Norma Baumel Joseph
Norma Baumel Joseph was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1944 into a family of Eastern European immigrants. After receiving her Ph.D. in religion from Concordia University in Montreal in 1995, she served as the director of various university-level programs and departments pertaining to Jewish studies, women’s studies, and religious studies. Joseph has published widely in scholarly books and journals and is highly regarded in Canada and internationally as an expert on Jewish women and on feminism. She was also an influential activist; she did extensive community work that included advocating for Agunah rights and creating an Orthodox women’s prayer group. Joseph has served on the boards of many important organizations that advocate for women’s rights in religious spaces.
Early Life and Education
Canada’s outstanding Orthodox feminist, Norma Joseph, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the second daughter of Moishe (Murray) Baumel (b. Austrian Poland, 1912, d. New York, 2002), a salesman who came to the United States as a child, and Madeline (Kohn, b. Hungary, 1917), a typist-secretary who came to the United States as an infant. Many members of Joseph’s family have engaged in religious occupations. Her paternal grandfather was Rabbi Joshua Baumol, author of Emek ha-Halakha; her maternal grandfather, Mordecai Kohn, was a sofer (scribe). Her mother’s half-brothers were Harry Wohlberg, an Orthodox rabbi, and Max Wohlberg, a Conservative cantor. In 1965, Joseph married Rabbi Howard Joseph (b. New York City, 1940), who assumed the pulpit of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Canada’s oldest congregation, five years later. One of their sons, Joshua, is also a rabbi.
Joseph received her early education in Brooklyn, including a B.A. from Brooklyn College (1966). She undertook graduate studies at the City University of New York and earned a Ph.D. in religion from Concordia University in Montreal (1995), where she has taught since 1974. The subject of her dissertation was women in the Halakhic decisions written by rabbinic authories in response to questions posed to them.responsa of Rabbi Moses Feinstein. Joseph served as a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Albany (1981) and at Brandeis University (1999–2000), where she was connected to the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department and to the International Research Institute on Jewish Women. At her home university she has served as director of the M.A. Program in Judaic Studies (1989–1990, 1995–1998); convenor of the Chair in Quebec and Canadian Jewish Studies (1995–1999); director of the undergraduate Women and Religion Specialization (1992–); director of the Doctoral Program in Religion (2000–2003); and chair of the Department of Religion (2003–).
Joseph has published widely in scholarly books and journals and is highly regarded in Canada and internationally as an expert on Jewish women and on feminism. She serves on the editorial board of Women in Judaism, an electronic journal, on the advisory board of the Journal of Religion and Culture, and on the international board of the Jewish Women’s Archive. In 1995, she received the Leo Wasserman Prize for the best article published in American Jewish History that year for “Jewish Education for Women: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s Map of America” (vol. 83, no. 2, 205–222).
Joseph, who is also known as a popular lecturer and writer for community groups, has appeared in two films: Half the Kingdom (1989) and Untying the Bonds … Jewish Divorce (1997). Arguably, however, her most significant contribution to Jewish communal life has been her work as an activist. As a founding member of the Canadian Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get (Jewish divorce), Joseph worked with the community and the federal government of Canada for the passage of a 1990 law that assists Jewish women whose husbands are unwilling to grant them a religious divorce (agunot). Such a law is possible in Canada, where there is less concern over the separation of church and state than in the United States, although, as in the United States and elsewhere, the Canadian Orthodox establishment has exhibited considerable resistance to change in this area. She was also one of the founders and the president of the International Committee for Agunah Rights.
In Montreal, Joseph founded a women’s prayer group which has met monthly in Orthodox synagogues for more than a decade, again an unusual accomplishment in the Orthodox world. She is also the director of the International Committee for Women at the The Western Wall; the remaining Western section of the retaining walls that surrounded the Temple Mount during the Second Temple era.Kotel (Women of the Wall), a group dedicated to securing prayer privileges for women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites. Joseph serves on the governing boards of Edah, the grassroots North American organization of modern Orthodoxy, and of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). She is a member of the advisory board of Kol ha-Isha: A Feminist House of Study in Jerusalem sponsored by the Conservative Movement. Her communal work has been recognized by the National Council of Jewish Women (Montreal chapter), which chose her as its Woman of Distinction in 1998; by the Montreal Jewish community, which presented her with the Jacob Zipper Education Award in 2000; and by Jewish Women International, from which she received the Leading Light, Woman of the Year Award in 2002.
Joseph and her husband have four children: Leora (b. 1968), an assistant district attorney in Boston, Rabbi Joshua (b. 1971), Ami (b. 1975), a businessman, and Naphtali (b. 1976), a business management consultant. Their three sons live in New York. Her sister is Elaine Kramer (b. 1941).
SELECTED WORKS BY NORMA BAUMEL JOSEPH
“Mehitza: The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.Halakhic Decisions and Political Consequences.” In Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut, 117–134. Philadelphia: 1992
“The Feminist Challenge to Judaism: Critique and Transformation.” In Gender, Genre and Religion: Feminist Reflections, edited by Morny Joy and Eva K. Neumaier-Dargay. West Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: 1995
“Hair Distractions: Women and Worship in the Responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.” In Jewish Legal Writings by Women, edited by Micah Halperin and Hannah Safrai, 9–22. Jerusalem: 1998
“Jewish Women in Canada: An Evolving Role.” In From Immigration to Integration, the Canadian Jewish Experience: A Millennium Edition, edited by Ruth Klein and Frank Dimant, 182–195. Toronto: 2001
“Listening to the Voice of Women: Halakhic and Political Considerations.” In Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground, edited by Rivka Haut and Phyllis Chesler. Woodstock, Vermont: 2002.