What Do Jewish Women Want?
Women and Judaism: New Insights and Scholarship (Jewish Studies in the 21st Century). Edited by Frederick E. Greenspahn. (New York University Press/Jewish Studies in the Twenty-first Century Series, 268 pp. $21)
Women Remaking American Judaism. Edited by Riv-Ellen Prell. (Wayne State University Press, 331 pp. $25.95)
New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future. Edited by Elyse Goldstein. (Jewish Lights, 439 pp. $24.99)
Women and Judaism (Women and Religion in the World). Edited by Malka Drucker. (Praeger, 257 pp. $65)
What do Jewish women want? Sigmund Freud might never have framed the question that way, but it is worth asking. Especially this year, when a woman was arrested for wearing a talit and praying aloud at the Kotel, and when the Rabbinical Council of America, the umbrella group of centrist Orthodox rabbis, found it necessary to address the issue of ordaining women and came out, unsurprisingly, with a verdict of “No, but.” The “but” acknowledged the “flowering of Torah study and teaching” among Orthodox women who might “rise to positions of influence and stature”—but the group did not address how this would work in the absence of formal degree programs, with no more than a handful of institutions ready to hire them and a lack of lifelong career paths.
These four anthologies of essays on women and Judaism—72 articles in all, with only slight overlap among the authors—make it clear how far Jewish women have come in the last 40 years, and how far we still are from equality. (Anita Diamant’s declaration, in the foreword to the Goldstein anthology, that “It’s over. We won” seems both premature and wrongly triumphalist. Ordination aside, there are still plenty of issues [some of them in the Orthodox community] to resolve, from the aguna problem to the glass ceiling in Jewish communal organizations.)
In the early 1970s, Jewish feminists, following the second wave of American feminism, called for increased female participation in synagogue life, gender-neutral prayer language, new rituals for women’s life cycle and ordination. In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first female Reform rabbi, and two years later Sandy Sasso was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In 1985, Amy Eilberg was the Conservative movement’s first female rabbi to be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Today, a majority of Reform rabbinical students are female, and the Jewish Theological Seminary has just reached a 50-percent ratio of women in its graduating rabbinical class. While most see this as well-earned parity, some of the essayists raise the question of whether Jewish men will flee the synagogue if the majority of clergy are female.
Jewish feminism has achieved a great deal more than these professional milestones. As Judith Baskin observes in her excellent introduction to the Greenspahn anthology, “At the beginning of the 21st century, much of the creativity in contemporary Jewish spirituality, liturgy formation, scholarship, and artistic life is coming from women.” Indeed, these four books are evidence of that creativity. We find women spinning new midrashim on female biblical characters; creating new liturgies for the birth of a daughter, for marriage and for Rosh Hodesh; and designing new ritual objects such as a Miriam’s cup. Feminist theologians, such as Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and Tamar Ross, have asked probing questions: Can women be co-shapers of halakha? Can Jewish marriage be reconceived as partnership rather than acquisition? Can revelation be understood as fluid and ongoing?
On the subjects of theology, ritual innovation and women’s leadership, there is a great deal of overlap among these four books, but they differ sharply in tone and structure. Women and Judaism: New Insights and Scholarship (Jewish Studies in the 21st Century) and Women Remaking American Judaism, published by academic presses, are scholarly in tone, with detailed footnotes, and the Prell volume has a useful timeline. In academia, gender studies have had a profound impact on Jewish studies. Highly educated Jewish women, some alienated from the rabbinate by the struggle over ordination, have turned their talents to scholarship and produced new insights on basic issues. In Jewish history, they have shed light on “everyday lives,” revealing how the social and economic roles of women sustained the Jewish family. In literature, they have extended the canon beyond the usual male suspects. In Jewish law, they have helped us read the texts in the context of women’s lives of the period.
The Greenspahn anthology assembles scholars who have done groundbreaking work—Baskin, Judith Hauptman, Chava Weissler—to show how their focus on women has advanced a broader understanding of the Jewish past. The essays on Bible, halakha, history and modern literature are uniformly first-rate. Prell’s book focuses more specifically on the American Jewish experience, showing how women’s issues have played out differently in the various denominations. The chapters on Jewish feminist theology, on the Shekhina in the Jewish Renewal movement and on feminism among Orthodox women are especially strong.
The Drucker and Goldstein anthologies, more popular in tone, emphasize the spiritual and the creative dimensions of the feminist revolution. The Drucker book, Women and Judaism (Women and Religion in the World), is a bit of a hodgepodge, with off-topic chapters such as “The Ecological Message of the Holy Days.” An essay on integrating Judaism with other spiritual technologies and another showing lesbian overtones in the relationship of Naomi and Ruth were, to this reader, over the line.
Goldstein’s New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future, with 37 essays, displays the widest spectrum of voices of all the volumes. We hear from second-wave feminists like Anne Lapidus Lerner and Shifra Bronznick, who have broken down barriers and advanced women’s leadership in the Conservative movement and the Jewish communal world, respectively. And we also hear from younger women on today’s cutting edge, such as Sara Hurwitz, the spiritual leader who heads a yeshiva for women in Riverdale, New York; creators of original ritual expressions and liturgy at ritualwell.org; and voices from the Israeli feminist movement. Yet in this book, too, I was made somewhat uneasy by an essay on “Jews Turning to the Goddess.”
Who is to say where the line is? Surely some haredi women as well as men are angered and offended by the Women of the Wall. Each of us has a different threshold for toleration of diversity of belief and action in Judaism.
The contributors to these anthologies speak with many different voices. Yet, most basically, they seem to be saying that Jewish women’s views must be taken seriously, must be fully a part of the Jewish collective dialogue. Is that too much to ask, Dr. Freud?