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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Feminist Thought in Time and Space: Jewish Women and Recent Approaches to Spirituality

Steve Alexander
WS-623 Fall 2011
Submitted April 29, 2012

Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics1 written by feminist Jewish theological scholar Rachel Adler is an intriguing and thought provoking volume which won praise and awards, as has her scholarship in published writings since the early 1970’s (in 1973 she published “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman”2). As required reading for this course in Jewish spirituality, Adler’s approach was inspiring and refreshing, causing me to wish to delve further into her writings, and to review some of the more recent literature on the role of women in Judaism and to choose this as the topic of this final paper for the course.
Early in her volume, Adler discusses the evolution of halakha at length, with powerful arguments suggesting that changes to Jewish law and tradition incorporating women citing the humanity of the law and the exclusivity of male input in its construction. Making the case for a progressive halakha she asks the question, “What are to be its sources? What is its authority? For fundamentalist Orthodoxy, halakha originates in the Written Law of the Pentateuch and in the Oral Law preserved in the Talmud. Both are believed to have been communicated directly by God to Moses. Both are regarded as infallible and immutable.”3   She argues later here and elsewhere that “members of a Jewish male elite constructed the categories and method of classical halakha to reflect their own perspectives and social goals and have held a monopoly on their application…”4 decrying the fact that “women are themselves ineligible to be normative members of the community.”5 Around the same time that Dr. Adler published this volume, she wrote in a different context even more strongly  ”Our Bible is not a single book by a single author, but an assortment of texts in different genres by different schools of authors. Talmud and
Midrash are multivocal, ‘unrepressed texts’ in which diverse voices set forth a mosaic of legal debates prooftexts, case law, stories, philosophies, proverbs and prayers…Only one group has consistently stood on the periphery of the hubbub. That group is Jewish women.”6
Dr. Adler builds upon this foundational argument by citing specific changes in behavior feminist Jewish women have been engaging in recently, along with men who are accommodating those changes. She reports that feminist Jews, both male and female have ‘invented’ means of worship, prayer and devised new traditions based on wider cultural changes in the United States in particular. Many changes have occurred within the formal context of temple worship in different branches of Jewish worship, but she also suggests that many ‘inventions fill a vacuum rather than replacing some preexisting liturgical form.”6
Practical Aspects of Feminist Change
Certainly the role of women liturgically within many non-Orthodox temples and synagogues has changed demonstrably and that is unarguably a trend in America in recent years. Attending services outside my own faith tradition recently, I visited a Connecticut Conservative synagogue and a Reform Temple for typical Shabbat services, and I viewed women playing an extensive role in the formal celebrations at both celebrations, including a woman who not only participated in the temple service but also serves as that temple’s current President. Casual conversations with members of these groupings confirm the ongoing changing role of women (and of girls) in their congregations.
It is not really an aside to put in historical context the timing of not only Rachel Adler’s career as a Jewish theologian and that of a host of other feminist Jewish scholars, and of the movement toward a more gender-egalitarian Judaism in much of that religious tradition in this country. Adler began publishing her
challenges to the existing order in and around the early 1970’s, and so, too did other Jewish feminists such as Judith Plaskow. And it can easily be argued that significant changes in the roles of women within
Judaism generally, and specifically in the modifications within the Conservative and Reform movements advanced very quickly commencing around that time as well.
The still unratified Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first introduced and passed by the Congress in 1972, the same time these Jewish scholarly feminist publications began to emerge. Interestingly, the Israeli Prime Minister from March 17, 1969 to June 3, 1974 was the first and thus far the only woman to hold that post, Golda Meir. An interesting question to pose to the bevy of feminist scholars to emerge since that time would be whether Prime Minister Meir’s success at that time and her role within Israeli society and as a Jewish secular leader might have had an impact on the course of Jewish theological feminism? It was also in the early 1970’s that Cosmopolitan magazine was transformed from a family publication to a women’s magazine with a feminist twist and a new racier nickname, Cosmo, along with a new and popular feminist editor in Helen Gurley Brown. It was in 1969 that feminist publisher Gloria Steinem first published Ms. Magazine and began lobbying extensively for abortion rights. So I suppose that it is likely that secular and popular cultural influences had a considerable impact on the development and, perhaps, the successes of the Jewish feminist movement from scholarly and theological points of view, as well as in the practical successes of the movement.
