Who Is Rachel Adler?

How Adler uses feminist ideas to challenge Jewish law.

The writings of Rachel Adler on Jewish law and ritual have catapulted her into the center of modern Jewish religious discourse. She first gained fame in the 1970s as an Orthodox woman who championed traditional Jewish laws of family purity. Adler later renounced her earlier writings and became a fierce critic of Jewish religious patriarchy. Leaving the Orthodox world, Adler earned a doctorate in Religion and was ordained a Reform rabbi.  An outstanding feminist theologian and scholar of Jewish law, Adler has garnered international attention from Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, women and men alike, through her novel feminist approach to halakhah. Her scholarly productivity continues unabated and she remains a major figure on the Jewish religious scene.

The writings of Rachel Adler on Jewish law and ritual have catapulted her into the center of modern Jewish religious discourse, and she is unquestionably among the leading constructive Jewish theologians, translators, and liturgists of the modern era.

Family & Education

Ruthelyn (later Rachel) Rubin was born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 20, 1943. Her father Herman (1907–1984), born in Chicago, was an executive in a large insurance company. Her mother, Lorraine (née Helman, 1918–2003), was a fourth-generation Chicagoan on her mother’s side; she had a master’s degree in guidance and counseling and was the chairwoman of a large guidance department at a suburban high school. Herman and Lorraine married in 1941. Their second daughter, Laurel, was born in 1946.

Rachel married Moshe Adler, an Orthodox rabbi, on December 20, 1964. They had a son, Amitai Bezalel, born on July 10, 1973, but Rachel and Moshe divorced in 1984. In September 1987 Adler married Los Angeles attorney David Schulman (b. 1951). She and Schulman divorced in 2008. Adler now lives in Los Angeles, where she serves as the David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Adler earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English Literature at Northwestern University in 1965 and 1966. She also completed all course work for her doctorate in English at Northwestern and was also actively involved during the 1970s as an Orthodox rebbetzin at Hillel Houses in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, where her husband served as Hillel rabbi. In 1980, Adler received an M.S.W. from the University of Minnesota, and after graduation from that program, worked as a therapist for several years.

Early Feminist Writing and Turn to Reform Movement

Adler’s 1971 publication of “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman,” in Davka, as well as her 1972 publication for The Jewish Catalogue of “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” first gained Adler international attention as an articulate feminist spokesperson. In the former essay, Adler expressed discomfort with the treatment accorded women in Jewish tradition. However, she did so as a woman firmly ensconced in the Orthodox camp. In the latter essay, Adler argued that the ritual immersion of a niddahin a mikvehdid not “oppress or denigrate women.” Instead, such immersion constituted a ritual reenactment of “death and resurrection” that was actually “equally accessible to men and women.” This approach to the ritual, as well as the argument Adler constructed in its defense in “Tu’mah and Taharah” and the stance she articulated in “The Jew Who Wasn’t There,” marked her as a passionately committed if critical Orthodox feminist, a woman anxious to defend the tradition by employing categories taken from contemporary social scientific literature.

However, the seeds for a different trajectory that were planted in her 1971 article began to be more fully articulated shortly thereafter. While Adler had emphasized that the niddah ritual was originally “a way of learning how to die and be reborn” of symbolic import for women and men alike, she asserted—in her discussion of the ritual in the 1976 Jewish Woman reprint of this essay—that major strains in talmudic thought isolated the niddah and stressed “the alienness” of women. Adler condemned these directions as “damning” of classical rabbinic tradition and gave full expression to these critiques in her powerful 1983 Moment essay, “I’ve Had Nothing Yet, So I Can’t Take More.” In this essay, Adler indicted rabbinic tradition for making women “a focus of the sacred rather than active participants in its processes” and observed that “Being a Jewish woman is very much like being Alice at the Hatter’s tea party. We did not participate in making the rules, nor were we there at the beginning of the party.”

Given this trajectory in her views, it was hardly surprising that Adler, in 1986, enrolled in the Reform Movement’s joint Hebrew Union College-University of Southern California doctoral program in Religion and received her Ph.D. in 1997. Her doctoral dissertation, “Justice and Peace Have Kissed: A Feminist Theology of Judaism,” served as the basis for her award-winning book, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics, which in 1999 won the National Jewish Book Award as best book in Religious Thought. After graduation from USC-HUC, Adler received a joint faculty appointment in Religion at USC and in Jewish Thought at HUC-JIR. By 2001, she elected to serve formally on the faculty of HUC-JIR alone. Shortly thereafter, Adler also joined the editorial board of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and wrote “Contemporary Reflections” commentaries on Bereishit, Mishpatim, and Va’yakheil for this volume, which won the 2008 Jewish Book Award for best book of the year in any category. At this time, Adler chose to enter the rabbinical program of the College-Institute and she was ordained a Reform rabbi by HUC-JIR in Spring 2012.

Engendering Judaism

It was hardly surprising, then, that Adler ultimately repudiated the position she had taken in “Tumah and Taharah.” In her essay “In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity,” published in Tikkun in 1993, she stated “that purity and impurity do not constitute a cycle through which all members of society pass, as I argued in my [1972] essay. Instead, impurity and purity define a class system in which the most impure people are women.” By this point, a “new Rachel Adler” had emerged—a person who was going to contribute to a revolution in the Jewish world by paying systematic attention to gender as both an analytical and a normative category for understanding and redirecting Jewish life.

