Jewish Feminism in the United States
Challenging all varieties of American Judaism, feminism has been a powerful force for popular Jewish religious revival. Of America’s four Jewish denominations, all but the Orthodox have accepted women as rabbis and cantors. In contrast to the past, girls are now welcomed into the Jewish community with impressive ceremonies that celebrate their birth, and they are being educated Jewishly at virtually the same rate as boys. Feminist scholarship has begun to recover the previously ignored experience of Jewish women and has offered new perspectives for the interpretation of classical Jewish texts. Although men still predominate in positions of power within the organized Jewish community, the presence of Jewish feminists in communal institutions ensures that issues of gender equality are discussed rather than suppressed.
The movement toward gender equality in the American Jewish community in the past generation was spurred on by a grass-roots movement of Jewish feminism. Well-educated and liberal in their political and cultural orientation, many Jewish women participated in what has been called the second wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s. Most did not link their feminism to their religious or ethnic identification. But some women, whose Jewishness was central to their self-definition, naturally applied their newly acquired feminist insights to their condition as American Jews. Looking at the all-male bimah (stage) in the synagogue, they experienced the feminist “click”—the epiphany that things could be different—in a Jewish context. Two articles pioneered in feminist analysis of the status of Jewish women. In the fall of 1970, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin criticized the liabilities of women in Jewish law in her “The Unfreedom of Jewish Women,” which appeared in the Jewish Spectator, the journal she edited. Several months later, Rachel Adler, then an Orthodox Jew, published a blistering indictment of the status of women in Jewish tradition in Davka, a countercultural journal. Adler’s piece was particularly influential for young women active in the Jewish counterculture of the time.
In the early 1970s, Jewish feminism moved beyond the small, private consciousness-raising discussion groups that characterized the American women’s movement to become a public phenomenon. Calling themselves Ezrat Nashim, a small study group of young feminists associated with the New York Havurah, a countercultural fellowship designed to create an intimate community for study, prayer, and social action, took the issue of equality of women to the 1972 convention of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly. The founding members of Ezrat Nashim represented the highly educated elite of, primarily, Conservative Jewish youth. (Several of them, such as Paula Hyman, Elizabeth Koltun, Arlene Agus, and Martha Ackelsberg have contributed to the development of Jewish feminist writing for more than two decades. Other founding members were Dina Rosenfeld, Maureen McCleod, Leora Fishman, and Betty Braun. Joining Ezrat Nashim in its early activist years were Toby Reifman and feminist scholars Judith Hauptman and Judith Plaskow.)
In separate meetings with rabbis and their wives, the women of Ezrat Nashim issued a “Call for Change” that put forward the early agenda of Jewish feminism. That agenda stressed the “equal access” of women and men to public roles of status and honor within the Jewish community. It focused on eliminating the subordination of women in Judaism by equalizing their rights in marriage and divorce laws, counting them in the minyan (the quorum necessary for communal prayer), and enabling them to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue as rabbis and cantors. In recognition of the fact that the secondary status of women in Jewish law rested on their exemption from certain mitzvot (commandments), the statement called for women to be obligated to perform all mitzvot, as were men. Ezrat Nashim caught the eye of the New York press, which widely disseminated the demands of Jewish feminism.
Jewish feminism found a receptive audience. In 1973, secular and religious Jewish feminists, under the auspices of the North American Jewish Students’ Network, convened a national conference in New York City that attracted more than five hundred participants. A similarly vibrant conference the following year led to the formation of a short-lived Jewish feminist organization. Although Jewish feminists did not succeed in establishing a comprehensive organization, they were confident that they spoke for large numbers of women (and some men) within the American Jewish community.