Judith Plaskow’s Perspectives
Another influential feminist Jewish scholar, Judith Plaskow has also had evident influence on the course of Judaism in America in recent years in particular with regard to the role of women, and at times it is evident that Rachel Adler and Dr. Plaskow disagree on certain aspects of the theology involved in the
new Jewish feminism. Plaskow’s most impactful work, Standing Again at Sinai7 offers much more in the way of agreement with Adler, it appears however, than disagreement. They are both clearly unified in their belief that the Torah, halakha and tradition have largely been dictated by males to the exclusion of Jewish women, and seem to be in agreement that this is neither divinely ordained, desirable nor inevitable at all.
In her writings, Judith Plaskow challenges not just the masculine language used to describe the divinity, but calls for a transformation of the meaning of that divinity in light of a new perspective incorporating feminism. She suggests that the masculine descriptions of God are offensive to many, and argues that there is no objective reason to masculinize God. In evaluating one midrash based on Deuteronomy 5:4 [which describes many guises in which God appears to the children of Israel], Plaskow writes that it points to a “way out of the feminist dilemma of god-language and simultaneously illustrates its most trying aspect. It acknowledges the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of plural ways of perceiving and speaking about the one God. It asserts that multiple images of God are not contradictions of monotheism but ways in which limited human beings apprehend and respond to the all-embracing divine reality.”8 So Plaskow is taking Jewish theology to an apparently non-gendered God, who has been defined as “Him” or “He” in shorthand simply, perhaps, because all of the interpretation, debate and writing have historically been done by males.
Jewish Feminism and Transgender Issues
Much more recently Dr. Plaskow was asked her perspective and she wrote about her excitement about the practical changes and opportunities for women in Judaism in the preceding decades, and she commented in 2007 that she sees in her 1990 volume Standing Again at Sinai “the most fundamental theological question I raise as that of authority: Who has the authority to define the ongoing meaning of
Judaism? What has been included and who has been excluded from the conversation through which Jewish life takes on meaning?”9  The issue of transgender and intersex persons is raised in this article by Plaskow, and in it one can see further growth in her perspective, perhaps of a non-gendered deity. She writes “Feminists first drew a sharp distinction between sex and gender in order to make the point that neither the psychological and emotional characteristics of men and women nor their social roles are biologically or divinely ordained. Transgender activists argue that the sex/gender distinction is itself problematic and that the very notion of only two sexes is produced by the same set of social processes and power relations that create gender hierarchy.”10 She agrees with this concept, and is currently seeking ways for transgender and feminist activists to find the same page in their theological and religious activism. And it is fascinating to infer what the implications this conception offers for a new conception of God in terms of gender/non-gender. Beyond that, it has implications for the practical aspects of both liturgical and non-liturgical roles not only for women and men, but for bisexual, lesbian and transgendered Jews as well.
Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Ben Greenberg and Orthodox Feminist Perspectives
Rachel Adler describes Blu Greenberg as “the most traditional of the feminist critics of halakha, is a liberal halakhist, committed to liberal halakhah’s blend of historicism and formalism. She believes that ‘the techniques for reinterpretation are built right into the system’ and that a gradual social evolution toward egalitarianism will result in their implementation.’”11,12  
Greenberg has written extensively about feminism within the Orthodox tradition, and asks some very challenging questions about the future of women within the Orthodox movement. She writes that she’s been asked and asks herself “how far can Orthodoxy o in responding to feminism? Sometimes there’s a bit of goading behind the question: What do Orthodox feminists really want? What’s your real agenda?
But often the questioner comes with genuine interest. How far can Orthodoxy accommodate the needs of the new Jewish woman without losing its Orthodoxy? There are also a myriad of specific questions: Will every girl in the community be expected to study Talmud? Will Orthodox women become rabbis, make halachic decisions as yoatzot, advisors, or poskot, decisors? Will they be dayanot, judges in the rabbinic courts of law, presiding over matters of divorce? Will the gendered language of the prayer book undergo transformation or will the original language be preserved, with commentary and caveat sensitive to kavod hatzibbur, the honor (of women) in the congregation. And most of all, who will prepare for Pesach? (Just kidding.)”13
Ms. Greenberg sees the Orthodox movement as affected by 30 plus years of Jewish feminism, but she sees the future of the role of women within her chosen tradition as unclear. She writes “If the changes that have been wrought during the past decades are any indication, the element of surprise may be a surer bet than any predictions I might offer.”14 She sees the more gradual and incremental changes in the status of women within Orthodoxy as possibly more remarkable than those in the more liberal denominations because they were less likely to occur and represent a far greater shift from a much more conservative status quo.
