be more gender inclusive. […] Plaskow is discussing the theological consequences of recognizing the humanity of women, but I believe her argument also holds when it comes to recognizing the humanity of trans people, not only because we need theology to ‘reflect and support’ inclusion of women and transgender people, but also because every time we expand our understanding of what it means to be human, we create the potential for expanding our understanding of God. (Ladin 2019: 149, note 1)

According to Ladin, if we are serious about the idea that human beings are created in the image of God, then whenever we expand our understanding of humanity we can expand our understanding of God, and vice versa. Thus, every religious community that embraces people who do not fit into binary gender categories honours the image of the incomprehensible God, in which, as the first chapter of Genesis tells us, all human beings are created (Ladin 2019: 8).

Ladin’s trans theology rests on two central pillars: first, a wider understanding of the concept of divinity as standing above the gendered binary of human categories and consequently the similarity between God, who cannot be comprehended in gender binary terms, and the experiences of trans life. Second, a trans reading of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and of biblical characters in general, to corroborate the claim that the fundamental texts of Jewish tradition can include the trans category within it.

With regard to the first pillar, Ladin believes that just as feminine metaphors allow us to perceive additional aspects of the deity, so does trans language. She holds that God can be defined as trans because God defeats the boundaries of gender (Ladin 2019: 8). Because the deity transcends the human there is no reason to assume that God is bound to the human gender standards. Going further, when God created humankind, it was indeed as ‘male and female’ (see Gen 1:27). But there is no sign here that in this verse ‘male and female’ carries the social, psychological, or other meanings we call ‘gender’. Gender does not merely distinguish between male and female bodies; it gives this difference meaning, assigning different roles and characteristics to people with male and female bodies. At this early point in creation, neither God nor the Torah treats males and females differently. Both are ‘created in the image of God’ (Ladin 2019: 20–21).

For Ladin, God’s ‘evasive’ and incomprehensible image can serve as the inspiration for the lived experience of trans persons (Ladin 2019: 32–34). Thus, sometimes the Bible presents God in a human guise and close to human beings (for example, when he sends angels to Abraham, Gen 15); but sometimes God is distant from and above human beings. Because God does not act or appear in ways that comply with human logic, he lacks what human beings refer to as ‘identity’. God is simply God, no matter what human beings do or desire. This compromise, that employs language that cannot represent the essence, is familiar to many trans people. The word ‘transgender’ itself is a species of this compromise. This lies behind Ladin’s statement that when she presents herself as a woman she is effectively telling other people how she sees herself and how she wants them to see her. When she identifies as transsexual, she is expressing her sense that her ‘I’ does not correspond to the physical sex or gender she was assigned at birth. When she says that she is transgender what she really means is that her gender is more complex than the standard man/woman binary. In other words, the concept of God as nonhuman, as existing beyond the limits of gendered language, resonates the trans sense of alienation that is not included in standard human categories.

In this context Ladin mentions Maimonides’ negative theology (Ladin 2019: 66). Given that we cannot describe God’s essence in words, because it cannot be understood or represented in human terms, all we can say is what God is not. In practice, the words and metaphors we employ are human and false, because as human beings we have no other way to speak about the deity. By the same token, Ladin believes that the gender binary hides who she truly is; but without gendered terms she could not represent herself at all (Ladin 2019: 68–73). In a way that fits in with the human failure to define God, Ladin indicates that when she identifies herself as transgender she is accepting the fact that as an individual she cannot be represented in full, but at least she gets an identity that has a social, historical, and political meaning. Just as God demands that the Jewish people accept God as transhuman, and accordingly bars any statues or images of him, so do trans persons seeks to be accepted as they are, as beyond the categories of the gender binary.

As for Ladin’s second pillar, she proposes several trans readings of the biblical text that validate the trans life experience and ground its link to the traditional canon and the image of God:

[…] But the Torah does show Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob abandoning or violating their assigned gender roles (the gender roles they are expected to perform), and it associates these experiences, which I call ‘trans experiences,’ with their relationships to God. (Ladin 2019: 35).

