Author Archives: Rachel Adler

Rachel Adler

About Rachel Adler

Rachel Adler, a feminist theologian, earned a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California jointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches.

Mending the World of Patriarchy

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Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The ancient Babylonian myth (or foundational story) that strongly resembles Genesis I has one great dissimilarity from it: in that myth, creation begins with a murder. The goddess Tiamat–cognate to our word t’hom (watery chaos, 1:2)–is slain by the hero-god Marduk; and the universe is carved out of her body. Violence there is inextricable from the process of creation.urj women's commentaryIn Genesis 1, however, creation entails no destruction. Even the primal watery abyss is not completely obliterated but lingers at the bottom of the sea to reappear in many a psalm or story. The drawing of distinctions and boundaries that marks both accounts is in Genesis I peaceful and harmonious.

God distinguishes elements of the original watery chaos by drawing boundaries between them and naming them: light and darkness, day and night. Created elements are not simple oppositions. They are both distinct and akin. Juxtaposed verses emphasize the parallels between elements. There are waters above and waters below. Between them stretch a solid expanse of earth and a solid expanse of firmament. The earth brings forth grasses and trees. The sky is strewn with lights. The sea and the air creationbring forth swarms of living things, schools of fish, flocks of birds, clouds of insects. The earth births its many creatures, joyously productive, mirroring the water and the air. The creation of humankind continues these dual themes of distinction and similarity. Not one but two words underline the likeness between adam (the earthling) and its Maker. Humankind bears the tzelem (image) and d’mut (resemblance) of the divine Creator, although in contrast to God’s oneness, they are several. They are also distinguished from one another: zahar (which means “male” but is also a word related to “remember”), the bearer of the male member, and n’kevah (which means “female” but is also a word related to “piercing”), the pierced one. In Genesis 3 the two will become a hierarchy, but in Genesis 1, they are presented as equals. Both bear the divine image and semblance, both are adjured to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and tame it, and hold sway … over all the earth” (1:28).

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The Slave Wife

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parashat Mishpatim contains the Torah’s first law collection, which–unlike all other ancient Near-Eastern law collections–begins with regulations concerning slavery. The Torah seems unable to imagine an economy without slaves, but it frowns upon Hebrew slavery. Consequently, for Israelites in debt, Exodus 21:2-6 prescribes indentured servitude, but limited to six years. If a man enters debt-slavery while married, the master must let his wife go when he is released. However, if the master gives him a slave wife, the master retains the wife and children. What happens if the debt-slave declares, "I love my master and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free" (21:5)? He then has his earlobe pierced with an awl, and he becomes a slave in perpetuity, which the Rabbis interpret to mean until the Jubilee, or fiftieth, year.

Liberal readers are often sympathetic to this noble fellow who relinquishes his freedom to stay with his slave wife and children. But how would this case look from the perspective of the slave wife? I will argue that it looks much different. Who is this slave woman? She is not the amah ivriyah (Hebrew indentured servant) the text speaks about in 21:7-12. In that case, a girl has been sold by a presumably impoverished Israelite parent into a wealthier family on the understanding that she will eventually be married to the master or one of his sons as a free woman. This practice is well attested in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Should the man take another wife, he must continue to support her. An Israelite woman may not be resold if her owner is displeased with her; instead, she must go free without any compensation to the master. Her servitude, too, is time limited.

In contrast, the slave woman in Exodus 21:5-6 is most likely a foreign bondswoman. As a non-Israelite, she will not become part of the master’s family, and her slavery is perpetual, not limited. As property, she and a male Israelite slave can be mated by the master to breed more slaves, which cannot be done to an Israelite handmaiden. The foreign bondswoman does not choose her husband and cannot reject him. Both he and her children can be taken from her. As we learn from Exodus 21:20, 26-27, her very body is at risk, for masters may beat their own slaves without legal interference as long as they do not kill them or destroy a major body part. (Slave narratives from different parts of the world confirm that slaves were, and are, routinely battered and then expected to work. They may work less efficiently, but historically this has not been a sufficient disincentive to masters. The law cannot be said to permit battery of slaves; it is simply uninterested in such battery unless it results in major damage or death.)

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The Nature of the Cosmos

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Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Parashat Vayakhel gives us a detailed description of the construction and furnishings of the Tabernacle; in fact, more than most of us wish to hear. Why include this data? Why does it matter? It matters because in the ancient world, a temple was a model of the cosmos (Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1954). How the temple is designed and furnished and where objects are positioned express symbolically what its builders believe about the nature of the cosmos.
urj women's commentary

Vayakhel gives us the specifications for these symbols, but it cannot tell us all that they mean. Symbols and metaphors exist precisely because they point toward what cannot be entirely expressed. Moreover, symbols and rituals are not static. They grow and change along with the people who use them, acquiring new layers of meaning along the way.