Feminists used a number of strategies to bring the issue of gender equality before the Jewish community. Feminist speakers presented their arguments from the pulpit in countless synagogues and participated in lively debates in Jewish community centers and local and national meetings of Jewish women’s organizations. Jewish feminists also brought their message to a wider public through the written word. Activists from Ezrat Nashim and the North American Jewish Students’ Network published a special issue of Response magazine, devoted to Jewish feminism, in 1973. With Elizabeth Koltun as editor, a revised and expanded version, entitled The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, appeared in 1976. That year, Lilith, a Jewish feminist magazine, was established by Susan Weidman Schneider and Aviva Cantor; Susan Weidman Schneider has served as its editor since that time. Lilith has combined news of interest to Jewish women with articles bringing the latest Jewish feminist research in a popular form to a lay audience along with reviews of new publications.
Under the aegis of Ezrat Nashim, Toby Reifman, one of Lilith’s members, edited and distributed a pamphlet containing baby-naming ceremonies for girls. The very lack of formal Jewish feminist organizational structures allowed for grass-roots efforts across the country. In 1977, for example, Irene Fine of San Diego, California, established the Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education. Not only did it regularly bring speakers and artists to southern California, it has also published collections of Jewish women’s interpretations of Jewish texts as well as women’s rituals.
Through their publications and speaking engagements, Jewish feminists gained support. Their innovations—such as baby-naming ceremonies, feminist Passover seders, and ritual celebrations of rosh hodesh (the new month, traditionally deemed a woman’s holiday) were introduced into communal settings, whether through informal gatherings in a home or in the synagogue. In a snowball process, participants in the celebration of new rituals spread them through word of mouth. Aimed at the community rather than the individual, new feminist celebrations designed to enhance women’s religious roles were legitimated in settings that became egalitarian through the repeated performance of these new rituals. Indeed, one of the major accomplishments of Jewish feminism was the creation of communities that modeled egalitarianism for children and youth.
The concept of egalitarianism resonated with American Jews, who recognized that their own acceptance as citizens was rooted in Enlightenment views of the fundamental equality of all human beings. With growing acceptance of women in all the professions, the Reform Movement, which rejected the authority of halakhah (Jewish law), acted on earlier resolutions that had found no obstacles to women serving as rabbis. Hebrew Union College, the seminary of the Reform Movement, ordained the first female rabbi in America, Sally Priesand, in 1972, and graduated its first female cantor in 1975. The Reconstructionist Movement followed suit, ordaining Sandy Eisenberg Sasso as rabbi in 1974. Although the issue of women’s ordination was fraught with conflict for the Conservative Movement, it, too, responded to some feminist demands. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly ruled that women could be counted in a minyan as long as the local rabbi consented. And the 1955 minority decision on aliyot for women was widely disseminated, leading to a rapid increase in the number of congregations willing to call women to the Torah.
The most striking achievement of Jewish feminism was the acceptance of women as rabbis and cantors in the Conservative Movement, then the largest denomination within American Judaism. Because the Conservative Movement considers halakhah binding, but also acknowledges that Jewish law is responsive to changing social conditions and concepts, the decision to ordain women as rabbis and invest them as cantors had to be justified in halakhic terms. The combined impact of American and Jewish feminism on Conservative congregations and their rabbis led to a decision by the movement in 1977 to establish a national commission to investigate the sentiment of Conservative Jews on the issue. Holding meetings throughout the country, the commission members heard the anguished testimony of women who felt ignored in public Jewish life, as well as statements of men offering their support. Although it took note of the arguments against ordination, in its report submitted early in 1979, the commission recommended the ordination of women.
The divisions within the Conservative Movement and among the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the educational institution of the movement responsible for the training of rabbis, led to the tabling of the issue, but it would not disappear. With strong support from the Rabbinical Assembly and ultimately from Chancellor Gerson Cohen, and after consideration of faculty position papers supporting and opposing women as rabbis, the faculty of the seminary voted in October 1983 to accept women into the rabbinical school as candidates for ordination. Amy Eilberg, who had completed most of the requirements for ordination as a student in the seminary’s graduate school, became the first female Conservative rabbi in 1985. Women were welcomed into the Conservative cantorate in 1987.