An example of this is her reading of the biblical creation stories and sagas of the patriarchs and matriarchs (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob) that distinguishes sex from gender and shows how, even though the patriarchs and matriarchs are not trans, there are moments when they deviate from their traditional gender roles (Ladin 2019: 35–60). One example of this is Jacob dressing up as Esau: ‘Jacob and Esau are both male and are born almost simultaneously, but they are assigned at birth to very different gender roles’ (Ladin 2019: 36). Jacob defies the set roles of firstborn son/second son, which sees biology as destiny. He performs the role of the firstborn while retaining the body of the second. He feels like a trickster when dressing up as Esau, even though in so doing he reveals his true firstborn essence. Similarly, trans people feel like tricksters dressing up, even though they are revealing their true selves/genders.

A reading that brings to the fore the experience of non-traditional gender roles can permit an understanding of trans life experiences. In the same spirit, she suggests reading the Bible ‘between the binaries’ in a way that speaks to the identity of contemporary transgender persons (Ladin 2019: 35–60, 92–122).

Ladin’s theology places the image of God at the very heart of the transgender identity and moves the sacred texts of the Jewish canon closer to their lived experience, by means of an interpretation that is aware that every understanding of a text depends on the constantly changing reality and experience of human life (Ladin 2019: 11–12). This corresponds to the broader feminist effort to create an immanent theology that brings human beings closer to God, in contrast to the transcendent notions that are seen as male and which have been challenged by feminist theologies (Benjamin 2020).

5 Revelation

Tamar Ross developed an immanent theology, which takes issue with the notion of a transcendent deity who stands above and beyond human peoples and rules them (Ross 2004; 2021). From a chronological perspective, Ross preceded the wave of trans theology. For her, the need to develop a new theology that can resolve the feminist challenge to the Jewish tradition did not emerge from the desire to criticize the concept of a transcendent God or to expand the gendered language used when speaking about the deity. Nevertheless, the result, as will be seen below, is a feminist version of divine immanence. Beyond that, Ross’ idea of ‘cumulative revelation’ can have crucial importance for both feminist and trans theologies and for religious communities in general.

Ross, like Plaskow, believed that the main challenge that feminism poses to Judaism is theological (Ross 2004; 2021), specifically the belief in revelation and the conceptualization of God. Nonetheless, her theology differs greatly from Plaskow’s, both in its analysis of the feminist challenge and in the response to this challenge.

Recognizing the deep masculine bias that permeates scripture, including the Pentateuch, Ross agrees that scepticism about divine revelation forces us to ask whether any verbal message, even one that claims revelatory status, can truly be regarded as divine. At this juncture Ross develops her theory of ‘cumulative revelation’, which is based on several assumptions:

  1. Revelation is an ongoing and cumulative process, a gradual and dynamic development of the original Torah, such that the Torah’s ultimate meaning is revealed only over the course of time.
  2. The divine voice does not speak through vocal cords (or via a created voice), but rather through Rabbinic interpretation and the mouthpiece of history, which serves as its trigger.
  3. Although the sequence of ‘hearings’ sometimes appears to contradict the original message, that message is never replaced. It always remains as the cultural and linguistic filter through which new messages are to be understood. Even when we absorb new insights, they do not abrogate the privileged status of the original tradition.
  4. If a particular idea or social form takes root and is accepted by the Torah-committed community, this acceptance may be understood as confirming its divine source (Ross 1998; Ross 2021).

This model is both postmodern in essence and Orthodox in spirit (Irshai 2017b). It is postmodern in that it offers an extremely relativist conception both of the divine word and of prevailing social perceptions. If it is the community of the committed that retroactively determines whether new ideas are to be regarded as ‘the word of God’, then any idea – moral and noble or racist and vile – can in principle be accepted as the word of God. However, this model is also Orthodox at its root because each new layer does not nullify the preceding revelation to which it accrues. On the contrary, all preceding layers necessarily serve as the filter through which the new perception is perceived.

