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Carol Gilligan and Jewish Law

Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice had a tremendous influence on our understanding of gender and morality, even as some disagree with her theories. This is how one website summarized her findings:

In the book, Gilligan outlined her findings on female moral development and decision-making, drawing on studies with children and university students. In Kohlberg’s classic studies, females appeared to be deficient in moral reasoning when compared to similarly aged males. This was true of both children and adults. However, Gilligan had noticed a problem – Kohlberg’s early work in developing his moral stage theory was based on studies with only white male participants. In light of this, she began working with female participants facing a personally and politically charged dilemma: whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. The results of her study indicated that women were not deficient at all – they were simply using a style of moral reasoning that was not being captured by Kohlberg’s assessment methods. As such, they did not fit within his theory, and their voices were not registering. Instead, Gilligan suggested that the women she interviewed used an ethic of care – their morality was based around care for others rather than appeals to seemingly universal codes of behaviour. She believed that this ethic of care was not inherently limited to females, but it was certainly more common among her female participants. Therefore, the ethic of care was not designed to replace Kohlberg’s theory of morality, but rather to complement it. In fact, Gilligan has consistently argued that she would like to see psychology “free itself, both in theory and in methods, from the gender binary and the gender hierarchy.”

Steven F. Friedell has written an article about Gilligan’s theories and Jewish Law, The ‘Different Voice’ in Jewish Law – Some Parallels to a Feminist Jurisprudence.

The article explore several parallels between features of Jewish law and a type of feminist jurisprudence that has been inspired by the work of Carol Gilligan. For example, Jewish law emphasizes compromise, an avoidance of formal claims, a concern for victims that transcends mere compensation. It recognizes the primacy of duties, not rights, it seeks to avoid formal rules, insists that judges be sensitive to the difficulties of life and that judges must use their intuition as well as their reason. Jewish law discouraged the use of lawyers, preferring that parties work out their own disputes. It favored a controlled market to limit the damage done by competition and imposed a duty to rescue. Jewish law views peace as the ultimate goal.

As an aside, I would like to point out that while we often hear about academics boycotting Israel, Gilligan has been a very strong supporter of Israel, collaborating with Israeli academics and often speaking in Israel, she even has a son who served in Golani.

One Response to “Carol Gilligan and Jewish Law”

  1. 1

    Thanks. I was first introduced to her work at Hebrew U. by Tova Hartman, who studied with her at Harvard.
    I always felt there was an affinity; I look forward to reading the paper.




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