Is It All About the Body?

Feminists renew and create ritual focused on physical transformations.

As Jewish women seek release from social, familial, and religious roles defined entirely by biology, they are finding new ways to acknowledge the physical without being limited by it.

Bodies from a Woman’s Perspective

While lifecycle ritual has generated a sense of excitement and renewal, it has also provoked significant anxiety and controversy. Some people fear that the proliferation of rituals around women’s biological cycle will somehow reinforce the notion that women are linked to earth and body, and men to God and mind. If women want some of their most important private biological moments to be addressed and recognized by the community, however, that hardly means that they want only their biological needs to be addressed and recognized.

Moreover, biology and spirit are at bottom inseparable, particularly… in such momentous passages as childbirth, miscarriage, abortion, and menopause. The rabbis dealt with women’s biological changes, but primarily in terms of how those changes affect men–re: sexual contact and ritual purity. A talmudic tractate Niddah(Menstruant) written by women would read very differently than the one we have, and some women are now trying to imagine and record it.

— Debra Orenstein. Lifecycles Vol. 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages & Personal Milestones (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Excerpted from Lifecycles Vol. 1: Jewish Women on Life Passages & Personal Milestones © Debra Orenstein (Woodstock, VT.: Jewish Lights Publishing). $19.95 + $3.75 s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544 or on-line at www.jewishlights.com. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.

Bodies Require Respect, Not Exclusive Emphasis

Many of the rituals in these pages have to do with bodily functions–first menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause. This is a response to the traditional and problematic Jewish attitude towards women and their bodies.

Women are considered to be [connected with] gashmiut [or physicality], earthy and tactile beings, restricted by their bodies, which change every month like the moon. Hence, they are perceived by the tradition to be volatile, unstable. The mythical figure Lilith exhibits such behavior in the extreme. In contrast, men are considered to be [creatures of] ruchniut [or spirituality], spiritual and heavenly beings….

At this juncture in modern western Jewish worship, we are as removed as possible from body or earth awareness. As Jewish women, we have no desire to return to the oppressive conditions of our female ancestors whose lives revolved around key points in the lifecycle (menstruation, pregnancy, birth, menopause) to the exclusion of other aspects of their development.

Just as the abused earth begs to be respected and cherished, so do our bodies. Our challenge is to become aware of our bodies without idolizing them; to discern transcendent meanings in our physicality without bypassing its blood, sweat, and tears. The kind of "liberation" which means achieving and expressing one’s essential human qualities must encompass a celebration of our bodies, female and male. By learning to celebrate the female body, we shall be able to appreciate the male body as well….

In the context of Rosh Chodesh [the beginning of the new month, traditionally a women’s holiday] Jewish women have begun to foster positive images of the female body by celebrating a young girl’s first menstrual period in addition to her bat mitzvah, by creating rituals for pregnancy and pregnancy loss, by marking menopause in a way that is appropriate to each individual. In addition, Jewish women are cultivating positive self-images which will enable them to transcend that which differentiates them from Jewish men and to explore the ultimate goal of the spiritual exercise of Rosh Chodesh and Judaism: to explore what it means to be fully human.

— Penina V. Adelman. Reprinted from Miriam’s Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year," published by Biblio Press.

Both Nature and Culture Create Personal Identity

[Birth ceremonies for girls] and other lifecycle rituals for women have come under generic attack on both Jewish and feminist grounds for accentuating biology as the foundation of identity, personal and religious. Cynthia Ozick has denounced such ceremonials as a betrayal of the basic feminist and, she says, Jewish fight against the assertion that "anatomy is destiny…." But perhaps the best response comes from anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff who, paraphrasing Claude Levi-Strauss, writes, "We belong both to Nature and Culture." This dual identity and the tensions it produces are part of the human condition and underlie all cultures and religious systems. Feminist Jews will have to address its paradoxes along with everyone else."

— Shulamit S. Magnus. Reprinted from The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, published by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Liturgical Responses to Women’s Bodies

[Miriam Klein] Shapiro finds meaningful spiritual outlets in some old Yiddish prayers, and she has used them to construct new prayers as well for such moments as pregnancy and birth, which she describes as "the most religious episodes in my life. Five times from an act of love I have felt life growing inside of me. I know what a miracle is. Crossing the Red Sea is nothing compared to that. Traditional Jewish feminists are using old materials, retrieving them for new settings, such as Rosh Chodesh celebrations and ceremonies for girls getting their period.

"Why shouldn’t the life cycle of women…be given proper treatment? In fact, [it was] given much fuller treatment before immigration to the United States, but lifecycle materials were lost when men and women were brought together in the synagogues. I’d like to retrieve and reuse many of these beautiful, traditional prayers. Thus the tkhinot [Yiddish petitionary prayers] utilized by our grandmothers can provide us with at least the beginnings of liturgical responses to our own bodies."

When Jewish tradition seems to ignore important lifecycle events, feelings of emptiness and puzzlement are voiced by many women. Rabbi Laura Geller remembers that when she began menstruating at age 13, she ran to tell her mother. Her mother told her "that when she got her first period my grandmother slapped her. I could almost feel the force of my grandmother’s hand on my mother’s face, the shame, the confusion, the anger…. And as I thought back to that time, I understood that there should have been a blessing…. Thank you, God, for having made me a woman–because holiness was present at that moment."

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