Did The Feminists Spoil Judaism?

Rachel Adler, March, 2014


Did the feminists spoil Judaism. There have been grumblings going around both the Conservative and Reform Jewish worlds to that effect. To answer we must begin by asking, “What was it like to be a Jewish woman before feminism?

In 1922, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein became the first Jewish woman to celebrate a bat mitzvah. She had to stand under the bimah, since women were not allowed on the bimah, and she read her Torah portion from a printed book after it had been chanted from a Torah scroll by a man, since women were not allowed to touch a sefer Torah. Since that time, girls have been allowed to be bat mitzvah, but often it was their first and last occasion of Jewish responsibility and competence. Even at Reform Temples, before feminism, women officiated only on Sisterhood Shabbat, and even then did not read Torah. In most Conservative congregations, women did not have aliyot to the Torah. At countless services at conferences, feminists gave aliyot to women, who, tears streaming down their faces, grasped the atzei chayyim for the first time and recited the berakha. Has this “ruined” Judaism?

As Cynthia Ozick once noted in an essay called, “The Jewish Half-Genius,” Judaism has for centuries deprived itself of the spiritual gifts of Jewish women. When I was five years old, my mother took me for a walk and asked, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Witghout skipping a beat, I promptly replied, “A nun.” My mother was horrified. “you can’t be a nun! Jews don’t have nuns.” “Unperturbed, I replied, “Well, then, I will be the first one.” But I was actually way too late for that milestone. It’s possible that the first Jewish nun was St. Teresa of Avila, who reputedly came from a converso family. More recently, two Carmelite nuns who were Jewish converts, Edith Stein, later canonized as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and her sister Rosa perished in Auschwitz. Although she was not a nun, Simone Weil, became a great Catholic philosopher. At a powwow of Jewish feminist scholars, in the 1080s, we discovered that every one of them had been fascinated by nuns as children and longed to emulate them. A few weeks ago, Reb Mimi Feidelson, the mashgicha ruchanit at AJU, who has Orthodox smikha also referred to this childhood ambition to be a nun. All of these gifted Jewish women were looking for representations of how to be a woman and be holy that were not available to us in Judaism.

Consider the religious life open to Jewish women before feminism. Not only were there no women rabbis, cantors, or higher educators, Women were simply not part of communal prayer life. They were forbidden to count in a minyan or be shlichot tzibur or ba’alot kriah or wear tallit or tefilin. They could not say kaddish for those they mourned. The big difference between a mechitza minyan and the “family pew” instituted by Isaac Mayer Wise was that a woman got to sit next to daddy/husband and shut up rather than shut up in segregation from males.

Jewish women, with few exceptions, were stunningly ignorant of Judaism. They lacked access to Jewish learning. Most were Hebrew-illiterate. Even Hebrew-literate Orthodox girls who had day school educations often could barely translate the siddur or the Torah, or read a Rashi. When the LA Jewish Feminist Center started Women’s Talmud classes in the early1990s, there was no other place in LA where a woman who was not a rabbinical student could study Talmud, though there were lots of shiurim for men. Then of course when women complained about some privilege Jewish men had from which Jewish women were excluded, the authorities told you, “you’re just saying that because you’re ignorant.” Yeah. I wanted to go to yeshiva but I flunked the physical.

In my first article “The Jewish Who Wasn’t There,” first published in 1971, my critique was that the basic stance enjoined upon the Jewish woman was religious passivity. She was supposed to enable men to be holy, without aspiring to holiness herself. Women were supposed to be silent and invisible instruments through which men could be freed to pursue the holy life. Blu Greenberg has said that her first moment of enlightenment as a feminist came after she had worked her tail off making Pesach. After the house was pristinely pesachdik, her husband got to go around with a candle& feather, make the berakha al biur chametz and declare “All chametz in MY possession which I have not seen or removed or of which I am unaware is hereby nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.” “Wait a minute,” thought Blu, “How come I did all the backbreaking work, and he got the mitzvah?”

