Blood and Ink Reviews

“In the first chapter of this courageous and ground-breaking book, Haberman argues that religion, if it is to be a redemptive force in the world, must rid itself of the gender regimes and roles that even the most modern and democratic societies let it perpetuate under the banner of freedom of religious expression. As long as the men who wield the power in the patriarchy are allowed to protect and maintain the status quo, the goal of an equal and just society will never be reached. And as long as women’s voices and experiences are not welcomed into all areas of human life, Haberman argues, society will not move beyond the violence, discrimination, conflict and oppression in which it is mired.” Click here to read the complete review by Haviva Ner David in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, No. 25, Fall 2013, 151-5.

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“Bonna Devora Haberman writes beautifully about her motivations and ideology, in part through the story of Women of the Wall and in part by drawing on the collective experiences of the Jewish people, and especially Jewish women, across time. These essays engage with a broad spectrum of religious theolo­gians and secular philosophers to construct Haberman’s theology of equality for women, which is both relevant to understanding the events at the Western Wall as well as insightful and meaningful for the activist soul.” Read more of the Jewish Book Council review by Rachel Sara Rosenthal.

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Israeli Feminists and the Liberation of Judaism from Gender Discrimination   Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink, by Bonna Devora Haberman, is an in-depth analysis of the history and role of gender discrimination within Judaism, and its impact on Israeli society today. The author, an initiator and an activist since 1988 of the women’s prayer movement Women of the Wall (WOW), offers a rich understanding of the major factors at play in today’s current struggle for gender equality within Judaism. It’s a struggle in which monthly arrests of women who attempt to pray at the Western Wall as a group, wear prayer shawls and read from the Torah, are now sadly routine. Haberman wrote Blood and Ink to help promote a deeper awareness and understanding about the intersection of religious gender discrimination and the values of Western secular culture, in order to promote a “respectful relationship of mutual challenge.” As someone who is both a Torah scholar and Women of the Wall activist, she is well equipped to articulate the imperative of liberation of women in Judaism’s religious tradition. Blood and Ink is written in what Haberman describes as the “rhizome” model, rhizome being a root-like horizontal plant stem with individual self-sufficient nodes. Each chapter is a stand-alone, in-depth study of a specific issue that has challenged Women of the Wall since 1988. She grounds each section in ancient and modern history, court battles, rabbinic texts, and current events. In using this model, she creates a vibrant, fluid book that is fascinating and easy to explore. Topics covered include “Lascivious Voices,” which addresses the enforced exclusion of women from ritual life in male-dominated, ultra-Orthodox communities where voices of women are considered “lewd,” thus distracting men from prayer. “An Expedition to the Azure Blue Fringes” examines the contended practice of Jewish women wearing prayer shawls. “Customs In and Out of Place” looks at the decision of these same ultra-Orthodox powers to prohibit any religious ceremony at the Western Wall that “offends the sensitivities of the worshippers” (note the assumption that only ultra-Orthodox worshippers can be offended) and describes how “custom” came to trump Jewish law. Haberman’s contribution to the liberation of Judaism from oppressive gender discrimination, with its stranglehold on many aspects of Israeli society, is outstanding. Blood and Ink adds to the lexicon of work that helps bring Judaism further into the modern age. And her hope is that all religious institutions, not only Jewish, will promote “full human dignity between women and men.” Without it, Haberman asserts, “we will not achieve dignified conduct with or among our societies, nor respect and peace among peoples and with our planet.”

Dr. Abby Caplin, San Francisco

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Bonna Haberman’s book is both a cri de coeur for action to increase the role of women in Jewish religious life in Israel, and a solid analysis of problematic texts in Jewish religious literature that have been interpreted to place women in a subordinate position. Given the predominant role of the most conservative (read “reactionary”) segments of the rabbinic hierarchy in Israel and Haberman’s explicit desire to argue within the domain of halakha, Jewish religious law, it was essential for her to take on these two challenges simultaneously. And this she does very well, but, contrary to what is said on her web site, this book is not “accessible to people from all backgrounds.” It is densely written and tough reading. Certainly, the book will not be accessible to anyone without at least a basic knowledge of Jewish religious literature.

