Author Archives: Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs

About Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs is the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and associate professor of Religious Studies.

Jewish Feminist Ritual

Reprinted with permission from Inventing Jewish Ritual (The Jewish Publication Society).

In creating new rituals, Jewish feminists have alternated between two approaches: adaptation of existing rituals and creation of new ones. In adaptation, the Jewish practices men have traditionally performed are made available for women. (If men wore prayer shawls and yarmulkes, now women would; if 10 men constituted a prayer quorum, now women would be counted too.)

Feminists critical of adaptive rituals, sometimes referred to as "add women and stir," have questioned the value of putting their energies into either making women’s versions of the already existing, privileged rituals that Jewish men are performing, or fighting for the right to perform those rituals in communities that forbid them to do so. They would ask: Even if all the battles are successfully fought, have Judaism’s patriarchal assumptions been challenged? Instead, they have proposed creating "distinctively female alternatives," derived from insights and practices that emerge out of the lives of Jewish women, which will transform Judaism into what Judith Plaskow described as "a religion that women as well as men have a role in shaping."

Years of negotiating between these approaches have compelled feminists to articulate a vision of what a flourishing Jewish women’s spirituality might look like. That task is ongoing. For the time being, both paths–adaptation and creation–are still followed.

Jewish feminists continue to ask these core questions that pertain to new ritual: How can we avoid replicating the mind/body split of traditional Judaism and still honor the many experiences particular to women’s bodies? What place will the law have in feminist Jewish practices? Should a patriarchal, transcendent God be replaced in feminist ritual and theology by an immanent spiritual presence? If aspects of the traditional separation of genders benefit women, should they be maintained?

Having created a body of satisfying rituals for women, Jewish feminists are currently asking a new question: how might the fruits of their labors–egalitarianism, acknowledging bodily experiences, marking life’s unmarked passages, and attention to healing and inclusiveness–be effectively brought back to the entire community to revise the Judaism that is shared by men and women alike?

Studying New Ritual

Reprinted with permission from Inventing Jewish Ritual (The Jewish Publication Society).

Religious people are intimately acquainted with material culture: ordinary objects such as bread, wine, hats, shawls, chairs, golden rings, and roasted eggs create, express, embody, and reflect sacredness. For sacredness, one could substitute such words as holiness, sanctity, separateness, and specialness. Or one could use the Jewish term that describes all abstract and concrete movements toward sacredness: kedushah.

Gazing at new ritual through the lens of material culture, we may come to question the dualisms of religious life once taken for granted: sacred/profane, mind/ body, theoretical/practical, beliefs/practices, divine/human, things/people, and of course spiritual/material. We can discover that such dualisms do not fully and accurately describe reality or even our own experience of reality.

Even if we were to define the spiritual and the material as polar opposites and were to continue to privilege the spiritual (that is, the disembodied idea, the celestial, and the cerebral) over the material, we still cannot ignore the significance of materiality in the way religion is lived. One of anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff’s elderly Jewish informants tells a story, which he attributes to Martin Buber, that nicely articulates this idea:

It tells here about two men who are worried about the holiness of the Sabbath. "What is it that makes something holy?" they ask. They decide to make a test to see what happens when they have Sabbath on a weekday. So they make the Sabbath in the middle of the week, everything they do right, and it feels the same way as on Saturday. This is alarming, so they take the problem to the rabbi to explain. Here is what the rabbi tells them: "lf you put on Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps it is quite right that you had a feeling of Sabbath holiness. Because Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps have the power of drawing the light of the Sabbath holiness down to earth."

What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?

Excerpted with the permission of the author from a longer essay that appeared in the journal Cross Currents. To read the extended version, click here.

In Judaism and, I imagine, most other faith traditions, the spiritual is material. Without things, in all their thingness, there is no Passover, only an idea of Passover; and a faint and fuzzy idea it would be, like honor, loyalty, and remorse–like, perhaps, God, and more surely, monotheism. Things denote one’s belonging, one’s participation, possibly one’s convictions.

Listen to Jews interrogate each other about the intensity of their commitment and connection to certain fundamental indicators of conscious, intentionally lived Jewish life. They do not typically ask, deuteronomically: “Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?” They will not ask, decalogically: “Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?”

essence of a jewish homeRather, they inquire about the materiality of lived-out beliefs and habits of conviction: “On the Sabbath, do you drive your car? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks?”

Material Culture in the Jewish Home

Where are most of these things that point toward and create Jewish life and identity but in the home? Within Jewish homes, things, people, and even times of day and seasons of the year and of life interact in a fluid process, through which things make the home Jewish, by which things are animated by Jewish life and absorbed by it in specifically Jewish ways.

In my anthropological research on Jewish-American material culture in homes, I have been attending to how my human informants, the creators and keepers of Jewish homes (more often women than men, but not always), reflect upon how things make their homes Jewish, and how things found in the home facilitate Jewish living and create, maintain, and transmit Jewish identities.

I have been struck over and again: If informants do not come from Orthodox homes, and if they are not rabbis, they routinely express anxiety that I may have come to the wrong place and am wasting my time. Despite an impressive inventory we have just taken together in a home of over a thousand Jewish things, some are bound to claim that their Jewish home is still not “Jewish enough” or “really Jewish.”

Touring a Jewish Home

In the following article, the author visits a typical American-Jewish home to explore the role that objects play in creating a Jewish home and living a Jewish life. Though the author’s host, Susan–referred to as the “informant”–believes she is not “very” Jewish or not “Jewish enough,” the author shows the richness of Susan’s Jewish life as it is evidenced in her home. Excerpted with the permission of the author from a longer essay that appeared in the journal Cross Currents. To read the extended version, click here.

My informant, Susan, is a past president of a Conservative synagogue in suburban New Jersey and the mother of three daughters who have celebrated bat mitzvahs. Professionally, she is a quilter; she is married to a doctor. She received some formal Hebrew school education as a child and teenager, reads Hebrew, and has studied Jewish history, beliefs, and practices for two intensive years; she can chant Hebrew prayers as well as the ancient tunes for the readings from Torah and Prophets.

A leader in her community Jewish federation, chairing education and outreach committees, she is also a member of the Jewish women’s organization Hadassah. She has participated in a women’s rosh chodesh (new month) group that studies books and issues in women and Judaism and is a Lion of Judah, a woman honored for her substantial annual financial contributions to the Jewish community.

Jewish Items All Around

Susan meets me at her front door, and as we stand underneath her mezuzah, a cloisonné objet d’art she has brought back from one of many “missions” to Israel, she explains that she is always taken aback when friends or acquaintances tell her that she is the most Jewish person they know. They turn to her for information: Can you serve rice on Passover? On which side of the door do you hang a mezuzah? She laughs, saying: “I fear for Judaism if I am the most Jewish person anyone knows. Though I am to the core Jewish, I am not an authority on learning and observance.”

Despite Susan’s protest that she is not sufficiently Jewish by her own standards, she takes me on a detailed tour of the profoundly, explicitly Jewish home that she has made and that makes her.