As of 2004, there were almost 700 women rabbis in the United States. Hebrew Union College has ordained 417 since 1972 (and eight more in Israel since 1992), the Jewish Theological Seminary 138, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College 118 since 1974. The Academy for Judaism, a nonsectarian seminary located in New York City, has also ordained women rabbis. Interestingly, women entered the cantorate later than the rabbinate, even in the Reform movement, which had no halakhic obstacles to contend with. Since 1975 HUC has invested 161 female cantors, who constitute about 40 percent of the total Reform cantorate, while the 87 women of the Conservative Cantors’ Assembly comprise almost 20 percent of its 500 members. Within the Reform movement there are also many uncertified female cantorial soloists—Debbie Friedman being the best known. Perhaps because the cantor is seen as subordinate to the rabbi, there appears to be less communal resistance to having a female cantor than a female rabbi.
Although the Conservative Movement was the center of Jewish feminist activism in the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish feminism has always been diverse in its constituency and its concerns. The case for Orthodox feminism was made most eloquently by Blu Greenberg in her 1981 book On Women and Judaism. Despite the fact that most Orthodox spokesmen deny feminist claims of the secondary status of women within traditional Judaism and disavow feminist influence, Jewish feminism has had an impact on American Orthodoxy, however unacknowledged. Young Orthodox women simply take for granted the new conditions that older feminists have struggled to achieve. Feminists have pushed the halakhic envelope in terms of ritual, establishing women’s tefillah (prayer) groups [See Women’s Tefillah Network] that respected all the halakic constraints on women’s public prayers beginning in the late 1970s. Despite the hostility that women participating in women’s tefillah groups encountered, they persevered. Women who affirm their loyalty to halakhah have also asserted their own reading of halakic texts.
The self-empowerment of Orthodox feminists is most visible in JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Founded in 1997, it holds international biannual conferences that regularly draw 2,000 participants and advocates “meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, houses of learning and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within halakhah.” It maintains a website and publishes a newsletter, the JOFA Journal (established in 1998) and ensures that the issue of the agunah, the chained wife unable to secure a get, a Jewish divorce, remains high on the agenda of the Orthodox community.
The most significant influence of feminism on the lives of Orthodox girls has been in the realm of education. Girls are now provided with a more comprehensive Jewish education in Orthodox schools, including some study of Talmud, than has ever historically been made available to them. Institutions like Drisha in New York City, founded in 1979, have pioneered in advanced education in classical Jewish texts for female students. In altered forms that conform to Jewish law, feminist rituals such as celebrations of the birth of a daughter and Bat Mitzvah rites have found their place within modern Orthodox communities. And Orthodox leaders have felt constrained to issue apologetic defenses of the “separate but equal” status of women in Judaism.
Judaism as a religious tradition has animated Jewish feminism. But secular or “cultural” Jews have also contributed to Jewish feminist ranks. Some feminist Jews rediscovered their Jewishness as they encountered antisemitism within the women’s movement. Jewish women who participated in the 1975 United Nations Conference on Women were stunned by the prevalence of anti-Semitic statements, and were angered in the 1980s that some feminists articulated anti-Zionist statements that incorporated anti-Semitic assumptions and stereotypes. As Letty Cottin Pogrebin and the theologians Judith Plaskow and Susannah Heschel have pointed out, feminists often blamed Judaism for the “death of the goddess” and for the theological legitimation of patriarchy. More generally, feminists refused to acknowledge the validity of Jewish identity. Some feminists who were Jews responded to this erasure and critique of Jewishness by exploring the meaning of a Jewish secular identity. Particularly sensitive to “otherness,” lesbians were active in combating antisemitism within the women’s movement and in asserting the validity and cultural value of Jewishness. They have also articulated the importance of diversity within the Jewish community. Nice Jewish Girls (1982), edited by Evelyn Beck, became a classic statement of lesbian issues within the Jewish feminist movement and a powerful assertion of lesbian feminist identity.