The defining political issue for Jewish women in Israel is their ability to pray as a minyan at the Kotel in Jerusalem, something that the religious establishment has been trying to prevent and the secular establishment gradually granting over the past quarter century since Dr Haberman created the now well-known group: Women of the Wall. Reference to this struggle appears in every chapter of the book, which is partly an elongated discussion of this struggle and partly a series of essays that go into more length about particular issues pertaining to the struggle. Haberman’s defining position is that, “The Torah addresses every Jew as a human being created in the divine image.” Her driving force is the conflict between a) Jewish women’s experience of “thousands of years of male-dominated exclusion from public ritual and study,” and b) “For the first time in Jewish history, a new generation of Jewish women is massively directing our intellectual, moral and creating energy and competence toward our own tradition.” She does not succeed in liberating Judaism, as she herself admits, but with this book and her many other efforts she has taken major steps to this end. (All quotations in this paragraph come from p. 20.)

The book consists of nine essays plus bookends of short introductory and concluding chapters. All chapters are extensively noted with sources ranging from newspaper articles to Biblical and Talmudic sources as well commentators on them. Chapters 2 and 3 provide context. The former chapter offers a brief history of the origin and the experience of the Women of the Wall. Haberman does not fail to note some differences in view among those women and how her own views have changed over time – from more to less acceptance of rabbinic strictures. The latter chapter challenges the presumed objectivity of analysis and the purportedly clear lines that divide text (study) from action. Haberman’s reading is enormously wide. For example, not surprisingly she finds much to applaud in the liberation theology that emerged from the Catholic Church in the 1970s, but deplores those Latin American variants that cast the Jews as Pharaoh and the Exodus as liberating Christianity from its Jewish bonds.

Chapters 4 and 5 are the first of the chapters that are devoted to exploration of Jewish sources. The former focuses on tradition voices that use strained analogies to argue that women’s voices are lewd and, therefore, that association between men and women in all spheres, but most certainly in religious ritual, must be limited. The latter focuses on the widespread view that denies a women’s right to wear a tallit, or at least limits that right in public. In my view, they are among the best chapters in the book, with the arguments in favour of the conventional Orthodox positions laid our clearly but equally clearly and even more emphatically refuted. I will not even try to summarize Haberman’s arguments, but they deserve to be read by all for whom these questions still carry some weight and also by those who have come to value the benefits of praying side-by-side with women who are not only wearing talleisim but leading the service.

Chapter 6. cleverly entitled “Customs In and Out of Place,” is a bit of a digression. It begins with the question of whether any democratic society can permit a religious establishment to have ultimate authority over any section of the society’s laws. It goes on to consider the differences between minhag (customs) and halakha (law), and about how each influences, and eventually changes, the other. Haberman’s views are clear; she rejects religious power over secular society, but sees great opportunity for halakha to reflect modern conditions and attitudes without changing its core positions. If I can play with her title, I found this material out of place in the book; part of it could have appeared in Chapter 2, and the rest perhaps in Chapter 3.

Chapter 7 is about counting women in a minyan. Haberman goes through the contradictory rulings and source texts about whether a minyan can include women, and shows how over time exclusion gradually became the norm; indeed, separate seating and exclusion of women from minyan have become definitive criteria for Orthodox congregations. She shows how there is only tenuous justification in the sources for exclusion, but then argues persuasively that not only does the dignity of women require participation of women but that there is Talmudic justification for just such a position. Unfortunately, Haberman does lump some weaker arguments for equality with stronger ones; she simply does not need the former to make her point.

Any collection of essays contains one that is notably weaker than the others. In Haberman’s book, it is Chapter 8, “Conceiving Exodus.” Remarkably she bypasses the dominant female role in driving the action in Biblical Exodus, at least until Moses takes the helm on his return from Midian. Instead, the first few pages are only an opening for Haberman to develop the analogy from Exodus for the Jewish people to exodus in giving birth to new life. Not surprisingly, she criticizes many of the modern medical procedures that take control over what should be a normal process out of the hands of women, and no doubt her criticisms are well taken. Haberman’s position is certainly shared by most feminists, but I fail to see how it relates uniquely to halakha or Judaism. (None of the last third of the citations to this chapter refers to a Jewish publication.) Indeed, in the one section related to Christian views relating to women as inherently tainted by Eve’s original sin of eating that famous apple, she fails to note that one of the most common Jewish prayers (“The soul that You, my God, have given me is pure”) is a direct Jewish rejection of any such view.

