Jewish Feminist Ritual

What makes ceremonies specifically for women unique?

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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?

Characteristics of the New Rituals of Jewish Women

The new women's rituals that have been evolving since the 1970s share certain common characteristics:

1. Marking the unmarked. Many women's rituals mark events linked to women's bodily experiences that previously have not evoked formal Jewish responses. They include the onset of menstruation, pregnancy, giving birth, menopause, miscarriage, infertility, hysterectomy, healing after rape and abuse, and completing a course of cancer treatments, Furthermore, the rituals often recognize the unmarked moments of a woman's social life: becoming a mother, a lover, a divorcee, a widow, or a mourner.

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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.