Beginning in the 1980s, Jewish feminists raised issues that went beyond the acceptance of women into male-defined positions of visibility and power. The emergence of women as religious leaders and as equal participants in the non-Orthodox synagogue allowed women to see themselves in public Jewish ritual, but feminists were increasingly concerned that women’s sensibility and experience be reflected in Jewish life. They hoped that women would be allowed to reshape the rabbinate and the cantorate, rather than simply follow traditional male models. Most importantly, they sought to incorporate women’s voices and insights into Jewish liturgy and into the interpretation of classical Jewish texts. Arguing that Jewish liturgy and culture should reflect the understanding of women as well as men, Jewish feminists called for a revision of the siddur, the prayer book, and the Passover Haggadah and for the creation of feminist midrash, interpretation of biblical and talmudic texts. Scholar-activists such as Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and Ellen Umansky challenged the male-dominated concepts of Jewish theology and God-language that drew primarily upon masculine imagery and perspectives. The poet and Hebrew scholar Marcia Falk created blessings that supplant traditional liturgy with innovative forms that introduce feminist concepts: a subversion of hierarchy and naturalistic images of God gendered in Hebrew in the female.
The issue of God-language raised by feminists has, to one extent or another, influenced the prayer books and other ritual texts, particularly in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. In 1975, the Reform Movement introduced some gender-inclusive language in English sections of its new prayer book, Gates of Prayer, and published fully gender-sensitive versions for Sabbath and weekdays in 1992. The Reconstructionists also created a fully gender-sensitive siddur, Kol Haneshama, with the Sabbath edition published in 1994 and the weekday edition in 1996. Although the Conservative Movement has been reluctant to introduce feminist-inspired changes in liturgy, the revised version of its Sim Shalom prayer book (1985) offered the option of including the names of the matriarchs along with those of the patriarchs in a central section of the prayers. A portion of the siddur was republished in 1998 as Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, with a translation gender-sensitive both in its references to God and in a liturgical reflection of the new reality that women as well as men participate in all elements of the Conservative synagogue service, including leading the prayers and reading the Torah. A Conservative-issued version of the Passover Haggadah (1982), the first to be edited by a woman, Rachel Anne Rabinowicz, included several stories of women in its sidebar interpretations. All denominations, however, have refrained from altering the Hebrew liturgy, and reconceptualizing images of God in light of feminist critiques has made only modest inroads.
Much of the continuing impact of Jewish feminism stems from the informal “old girls” network that professionally successful Jewish feminists have created. The establishment in 1991 of the Jewish Feminist Center in Los Angeles was made possible by a gift from the Nathan Cummings Foundation at the direction of Rabbi Rachel Cowan, its Jewish life officer. The funds were donated to the regional office of the American Jewish Congress, whose director was Rabbi Laura Geller. Geller conveyed this financial support to Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, who became the founding director of the center. The center became the headquarters for a range of adult education courses on Judaism from a feminist perspective. Its classes and spirituality workshops elicited an enthusiastic response. Its feminist seders, in particular, led by the composer and singer Debbie Friedman, drew large numbers of women seeking Jewish feminist spiritual expression.
Because it succeeded in acquiring accreditation for its courses from the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, which supervises the continuing professional education of teachers in Jewish schools, the Jewish Feminist Center was able to affect the Jewish education of children and youth. In 1994, Elwell was hired to serve as rabbinic director for Ma’ayan, the Jewish Women’s Project in New York City, founded by the philanthropist Barbara Dobkin, who serves as its executive director. Like the Jewish Feminist Center, Ma’ayan, which declares its “commitment to an inclusive feminist vision,” sponsors a range of educational and spiritual events for Jewish women that include “study, ritual and celebration, research, advocacy, community building, and tzedaka” (Ma’ayan 1996). It sponsored a seder that regularly drew almost a thousand participants. Similarly, Jewish feminist scholars not only provide a feminist perspective in their courses but model a feminist Jewish identity for their students, and Jewish feminists who work in communal institutions promote feminist programming.
