Engendering Judaism

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

Print this page Print this page

If, as progressive Judaisms argue, social and historical factors affect Judaism, then it is hardly tenable to argue that gender is the only variable to which this rule does not apply. The impact of gender on Judaism, then, is not a women's issue; it is an issue for everyone who seeks to understand Judaism.

A Two-Pronged Approach

Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task.

That gender categories and distinctions have changed in the past tells us nothing about what sorts of changes we ought to make in the future. These changes must be negotiated in conversations where participants invoke and reexamine the values and priorities enunciated in Jewish tradition in the light of the current needs, injuries, or aspirations demanding to be addressed.

Every aspect of this undertaking is complex: applying traditional values and priorities while remaining conscious of their historical contingency and their possible gender biases; conducting conversations among Jews whose beliefs, institutional affiliations, and experiences (including gender) differ widely; identifying needs, wounds, and aspirations, now full‑time enterprises for social scientists, jurists, philosophers, cultural critics, and psychologists; and, finally, characterizing an elusive "present time" in rapidly mutating, pluralistic, postindustrial societies.

The method for engendering Judaism, then, will have to be as complex as the Jewish people and the world they inhabit.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

People who undertake ethical tasks do not come as blank slates. We bring our lives and memories, our abilities and interests, our commitments and dreams. I bring my own complex identity and commitments to this book. I am a woman descended from five generations of Reform Jews. I lived as an Orthodox Jew for many years and learned both to love and to struggle with traditional texts and praxis. I brought these concerns with me when I returned to Reform Judaism.

I am also a feminist. That is, I believe that being a woman or a man is an intricate blend of biological predispositions and social constructions that varies greatly according to time and culture. Regardless of its cultural specifics, gender has been used to justify unequal distributions of social power and privilege. Feminists view these power disparities as a moral wrong and an obstacle to human flourishing.

This moral evil can be overcome only with great effort because its distortions pervade social institutions, personal relationships, and systems of knowledge and belief, including religious traditions. My commitment to feminism is based on both objective and subjective factors. I find its analysis intellectually convincing, but it also profoundly affects how I value myself as a person and what impact I believe I can have upon those around me.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.