Introduction: Feminism and the remaking of American judaism

Riv Ellen Prell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

5 Scopus citations


This book was born from the thirty-five-year gestation of American Jewish feminism, a movement that marks a revolution in American Judaism as well as American religion. Jewish feminism, which grew from both Second Wave feminism, which began at the very end of the 1960s, and the American counterculture, which slightly preceded it, had an extraordinary impact on the leadership, organizations, practices, and beliefs of American Jews.1 Jewish feminism remains a broad cultural umbrella under which to gather the ideas, institutional and communal structures, aesthetics, political activism, ritual and liturgical innovations, theologies, and new sacred objects associated with it.2 Seminaries' decisions to ordain women rabbis and cantors (as well as the women who now fill those roles), liturgists who revise and create prayer books (as well as the men and women who pray those words), institutions created to train women to study Talmud (as well as the women who study there), and artists who design prayer garments and objects (as well as the men and women who wear and use them) have engaged in that revolution. Activists who demand expanded roles for women leaders in national Jewish organizations that are political, communal, and religious, as well as those filling roles never held by women before, and Jewish feminists who build political coalitions around gay rights, Israel, antiracism, and the environment are only a small sample of how Jewish feminism has reshaped American Judaism. The Jewish feminist vision is so pervasive today that many of its accomplishments have been disassociated from it. One may participate in Jewish life in a way that was largely created by Jewish feminism-women taking public roles in a synagogue and men and women using gender-neutral language in prayers-and not care to stand under its umbrella or recall the storms against which it provided shelter. Jewish feminism, then, is very Queen Esther tambourine, by Betsy Teutsch ( tambourines). This tambourine casts Rosie the Riveter as the Purim heroine Queen Esther, combining muscle, power, and alluring beauty. Rosie the Riveter was an icon of women's homefront patriotism. She was portrayed as a shipyard worker who exclaimed, "We can do it." Second Wave feminism widely disseminated this image to focus on the history of women in the workplace and to provide counterimages to domestic women. Teutsch writes, "Both are icons of strength, capability, and determination. Queen Esther's job requires more jewelry!" Used with permission. Photo credit: Benj Kamm. Much like Second Wave feminism and no different from other social movements in the United States and elsewhere that bring about transformations whose origins are often forgotten and whose claims are imagined to have been unnecessary. Jewish feminism's detractors and critics are no less engaged with its issues than are its advocates. Those who dismiss Jewish feminism, which over time have largely been concentrated in the right wing of Conservative Judaism and in most Orthodox Jewish communities, engage its discourse at length, dismiss its vision aggressively, and declare it alien to Judaism in their legal decisions. Their vehement rationalizations underscore how powerfully Jewish feminism continues to reshape American Jewish practices and ideas. It is particularly challenging to assess and explain a revolution in the context of an American Judaism that is highly decentralized and in some sense radically democratic. Within Judaism, no single authority determines what is or is not Jewish, or how to interpret Jewish law or customs. Jewish denominations do not even determine everything that happens in each synagogue, let alone in each Jewish home. However, if a Jew wishes to remain in a community or movement, such as Reform or Conservative, each denomination's authority and power are entirely real. Each denomination determines how Jewish law and custom may be interpreted and thus decides who can serve as a rabbi or cantor, who can marry as a Jew, and the limits of inclusion or exclusion from communal prayer and study. It goes without saying that in the United States the state has no control over Jewish practices against which activists are forced to mobilize; Congress cannot demand religious equality for Jewish women. In the dual context of American religious pluralism and a decentralized American Judaism, Jewish feminists brought about a religious and cultural transformation by using the tools (and on occasion weapons) of educating, organizing, sharing personal stories, and creating alternative rituals within a variety of movements, organizations, and institutions. Their revolution was, therefore, fomented first within conferences, in groups that met in homes, in articles written in Jewish magazines, newspapers, and later books, as well as in novels, theological works, and new liturgies, which in turn were shared, discussed, and debated in print, in communal gatherings, and among women informally. Jewish feminism changed Judaism by mobilizing women who themselves changed and challenged power in their own communities and denominations. Jewish feminism is then best studied "locally" within particular Jewish movements, synagogues, and communities, as well as in the settings where women met to teach one another how to lead prayer and study Talmud, and to conduct and share what came to be called womencentered rituals, such as celebrating the new moon. At the same time one must see the ways in which that local work was translated into the national context of institutions that were most often, but not always, changed to bring about more, if by no means complete, equality for women. Jewish feminism is unquestionably transnational. American Jewish feminists were key activists in the campaign to create a space for women to worship publicly at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which ultimately became the basis of a Supreme Court case in Israel.4 North American Jewish feminism inspired and outraged Jewish communities throughout Europe, Central and Latin America, and Israel. In time, Jewish feminist scholarship, theology, and gatherings created mutual influence that transcended national lines. Although American Jewish feminism and feminists reach out across the globe, the context of this book, the United States, centers activism in synagogues, national denominations, organizations, homes, and schools. Not only is Jewish feminism global, national, and local, it was and remains anything but monolithic. A (somewhat) shared feminist analysis did not create a single set of demands, interests, or ideas. Many feminist Judaisms did and will exist. For example, Orthodox feminism does not look like Reconstructionist feminism, but they share an important assumption about Judaism: it must afford gender equality, however that is defined. Jewish feminism also inspired and led to subsequent challenges to Jewish law and Jewish communal practices. Its impact stretched well beyond its initial goals. In particular, gay and lesbian Jews' demands to be included fully in Jewish life, to be ordained and to marry within the Jewish community, were in part shaped and generated by Jewish feminism. Movements devoted to Jewish spirituality, to health and healing, and to experimental worship also draw on Jewish feminism. There are now three generations of Jewish feminists in the United States, as well as a variety of Jewish practices and organized groups that they have created. The visions of the pioneer generation described in several of these essays were often challenged not only by those who felt Judaism was under attack but also by those who felt that feminism did not go far enough. Jewish feminism is therefore best understood as dynamic and constantly changing, intelligible only within a variety of social and historical contexts. Women Remaking American Judaism describes the transformations of Judaism beginning in the 1970s and provides a context for understanding these remarkable changes. The essays in this book allow us to pose questions about gender and religious change, about authority and religious experience, and about the yearning for equality within a religious framework. They describe and analyze why Jewish women who embraced Jewish feminism stayed within a system that they believe oppressed them to transform it rather than leave it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWomen Remaking American Judaism
PublisherWayne State University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9780814335680
ISBN (Print)0814332803, 9780814332801
StatePublished - 2007

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright 2007 by the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.


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