Finally, before feminism, no one even noticed that there were agunot. Forvertz Although in the early 20th century, the Bintel Brief & ads in the Yiddish Forvertz were full of pleas from agunot abandoned by husbands who came to America leaving wives and children in Europe or who hightailed it out West to Colo. or CA , remarrying and starting new families there. Conservative Judaism pre-feminism did not do haf’ga’at kiddushin, nor did the Lieberman clause exist. Today the problem of gittin still exists in American Orthodoxy and in Israel, where gittin must be Orthodox. As in a recent case in the Jewish Journal, an ex-husband may blackmail a woman for thousands of dollars to deliver a get. Even if she does receive a get, the get confers a stigma. A divorcee is called a g’rusha, a chased-away woman. The man is not a garush, but a goresh, a chaser. A g’rusha is not eligible to marry a kohen. In my book Engendering Judaism, I observed that something is wrong with a legal construction of marriage that leaves wives at the mercy of husbands. I proposed a legal structure that moves marriage out of property law (which is where kiddushin is situated) into partnership law. My ceremony is called the b’rit ahuvim and it is designed for both heterosexual and LGBT people. The Conservative movement now uses a b’rit ahuvim-type ceremony for gay and lesbian marriage, but heterosexual women are stuck with kiddushin.

Some men may want to argue, “None of this is my fault! This is just what Judaism is. These laws are all based on what women and men are essentially like.” So let’s talk for a minute about essentialisms. Essentialisms posit that you can boil down and define a pure essence of some entity. Essentialists about Judaism assert that there is a pure form of Judaism which will be adulterated if you add women to it. This pure form is timeless and not culture bound. It always was and always will be just what it is.

If you are a Conservervative or Reform Jew, you don’t believe this. Even if you are a Modern Orthodox Jew you don’t believe this. Instead, you know that Judaism DEVELOPED out of Ancient Israelite religion. Tanach developed, Talmud, developed, halakha developed. And when things evolve, they go on evolving. According to the evolutionist view, Judaism was never static, never unaffected by social context, history, times, places. And now that historical, social, technological change now happens fast enough that we can see that WE are participants in making change happen, we have all become responsible for planning what KIND of change it ought to be. We have to ask, is what we are doing ethical? Should we be doing it some other better way? This necessitates questions about how we shape the Judaism of the future.

Now just as we as a community construct and re-form or re-construct Judaism, so as societies, we construct the category of gender. If we aren’t literalists about the historical development of Judaism, it would be logically inconsistent to say, “Everything else develops in sociohistorical contexts except gender. That is timeless and ahistorical.” Both some men and some women have tried to say that. The cultural feminists of the seventies and eighties thought that being a women was a timeless universal sorority. I and a neolithic woman and an Ndembu midwife could all bond because we had undergone childbirth and breastfed. But this is problematic. First of all, women who don’t bear children are still women, as are women who don’t breastfeed, but even more importantly, all these experiences are socially shaped. The Ndembu midwife would be appalled that I gave birth flat on my back in a hospital with my husband as labor coach. “What the hell does he know about it?”she might wonder. Moreover, women of color were glad to remind these middle-class white ladies about how issues of race and class complicate these theoretical bonds of universal sisterhood. It’s just not that simple.

Yes, there are gender categories we depend on but they vary markedly from society to society. Mishnah lists 4 or 5 genders not just two. In some cultures women do business. In others they don’t. In some cultures women are the weavers. In others this is a task for men. In our society, some women like to have multiple pairs of shoes and some men enjoy belching contests. But that’s certainly not universally true of ALL women or ALL men or even of all women or men in our own society. The only thing anthropologists have found consistently is that though the roles and tasks of women and men differ from society to society, whatever the women’s role or task, it will be valued less than that of the men. Feminists ask, “Is this a good ideas?” In other words, If we become aware that it is we ourselves who are constructing gender, don’t we have the responsibility to ask ourselves if we are constructing it in a just, fair, and ethically defensible way?

If gender is socially constructed, we need to talk about whether there is any need for gender differences. As technology and culture have changed, women have been doing more and more of the things men do. Yet few of us really want to wipe out all of the differences between men and women, even if we could. And we can’t. There seem to be some hard-wiring differences that correspond roughly to gender.

