Recent scandals involving mikveh-cams and arguments about seating on airplanes have brought the subject of the position of women in Judaism to the fore. However, even when the subject is far from the public eye of the media, Jewish men and women raised on modern Western values have a hard time reconciling halachah (Jewish law) with the principles of equality and democracy which they have been taught in school. Many books have been written on the subject, but so far none has satisfied the critical thinker.
Author Miriam Kosman believe that the role of women in Judaism can be explained by one simple metaphor. She borrows from the theories of Kabbalah to divide the entire world into male and female attributes. The male is represented by the arrow, a force of progress and new life. The female is a circle, symbolizing “being in the moment” and protection. The world is in need of both these forces; it must move forward without ignoring the present. The melding of male and female is represented by the spiral, which moves in a circular motion but creeps inexorably forward.
Kosman emphasizes repeatedly that not all male and female personalities fit into these models, but that these models are based on the biological differences between men and women: “Our human experience is always a real-time metaphor of what is happening on a cosmic level. The centrality of the male/female relationship in our life, as well as woman’s conflicted relationship with equality, has deep roots in the creation of the universe and is, in fact, a parable within a parable within a parable; our human experience is mirrored in the physical world, which in itself mirrors the complexity of the eternal dance between man and God that lies at the root of Creation.” Kosman then proceeds to analyze specific issues in Jewish law based on the principle of the necessity of both male and female attributes in the world. According to her, the female voice was repressed in the world for many years, with the male voice dominating public discourse, but as we near the age of the Messiah, the female voice is beginning to be heard.
One might think that Kosman would advocate for halachic change based on the newly released female voice, but instead she approaches specific Jewish laws from a conservative point of view, defending the blessing “for not making me a woman,” the unequal divorce system and the differing obligations in time-bound commandments, particularly the study of Torah. Some of Kosman’s arguments are more convincing than others, but the book is clearly based on in-depth research, encompassing halachic sources, philosophical works, sociological studies and feminist treatises. Her breadth of knowledge is impressive and her theories are, at the very least, thought-provoking.
The manner in which the book weaves ancient and modern sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in order to form a cohesive understanding of the male and female roles in Judaism, makes it crucial reading material for anyone interested in the subject of gender in Judaism.
Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism, by Miriam Kosman, published by Mekor Press, is available at Jewish book stores and on Amazon.com. I thank the publishers for sending me an advance review copy.