Women's Liberation and Jewish Identity: Bringing it home
Last week, I had the great privilege of attending the conference “Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity: Uncovering a legacy of innovation, activism, and social change.” (JWA was a conference sponsor, and you can check out Judith Rosenbaum’s response to the conference here!) As a research intern for Professor Joyce Antler, the conference convenor, this past summer, I spent hours reading short essays, activist statements, and poetry by many of the conference’s speakers, who were primarily Jewish women involved in feminist activism in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Seeing their words come to life as they spoke to an audience of peers, academics, and a few young feminists was enlightening, particularly as it provided me with a chance to rethink my own relationship to Jewish feminism as it relates to Jewish ritual practice.
The most moving panel for me was entitled Jewish Feminists/Feminist Judaism, and the speakers were four women whose feminist activism has been inextricably linked to Jewish life and Jewish experience: Blu Greenberg, Susan Weidman Schneider, Arlene Agus, and Susanna Heschel. Even just typing all those names in a row gets my feminist heart thumping a little harder, and the intellect, insight and sheer verve that each of these women brought to the podium only furthered my adoration and respect. From JOFA to Ezrat Nashim to Lilith to On Being a Jewish Feminist, these are women whose leadership and direction has shaped what it means to bring feminist thought and ideas into Jewish religious life.
They spoke about their love for Judaism, for the blessings that it has brought into their life and for the values that they see as emerging from its strictures. These values include social justice, family, and intellectual debate, among others. They also spoke about the challenges involved in transforming communities that are resistant to change and to shifts in power dynamics. Finally, they spoke about the lessons they had learned as their exploration of feminist and Jewish communities developed over several decades, and the key issues that still evoke tension or anxiety in their work. Two of these issues touched me, and I think they reflect a larger battle faced by many who are deeply involved in the rituals of Jewish communities: How do we work to change that which detracts from a culture or religion we love, even while we work to preserve and maintain it for future generations? Similarly, how do we work to change that which detracts from a culture or religion we love, when it often seems that there are even more pressing issues to confront in the world outside?
Susanna Heschel depicted the first of these issues when she discussed raising her children and providing them with a Jewish education. Her husband, she says, doesn’t have a critical Jewish education, so when he goes to shul, he sits back and enjoys the service. Conversely, and because of her knowledge and education, she demands much more from a synagogue experience. As her children grow up, she is faced with a problem: “Do I want my kids to face the same frustration I do by getting a Jewish education, or do I want them to know nothing and be happy?” While the audience laughed with her at this last remark, her frustration with the state of much of North American Judaism was evident.
Blu Greenberg addressed the second issue, and her words moved me deeply. She expressed the pain caused by the glacial pace of change that characterizes evolution in many Jewish communities. Believing that if there is a rabbinic will, then there is a halachic way, Greenberg sees the issue of ritual change in the Jewish world as resting primarily within the hands of the rabbis who make rulings on ritual for their communities. And yet, she said, “Sometimes I wake up and ask myself, what am I doing in this little, little box?” With so many problems plaguing our world, is attention to those of Jewish ritual life enough? Is it worthwhile?
This week, ritual practice took centre stage at my family’s Passover seders. As we celebrated our freedom of both body and spirit, we also thought about what responsibilities accompany that freedom, and where our priorities should lie. For me, these responsibilities are closely tied to the issues of activism within and outside of Jewish communities, but like many of the speakers at the conference, I suspect that negotiating and understanding those responsibilities will be a lifelong process.