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Jewish feminism

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Jewish feminism is a movement that seeks to improve the religious, legal, and social status of women within Judaism and to open up new opportunities for religious experience and leadership for Jewish women. Feminist movements, with varying approaches and successes, have opened up within all major branches of Judaism.

Participation in observances

In its modern form, the movement can be traced to the early 1970s in the United States. According to Judith Plaskow, who has focused on feminism in Reform Judaism, the main issues for early Jewish feminists in these movements were the exclusion from the all-male prayer group or minyan, the exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot, and women's inability to function as witnesses and to initiate divorce.[1]

According to historian Paula Hyman, two articles published in 1970 on the role of women in Judaism were particularly influential. "The Unfreedom of Jewish Women," published in the Jewish Spectator by its editor, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, criticized the treatment of women in Jewish law, followed in 1972 by an article by Rachel Adler, then an Orthodox Jew and currently a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, called "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman," published in Davka, a countercultural magazine.[2]

In 1972, a group of ten New York feminists calling themselves Ezrat Nashim (the women's section in a synagogue, but also "women's help"), took the issue of equality for women to the 1972 convention of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, presenting a document on March 14 that they named the "Call for Change." The rabbis received the document in their convention packets, but Ezrat Nashim presented it during a meeting with the rabbis' wives.

The "Call for Change" demanded that women be accepted as witnesses before Jewish law, be considered as bound to perform all mitzvot, be allowed full participation in religious observances, have equal rights in marriage and be allowed to initiate divorce, be counted in the minyan, and be permitted to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue and within the general Jewish community. Paula Hyman, who was a member of Ezrat Nashim, wrote that: "We recognized that the subordinate status of women was linked to their exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot (commandments), and we therefore accepted increased obligation as the corollary of equality."[3] Eleven years later, in October 1983, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the main educational institution of the Conservative Movement, announced its decision to accept women into the Rabbinical School. Hyman took part in the vote as a member of the JTS faculty.

In recent years, there have been related calls for the ordination of female rabbis.

Jewish feminist theology

There exists a Jewish equivalent of feminist theology. Feminine characterisation of God is found in a feminist siddur (Jewish prayerbook). Reconstructionist Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (Reform Judaism, Winter 1991) comments:

The experience of praying with Siddur Nashim ... transformed my relationship with God. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be made in God's image. To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman's body, with womb, with breasts - this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.

Rabbi Paula Reimers ("Feminism, Judaism, and God the Mother", Conservative Judaism 46 (1993)) comments:

Those who want to use God/She language want to affirm womanhood and the feminine aspect of the deity. They do this by emphasizing that which most clearly distinguishes the female experience from the male. A male or female deity can create through speech or through action, but the metaphor for creation which is uniquely feminine is birth. Once God is called female, then, the metaphor of birth and the identification of the deity with nature and its processes become inevitable

Ahuva Zache affirms that using both masculine and feminine language for God can be a positive thing, but reminds her Reform Jewish readership that God is beyond gender (Is God male, female, both or neither? How should we phrase our prayers in response to God’s gender?, in the Union for Reform Judaism's iTorah, [3]):

Feminine imagery of God does not in any way threaten Judaism. On the contrary, it enhances the Jewish understanding of God, which should not be limited to masculine metaphors. All language that humans use to describe God is only a metaphor. Using masculine and feminine metaphors for God is one way to remind ourselves that gendered descriptions of God are just metaphors. God is beyond gender.

These views are highly controversial even within liberal Jewish movements.[4] Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews hold that it is wrong to use English female pronouns for God, viewing such usage as an intrusion of modern feminist ideology into Jewish tradition. Liberal prayerbooks tend increasingly to also avoid male-specific words and pronouns, seeking that all references to God in translations be made in gender-neutral language.[5]

Orthodox Judaism

Haredi Judaism and its opposition to feminism

Haredi Judaism views all forms of feminism, whether in "Jewish" or non-Jewish forms as unnecessary, on the grounds that Torah Judaism believes in wholeness, in the valid claims of contrasting aspects: in being part of a society while remaining a unique people; in being part of a community while maintaining one's individuality; in being a full-fledged part of the world while also being a woman. The Hareidi vision of womanhood can be summed up in King Solomon's poem "A Woman of Valor," which praises a woman for qualities such as wisdom, courage, creativity, business acumen, and the profound insight to recognize how to relate to individuals according to their specific needs.[6]

Therefore, there is no movement within Haredi Judaism to train women as rabbis. While most Haredi women receive schooling in Beis Yaakov schools designed for them exclusively, the curriculum of these schools does not teach Talmud and neither encourages nor teaches its female students to study the same subjects as young Haredi men in the Haredi yeshivas.

The most important thrust of Haredi education for girls and young women is to educate, train and encourage them to fulfill their potential which includes becoming wives and successful mothers within large families devoted to the Torah Judaism way of life. In some Haredi communities, the education of girls in secular subjects (such as mathematics) is superior to that of boys. This is partly because of the greater time devoted to sacred subjects in the case of boys, and partly because many Haredi women work in paid jobs to enable their husbands to engage in full-time Torah study or to bring in a second income.

Modern Orthodox Judaism and feminism

Modern Orthodox feminism, like its Conservative and Reform/Reconstructionist counterparts, seeks to change the position of women in Jewish law (halakha), life, and leadership. However, it differs in several key respects. Firstly, its stated approach accepts the Orthodox belief that Jewish law is divine in origin, and as such, Orthodox Jewish feminists say they seek change only in a manner that can be defended in terms of Jewish law, and try to work with, rather than against, the rabbinate.

