Profile: Tamar Ross
Judaism evolves, including halakha, argues one of Orthodoxy’s most dynamic scholars in a position that has won her admirers as well as critics.
On the surface of it, Tamar Ross is an anomaly.
A strictly Orthodox radical Jewish feminist, she radiates an almost Buddhist calm and sweetness. A hardheaded postmodern theologian and author of the controversialExpanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism(Brandeis University Press), she completely covers her straw-colored hair at all times. Judging by her appearance, she could have stepped out of Har Nof, one of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
“At first,” says Batya Hefter, a former student of Ross and director of the Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion, “I couldn’t believe that this lady… was really so open-minded. There had to be a catch.
“However,” she continues, “for years I would stop by on Friday mornings for conversation and a coffee and realized that no questions, sincerely asked, were out of bounds.”
The hair covering is not window dressing. There is a part of Ross, 70, a member of a modern Orthodox synagogue, that strongly identifies with ultra-Orthodox religiosity.
“But there’s too much of a gap between my ideology and that of the rabbinic authorities,” declares Ross, professor of Jewish philosophy and gender studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, where she has also taught Jewish philosophy. Her home in the Givat Hamivtar section of Jerusalem is filled with books, paintings and photographs of her seven children and numerous grandchildren. Above the desk in her study hangs a portrait of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook painted by her daughter, artist Batsheva Ross.
Kook looms large in Ross’s faith. The first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, he was a charismatic thinker, and his writings have spawned many contrasting views. For Ross, his ideas have helped reconcile her deep religious sensibility with a theology that allows for evolving halakha and an understanding that Torah is not fixed, that revelation is cumulative and changing. It is this position for which she has won admirers as well as harsh critics.
“Her concept of ongoing revelation opened new doors, not only for Orthodox feminism but for Orthodox thinking in general,” notes Blu Greenberg, author of the pioneering On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Jewish Publication Society). “Before Ross, the Orthodox feminist argument was primarily on the plane of halakhic authority and legal precedents, with all the heft on the side of a conserving establishment and limiting precedent; so feminists would always lose the argument. A theory of ongoing revelation allows for new applications of the law and moving beyond existing precedent.”
Ross first connected with Greenberg—and religious feminism—in 1995, when the latter asked her to participate in the First International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in New York, organized by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).
“I’m not a mover and shaker in political things,” Ross explains, but she accepted the challenge. “The theological issue interested me.”
Greenberg singles out Ross’s unique contribution to that gathering, and to Orthodox feminism in general.
“Ross was willing to engage the inequality of the system and critique it with feminist language,” Greenberg says, “but at the same time and with an exquisite balance, she managed to uphold the authority of the system.”
Ross recalls that “there was something electric about that first conference. I saw that everyone was thinking the same thing but didn’t dare say it: ‘How can we believe in God’s Torah when it is so suffused with a male perspective?’ I walked into a quagmire that I couldn’t get out of.”
In Expanding the Palace of Torah, Ross tries to make some sense out of the quagmire. Calling on Jewish and Christian feminist thinkers, postmodern philosophers of law and language and Torah commentators, she surveys the position of women in Jewish tradition. With searing honesty, she exposes the seeds of discontent that exist among Jewish women today.
“Despite the biblical statement that ‘male and female created He them,’” she writes, “women’s role is mainly biological…. Women appear in biblical law as a subdivision of humanity, rather than as members of the main class.”
And as women advance in the secular realms, Ross argues, their disadvantaged situation in Judaism will bring them to question the relevance of halakha. Her book reviews the basic Jewish legal issues confronting women today and quotes diverse perspectives on practical issues such as participation in prayer and solutions foragunot, women whose husbands will not grant them a Jewish divorce.
But ross is reluctant to discuss the practical applications of her own views. When confronted, she indicates that she feels positively about advances in women’s roles in prayer and public religious life as well as finding solutions to ameliorate the aguna problem.
“I believe that it is important to push as much as halakhic understanding allows,” Ross says, but she thinks every community should be allowed to go at its own pace.
Throughout her academic career, Ross has taught Jewish philosophy at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, the first post-high school, yeshiva-like program offering talmudic study for women. “Many of the students were ba’alei teshuva who had come from Ivy League schools,” she says. “I was forced to address the students’ questions. This helped me work through my own theology.”
Ross would like to see Jewish theology refined to allow for the development of halakha while respecting the law’s divinity and authority. She rejects “the view of Torah as a fixed and rigidly stable message that is passed on intact from generation to generation.” Instead, she points to thinkers such as Kook who “discover the ultimate meaning of Torah in the inevitable dialectic between the original revelation at Sinai and the progressive unfolding of history and human understanding.”