Moreover, that whole project of wiping out differences and seeing people as the same in all important respects is what post-modernists and feminists have critiqued about universalisms in general. Universalisms characteristically promote one idea or one way of doing things which is better than the diversity of ways people had. This is why universalisms are such a handy tool for imperialists and colonialists. At the same time that they’re telling you your religion or your culture is primitive and barbaric, they’re usually also exploiting you and robbing you blind. Much of the time when universalists talk about Man, there’s a hidden particularistic norm, and it usually turns out to be the white affluent Euro-American male. This is how women became “honorary men” in Reform Judaism. Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist, has an important article chronicling how early Reform Judaism ablished women’s mitzvot, transforming women into “honorary men.” The problem was that “honorary men” did not have all the options of learning and leadership open to real men. The women ended up spiritually worse off than they were before.

So how do you determine what’s fair? The social philosopher Seyla Ben-Habib critiques the philosopher John Rawls whose fairness theory involves getting behind a theoretical veil of ignorance about who you might turn out to be in a society and from that fantasy vantage point determining what was the fairest distribution of social goods and privileges for everyone, as if you could make those determinations without having recourse to your religious tradition’s master story, your history, your gendered, racial, ethnic experience. What speaks in that fantasy experiment, says Ben-Habib is merely “the male behind the veil.” By the way, Ben-Habib is – surprise, surprise- a Jewish woman.

Most feminists would say that difference and diversity are good things. And it is OK that sometimes men need to bond with men, and women bond with women. Gays need to bond with gays, lesbians with lesbians, transsexuals with transsexuals. Sometimes they even need to do so spiritually for a retreat or an occasional Shabbat. But that is different from arguing that in order for heterosexual males to feel happy and fulfilled, they need to monopolize the lion’s share of political power and social privilege, much less the right to have a communal religious existance. And yes, I’m aware that rights language is fundamentally modern. In the ancient world, one’s status wasn’t measured by the number of rights one had, but by the number of obligations. The word Hedyot in the Talmud is a Greek word for “private individual,” one who was not qualified to act politically. But in that setting, “privacy” wasn’t a choice. It was a disqualification from participating in communal activities or activities involving the public good. The rabbis of the Talmud used it to mean someone who’s not a rabbi, and for many kinds of decision-making lacked authority. That word hedyot is where we get our modern word idiot. So in the ancient world, obligations determined who was normatively human, just as rights do today.

In a just society, I would like to argue, everybody has obligations and everybody has rights. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the primary ethical rule people ought to go by is that every person should be viewed as an end in him or herself, rather than as a instrument to achieve some some other end or goal. Kant would say that it is not ethical to ask Jewish women to accept being disenfranchised in Jewish life, silenced in the synagogue, excluded from the top level of Jewish communal jobs by a “glass ceiling,” kept ignorant of Jewish sacred texts and disempowered by Jewish law, because this will enhance the survival of the synagogue or the survival of Judaism. Yet this is an argument that has been going around in Conservative and Reform Jewish circles: feminists have radically endangered the survival of Judaism and they should be willing to be offered up as korbanot so that Judaism may continue.

But the fact that men have traditionally used the synagogue as the place where they could be in total control and exercise power does not make it OK to reduce the synagogue to the spiritual equivalent of a men’s locker room, even if that would boost men’s membership. Excluding women from all the acts that constitute Jews as members of the Jewish community and as am ha-shem is not ethically defensible. Constructing Judaism as a phallic cult worshipping an essentially male deity is not ethically admissible, even if it boosts male member-ship. Instead, it is blasphemous, idolatrous and basically injust. That cult deserves to die.

The question with which we are left is how Jewish men wish to deal with their bereftness and what nechamot we can offer them. Frederick Douglas famously said that generally people in power do not give up power voluntarily. It is understandable that some men feel that things they valued and enjoyed have been forcibly taken from them. The question is what comes next, not how can we go back to the pre-revolutionary past? As a woman I can offer this nechama. There will be more people to partner with you in learning Torah, in enacting Torah. There are things to teach. There are things to learn. I named my book Engendering Judaism, and I wrote it for both women and men, because just as women and men cooperate in engendering human beings, they ought to be able to cooperate in engendering a just Judaism and a just world for our time, and there’s lots of work left to do. So ken yehi ratzon.

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