Challenge and Conformity

BookChallenge and Conformity

Challenge and Conformity

The Religious Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


March 1st, 2021



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Orthodox Jewish women are increasingly seeking new ways to express themselves religiously, and important changes have occurred in consequence in their self-definition and the part they play in the religious life of their communities. Drawing on surveys and interviews across different Orthodox groups in London, as well as on the author’s own experience of active participation over many years, this is a thoroughly researched study that analyses its findings in the context of related developments in Israel and the USA. Sympathetic attention is given to women’s creativity and sophistication as they struggle to develop new modes of expression that will let their voices be heard; at the same time, the inevitable points of conflict with the male-dominated religious establishment are examined and explained. There is a focus, too, on the impact of innovations in ritual: these include not only the creation of women-only spaces and women’s participation in public practices traditionally reserved for men, but also new personal practices often acquired on study visits to Israel which are replacing traditions learned from family members. This is a much-needed study of how new norms of lived religion have emerged in London, influenced by both the rise of feminism and the backlash against it, and also by women’s new understanding of their religious roles.

'Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz's in-depth study of the religious experience of Orthodox women raises questions for the rabbinic establishment... an important new book.'
Simon Rocker, The Jewish Chronicle

'Taylor-Guthartz's precise academic writing, interwoven with her own personal knowledge and experience of the community, gives the women represented here agency and authority, exemplifying how traditional groups and practices do not exist at odds with the modern world, or even in parallel, but rather as an integral part of it, adding rich diversity and colour to the pattern of Jewish life today. This is a timely and important treatise, reflecting modern feminist values and shining a light on a previously unexamined segment of the community.'
Noa Gendler, Jewish Renaissance

Author Information

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz received her doctorate from University College London. She recently held a research fellowship at the Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester, and has been a lecturer at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, SOAS, King’s College London, and at Vassar College, New York. She is a research fellow and teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies, and has presented at international conferences in the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, and the UK. In 2021 she received Orthodox rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat, New York.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of Tables12
Note on Transliteration13
1. Studying Jewish Women23
The Double Invisibility of Orthodox Jewish Women25
The Scope of Women’s Religious Lives30
Overlapping Worlds I: The Intersection of Men’s and Women’s Religious Lives35
Overlapping Worlds II: Living in Jewish and Western Contexts43
Power and Patriarchy: Do Orthodox Women Have Agency?45
2. Setting the Scene: The Jewish Landscape50
Jews in Britain: Historical Background50
Community, Communities, Networks, and Identity52
The Development of British Orthodoxy and the British Jewish Landscape57
Jewish Religious Topography Today62
Changing Moods among British Jewish Women70
Defining Terms: Talking about the Anglo-Jewish Community73
Previous Research on British Orthodox Women79
3. The View from the Ladies’ Gallery: Women’s ‘Official’ Life in the Community82
Women and the Synagogue82
The Changing Place of Women in Other Communal Institutions124
4. Contested Prayers and Powerful Blessings: Women’s ‘Unofficial’ Life in the Community136
Creating Sacred Spaces137
Nurturing the Community163
New Developments: Sharing the Sacred with Men178
5. The View from the Kitchen: Women’s ‘Official’ Life in the Family190
The Sabbath192
Food and Kashrut196
Mikveh and ‘Family Purity’204
Visiting the Dead212
Prayer and Relationship with God214
6. Red Threads and Amulets: Women’s ‘Unofficial’ Life in the Family221
Questioning the Community: Limitations and Caveats222
Definitions and Status of Practices225
Testing Stereotypes and Assumptions229
Who Practises These Customs?231
What Customs Are Practised?232
Age as a Factor in the Knowledge and Performance of Customs236
Origins and Development246
The Question of Magic250
Women’s Understandings of Customs and Practices255
7. Conclusion265
Appendix I: List of Interviewees274
Appendix II: The Questionnaire: A Sample Page279
Appendix III: Annotated List of Customs from the Questionnaire281
Appendix IV: Background Data on Respondents297