Women participating in a Rosh Chodesh worship service near the Western Wall, 2013. (Michal Patelle/Women of the Wall)

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, and she is unquestionably among the leading constructive Jewish theologians, translators and liturgists of the modern era, garnering attention from Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, women and men alike.

Adler’s Personal Life

Ruthelyn (later Rachel) Rubin was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 2, 1943. Her father Herman (1907-1984), born in Chicago, was an executive in a large insurance company. Her mother, Lorraine (née Helman, 1918-2003), also born in Chicago, 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. They married in 1941 and their second daughter Laurel was born in 1946.

Rachel Adler married Moshe Adler, an Orthodox rabbi, on December 20, 1964. While this marriage ended in divorce in 1984, the union did produce one son, Amitai Bezalel, born on July 10, 1973.

In September 1987 Adler married Los Angeles attorney David Schulman (b. 1951), a committed Reform Jew and social activist who is Supervising Attorney of the AIDS Discrimination Unit of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. The couple now lives in Los Angeles, where Adler serves as Associate Professor of Jewish Religious Thought and Feminist Studies at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Academic Accomplishments

Adler earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English Literature at Northwestern University in 1965 and 1966 and received an M.S.W. from the University of Minnesota in 1980.

In 1986 Adler enrolled in the joint Hebrew Union College-University of Southern California doctoral program in Religion and received her Ph.D. degree 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.

Adler’s Writings on Niddah

Her 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 Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman,” 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 “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” Adler argued that the ritual immersion of a niddah (the menstruating woman) in a mikveh did 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 “Tum’ah 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.

Nevertheless, 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.”

Consequently, it was hardly surprising that she ultimately repudiated her position in “Tum’ah and Taharah,” stating, in her essay, “In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity,” published in Tikkun in 1993,”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.”

Challenging Classical Notions of Jewish Law

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 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.

However, Adler was too critical a feminist to allow classical notions of Jewish law to remain unchallenged. While 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, Adler nonetheless found their efforts flawed and insisted upon a completely different theoretical approach to the question of Jewish law than that found in the work of others, either women or men.

To construct this novel approach to Jewish law, Adler utilized the work of Yale University law professor Robert Cover. Cover had argued that law itself functioned in two modes, one “imperialistic” and the other “jurisgenerative.” The former approach was marked by an emphasis upon authority and the application and enforcement of rules. Adler held that this was the manner in which virtually all previous theorists of Jewish law–even liberal ones–had approached halakhah.

However, Adler herself embraced the latter mode that Cover had adumbrated as more promising for her own enterprise. In the “jurisgenerative” mode, law is viewed as embodying a paidea–the highest ideal of the community–that is embedded in a master narrative of 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. So perceived, the empire of law is a vital element of any healthy culture and the task of the legist or judge is a constructive one. Law constitutes a “bridge to a better world.”

Engendering Judaism

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 as a means to illustrate the nature of her overarching approach to Judaism. She noted that classical halakhah employed the metaphor of kinyan (acquisition) to grant religious sanction to the relationship that is created between a man and a woman when they marry.

Adler condemned this metaphor as inappropriate for two principal reasons. First, in the traditional marriage ceremony it is the husband who “acquires” the wife. This was clearly offensive to her egalitarian sensibilities. More significantly, Adler maintained that a “metaphor of acquisition” 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.

Lovers’ Covenant

Adler therefore turned to the notion of covenant and maintained that this ideal 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, Adler composed a document she entitled a Brit Ahuvim, 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 granted ritual expression in the realm of praxis to the theological ideals she had articulated 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 life and thought.

Adler’s Impact

Adler has continued to be a productive author whose writings touch on a wide array of topics. While her approach to these subjects–ranging from sexual abuse and exploitation to the Holocaust–remains grounded in feminist thought, she also employs diverse literary and social scientific methods to approach topics of concern to men and women, Jews and gentiles.

Her current research centers around issues of individual suffering and pain and she plans to produce a book-length treatment on this topic in the near future. Rachel Adler 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.

She will undoubtedly continue through her ongoing writings to promote these concerns even more and to enhance her position as one of the most significant Jewish theologians of the modern era.

Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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