Such an approach frees one of the need to justify the essentially masculine language of prayer via acrobatic apologetics or radical revision. The foundational language of the original text is accepted as such but is infused with new meaning in accordance with the additional insights afforded by a new divine message. If feminist insights (as well as queer theological ideas) become part of the consensus, innovation at the narrative level can lead to the radical understanding that these too are an aspect of God’s original word, although heretofore hidden, so long as they remain accountable to the layers preceding them. Despite the new historical context that gives rise to new meanings, the antecedent core may never be abrogated. Application of the concept of cumulative revelation to contemporary challenges, including that of feminism and transgenderism, allows believers to view these challenges as merely another tool or vehicle for discovering the full implications of God’s eternal word. Such a view does not condone violating or replacing the original patriarchal message. Rather, it understands the rise of feminism as a clear indication that we have outgrown patriarchy’s previous configuration and are duty-bound to carry it to a higher and more refined stage, one that generates new spiritual connotations (Ross 2004; 2021; Irshai 2016).

Appreciating the fact that meaning is context-dependent encourages a movement away from the limited theistic view of God as standing over and above the world and controlling it from without (a transcendent God) towards a more substantive and intimate understanding of the relationship between the two. This view, with its ability to refine the hierarchical model typifying monotheism and to depict the relationship between God and humanity in a more immanent, ‘feminine’ fashion, is congenial to feminism, although one can claim against the problematic essentialism embedded in it. In addition, it allows the religiously committed to understand how the Torah can be completely human and completely divine at one and the same time.

Plaskow does not go as far as to suggest that the biases of human language can cast doubt on the divine source of the Torah. She seeks a fundamental revision of Jewish historical memory because it does not take women into account. Ross, by contrast, does not believe that such a revision is legitimate and justified, because it undermines an entire world of Jewish identity constituted by Jewish historical memory. Indeed, given that human conceptions are always bound to history, the patriarchal historical memory of Jewish monotheism should remain unchanged, because it reflects a foundational human conception of divine revelation in the past. Furthermore, even if we witness a new understanding of Gods’ message, we are not required to erase all previous ideas. Rather, a new concept always builds on older layers, which function as filters through which the new revelation is perceived and applied. Ross then draws a sharp distinction between form and content. Radical innovation is possible on the level of content, if we admit that feminist insights (to the extent that they are endorsed by the community of Jewish believers) are truly divine. On the formal (i.e. Halakhic) level, however, every innovation must take account of the existing tradition (Ross 2004; 2021; Irshai 2016). In other words, as an Orthodox Jew, Ross highlights continuity with previous revelations and with the entire line of Jewish tradition even though she endorses radical theological insights of feminism; thus, form and content are in tension with each other. By contrast, the liberal Plaskow seeks greater coherence between form and content: the forms of religious language must express the egalitarian content (Plaskow 1983; 1991).

A second difference between Ross and Plaskow concerns the concept of revelation. For Plaskow, the feminist critique does not alter the concept of revelation: God remains transcendent to the world and in a hierarchical relationship with humanity. Ross’ notion of revelation revises this notion because she emphasizes that cognition is context dependent. Accordingly, she proposes a more intimate understanding of the relationship between the divine and the human (as explained above), which softens the typical hierarchical view of monotheism and presents the relationship between God and humanity in a more ‘feminine’ or feminist manner.

Third, despite her more feminist understanding of revelation, Ross preserves the traditional concept of Jewish Law as the product of divine revelation, whereas Plaskow is indebted to Martin Buber’s view of the law (Tirosh-Samuelson 2012: 163). For Buber, law belongs to the realm of instrumental I–It relations; hence the relationship between human beings and God, the I–Thou relation, cannot be based on law. Like Buber, who doubted the importance of law, Plaskow questions whether women can express their feminine spiritual identity and relationship with God through Halakhah. By contrast, Ross takes her inspiration not from Buber but from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook and his peculiar blend of Kabbalah, Hasidism, and philosophy. Theologically, Rabbi Kook’s thought was extremely radical, but his Halakhic project was traditional and conservative. Again, Plaskow the liberal theologian has no difficulty arguing for radical changes in Halakhah, to the point of rewriting historical memory – whereas Ross wants to circumvent the problem by means of an idea that, although quite radical theologically and providing a metaphysical justification for Halakhic changes derived from feminist insights, in practice requires taking account of all previous revelations, as the Halakhic tradition has done for centuries. All of these testify to the strong connection between theology and the place of Halakhah in Jewish feminism, as discussed in the following section.

