American Jewish Feminism: Beginnings

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

Jewish Feminism as a Daughter of American Feminism

The movement toward gender equality in the American Jewish community in the past generation ­was spurred on by a grassroots movement of Jewish feminism. Well‑educated and liberal in their political and cultural orientation, many Jewish women participated in what has been called the second wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s. Most did not link their feminism to their religious or ethnic identification.

But some women, whose Jewishness was central to their self‑definition, naturally applied their newly acquired feminist insights to their condition as American Jews. Looking at the all-male bimah ­[platform] in the synagogue, they experienced the feminist “click”–the epiphany that things could be different‑–in a Jewish context.

Two articles pioneered in the feminist analysis of the status of Jewish women. In the fall of 1970, Trude Weiss‑Rosmarin criticized the liabilities of women in Jewish law in her “The Unfreedom of Jewish Women,” which appeared in the Jewish Spectator, the journal she edited. Several months later, ­Rachel Adler, then an Orthodox Jew, published a blis­tering indictment of the status of women in Jewish tradition in Davka, a countercultural journal. Adler’s piece was particularly influential for young women active in the Jewish counterculture of the time.

Jewish Feminism Finds its Voice

In the early 1970s, Jewish feminism moved beyond the small, private consciousness‑raising discussion groups that characterized the American women’ s movement to become a public phenomenon. Calling themselves Ezrat Nashim [using the term for the women’s section in the ancient Temple, and also translatable as “Women’s Help”], a small study group of young feminists associated with the New York Havurah, a countercultural fellowship designed to create an intimate community for study, prayer, and social action took the issue of equality of women to the 1972 convention of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. Founding members of Ezrat Nashim represented highly educated elite of primarily Conservative Jewish youth.

In separate meetings with rabbis and their wives, the women of Ezrat Nashim issued a “Call for Change” that put forward the early agenda of Jewish feminism. That agenda stressed the “equal access” of women and men to public roles of status and honor

in the Jewish community. It focused on eliminating the subordination of women in Judaism by equalizing their rights in marriage and divorce laws, women’s interpretations of Jewish texts, counting them in the minyan [the quorum necessary for communal prayer], and enabling them to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue as rabbis and cantors. In recognition of the fact that the secondary status of women in Jewish law rested on their exemp­tion from certain mitzvot [commandments], the state­ment called for women to be obligated to perform all mitzvot, as were men. Ezrat Nashim caught the eye of the New York press, which widely disseminated the demands of Jewish feminism.

Jewish feminism found a receptive audience. In 1973, secular and religious Jewish feminists, under the auspices of the North American Jewish Students’ Network, convened a national conference in New York City that attracted more than five hundred par­ticipants. A similarly vibrant conference the following year led to the formation of a short‑lived Jewish femi­nist organization. Although Jewish feminists did not succeed in establishing a comprehensive organization, they were confident that they spoke for large numbers of women (and some men) within the American Jew­ish community.

Bringing Jewish Feminism to the Jewish Community

Feminists used a number of strategies to bring the issue of gender equality before the Jewish community. Feminist speakers presented their arguments from the pulpit in countless synagogues and participated in lively debates in Jewish community centers and local and national meetings of Jewish women’s organizations.

Jewish feminists also brought their message to a wider public through the written word. Activists from Ezrat Nashim and the North American Jewish Students Network published a special issue of Response magazine, dedicated to Jewish feminism, in 1973. With Elizabeth Koltun as editor, a revised and expanded version, entitled­ The Jewish Woman:

New Perspectives, appeared in 1976. That year, Lilith, a Jewish feminist magazine, was established by Susan Weidman Schneider and Aviva Cantor; Susan Weidman Schneider has served as its editor since that time. Lilith has combined news of interest to Jewish women with articles bringing the latest Jewish feminist research in a popular form to a lay audience along with reviews of new publications.

Under the aegis of Ezrat Nashim, Toby Reifman, one of Lilith’s members, edited and distributed a pamphlet containing baby-naming ceremonies for girls. The very lack of formal Jewish feminist organizational structures allowed for grass-root efforts across the country. In 1977, for example, Irene Fine of San Diego, California, established the Women’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education. Not only does it regularly bring speaker and artists to southern California, it has also published collections of Jewish women’s interpretations of Jewish texts as well as women’ rituals.

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 […]

Amy Eilberg, who had completed most of the requirements for ordination as a student in the seminary’s graduate school, became the first female Conservative rabbi in 1985. Women were welcomed into the Conservative cantorate in 1987.

Orthodox Feminism

Although the Conservative Movement was the center of Jewish feminist activism in the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish feminism has always been diverse in its constituency and its concerns. The case for Orthodox feminism was made most eloquently by Blu Greenberg in her 1981 book On Being a Jewish Feminist. Small groups of courageous Orthodox women established women’s tefilah (prayer) groups that respected all the halakhic constraints on women’s public prayers, and persisted in their activity in the face of rabbinic opposition.

Despite the fact that most Orthodox spokesmen deny feminist claims of the secondary status of women within traditional Judaism and disavow feminist influence, Jewish feminism has had an impact on American Orthodoxy, however unacknowledged. Girls are now provided with a more comprehensive Jewish education in Orthodox schools than was ever the case in the past. In altered forms that conform to Jewish law, feminist rituals such as celebrations of the birth of a daughter and bat mitzvah rites have found their place within modern Orthodox communities. And Orthodox leaders have felt strained to issue apologetic defenses of the “separate but equal” status of women in Judaism.

The following article is reprinted with permission from Jewish Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia (Routledge).

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