Despite the fact that Jewish feminism has greatly influenced the American Jewish community, it has not achieved all its goals. Women who remain under the jurisdiction of Jewish law are still victimized in divorce proceedings. Some Orthodox men use their privilege in Jewish divorce law to extort large sums from their wives or leave them agunot (deserted wives), unable to remarry according to Jewish law.
Although women are more visible and wield more power in the institutions of the Jewish community than a generation ago, they have not yet attained parity. Only a handful of the women ordained as rabbis have secured positions as senior rabbis in large and prestigious congregations. To some extent this fact reflects the choices of women rabbis themselves. As one woman rabbi put it, “Climbing up the ladder is not necessarily what we want” (Lilith 1990: 25). Those who have chosen to define their careers in nontraditional ways, avoiding positions in large and impersonal synagogues, have realized that they have also limited their influence within their denominations. They offer a different model of success. Yet the “glass ceiling” that continues to exist in the corporate boardroom operates as well within the American Jewish community. Many prosperous congregations refrain from considering female candidates when they search for a rabbi.
The failure of women to reach the top is even more blatant in the secular organized Jewish community than in its religious denominations, perhaps because more power and money are at stake in this sphere. In 1972, at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, the umbrella organization of Jewish communal life, Jacqueline Levine, a vice president of the council, spoke passionately to the assembled delegates of the need to include women in the decision-making of the Jewish community: “We are asking … to be treated only as human beings, so that we may be … participants in the exciting challenge of creating a new and open and total Jewish community” (Response 1973: 65). Twenty years later she concluded sadly that “tokenism is and will continue to be the name of the game” (Fishman 219). Although there are more women board members of Jewish communal institutions than ever before, and some women have advanced into executive positions, men predominate in the top positions, especially in the largest communities.
Jewish feminism faces particular challenges in the contemporary American Jewish community. Many communal leaders consider feminist issues secondary to more pressing concerns, such as assimilation or communal unity. Often they present feminism as a danger to “Jewish continuity,” the current buzzword for Jewish survival. Yet Jewish feminists persist in their activism, animated by the vision of a diverse and inclusive Jewish community, created and sustained by women and men sharing responsibility and power.
There is a collection of Jewish feminist sources in the Jewish Women’s Resource Center, located at the New York Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, NYC.
Adler, Rachel, Engendering Judaism (1998).
Beck, Evelyn Torton, ed. Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology (1984).
Falk, Marcia. The Book of Blessings: A Feminist-Jewish Reconstruction of Prayer (1993).
Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community (1993).
Greenberg, Blu. On Women and Judaism (1979).
Heschel, Susannah, ed. On Being a Jewish Feminist (1983).
Hyman, Paula E. “Ezrat Nashim and the Emergence of a New Jewish Feminism.” In The Americanization of the Jews, edited by Robert M. Seltzer and Norman J. Cohen (1995).
Koltun, Elizabeth, ed. The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives (1976).
Lerner, Anne Lapidus. “Who Hast Not Made Me a Man: The Movement for Equal Rights for Women in American Jewry.” AJYB (1977): 3–38.
Lilith (Fall 1990).
Ma’ayan. Spring Program (1996).
Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai (1990), and The Coming of Lilith : Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics (2005).
Response (Summer 1973).
Schneider, Susan Weidman. Jewish and Female (1984).
Umansky, Ellen. “Creating a Jewish Feminist Theology.” In Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, edited by Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ (1989), and “(Re)Imaging the Divine.” Response 13, 1–2 (Fall–Winter 1982): 110–119.
Wenger, Beth. “The Politics of Women’s Ordination: Jewish Law, Institutional Power, and the Debate over Women in the Rabbinate.” In Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, edited by Jack Wertheimer (1997).
Wertheimer, Jack. A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (1993).