6 Halakhah (Jewish Law)

Feminist theology’s ability to produce normative and Halakhic changes has preoccupied feminist thinkers. One of the most important contributions here is that by Rachel Adler, who as early as the 1970s, in her article ‘The Jew Who Wasn’t There’ (1971), asserted that not only does Jewish tradition discriminate against women Halakhically but it also classifies them as ‘others’ and relegates them to the margins of Jewish life. Her article was the catalyst for seminal discussions of the possibility of a Jewish feminist theology that modifies Halakhah and of whether Halakhah even has a place in and/or importance for Jewish feminism. Although ‘theology’ was taken to mean an overarching ideological framework, which also includes an engagement with Halakhah, Halakhah was seen (at least in the first generation of Jewish feminist thought) as a problematic field that could not be made compatible with the new feminist aspirations.

While Adler herself offered a broad treatment of the Halakhic problem (1998), she understood that from the feminist perspective it is logical to argue that there is little sense to engaging in Halakhic analysis. Halakhah does not affirm gender equality; moreover, harsh injustices can be (and in practice, are) perpetrated against women under its auspices, primarily with respect to marriage and divorce, and against LGBTQ+ people. As Adler has written:

Whether gender justice is possible within Halakhah and whether a feminist Judaism requires a Halakhah at all are foundational questions for feminist Jewish theology that have no parallel in Christian feminist theology. […] Appropriating the terms and method of Halakhah itself, many feminists concluded, drew them into a game they could not win. […] Halakhah became the feminists’ elephant in the living room. Everyone agreed it was in the way, and no one knew how to get rid of it. (Adler 1998: xx)

In fact, when Ellen Umansky wrote her article about the creation of a Jewish feminist theology, Halakhah was not part of the project she envisioned (Umansky 1989). In her opinion, one of the impediments to the creation of a Jewish feminist theology is the fact that it is not always possible to bridge the gap between human experience and the tradition, because the symbols of divinity prescribed by the tradition are not necessarily products of women’s imagination and are not necessarily meaningful for women. Hence Jewish feminist theology must be a ‘responsive theology’ that responds to the traditional theology. It would express an a priori commitment to the tradition’s basic sources and categories of God, Torah, and the people of Israel, but not necessarily to its norms (Umansky 1989: 194).

Rachel Adler called for a major remake of Halakhah from a broader theological perspective. Asserting that Halakhah is the core of the Jewish world and that no Jewish form can survive without it, she opted for a jurisprudential approach that could respond to the call to create what she calls ‘proactive Halakhah’ (Adler 1998). In this she drew on the legal philosopher Robert Cover and his influential Nomos and Narrative (1983).

Cover suggested that law and culture are intertwined. He built a model of law that could preserve a coherent legal system while also allowing for interpretive pluralism. In Cover’s terms, ‘nomos’ is the world of normative law as expressed in the principles of justice, legal institutions, systems of formal rules, and social conventions. By contrast, ‘narrative’ is an amalgam of language, discourse, myth, and values; in other words, the human story expressed in history and literature, as well as in the actual lived experience of a concrete group of people, the community. The two concepts are interdependent: nomos exists and derives its meaning only from within the context of a narrative that sets it in the time, space, society, and culture in which the drama of the actual human experience occurs; this is what lends the nomos its meaning. Conversely, narrative requires the moral perspective of nomos; in other words, the element that is embodied and shaped by norms and the law. On the surface it would seem that narratives can bear multiple and possibly even contradictory meanings, both obvious and hidden, both conservative and subversive, whereas nomos allows for only one binding configuration and interpretation which is ‘frozen’ in the existing law.

But when nomos is viewed as embedded within a narrative, it becomes clear that the potential for legal change is already there as well. Taking nomos in the context of narrative opens law up to a variety of interpretations that may, over time, produce a situation in which the law itself changes, pulling the present reality closer to an alternative future. In this sense, and taking a long term view, one might imagine law as a bridge that links one vision (of the past) to another (future, desirable, possible). In every such instance, certain threads that are interwoven into (present, existing) law are plucked out of the complex and variegated fabric of the narrative. Law is therefore the expression of a current worldview as depicted by a narrative that joins reality and vision and connects past, present, and future.

