The accidental feminist

Prof. Tamar Ross works to bring together feminism and the Orthodox world.

Ross in Poland with students from Midreshet Lindenbaum. (photo credit: COURTESY OHR TORAH STONE)
Ross in Poland with students from Midreshet Lindenbaum.
‘I’m regarded as Ms. Feminism at large, and I think that’s a misunderstanding,” Prof. Tamar Ross is quick to point out when asked about her work and status. “I find that I’m constantly being pulled by the nose to deal with feminism, ‘feminism and fill in the blank,’ when I’d often prefer to address my religious and philosophical interests from other perspectives as well.”
But it’s a status that she doesn’t seem to be able to avoid. The American-born Ross, 77, has been at the forefront of modern Orthodox feminist thought and education over the years, and for many symbolizes a meeting point between these two worlds. A mother of seven, she is a veteran resident of the capital’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood – and she is set to receive the Distinguished Citizen of Jerusalem award on Jerusalem Day this week.
Ross was born into a modern Orthodox rabbinic family in Detroit, Michigan.
“My parents were very intensively Jewish-conscious,” she says. “They went against the stream and brought me up with Hebrew as my mother tongue. And even though my father founded one of the first religious day schools in America, he didn’t send me to his own school, because he didn’t have Hebrew-speaking teachers at the time and he abhorred the notion that I would study limudei kodesh [Torah subjects] in translation, so I went to public school and he taught me privately.”
After graduating from high school at the age of 16, she came to Israel for a year to study, “and at the end of the year I told my parents that I would like to stay, and they decided soon afterward that they would make aliya.”
The family made its home in Rehavia, and Ross went on to study Hebrew literature and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Her foray into the relationship between the religious world and feminism, she says, was quite incidental.
She completed her PhD on “Moral Philosophy in the Writings of Rabbi Salanter’s Disciples in the Musar Movement” at the Hebrew University in 1987 – after having seven children – then joined Bar-Ilan University as a lecturer on Jewish thought in 1990, and became a full professor in 2004.
“When I began my studies, I can’t say that I really knew where I was going, but when I look back now, I can see that there was a consistent theological quest driving my intellectual career,” she says.
“I studied simply because I was interested, and not in terms of career,” Ross continues. “Also, when I went to university, I didn’t have this strong sense of the need for a two-career family for financial reasons.”
Ross believes that she wouldn’t have been able to complete her studies when her children were young, as “at that time there were not the same childcare facilities available that there are today.” But even now, she adds, “there is little provision made for women’s childbearing years, and they are expected to climb the academic ladder at the same rate as men, even though they often enter at a later stage or are required to bear greater family responsibilities along the way.”
Recounting her interest in the status of women in Judaism, she says that “very early on, there were things that disturbed me on a practical level.”
She recalls her first Simhat Torah in Jerusalem “as a very formative experience in this connection. I knew that the interesting action was going to take place at Yeshivat Hevron. And so I went there, very eager to watch the festivities. There were crowds and crowds of people milling around. I had to forge my way up to the second-story ezrat nashim [women’s section], and there the sight that I met was that of a multitude of women climbing like monkeys, one on top of the other, over a wooden mehitza [partition], trying desperately to peer from above and get some sort of glimpse of the men’s dancing below. I felt so humiliated that I ran home and cried that I wouldn’t be part of this.”
These types of encounters led her to search for a practical solution to this apparent conflict of beliefs, and she wanted to find what she calls a viable theology.
“My interest in Jewish philosophy was in discovering a religious approach free of apologetics – in other words, an approach that could combine total intellectual integrity with absolute commitment to traditional Jewish doctrine.”
So labeling Ross as a torchbearer of feminism is something of a misnomer, in her opinion.
“For me, feminism was simply a very illustrative and burning test case” that spurred her on to explore a more profound array of religious issues, she says. “I viewed the androcentric focus of the Tanach [Bible] and Halacha at large as very problematic from a feminist point of view, and I found the deeper challenge was not the hot-button issues of can a woman put on tefillin or [of] partnership minyanim, but rather, how can we regard a Torah and a whole tradition that is marked by a male bias as coming from God?” Shying away from those hot-button issues, Ross says she is “not vitally interested in them. I’m glad that there’s all sorts of experimentation and that new possibilities are being forged. I’m not militantly for one image of Jewish womanhood. I think there is a place for many choices, but also room for appreciation of the traditional image in its context.”
