Jewish Feminist Ritual

What makes ceremonies specifically for women unique?

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6. Being self-explanatory and easy to use. The new women's rituals are highly user-friendly. To be included as a celebrant, one need only show up, be ready to experience something new, and be willing to temporarily suspend judgment and critique. Effective leaders acknowledge the discomfort one might feel in experiencing a ritual for the first time and assure attendees that however unfamiliar the ritual may be, it is linked to Jewish tradition. When women who are rabbis or ritual experts lead rituals, they often try to minimize their authority by inviting significant group participation--so that they are not experienced as emissaries of God.

The new rituals are performed in gender-neutral or female friendly English. If Hebrew verse is spoken, it is often a familiar one, like the Shehecheyanu prayer. God language is either degendered or rendered multigendered.

Like traditional rituals that often contain instructions for what to do in the body of the liturgy, and explain why the ritual is done and what its symbolic actions and objects mean (the Passover seder comes readily to mind), the new women's rituals often contain within them instructions, clues for interpretation, and allusions to Jewish history or tradition. If a text is distributed, it will explain everything one needs to know, and Hebrew will be translated and transliterated.

Materials needed for the new ritual are familiar: paper, candles, matches, wine, spices, incense, cups, tambourines, and cloth. One need not travel to Jerusalem or Borough Park or even ponder how to buy those things that are locked inside the glass case of a synagogue gift shop, as they can nearly all be easily found.

7. Allowing for spontaneity. The new women's rituals are often flexibly timed. They are created when a situation calls for ritual marking and intensification and are set to fit the emotional needs and schedules of the celebrants. A baby girl's naming ceremony, for instance, rarely takes place on the eighth day of the infant's life or during the first time Torah is read after birth. Instead, it is usually held when the mother has regained her strength after childbirth and when beloved relatives can conveniently arrive. The feminist seder is also flexible: it can take place before Passover or during one of the intermediate days-any time that does not place it in direct competition with family observance.

8. Promoting a Jewish women's agenda. As living performances, the new rituals promote a women's agenda within the context of Judaism. That agenda includes respecting women's needs, contributions, and insights. Seeking to address all ritual scenarios in which a woman's status or her agency is in any way diminished under Jewish law, the rituals recognize that if Jewish women have been silenced, belittled, objectified, or demonized in the past, this is no longer acceptable. In some cases, parallel rituals for women have been created as rectifications, and in others, variations on the ritual have been introduced.

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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.