Taking her theoretical framework from Cover, Adler began developing the idea of ‘proactive Halakhah’ that initiates rather than reacts, as part of her general vision of ‘Engendering Judaism’ (Adler 1998). She criticized liberal Halakhah as merely reacting to classical Halakhah in an attempt to adapt itself to modernity while leaving the basic system untouched. Instead, she held that Cover’s idea of the essence of the law could be used to explain the aim of religious feminism. The model in which law is a bridge, supported by a commitment to a particular praxis that is based on our narrative, is not possible without the concept of Halakhah, because it is only through Halakhah that Jews can embody their sanctified values and stories in a communal praxis. At the same time, however, it is possible to create a new nomos and advance towards it. Accordingly, narrative will be central to any project for a new Jewish nomos, because Judaism is based on narrative. Hence the creation of proactive rather than reactive Halakhah requires a new understanding of Jewish narratives and values. It is on this point that feminism, thanks to the new methodologies it developed, can make a decisive contribution to understanding and employing narratives in order to devise a new Halakhah. It was in this spirit that, in the last chapter of her book, she introduced the ‘Lovers’ Covenant (B’rit Ahuvim)’, a marriage ceremony based on the laws of partnership rather than on those of acquisition, as a marriage contract between two independent and equal subjects (Adler 1998: 169–207).

In Adler’s position can be seen the integration of the Halakhic vision with theology. Theology is the narrative dimension, which ultimately provides the constitutive foundation of Jewish praxis. Despite Ross’ Orthodox commitment, her view of Halakhah does not seem too far from Adler’s.

However, Ross herself devotes significant effort to explicating where her thinking diverges from Adler’s (Ross 2021: 154–161). Whereas Adler identifies completely with Cover’s model when it comes to the influence of narrative on the establishment of nomos, Ross adds an additional step and makes retention of a metaphysical dimension an essential component of her philosophy of Halakhah. She also believes that, in order for Halakhic changes to be accepted and absorbed by the religious world, two additional constraints that Adler ignores must be taken into account: solidarity with the larger community of the Halakhically committed and an ‘appeal to the ruling body of experts’ – in other words, not sidestepping Rabbinic authority. In this regard, Blu Greenberg, the pioneer of Jewish Modern-Orthodox feminism, expressed her critique on Rabbinic refusal to accept feminists’ ideas with the famous phrase, ‘where there was a Rabbinic will there was a Halakhic way’ (Greenberg 1981: 44). In this, she did not mean to undermine Rabbinic authority but to emphasize that there is a basis for gender justice and women’s equality in Judaism. Halakhah just needs to be reinterpreted according to those values, as it always did when facing new realities.

As has been seen, theology and Halakhah are not necessarily dichotomous categories of Jewish feminist thought. Irshai has endeavoured to understand the mechanisms of Halakhah and their possible incorporation of feminist ideas (Irshai 2010) and posed questions about the connection between Halakhah and theology. Although she believes that Halakhah (even Orthodox Halakhah) has interpretive options that are open to egalitarian ideas and are more respectful of women and LGBTQ+ people, she holds that their general application is impeded not by the mechanisms of Halakhah per se but by broader theological obstacles that cannot be divorced from the world of Halakhah. Specifically, she has in mind the ‘Akedah Theology’ formulated by Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Irshai 2016; 2017c; Soloveitchik 1975; 1983; Leibowitz 1981; 1992).

Akedah Theology associates obedience to the divine imperative embodied in Halakhah with the binding up (Hebrew akedah, referring to the Binding of Isaac, Gen 22:1–19) of all our specifically human inclinations, desires, and needs, including our moral principles. Although not all divine injunctions are necessarily at odds with morality, the ultimate test of believers’ faith and commitment to God when they do face such a dilemma is manifested by their willingness to bind up their moral ideas and submit to the divine injunction (2017c). Not surprisingly, some rabbis believe that this theology must be adopted with regard to certain Halakhic issues pertaining primarily to women. This even becomes the litmus test for women’s observance and religious commitment, allowing people to discredit religious feminism on the grounds that it has a theological flaw that reflects a weakness of faith.

