Feminism and Jewish Prayer

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

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--Rachel Adler, a feminist theologian, earned a Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the University of Southern California conjointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches. Excerpted with permission from Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. © Rachel Adler, 1998, Jewish Publication Society.

Masculine-Biased Language about Humans and the Divine

Until now, the prayer book has expressed the spiritual yearnings of half the Jewish people, the men who were the writers, editors, and translators of a liturgy that was designed for use by men. Still, many of the prayers reflect human experience such as prayers for health, wisdom, forgiveness, and justice as well as praise and thanksgiving. Feminine imagery appears, for example, in the Hallel [Psalms 113-118], which speaks of barren women becoming mothers. It is difficult to determine whether the prayer reflects female yearnings or male priorities--the desire for progeny--which women internalize.

No matter how sensitive, these prayers, written from a male perspective, assume that women's only priority is to fulfill her biological function--to bear children. These prayers are highly selective, reflecting a biblical perspective (male) that features the Matriarchs as revered female role models. The editors of our prayer books traditionally excluded prayers by other biblical women, such as Miriam and Deborah, which offer alternative role models.

Through the centuries, male editors of the prayer book stereotyped the role of women in the eyes of those at worship. The language of liturgy is also unrelievedly masculine, creating the overriding impression that worship is a male prerogative. Since services were traditionally conducted in Hebrew, which has no neuter gender, it was only natural that prayers, written and selected by men, would appear only in masculine form, further excluding women-whether or not intentionally. Translations in the vernacular such as English, which does have a neuter gender, were nevertheless couched in solely masculine terms, compounding the problem.

As Jews, who have suffered for centuries because of the stereotyped images that were used to exclude us from the mainstream of society, we are particularly sensitive to the way language is used to foster and perpetuate prejudice. Yet, when the question of masculine-biased language in liturgy is raised, the subject is often trivialized, the hostility hidden under the guise of humor. Women, themselves, sometimes object to suggested changes. They may be going through a process of denial, for the price of recognition may be too painful, or they may simply be unaware that change in language and liturgy is in good Jewish tradition.

In biblical days, even the names of revered Patriarchs and Matriarchs were changed when a radical change in character took place. Abram became Abraham when he received God's blessing (Genesis 17:5). Sarai became Sarah as she became the mother of the Jewish people (Genesis 17:15). Jacob's name was changed to Israel as a result of his transformation of character (Genesis 32:29). Religious equality for women signifies a similar change in status, necessitating inclusion in the language of liturgy and, thus, the elimination of sexist language.

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