Engendering Judaism

Because the evolution of Judaism is affected by social conditions, it can be actively developed to be gender sensitive.

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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.

It further presumes that while women are represented in Jewish tradition, they are separate from it. Scholarship about their representation is classified as "Women in…" or "Women and…" and is regarded as nonessential knowledge of interest only to women.

male and female thumbprintsMen do not need to consider these special topics; they can simply study "Judaism." The truth is that, to paraphrase an old spiritual, all God's chillun got gender. There is not and never was a Judaism unaffected by the gendered perspectives of its transmitters and augmenters.

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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.