American Jewish Feminism: The Movement Matures

Moving beyond equal access to express women's sensibilities and experiences in Jewish life and organizations.

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

Change From the Inside

Beginning in the 1980s, Jewish feminists raised ­issues that went beyond the acceptance of women into male‑defined positions of visibility and power. The emergence of women as religious leaders and as equal participants in the non‑Orthodox synagogue allowed women to see themselves in public Jewish ritual, but feminists were increasingly concerned that women’s sensibility and experience be reflected in Jewish life.

They hoped that women would be allowed to reshape the rabbinate and the cantorate, rather than simply follow traditional male models. Most importantly, they sought to incorporate women’s voices and thoughts into Jewish liturgy and into the interpretation of classical Jewish texts. Arguing that Jewish liturgy and culture should reflect the understanding of women as well as men, Jewish feminists called for a revision of the siddur, the prayer book and the Passover haggadah and for the creation of feminist midrash, interpretation of biblical and talmudic texts.

jewish feminismScholar activists, such as Judith Plaskow and Ellen Umansky challenged male dominated concepts of Jewish theology and God-language that drew primarily upon masculine imagery. Marcia Falk created blessings that supplant traditional liturgy with innovative forms that introduce feminist concepts: a subversion of hierarchy and naturalistic images of God gendered in Hebrew in the female.


The issue of God-language raised by feminists has, to one extent or another, influenced prayer books and other ritual texts, particularly in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. In 1975, the Reform movement introduced some gender inclusive language in English sections of its new prayer book, Gates of Prayer, and published fully gender-sensitive versions for Sabbath and weekdays in 1992. The Reconstructionists also created fully gender sensitive siddur, Kol Haneshama, with the Sabbath edition published in 1994 and the weekday edition in 1996.

Although the Conservative movement has been reluctant to introduce feminist-inspired changes in liturgy, the revised version of its Sim Shalom prayer book offers the option of including the names of the matriarchs along with those of the patriarchs in a central section of the prayers. Its most recent (1982) version of the Passover haggadah, the first to be edited by a woman, Rachel Anne Rabinowitz, includes several stories of women in its sidebar interpretations. All denominations, however, have refrained from altering the Hebrew liturgy, and reconceptualizing images of God in light of feminist critiques has made only modest inroads.

The “Old Girls” Network

Much of the continuing impact of Jewish feminism stems from the informal “old girls” network that professionally successful Jewish feminists have created. The establishment in 1991 of the Jewish Feminist Center in Los Angeles was made possible by a gift from the Nathan Cummings Foundation at the direction of Rabbi Rachel Cowan, its Jewish life officer. The funds were donated to the regional office of the American Jewish Congress, whose director was Rabbi Laura Geller. Geller conveyed this financial support to Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, who became the founding director of the center.

The center became the headquarters for a range of adult education courses on Judaism from a feminist perspective. It classes and spirituality workshops elicited an enthusiastic response. Its feminist seders, in particular, led by the composer and singer Debbie Freidman, drew large numbers of women seeking Jewish feminist expression.

Because it succeeded in acquiring accreditation for its courses from the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, which supervises the continuing professional education of teachers in Jewish schools, the Jewish Feminist Center was able to affect the Jewish education of children and youth.

In 1994, Elwell was hired to serve as rabbinic director for Ma’ayan, the Jewish Women’s Project in New York City, founded by the philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, who serves as its executive director. Like the Jewish Feminist Center, Ma’ayan, which declares its commitment to “an inclusive feminist vision,” sponsors a range of educational and spiritual events for Jewish women that include “study, ritual, and celebration, research, advocacy, community building, and tzedakah.” Similarly, Jewish feminist scholars not only provide a feminist perspective in their courses but model a feminist Jewish identity for their students and Jewish feminists who work in communal institutions promote feminist programming.

Future Goals

Despite the fact that Jewish feminism has greatly influenced the American Jewish community, it has not achieved all of its goals. Women who remain under the jurisdiction of Jewish law are still victimized in divorce proceedings. Some Orthodox men use their privilege in Jewish divorce law to extort large sums from their wives or leave them agunah [deserted wives], unable to remarry according to Jewish law.

Although women are more visible and wield more power in institutions of the Jewish community than a generation ago, they have not yet attained parity. Only a handful of women ordained as rabbis have secured positions as senior rabbis in large and prestigious congregations. To some extent this fact reflects the choices of women rabbis themselves. As one rabbi put it, “Climbing up the ladder is not necessarily what we want.”

Those who have chosen to define their careers in nontraditional ways, avoiding positions in large and impersonal synagogues, have realized that they have also limited their influence in their denominations. They offer a different model of success. Yet the “glass ceiling” that continues to exist in the corporate boardroom operates s well within the American Jewish community. Many prosperous congregations refrain from considering female candidates when they search for a rabbi.

The failure of women to reach the top is even more blatant in the secular organized Jewish commu­nity than in its religious denominations, perhaps because more power and money are at stake in this sphere. In 1972, at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, the umbrella organiza­tion of Jewish communal life, Jacqueline Levine, a vice president of the council, spoke passionately to the assembled delegates of the need to include women in the decision‑making of the Jewish community: “We are asking … to be treated only as human beings, so that we may be … participants in the exciting chal­lenge of creating a new and open and total Jewish community” (Response 1973: 65). Twenty years later she concluded sadly that “tokenism is and will con­tinue to be the name of the game.” Although there are more women board members of Jewish communal institutions than ever before, and some women have advanced into executive positions, men predominate in the top positions, especially in the largest communities.

Jewish feminism faces particular challenges in the contemporary American Jewish community. Many communal leaders consider feminist issues secondary to more pressing concerns, such as assimilation or communal unity. Often they present feminism as a danger to “Jewish continuity,” the current buzzword for Jewish survival. Yet Jewish feminists persist in their activism, animated by the vision of a diverse and inclusive Jewish community, created and sustained by women and men sharing responsibility and power.

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