Feminism and Jewish Prayer

A variety of views on changing masculine bias in Jewish liturgy.

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Jewish feminists agree that Jewish liturgy and liturgical practice have slighted women, and most, if not all, seek redress in liturgical change. They disagree, however, about the advisability of various changes intended to include women's perspectives in the Jewish worship experience.

Including Women, Transforming Prayer

This story was told by Rabbi Laura Geller:

"One day when I sat in a class in my rabbinical seminary…we studied the tradition of berakhot--blessings, blessings of enjoyment, blessings relating to the performance of mitzvot (commandments) and blessings of praise and thanksgiving. My teacher explained…'There is no important moment in the lifetime of a Jew for which there is no blessing.' Suddenly I realized that it was not true. There had been important moments in my life for which there was no blessing. One such moment was when I…first got my period." 

Geller's story depicts a paradoxical situation. She appears to be a full participant in an egalitarian Judaism. She is even a rabbinical student. But her internal experience is of exclusion: vital components of her personhood have been ignored. What is more, her invisibility is invisible. Her teacher and her male classmates do not know that they do not see her.

jewish woman holding candleWhat would have to happen for liturgies to become fully inclusive of women as well as men? First of all, we would have to acknowledge women as well as men as members of the praying community. Classical Judaism, along with counting only men in the community of worshippers, based its liturgies exclusively on stories about male ancestors and described the people Israel as if all of them were male. Women's inclusion would necessitate supplying the missing ancestral memories, the missing language about the people Israel, and the missing human experiences about which prayer speaks.

Second, we would have to involve women along with men in the creation and transformation of the prayers and in the compilation of the liturgies that all of us will recite together.

Third, in order to begin to create truly inclusive worship, we would have to acknowledge the extent to which our current services reflect masculine sensibilities, styles, and gestures and androcentric language and theologies. We would have to admit that the exclusively masculine language with which we currently refer to God is a metaphoric language that has been totalized. That is, selected metaphors have been taken to represent the totality of the God toward whom they point. Such an understanding is, at the least, inadequate and distortive.

To correct this situation, would have to enrich and diversify the language in our present prayer books with feminine forms and imagery. But substituting words is not enough. We would have to make room for new genres, new gestures, new styles of prayer. This third task is complicated by so many considerations--theological, anthropological, psychological, and aesthetic--that it is really incommensurate with the other two.

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