American Jewish Feminism: Beginnings

Contemporary Jewish feminism has made its impact on all of the major denominations of Jewish life.

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New Feminist Rituals Proved Popular

Through their publications and speaking engagements, Jewish feminists gained support. Their innovations‑-such as baby‑naming ceremonies, feminist Passover seders, and ritual celebrations of Rosh Hodesh [the new month, traditionally deemed a women's holiday] were introduced into communal settings, whether through informal gatherings in a home or in the syna­gogue. In a snowball process, participants in the cele­bration of new rituals spread them through word of mouth.

Aimed at the community rather than the indi­vidual, new feminist celebrations designed to enhance women's religious roles were legitimated in settings that became egalitarian through the repeated perfor­mance of these new rituals. Indeed, one of the major accomplishments of Jewish feminism was the creation of communities that modeled egalitarianism for chil­dren and youth.

The concept of egalitarianism resonated with American Jews, who recognized that their own accep­tance as citizens was rooted in Enlightenment views of the fundamental equality of all human beings. With growing acceptance of women in all the professions, the Reform Movement, which rejected the authority of halakhah [Jewish law], acted on earlier resolutions that had found no obstacles to women serving as rab­bis. Hebrew Union College, the seminary of the Reform Movement, ordained the first female rabbi in America, Sally Priesand, in 1972, and graduated its first female cantor in 1975.

The Reconstruc­tionist Movement followed suit, ordaining Sandy Eisenberg Sasso as rabbi in 1974. Although the issue of women's ordination was fraught with conflict for the Conservative Movement, it, too, responded to some feminist demands. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly ruled that women could be counted in a minyan as long as the local rabbi con­sented. And the 1955 minority decision on aliyot for women [permitting them to be called up to recite blessings over the Torah reading] was widely disseminated, leading to a rapid increase in the number of congregations willing to call women to the Torah […]

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Dr. Paula Hyman

Dr. Paula Hyman is Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Among her published works are Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (University of Washington Press)and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press).