Within the Orthodox movement, Greenberg describes Orthodox women as often unwilling to accept the feminist label even as they may advocate changing roles for women within their religious communities. And still others she describes as perhaps not so willing to experience or advocate change for their roles as religious women even as they pursue the other aspects of their lives as fully involved women exercising rights and responsibilities hitherto denied in the general culture in decades past. She sees the progress or lack of progress in feminist issues and policy within the general culture in the future as having a huge role to play in the future role of Orthodox women within their religious communities.
The Orthodox Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University, Ben Greenberg (no relation to Blu Greenberg) wrote favorably recently about the ordination of Jewish rabbis within the Orthodox denomination. Rabbi Greenberg recognizes that this issue is extremely controversial and highly emotional for Orthodox Judaism, where a physical barrier (the mehitza) continues to separate the sexes in synagogues during services and women play little role for the most part in liturgical ceremony.
Rabbi Greenberg sees a strong case to be made within Jewish tradition for the ordination of women, even as an Orthodox rabbi himself. In a 2009 article he argues that halakhic tradition has historically been anything but fixed, that it has changed over time and through the centuries. He points to the 19th century European emancipation and the crumbling of ghetto walls resulting in large numbers of Jews beginning to violate Sabbath strictures, and points out that many of those continued to attend synagogue. He argues that often there were only nine ‘observant’ Jewish men present for services, joined by Jewish men who had ‘desecrated’ the Sabbath. Tradition calls for a quorum of 10, and the question of whether in these common circumstances whether a quorum was constituted was a genuinely pressing question for these 19th century Jews. Ben Greenberg cites the 19th century leading German Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann as writing “There is another approach to be lenient… the individual is not deemed as having done such a great violation and it does not have to be only done in private. The opposite actually becomes true; those who fear God in our days are called dissenter.”15  Rabbi Greenberg argues that Rabbi Hoffman “thus redefined the halakhic concepts of public and private and how we understand Sabbath desecration in the contemporary world.”15
Even more compellingly, Rabbi Greenberg argues that the rise of political Zionism at the end of the 19th century and the First Zionist Congress’ call for a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel (“The Basel Program”) posed the greatest challenge to traditional Jewish belief in the modern era. Traditional Jewish
theology held that the dispersion of the Jewish people was purposeful and intentional and that Jewish exile resulted in Jews of higher quality. In particular Rabbi Greenberg states that “The overriding Orthodox rabbinic response o Zionism, from the nineteenth century to the present has been fierce. The Orthodox rabbinate saw Zionism as a breach of the covenant formed between God and the Jewish people. There is a well-known passage in the Talmud (tractate Ketubot 110b-111a) in which the Jewish people swear to God that they will never attempt to retake the Land of Israel by force, like ‘a wall.’ The Jews are meant to wait for the appointed time by God to return to the Land of their forefathers and not return a moment too soon.”16
There was a large outcry by theologians and rabbis decrying Zionism, speeches and tours of Europe opposing the rise of political Zionism occurred prior to the founding of the Jewish state early last century. Rabbi Greenberg reports that a small group of European rabbis embraced Zionism attempting to integrate it into traditional belief, resulting in the Mizrahi movement—which eventually became a larger ‘Religious Zionist’ movement. Now Rabbi Greenberg proclaims that “an overwhelming proportion of Modern Orthodox Jews around the world are Religious Zionist, including almost all of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate.”16
The rabbi suggests that because of the early opposition by the rabbinate to the political Zionist movement, and the contention and firm belief held by Orthodox theologians and rabbis that Zionism was contrary to tradition, that “What ensued was an evaluation of the needs of the community” and that this plays a role in halakha, and to see it otherwise ignores exactly how halakha actually works. And this “weighing of factors is precisely what is occurring right now in the Modern Orthodox community with regard to the role of women” and he suggests that this is fully in concert with how halakha should and is working at present.
Without explicitly proclaiming himself supportive of granting the title of rabbi to women within the Orthodox movement presently, Rabbi Greenberg summarizes his position by stating that “the presence of a female religious leader who loves her people and loves her Torah need not rip apart the fabric that holds the various streams of Orthodox Judaism together.”17
Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; Summarizing Jewish Feminism at Present
The rather progressive positions held by Orthodox theologians such as Blu and Rabbi Ben Greenberg, among others, surprised me, although it probably should not be too surprising given the cultural context in which American Judaism exists today, no matter the adjective used to describe a particular community. In thinking stereotypically without examination of some of the recent and not so recent literature, I imagined that Orthodox Judaism was not advancing at all in terms of the role women were playing, and in terms of the perceptions of Orthodox Jews themselves towards their female members.