Chapter 9, is perhaps what Chapter 8 should have been. Not only does Haberman emphasize the strong role of women in the Exodus story, but in addition she makes that story the model for a new interpretation based on “a divine birthing Mother narrative. . . . Birth is more than a symbol of liberation; birth has the potential to create and breed a culture of liberation.” (P. 189.) Haberman then goes on, more appropriately than in the previous chapter to discuss human birthing experiences, among them her own. Most involve use of midwives and home births; not all are easy, but all are liberating. And as she writes, Haberman talks about mixing the blood of birth with the ink or writing, thus linking this chapter, which is entitled “Blood and Ink,” with the subtitle for the whole book.

Chapter 10, entitled Sea Change, returns to an analytical tone. Haberman reviews the songs and other rituals that follow the successful crossing of the Reed Sea by the Israelites. The common interpretation of the Biblical text places men in a dominant role, with Moses leading the men and Miriam in a subordinate (and much shorter) role with the women. Haberman uses deep reading of the text itself and of other sources to suggest a more egalitarian interpretation. Among the many interesting turns in this chapter is an analogy between the Song of the Sea in the Book of Exodus and, much later, the Song of the Well in the Book of Numbers. And, of course, the chapter goes on to show how the prophetess Miriam provides a model for the Women of the Wall in showing that women can conduct Jewish religious rituals without the need for male supervision.

In summary, Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink is an important book. It should be widely read, and it should (but likely will not) inspire commentary from those who wish to take a contrary position. However, I cannot conclude with one criticism of and on gripe with the book. My criticism is the lack of good editing, mainly literary. There are some generalizations that can not be justified and others that are only weakly justified by the citations. Moreover, the text is broken up into many short subsections, all of equal weight, and sometimes suggesting other subsections that never appear. (For example, page 115 has a subsection labelled “Verdict I,” but Verdict II never appears.) My gripe is more philosophical. For all that Haberman wants to stay within the Orthodox tent, it seems needlessly partisan to ignore what has gone on with respect to women’s equality in other movements of Judaism. Most importantly the Conservative movement also follows halakha, and it has long since gone beyond most of the specific issues discussed in this book. After all, Dr Bonna Haberman grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and from time to time she used to attend services at Congregation Adath Shalom, which is fully egalitarian and demonstrates that relaxation of the stranglehold held by ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel is not necessary to vibrant ritual without disenfranchising half of the Jewish world.

Review by David B. Brooks, Ottawa, ON, Canada

20 May 2014

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Bonna Devora Haberman’s book is a lyrical defense and history of ‘Women of the Wall’ and a text- and action-based advocacy of women’s equality in Judaism. This book is overflowing with learning and passion and should be read by all for whom Judaism, feminism, and religious practice are precious.

Aryeh Cohen, Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University

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Bonna Haberman has constructed an impressive theology of Israeli feminism. This book reinterprets many of the texts frequently cited by zealots and chronicles the struggles of ‘Women of the Wall’ for equal access to the holy site. It upholds the difference of women from men as well as their right to equality before the law.

Rachel Adler, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion

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In this very personal work, Bonna Haberman seeks to cross the divide that would separate theological considerations from practical ones. For each oppressive reading of the tradition, Haberman counters with a spiritually-inspired, upbeat counterreading. The story of Israeli society told herein is exemplary of a story which needs multiple recitations for other societies and religious traditions. anyone picking up this book is sure to be illuminated by the shining light that emanates from the azure realms of Israel’s sapphire skies.

Harry Fox, University of Toronto

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I highly recommend “Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink,” a text I had the opportunity to read, study, and relish when it was in its final stages before being published. Through the weaving of selections of sacred text and traditional commentary with egalitarian ideals and personal experience, Bonna gifts each of us a context for equal participation in Judaism’s spiritual and religious bequest.

Andrew Tertes, Author of Jacob’s Return
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