Adler’s concerns and subsequent writings culminated in her publication of Engendering Judaism. Building upon numerous articles written in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s on the presentation and classification of women in rabbinic literature, Adler gave mature expression to her thought in her 1998 book. In this work Adler refused to reject halakhah, as other Jewish feminists had done, as a source for her own reflections on Judaism. While she recognized that traditional Jewish law had systematically excluded the voices of women, Adler contended that halakhah was too central an idiom in the Jewish experience—too vital a part of the Jewish narrative—to be rejected summarily.

Nevertheless, Adler was too critical a feminist to allow classical notions of Jewish law to remain unchallenged. To construct this novel approach to Jewish law, Adler utilized the work of Yale University law professor Robert Cover who, in 1983, wrote a pathbreaking essay, “Nomos and Narrative,” in the Harvard Law Review (97:1). In that essay, Cover argued that law itself functioned in two complementary modes, one “imperial” and the other “jurisgenerative.” The former approach was marked by an emphasis upon authority and the application and enforcement of rules. It sought to institutionalize the nomos—the rules and laws—of the legal system. To be sure, Adler was appreciative of this mode of law.

Adler, however, adapted Cover’s jurisgenerative mode as more promising for her own enterprise, for this mode allowed the nomos of the system to be remade altogether. In this mode, law is viewed as embodying a paidea—the highest ideal of the community—that is embedded in a master narrativeof the community; the ongoing enactment of legislation and the rendering of judgments attempt to give this ideal ever more exact and just application over time. In sum, Adler believed the imperial mode, with its focus on rules, was a required component of any legal system, but it was insufficient to capture the vitality and creativity inherent in the jurisgenerative mode. The empire of law is an element of any healthy culture and the task of the legist or judge is a constructive one. Law, as understood by Cover and adapted by Adler, constitutes a “bridge to a better world.”

Adler was sympathetic to the efforts made by non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars such as Joel Roth and Elliot Dorff in the Conservative movement and Moshe Zemer and Mark Washofsky in the Reform camp to offer “liberal correctives”—generally of an ethical nature—to traditional understandings of the halakhic system and process. She recognized that these “correctives” were often novel and even precedent shattering. Nonetheless, she found the efforts of these liberal male colleagues flawed, for they failed to question or even consider patriarchal legal presumptions that undergirded the traditional Jewish legal system. This screamed out for correction. Unlike them, Adler demanded that issues of gender play a central role in Jewish law. She therefore insisted upon a completely different theoretical approach to the question of Jewish law than that found in the work of others.

Adler employed these insights in Engendering Judaism to maintain that a messianic goal—the creation of a more just world—lies at the heart of the Jewish story, and that the responsibility of each generation of Jews is to allow that goal to be more fully approximated so that a messianic vision of righteousness can be more fully realized. Her aim in this book was to indicate to men and women alike how a “more inclusive Judaism” could be forged, one that would inspire all Jews to draw upon the totality of Jewish tradition and law to fulfill the Jewish paidea of messianic justice.

In Engendering Judaism, Adler selected the issue of marriage to illustrate the nature of her overarching approach to Judaism. She noted that classical halakhah employed the legal instrument of kinyan (acquisition) to grant religious sanction to the relationship created between a man and a woman when they marry. Through kinyan, the husband literally acquires the wife and only he can dissolve the marriage. Such inequality all too frequently leads to abuses on the husband’s part when a marriage is terminated. This rightfully offended Adler’s sense of justice. In addition, Adler maintained that the “metaphor of acquisition” that undergirds the act of kinyan failed to express the feelings of reciprocity and concern that more properly characterize the bonds that obtain between two persons who wish to sanctify their devotion to one another as permanent partners.

Adler thus turned to the notion of covenant and maintained that the ideal of the “brit” provided a more fitting metaphor for the relationship of mutuality and love that existed between these two people. Drawing upon diverse examples of covenantal commitment and care found throughout the tradition, as well as classical Jewish sources surrounding partnership as opposed to property law, Adler composed a document she entitled a Brit Ahuvim to create a Lovers’ Covenant that could be used by both heterosexual and same-sex couples to celebrate and consecrate their enduring connections. In writing this document, Adler observed that because “love and relationship are volatile,” one cannot “rely exclusively on love without any obligation structure.” She therefore insisted that “the b’rit metaphor” employed in her Brit Ahuvim be grounded in the “structures of partnership law.”

In writing her Brit Ahuvim, Adler granted ritual expression in the realm of praxis to the theological ideals she had articulated in her book and employed Jewish law and texts in an original and innovative manner. Her book provided a bold understanding of how the resources available in the tradition could be reconstructed and reconfigured to provide novel directions for Jewish law, life, and thought.

Adler has continued to be a productive author and is by all standards one of the preeminent “mothers” of modern Jewish feminism who has been responsible for moving feminist concerns and sensibilities from the margins to the center of modern Jewish life and thought. 

Reprinted from the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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