Ba'alot Teshuvah: American Jewish Women
Much of what we know sociologically about contemporary Jewish women’s religious experiences comes from qualitative studies of Orthodox Jewish women in which gender is a central category of analysis. Since the division of gender roles is the sharpest in the Orthodox community, this group provides a ready resource for exploring the pivotal role of gender in shaping the religious life of Jews. In 1991, the first two book-length sociological studies of Jewish women were published: Debra Renee Kaufman’s Rachel’s Daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish Women and Lynn Davidman’s Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. Both books begin with the experiences of Ba’alot Teshuvah (Jewish women not brought up as Orthodox who have decided to become Orthodox as adults) and explore how these women negotiate within traditional religious institutions in order to find a meaningful place for themselves. Both authors develop an analysis of the meaning of Orthodoxy from the point of view of women and the reasons contemporary secular women are attracted to it.
The Ba’alot Teshuvahs’ decision to explore Orthodox Jewish ways of life represents one possible solution to current widespread questions about women’s proper roles. The structural changes in American society in the past thirty years, in particular the changing demographics of women’s educational, occupational, marital, and childbearing patterns, have occasioned a debate in our culture about women’s nature and social roles similar to the late nineteenth-century “woman question” that followed the Industrial Revolution. Within our society, there is a wide variety of competing definitions and prescriptions for women’s roles, far more than there are for men’s roles. Traditionalists clash with women’s liberationists, and even within the various feminist communities there are numerous alternative visions. Women may now choose among the numerous variants of the “radical” solution (which creates alternative structures of meaning outside the framework of mainstream society), the liberal feminist approach (which seeks equality in the public sphere), and the “traditional” model (which emphasizes the centrality of woman’s place in the home). The women who choose Orthodoxy might well espouse liberal feminist solutions for the workplace, but are content to embrace the traditional option for their personal lives.
In her interview-based study of married Ba’alot Teshuvah who had been Orthodox for several years, Kaufman presents the women’s perspectives on their role in Orthodoxy. Despite their acceptance of traditional roles, these women do not necessarily view themselves as second-class citizens of the Jewish community. Rather, they turn their devalued status in the secular world into a higher status by adopting the roles that the Orthodox community offers. Orthodoxy appeals to Ba’alot Teshuvah precisely because of its positive valuation of the feminine and the female in the context of the nuclear family. Kaufman concludes that there are strong similarities between Ba’alot Teshuvah and radical feminists, since both groups participate in sex-segregated communities that celebrate gender differences.
Davidman, in her comparative ethnographic study of modern Orthodox and Lubavitch Hasidic communities, also found that in the context of the confusion about gender and family norms in the wider society, Orthodoxy appealed to the new recruits because it offered clarity about gender and prescriptions for family living. Her findings suggest, however, that Ba’alot Teshuvah are not postfeminist, as Kaufman contends, but rather, these women are attracted to Orthodoxy because they see it as a socially legitimate alternative to feminism. Instead of the feminist program of broader gender definitions, sexual liberation, emphasis on careers, and acceptance of a variety of family patterns, Orthodox Judaism proposes clearly circumscribed gender norms, control of sexuality, assistance in finding a partner, and explicit guidelines for nuclear family life.
The two types of Orthodox communities she studied differed greatly in their willingness to blend traditional conceptions with modern gender ideals. Davidman shows how these differences led to the attraction of different types of women to each setting. The Lubavitch Hasidic community, which prohibits premarital physical contact between women and men, publicly eschews birth control, and trivializes women’s interest in professionalism, attracts relatively young women who are not yet established in careers or independent lives. In contrast, the modern Orthodox community offers a complex blend of the traditional and modern that attracts single, professionally established, independent adults who are seeking assistance in forming nuclear families.
Both Davidman and Kaufman state that Ba’alot Teshuvah find Orthodox Judaism appealing precisely because it offers a conception of femininity in which women’s roles as wives and mothers are honored and seen as central. Nevertheless, as sociologists of religion point out, there is a “fit” between religious institutions and the needs of the individuals who seek them out. Thus, newly Orthodox women are attracted to the Orthodox vision of Jewish womanhood that best suits their life circumstances. Modern Orthodox rabbis articulate a vision of femininity that not only prioritizes women’s roles in the home but also allows women to seek secondary fulfillment in other spheres, such as careers. This conception matches with the needs of the women in the modern Orthodox community Davidman studied, who described themselves as being “settled” at work but wishing to develop a role and identity at home. The Lubavitch rabbis, in contrast, offer a definition of femininity that focuses exclusively on women’s roles as wives and mothers. This vision is attractive to the Lubavitch Ba’alot Teshuvah, who seek one all-embracing role. In the context of a differentiated society, these diverse groups of women are able to seek out those religious communities that validate their life choices and give them meaning.
These two studies, in which women are the primary focus, build on but also extend in a feminist direction an earlier book about newly Orthodox Jewish women and men, Herbert Danzger’s Returning to Tradition: The Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism. Danzger reported that most of the newly Orthodox are women and that women are more likely than men to turn to a religious way of life out of a desire to have a family. He provides a gendered analysis of the different routes by which women and men enter the world of Orthodoxy. Many of the men were religious seekers who ventured into yeshivas to seek deeper knowledge. The women were less likely to be on a spiritual quest; they tended to become Orthodox through synagogue programs and marriage. However, although Danzger’s study offers important insights into gender differences, most of his research focuses on male yeshivas, so that his database on women is much scanter. Regrettably, he also does not always make explicit at what point his discussion includes women and where it refers to men only, thereby making it more difficult to ascertain the distinctive experiences of Ba’alot Teshuvah (female) and Ba’alei Teshuvah (male).
Ba’alot Teshuvah are seeking a sense of self-rootedness in a larger continually existing community with a past and a future. They are also in search of an ordered sense of self on a personal level: They are often troubled by the confusion over gender in the wider society and by the lack of comfortable patterns for forming nuclear families. Critics of contemporary culture see the “deinstitutionalization” of the private realm—the transformations in society’s norms for courtship, marriage, sexuality, and child rearing—as leading to a sense of anomie and discomfort that provides fertile ground for the growth of spiritual movements, Orthodox Jewish ones included.
Aish HaTorah for Women, Jerusalem; Makhon Orah, Jerusalem; Midreshet Rahel, Jerusalem; Neve Yerushalayim, Jerusalem; She’arim, Jerusalem; Ayyelet Hashahar, Far Rockaway, New York; Beit Hannah (Lubavitch), St. Paul, Minnesota; Jewish Renaissance Center, Manhattan, New York; Lionel Goldman Seminary (Bostoner Rebbe), Brookline, Massachusetts.
Danzger, Herbert. Returning to Tradition: The Contemporary Revival of Orthodox Judaism (1989); Davidman, Lynn. Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism (1991); Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. “Ba’alei Teshuvah” (1997); Kaufman, Debra Renee. Rachel’s Daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish Women (1991).