Book Review – Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism

By

Miriam Kosman
Mekor Press/Menucha Publishers 2014

Book review

Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner

The role of women in the Torah world often appears in the headlines, leaving Orthodox Jews feeling misunderstood. Certain complaints, such as those about agunot, appear justified even to those of us who identify as Hareidi. Other complaints reveal more about the bias of reporters and mainstream feminists than about supposed misogyny in traditional Judaism. Many in the secular community lack any meaningful understanding of Halacha and Jewish culture, and even observant Jews can lack the verbal skills to best explain the meaningful role that women play in the community.

In her new book, Circle, Arrow, Spiral (Mekor Press 2014), Miriam Kosman steps up with a perspective that readers will find unique among Jewish feminists. Kosman is a doctoral candidate at Bar Ilan University, a lecturer to university students through Nefesh Yehudi, and a columnist with Mishpacha Magazine. Showing fluency with varied sources (ranging from mussar giant Rav Eliyahu Dessler to maverick feminist Camille Paglia,) she investigates how Judaism views gender, both through the lens of an academic and through that of a Haredi Jew. In the latter role, Kosman presents a perspective that has rarely been expressed in print.

Kosman proposes that the tension between women and men is only the most visible manifestation of a struggle that exists throughout Hashem’s creation, one that exists inside each person, no matter their gender, and in every society. Kosman asserts that today, at the threshold of the Final Redemption, a spiritual drama is playing out on a global scale between “masculine” and “feminine” influences, and “[O]n the great cosmic stage, it is the woman who plays the starring role (p. 146).”

Circle, Arrow, Spiral begins with a kabalistic and mussar-based analysis of the symbiotic relationship between male and female. Despite the dense material, readers will not find it difficult reading: Kosman possesses a clear writing style that offers information slowly and recaps the lessons contained in each chapter at its end.

Perhaps Kosman could have interwoven the theoretical sections of Circle, Arrow, Spiral with chapters that offered practical examples. Instead, she turns to the halachic concerns of mainstream feminists only after she completes her philosophical introduction. Analyzing hot button issues such as the blessing “Shelo asani isha,” laws of divorce and marriage, and the role of women in synagogue worship, she neither dismisses the outrage of mainstream feminists, nor hides from the less politically correct comments contained in rabbinic literature.

Kosman’s central critique of mainstream women’s rights advocates is that they identify genuine problems but offer the wrong solutions by pulling women towards masculine ways of being and doing (p. 152). On the other hand, the Torah view esteems feminine values and often prioritizes them. She points out a number of ways in which Halacha cultivates the feminine within both men and women, and indicates that during the time of Moshiach, society will return to a balance of power between the sexes.

Circle, Arrow, Spiral carefully avoids politically charged subjects, and Kosman doesn’t propose her own prescriptions for balance in the lives of individual women. If the book has a shortcoming, it’s that many readers are indeed looking for specific guidance in tricky areas such as divorce, women’s Torah learning, and modest dress, and Kosman offers little. Readers will find no decisive rulings on whether a Halachic Pre-Nup is halachic or not; nor will they find direction for women who want to wear tefillin. Moreover, she never maligns Open Orthodoxy or other liberal Jewish movements who embrace more mainstream feminism.

Even if some readers will be frustrated by Kosman’s apolitical approach, it broadens her book’s appeal. Both people within the fold of Orthodoxy and those who are less observant will find it meaningful, and both groups will find it approachable.