Therefore, in conflicts between halakha and arguments from egalitarianism, Orthodox feminists say they have remained loyal to halakha, though this is disputed by other feminists and anti-feminist Orthodox Jews. Secondly, Orthodox feminism neither requires precisely equal roles between men and women, as has been the tendency in Conservative Judaism, nor does it seek to overthrow the religious tradition and substitute new sources and traditions, as has been suggested by Reform feminists such as Rachel Adler and Judith Plaskow. Rather, accepting the possibility that somewhat different approaches may be appropriate for men and women, Orthodox feminism generally seeks support for acceptable means to change women's halakhic status, a significant presence and role within the public communal service, and new, supplemental traditions, or the reinstitution of old traditions, of importance to women's lives and worship. Orthodox feminism tends to focus on specific, practical issues, such as the problems of agunah, fostering women's education, leadership, and participation, and arguments for involvement in specific rituals.

One reason for a different agenda for Modern Orthodox feminism is its need to focus on issues which became largely non-existent in liberal branches of Judaism prior to the appearance of Jewish feminism in the 1970s. These issues include the agunah problem arising from a lack of legal power in certain circumstances to initiate a divorce, problems of access to advanced religious education, and matters of physical access and personal comfort in matters of tzniut (modesty), such as, for example, the construction of mechitzot which permit women to see and hear services. (See Mechitza#Proper height of synagogue mechitza) [7][8]

In 1997, Blu Greenberg founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) to advocate for women's increased participation in Modern Orthodox Jewish life and to create a community for women and men dedicated to such change.[9]

Critics of Orthodox feminism from within Orthodox Judaism have disputed its claims to Orthodox legitimacy, including its claims to accept the divinity of Jewish law and to work within legitimate halakhic processes.

See also


  1. Plaskow, Judith. "Jewish Feminist Thought" in Frank, Daniel H. & Leaman, Oliver. History of Jewish Philosophy, Routledge, first published 1997; this edition 2003.
  2. Adler, Rachel. ""The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman." Davka (Summer 1972) 7-11.
  3. Paula Hyman, Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, Jewish Women's Archive. (2006)
  4. "This genderless God also represents a profound betrayal of the Torah narrative." Matthew Berke, "God and Gender in Judaism", in Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 64 (June/July 1996): 33-38
  5. For example, the UK Liberal movement's Siddur Lev Chadash (1995) [1], and the UK Reform Movement's Forms of Prayer (2008) [2]
  6. Feminism & Judaism by Tzipporah Heller
  7. Greenberg, Blu. On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981
  8. Ross, Tamar. Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Brandeis University Press, 2004.
  9. Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Further reading

  • Feldman, Emmanuel. "Orthodox Feminism and Feminist Orthodoxy"PDF (101 KiB). Jewish Action, Winter 1999
  • "Girls Just Wanna Be 'Frum': JOFA conference speaker says feminism lags at Talmud study programs in Israel", NY Jewish Week, February 2007.
  • Jewish women and the feminist revolution, an exhibit of the Jewish Women's Archive (Flash interactive site)
  • Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)
  • Adler, Rachel. "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman," in Heschel, S. (ed). On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader, Schocken, 1983.
  • Adler, Rachel. Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Beacon Press, 1998.
  • Adler, Rachel. "Feminist Judaism: Past and Future", Crosscurrents, Winter 2002, Vol. 51, No 4.
  • Greenberg, Blu. "Will There Be Orthodox Women Rabbis?". Judaism 33.1 (Winter 1984): 23-33.
  • "Is Now the Time for Orthodox Women Rabbis?". Moment Dec. 1992: 50-53, 74.
  • Hartman, Tova, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: Resistance and Accommodation. Brandeis University Press, 2007. ISBN 1-58465-658-1.
  • Hyman, Paula. "The Other Half: Women in the Jewish Tradition" in E. Koltun. The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, Shocken 1976.
  • Hyman, E. Paula & Dash Moore, Deborah. (eds) (1997) Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Routledge, ISBN 0-415-91934-7
  • Hyman, E. Paula & Dalia Ofer. (eds) (2006) Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Publication Society CD-ROM
  • Ner-David, Haviva. Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination. Needham, MA: JFL Books, 2000.
  • Nussbaum Cohen, Debra. "The women’s movement, Jewish identity and the story of a religion transformed," The Jewish Week, June 17, 2004
  • Ozick, Cynthia. "Notes toward finding the right question" in Heschel, S. On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader. Schocken, 1983.
  • Plaskow, Judith. "The right question is theological" in Heschel, S. On being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader, Shocken, 1983(a).
  • "Language, God and Liturgy: A Feminist Perspective," Response 44:3-14, 1983(b).
  • Plaskow, Judith. Standing again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, Harper and Row, 1990(a)
  • "Beyond Egalitarianism," Tikkun 5.6:79-81, 1990(b).
  • "Facing the Ambiguity of God," Tikkun. 6.5:70-1, 1991.
  • Ruttenberg, Danya, ed. "Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism." Seal Press, 2001.
  • Umansky, E. & Ashton, D. (eds) Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook, Beacon, 1992.
  • Wolowelsky, Joel B. "Feminism and Orthodox Judaism", Judaism, 188, 47:4, 1998, 499-507.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Jewish feminism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.