Asked more specifically about issues such as partnership minyanim, women putting tefillin, and the Women of the Wall organization, she says, “I think that the current anomalies bringing these issues to the fore are very real and cannot be dismissed. Space should be made for such options, so long as they can be grounded on a reasonable halachic rationale.”
Pressed on the subject of the Women of the Wall, who to some represent the struggle between the Orthodox world and feminism, Ross says, “I think in principle their cause is just, but I have never been part of that struggle because originally I didn’t have sympathy for forcibly imposing feminist sensibilities onto the prevailing atmosphere at the [Western] Wall and traditional society.”
She clarifies that “I think the Women of the Wall are justified in their claims for space there, but I didn’t have sympathy for battling that battle in a prayer context. I also felt that without the necessary groundwork, this move was politically premature.”
However, she does believe that the varying social and cultural contexts surrounding Torah observance over the centuries inevitably lead to new interpretations of and insights into the text. These new insights can appear to overturn previous understandings, without replacing the original message, she says.
As an example, she quotes the verse from Genesis in which God tells Eve that “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” She contests the literal reading of this verse nowadays as a normative prescription or an inescapable curse. “Just as we developed science so that man won’t work with the sweat of his brow and is expected to get out of that situation [the punishment from God], so also women are not expected forever to be subjugated to man, but also to work out of that situation.”
ASIDE FROM her groundbreaking theological and academic work, she is dedicated to furthering women’s Jewish education, having served for many years as a key faculty member at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum – one of the first institutions to provide women with the tools for independent talmudic study in a beit midrash (Torah study hall) atmosphere akin to that of a men’s yeshiva. While the institute has functioned as a model for other advanced Jewish learning programs for women, Ross says there was no clearly feminist agenda in its establishment.
“There were certainly no overt feminist aspirations there. They [the young women who began the program] simply wanted to learn the oral Torah for themselves.
But eventually that mushroomed and became a larger institution, and developed also as a post-high-school program for girls who had been educated in modern Orthodox day schools in the States,” she says. “This whole gap-year notion mushroomed first of all into a set of American-based institutions in Israel, and then finally an Israeli model followed suit, developing its own unique programs of national or military service for women and training for various forms of religious leadership.”
The notion that feminism is an American concept, however, is not one with which Ross agrees.
“Actually I’m just writing an article about that, comparing American and Israeli feminism, and it goes in waves. Not in every area are the Americans first,” she says.
“First of all, the concept of gender equality started in Israel before the rise of Jewish feminism in America. It has a slightly different flavor due to the added legacy of socialist Zionism. In the kibbutzim, at least, they paid lip service to the idea that gender differences should be flattened out,” she explains.
“In America, what often appear most important for Jewish feminists are changes in ritual, because synagogues are the main focus for expressing Jewish identity. In Israel, because there is greater emphasis upon learning, I think the interests go much deeper,” she continues. “And because Judaism here is played out on a national scale, its influence is much more powerful and vital to everyone’s lives. The feminist critique affects us on many more levels, both spiritually and in practical terms.”
The status of women in Jerusalem disturbs her, and she says that in the issue of exclusion of women, “there’s a general going off the rails.” The situation of segregation in Jerusalem at large also worries her.
“That’s one of the sad phenomena in Jerusalem and Israel in general. When I first arrived on aliya, relations between different populations were far more fluid and mixed. I lived in an apartment building in which there was an ultra-Orthodox family, a secular family, and our family, and Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, and the children all played together in the afternoon,” she says. “And so we knew each other, and there was not this total ignorance of the other, who was not regarded as ‘the other.’” Ross also views the capital’s political situation as a source of great concern. “Ostensibly we won the Six Day War, but I don’t think that the battle has really been won.
Jerusalem is not united; we face very difficult political problems. I think that the battle has merely intensified, by revealing the inadequacies of military solutions.”
So, as a soon-to-be distinguished citizen of Jerusalem, what does she wish for the city? “That we have a lot more tolerance for difference, and that each sector should get to know the other better.”