As an example, let’s look at a symbolic object from the Tabernacle that we recognize, the Menorah (lampstand). What does it mean? The Menorah’s function is to give light, and light is an important element in our own ritual acts as well. We kindle lights for Shabbat, Havdalah, Yom Tov (holiday), yahrzeit (memorial occasion). The philosopher Ernst Cassirer says that the creation of light, which begins many creation myths, represents the creation of consciousness (Language and Myth, 1946).

Perhaps, when we ritually kindle light, we reenact the dawning of consciousness that enables us both to know God and to be aware of ourselves. Is the Menorah a lamp representing the light-giving or knowledge-giving aspect of the cosmos?

Not Just a Lamp

The Menorah is not just any lamp, however. It is a giant lamp of unusual design, so tall that a priest must ascend a ramp to light it. Twice, in 25:31-40 and then in our parashah (37:17-24), the Menorah is painstakingly described: a golden base, a tall shaft, six golden branches issuing from the sides, each branch bearing cups shaped like almond blossoms, detailed with calyx and petals, plus more blossom-cups on the shaft itself. Atop these branches are seven golden lamps.

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Hannah’s Prayer

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Excerpted with permission from Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Jewish Publication Society).

To pray without being fully present is highly problematic for rabbinic Judaism. A recurring talmudic controversy rages about the extent to which commandments in general and prayer in particular require kavvanah, the intentionality and attention with which a fully aware and situated self orients itself toward God and performs a holy act.

Kavvanah is both internally and externally manifested. It is both a proper frame of mind and a proper demeanor.

The Biblical Story

The biblical narrative that exemplifies for the rabbis the kavvanah with which their own liturgy ought to be prayed occurs in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. Surprisingly, this paradigmatic prayer is articulated by a woman. Hannah, a pilgrim at the Shilo sanctuary, prays there silently and desperately for a child. The High Priest Eli scolds her, mistaking her voiceless prayer for the ravings of a drunk. "No my lord," she replies. "I am a tormented woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to God."

Reproved, Eli blesses her. God answers Hannah’s prayer and she becomes the mother of the prophet Samuel.

Why Hannah?

It is this story that the rabbis of the Talmud select to illustrate the laws of the Amidah, which they call ha-tefillah, "the Prayer." But why this story? Why should Hannah be acclaimed as the originator of prayer when she is not the first character in the Bible either to entreat or to thank God? It is because only the Hannah narrative addresses the particular concerns of the rabbis about the nature and authenticity of rabbinic prayer.

This narrative is the only instance recorded in the Bible in which a private individual prays in a sanctuary where sacrifices are offered. As such, it affirms for rabbinic Judaism its own continuity with tradition, the continuity between prayer and sacrifice, ritual word and ritual deed, between the synagogue liturgies and the ancient rites of Tabernacle and Temple.

In the person of Hannah confronting the High Priest Eli, moreover, rabbinic Judaism confronts the Judaism of the Temple cult. To the imagined priestly challenge "Do you call this unprecedented behavior worship? Isn’t this sacrilege?" rabbinic Judaism responds with its exegesis on Hannah’s defiant "No, my lord."

"Ulla or, as some say, Rabbi Yose ben Hanina, said [that Hannah’s words mean:], ‘You are no lord [no authority] in this matter and the holy spirit does not rest upon you’" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 31b).

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Engendering Judaism

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Feminism recognizes that cultures, as social constructions, bear the imprints of those who participated in their development. In the case of Judaism, men have (until recently) almost exclusively shaped the terms of Jewish law and theology. In the following excerpt, Rachel Adler suggests that we self-consciously confront the relationship between gender and Judaism, recognizing the ways in which gender has affected the development of Judaism thus far, and–going forward–actively “engender” Judaism in a way which fully includes women and is aware of gender issues. The following is excerpted and reprinted with permission from the author’s introduction to her book Engendering Judaism, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

What does it mean to engender Judaism? Non‑Orthodox Judaisms distinguish themselves from Orthodoxy by their belief that Jews beget Judaism; they reshape and renew Judaism in the various times and places they inhabit. If we accept this premise, it will lead us to a new sense in which Judaism needs to be engendered.

Jews in the Western world live in societies where the ethical ideal is for women to be full and equal social participants. But Judaism has only just begun to reflect and to address the questions, understandings, and obligations of both Jewish women and Jewish men. It is not yet fully attentive to the impact of gender and sexuality either on the classical texts or on the lived experiences of the people Israel.

Until progressive Judaisms engender themselves in this second sense [that is, attend to the impact of gender and sexuality], they cannot engender fully adequate Judaisms in the first sense [that is, create Jewish life in which women are equal participants]. In this book, I propose a theology for engendering Judaism in both senses: a way of thinking about and practicing Judaism that men and women recreate and renew together as equals.

Not for Women Only

All of us must participate in both kinds of engendering. Relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. It presumes that Judaism is a body of gender‑neutral texts and traditions, and that women constitute a special gendered addendum to the community of its transmitters.

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