It was not too surprising to observe a scholar such as Judith Plaskow advancing Jewish feminist ideals thirty years after the commencement of rapid changes in feminine roles within Judaism and the broader culture to include transgender issues, and for reformers such as Plaskow and Rachel Adler to move the faith (and perhaps take the lead in moving other faith traditions—but that might be fertile fodder for another examination another time18) in the direction of a genderless language and deity itself.
Outside Of Scholarly Writings: How Women’s Activities Are Today
Outside the synagogue and temple the traditional role of women in Jewish tradition has been different than that of men in many ways, and many of those roles were demonstrated in videos, demonstrations and presentations in class during this course. While the feminist movement appears to be causing a fusion of roles in many senses, in other ways different means of expressing religiosity, but not
necessarily exactly gender-to-gender identical means are emerging or being called for by leaders and lay persons within the Jewish faith it appears.
Judith Hauptman, for example, called out “most Jews” in 1993 for thinking “that women, unlike men, are not obligated to pray daily, and have responded accordingly.”19  She saw a variety of implications for what she perceived to be a fallacy. Orthodox men would use this as an argument against counting women towards the quorum of 10 or for them to serve as a prayer leader. She argues that this is a ‘convenient’ but untrue notion and provides rabbinic texts to back her claims, and many women nowadays view their daily prayer as obligatory.
Perhaps the most controversial and among the most significant changes in recent times in a practical sense is the ordination of women as rabbis and the increased role of women in formal worship in temples and synagogues. Certainly these are among the best known changes within the faith among those who don’t practice or who belong to a different faith.
Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism was one of the required texts for this course and an extremely illuminating, assertive and eye-opening one for me. Two other required texts for the course did address issues of changing gender roles and Judaism somewhat. Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s The Jewish Way: Living The Holidays20 offered a few insights into the transition in female roles in celebrations, particularly in a brief discussion of the changing level of participation of Orthodox women, keeping in mind that the publication date of this volume was 1988 and as cited elsewhere here in publications focused specifically upon the roles of women and in particular how they pertain to Orthodoxy.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s encyclopedic Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History21 provides essential accounts of the historic role of women, as
well as synoptic views of the changing role of women in Judaism at the time of its original publication, 1991. One particularly notable quote from Telushkin comes from his chapter on Family Harmony, “While there is no shortage of misogynistic statements in Jewish literature, a longstanding tradition in Judaism enunciates and legislates the kind and generous treatment of wives.”22
Summary and Conclusions
Changes in American popular culture were rampant in the 1960s and 1970s accompanying the anti-war movement surrounding U.S. military aggression in Southeast Asia, the military draft, the Civil Rights Movement resulting in and following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the advancement of birth control and consequent sexual liberality, and the widespread drug/rock and roll subculture. Most enduring of all of these perhaps, was the civil rights movement in many different manifestations than merely the racial equality movement begun in the early 1960s. This movement went on to embrace persons with disabilities (with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act), women’s rights and gender equality, spurned the gay liberation movement which is now realizing states granting the right to gay marriages, and much more.
There has been much give and take in the political and cultural debates surrounding these civil rights matters and even in the election of 2012 and in this Congress and within the states these issues are as alive today as they were 40 years ago. Indeed, with language such as a “War on women” with abortion still an issue, and presidential candidates speaking against birth control, and proposals being made for mandatory invasive ultrasound testing prior to abortions, and the Equal Rights Amendment still unratified forty years after it first passed both Houses of Congress; cultural, sociological and political issues of gender are near the top of the American national agenda.
It seems as though around the time that the civil rights movement was taking off in the general population, and the renewed women’s rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was commencing that this broader interest by both men and women in advancing feminism within the broader culture had an impact on religious communities as well. I hold membership in both the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, and it was at this time that the Episcopal Church first began ordaining women as ministers, and the number of UCC women being ordained increased measurably (although the UCC, previously known as the Congregational church had been ordaining women for over a century already).
It was around this time that Rachel Adler, whose work attracted my attention more than any other author in this course, began to publish her feminist views on the role of women and Judaism. And in delving deeper into Jewish-American feminist literature, I learned that Dr. Adler was certainly not alone in her movement. Others such as Dr. Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg, Marcia Falk, Yale University’s Paula Hyman, feminist Jewish men including the Orthodox rabbi Ben Greenberg and many more were all beginning to write and advance a movement within Judaism which has resulted in the ordination of thousands of women; a changing role in the formal celebrations of worship for both men and women, changes in the cultural roles within the religion of boys, girls, men and women; alterations in the personal worship habits of perhaps the majority of the nation’s Jews; and a corresponding change in the broader culture because of the more liberal perspective in general of Judaism in America today.