According to Kook, God is constantly being revealed in history. Ross writes that the divine “contains the potential of bringing new possibilities into the world. It is affected and changed by human activity, and in turn affects man who brings new possibilities into the world.” She explains that the very use of language means that as the Torah is passed down, it is processed into the minds of listeners. Interpretation is always going on. But interpreters must take God’s word seriously. Therefore there is a negotiation between the “perceiver” and the object of “perception.
”This brings about what Ross calls “cumulative revelation,” the continuous interpretation of God’s Torah so that new societal situations are taken into account—for example, the contemporary approach to gender equality. At the same time, she doesn’t believe that “anything goes,” that every innovation is acceptable. Religious decisions and interpretations must fit in with the multilayered tradition that has developed through the ages in the interpretive community.
In light of ross’s views, the question has arisen as to how her theology differs from that of Conservative Jews, who considerhalakha a developmental process. Ross answers, “I don’t think there’s a difference in ideology but how it is applied.” She feels that Conservatives sometimes leapfrog over the last few centuries of halakhic decisions to a past view that has not entered the consensus.
Notwithstanding her personal observance, Ross’s opinions have understandably hit a raw nerve in the Orthodox world. In her book’s introduction, she describes her surprise at suddenly being seen as a pariah. When invited to present her views on Orthodox feminism at a forum in 1997 at Yeshiva University in New York, she was sharply attacked.
“I should have already guessed something was wrong when friends came up to me and whispered how courageous my lecture was,” she recalls.
Her views have also been subject to acrimonious criticism by Jewish scholars. Aryeh Frimer, an Orthodox chemistry professor at Bar-Ilan, argued in an article in BDD: The Journal of Torah and Scholarship against Ross’s idea of cumulative revelation, insisting that revelation is a one-time event at Sinai, a view held by mainstream Orthodox Jews.
But defending herself against attacks from the entrenched Orthodox establishment has only strengthened Ross’s theology. In a later article in BDD, Ross responded to Frimer point by point, attempting to explain that “the time and culture-bound nature of the divine word” is consistent with tradition. She also argues that feminism can be seen as a call for social justice, which is the essence of Torah.
“Ross’s response exhibits great dignity,” says Myrna Enker, an Orthodox psychologist in Israel who has long promoted religious feminism. “Her view is one of tikkun olam: Halakha is not a finished product but can move to greater improvement of the world.”
Such views belie an open-mindedness not common among strictly Orthodox women; Ross attributes her progressiveness to her unique childhood education.
“My parents, ardent lovers of Hebrew, chose to send me to public school for secular studies,” she says, “and teach me Jewish studies privately rather than send me to the yeshiva day school in Detroit, which did not emphasize Hebrew. In public school, I was always an outsider… but I felt I was exposed to a fuller life, greater self-expression.” An only child until the age of 12, her father, Rabbi Yerachmiel Elimelech Wohlgelernter, a religious leader in Detroit, imbued her with his love of books and learning.
During high school, the religious zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva became a dominant influence in her life, and after high school she studied at a teacher-training seminar in Israel. A year after returning to Detroit, her family made aliya, and she enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she earned a B.A. in Jewish thought in 1960. It was there that she first faced issues of modernism and religion.
“The impact of sociology on claims of halakhic integrity and historical development and the notion of divine revelation—these were the bread and butter of my intellectual life and my form of religious quest,” she writes in the preface to her book.
Ross long had vague feelings that women should be allowed greater access to religious expression as well as more intense learning environments, “but I wouldn’t have defined myself as a feminist,” she says. “But one thing was clear: Learning and knowledge were very important.” She received a master’s degree in Kook’s philosophy in 1978, then a doctorate in 1987 on the Musar movement, a 19th century Lithuanian school of religious thought that sought to counter the breakdown of tradition by emphasizing a more disciplined Judaism and ethical behavior.
In 1960, she married Yaakov Yehoshua Ross, who shared her intellectual and religious quests. “Yaakov and I have always grappled with these questions and see eye to eye,” she says. Originally from South Africa, her husband studied at the ultra Orthodox Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, holds a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and taught analytic philosophy at Tel Aviv University until retirement.
The couple’s flexibility is apparent in their children’s education.
“There was not one mold for all the children,” relates Ruth Frank, a publicist and family friend. “Each child was sent to the school that seemed most appropriate for him or her, and [that] reflects itself in their lifestyles. They range from haredi to nonobservant and include an artist, an economist, two yeshiva rabbis, a professor of Jewish philosophy researching neo-Hasidism…[and] a single mother.”
So perhaps it follows that personal expression is Ross’s ultimate guiding religious inspiration. In an article she wrote for Hebrew University’s religious student magazine in the late 1950s, she describes visiting a Hebron yeshiva on Simhat Torah and watching the women push to get a glimpse of the men dancing below, yearning to achieve the same degree of holiness.
Almost 50 years later, and thanks to the efforts of observant scholars such as Ross, Orthodox women may yet find that elusive divine connection.