Rabbis, Rabbas, and Maharats: Aspiration, Innovation, and Orthodoxy in American Women's Talmud Programs

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Johns Hopkins University
Based on several years of fieldwork in Orthodox Jewish Women’s Talmud programs in New York City, and the organizations that support them, this dissertation focuses on both the embattled process of religious legal education that American female Talmud scholars undergo, and the challenging environment in which these women try to position themselves as authoritative sources of religious legal decisions, amid prevailing interpretations that render them outsiders from the very texts on which they expound. The ethnographic findings of this study make an intervention into the anthropological treatment of texts and textual cultures, and open up the experience of denominationalism in America, taking away the obviousness of the idea of the “Judeo-Christian” at the constantly evolving heart of an American institutional religion engaged in both policy making and denominational border policing. The dissertation focuses on the women’s Talmud programs located in New York City that have recently emerged in the American Modern Orthodox Jewish community, where women study the rabbinic curriculum without the current possibility of receiving ordination or of serving as rabbis in their Orthodox communities. In an ethnographic investigation of these educational institutions and the organizations that support and advocate for them, and the ways in which aspirations for both individual cultivation and communal innovation are enacted through study, this research encounters the various forms and layers of tension created and contended with in efforts to stretch a tradition from within. It addresses the profound ways in which the context of American denominational religion - the form by which the State recognizes and protects religion as such - impacts both the transmission and the innovation of Jewish tradition, appearing in forms of narrating the self vis-a-vis religious institutions, in modes of textual engagement, and in the imagination of new legal, spiritual, and ritual horizons for both individuals and communities.
Religion, Secularism, U.S., Judaism, Denomination, Orthodoxy, Women, Ordination, Scholarship