It was worth it for me to note that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir really preceded this movement, and my own research for the purposes of this assignment did not reach to the state of Israel, and was instead focused upon American Jewish feminism, I found it interesting, illuminating and quite instructive to realize that Ms. Meir’s leadership of Israel at the pinnacle of political power in the modern Jewish
state correlated very closely with the onset of major changes in the role of women and the theology of Judaism as it pertains to women in the United States.
I admit to being surprised at the theological discussions regarding women that are ongoing within the Orthodox Jewish community, and to the smashing of several stereotypes I held along the way to arriving at those insights. After taking a look at some of the discussion going on in that community among scholars and theologians, I believe that Orthodox women rabbis may in fact be a reality in the not too distant future, something I hadn’t previously considered likelihood. I also now believe that changes within the Orthodox movement in the United States, including this huge one (ordaining women rabbis) can happen gradually and without doing major harm to Jewish Orthodoxy. But I also believe that there will be a segment of the Orthodox movement which will not ordain women for many, many years to come; and I believe that Jews of all other strains (whether Reform, Conservative, etc.) will not only accept, but embrace this diversity. And in fact, following this course and this particular research paper, I do believe that American Judaism will continue to become more diverse while simultaneously become more accepting of other American Jews with different perspectives than their own (and I have learned that, in general, the faith is very good at this already).
Having now attended both a Conservative and a Reform Jewish community Shabbat service in recent months, I am now intrigued enough to desire a visit to an Orthodox Synagogue and to converse with some Orthodox members to learn some personal perspectives. I am certain that this is something I will be doing here in my home town in the very near future.
I can only conclude by offering my praise to Rachel Adler not only for her volume which originally piqued my interest, but in her entire body of work in her career thus far. She has evidently had a huge impact on much more than a scholarly debate. She has advanced the cause of women in many ways, and when
the cause of women is advanced the cause of all people is advanced. She has altered views of many who I believe might have been immobile was it not for her reasoned, thoughtful, humane and insightful work.
I have had the opportunity to meet a local rabbi who studied with Dr. Adler at her West Coast home base, and look forward to future discussions with him, and it certainly is now an aspiration of mine that I might have the opportunity at some point in the near future to hear her espouse her views in a public forum.

               1 Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1998).
               2Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman,” Davka (Summer, 1971).
               3Adler, Engendering Judaism, 27.
               4Ibid, 28.
               5Ibid., 28
               6Rachel Adler, “Talking Our Way In,” Sh’ma, 23 (November 13, 1992): 5-6.
               7Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).
               8Judith Plaskow, “God: Some Feminist Questions,” Sh’ma, 23 (November 13, 1991): 38-40.
               11Adler, Engendering Judaism, 45.
               12Blu Greenberg, On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981), 39-71.
               13Blu Greenberg, “Orthodox Feminism and the Next Century,” Sh’ma, 30(January 2000):1-3.
               15Rabbi Ben Greenberg, “Women Orthodox Rabbis: Heresy or Possibility?” First Things, October 1, 2009.
               18It would be interesting to examine the changing perspectives of gender and the deity in other faith traditions.
               19Judith Hauptman, “Women and Prayer,” Judaism (Winter, 1993): 94-103.
               20Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (New York: Touchstone, 1988)
               21Rabbi  Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, its People and its History (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).
               22Ibid., 593.
Adler, Rachel “Abortion: The Need to Change Jewish Law,” Sh’ma, (November 15, 1974).
Adler, Rachel Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Adler, Rachel “Feminism: A Cause for the Halakhic,” Sh’ma (September 6, 1974) 125-26.
Adler, Rachel “Talking Our Way In,” Sh’ma 23 (November 13, 1992) 5-6.
Adler, Rachel “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman” Davka (Summer 1971).
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman “Orthodox Feminism and Feminist Orthodoxy” Jewish Action (Winter 1999)
Rabbi Ben Greenberg “Women Orthodox Rabbis: Heresy or Possibility” First Things (October 1, 2009).
Blu Greenberg “Choosing Limits, Limiting Choices: Women’s Status and Religious Life,” Sylvia Barack Fishman, Tamar Ross, Blu Greenberg, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, March 13, 2005.
Blu Greenberg On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1981.
Blu Greenberg “Orthodox Feminism and the Next Century” Sh’ma 30 (January 2000) 1-3.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. New York: Touchstone, 1988.
Judith Hauptman “Women and Prayer” Judaism (Winter 1993) 94-103.
Judith Plaskow “God: Some Feminist Questions” Sh’ma 23 (November13, 1991) 38-40.
Judith Plaskow Standing Again at Sinai. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History. New York: Harper Collins, 1991

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