There is clearly an unavoidable collision between Akedah Theology and any idea that demands religious recognition of human moral insights. In the present generation, religious feminism and LGBTQ+ religious movements are the most salient examples of moral criticism of patriarchal religious ideas, with its stubborn demand – in the name of modern as well as religious values, such as human dignity and justice principles in general – for changes in theology and Halakhah. (Adler makes it plain that the task of Jewish feminism is a moral one stemming from the demand for gender justice; 1998.)

The strong commitment of religious feminists to religious and feminist principles was enabled thanks to the historic ‘Torah study revolution’, according to which many Modern-Orthodox young women devote significant time to Torah study, to the point that they cannot easily be dismissed as ignorant. They now know and insist that Jewish tradition can and should incorporate gender justice values. This revolution has reached the point that, around the turn of the twenty-first century, women began demanding not only to study the ‘Jewish bookshelf’ but to become the authors of those books. In the last decade, women within Modern-Orthodox circles have started to be ordained as Halakhic decisors and religious leaders, a process that was completed by the Reform movement during the 1970s (Goldman 2007), and the Conservative movement at the beginning of the 1980s (Rubin Schwartz 2007).

Historically speaking, theology was of great importance to the more liberal sections of Judaism. It can be determined, however, that in the contemporary context, when Halakhic literacy is also growing among Modern-Orthodox women, the effort to understand which theological approaches can foster feminist and LGBTQ+ insights in the Orthodox world or block their spread is part of the Modern-Orthodox feminists’ growing realization that the theological dimension should not be ignored given its inherent influence on Halakhah.

7 Conclusion

As can be seen, Jewish feminist theologies endeavour to deal with the gulf between modern and postmodern ideas and the religious content and language created and consolidated in an age when the patriarchy and gender binary were a cultural given and never questioned. The prominent contributions of feminist theologies include the expanded range of gender references to God, raising the issue of the attitude towards the feminine and nonbinary, as well as the creation of a theological infrastructure that supports more intimate and immanent ideas of divinity and new readings of the traditional texts, including the normative Halakhic works, so that they can incorporate feminist ideas (Benjamin 2020).

Thus Jewish feminism, in all its strains, is writing a new and important chapter in the long history of Jewish theology – a chapter that aspires to deal with the gulf between tradition and progress, between what is held to be eternal and the constantly changing human aspect, a chapter that although totally new can be read as the next instalment of a chain novel (to borrow the term coined by the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, 1986: 228–232). In the coming generations, this too will be identifiable as part of the ongoing Jewish story in which Jewish tradition complements, opposes, and adapts to a new reality.


Copyright Ronit Irshai (CC BY-NC)

This article contains material originally published in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish Theology (2020), edited by Steven Kepnes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Used with permission of the publisher.


  • Further reading

    • Aiken, Lisa. 1993. To Be A Jewish Woman. Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson.
    • Davidman, Lynn, and Shelly Tenenbaum (eds). 1994. Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
    • Greenberg, Blu. 1981. On Women and Judaism. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
    • Hartman, Tova. 2007. Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
    • Heschel, Susannah (ed.). 1983. On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader. New York: Schocken Books.
    • Meyers, Jody, and Jane Rachel Litman. 1995. ‘The Secret of Jewish Femininity: Hiddenness, Power and Physicality in the Theology of Orthodox Women in the Contemporary World’, in Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition. Edited by Tamar Rudavsky. New York/London: New York University Press, 51–77.
    • Millen, Rochelle. 2007. ‘"Her Mouth Is Full of Wisdom": Reflections on Jewish Feminist Theology’, in I Did It My Way – Women Remaking American Judaism. Edited by Riv-Ellen Prell. Detroit: Wayne State University, 27–49.
    • Ross, Tamar. 2000. ‘Modern Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Feminism’, in Jews and Gender: The Challenge to Hierarchy. Edited by Jonathan Frankel. New York: Oxford University Press, 3–38.
    • Safrai, Chana. 1997. ‘Feminist Theology in a Jewish Context’, Sources and Resources of Feminist Theologies. Yearbook of the Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research 5: 140–147.
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    • Adler, Rachel. 1998. Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Boston: Beacon Press.
    • Benjamin, Mara H. 2020. ‘Tracing the Contours of a Half Century of Jewish Feminist Theology’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 36, no. 1: 11–31.
    • Biala, Tamar (ed.). 2022. Dirshuni – Contemporary Women’s Midrash. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.
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