Jewish feminism, then and now
Yesterday I celebrated Mother's Day in an unusual way. Instead of the traditional "early bird" dinner with my extended family, I traveled to New York City for a reunion of Jewish feminist matriarchs: the founders of Ezrat Nashim. I was invited to this gathering as a daughter of the movement to present a reflection on Jewish feminism today.
Ezrat Nashim was founded by Jewish feminists in the 1970s, who were raised to be deeply connected to Jewish life but were frustrated by the lack of equality for women in the Jewish community. It began as a study group on the status of women in Judaism, and in 1972 they decided to take action: they crashed the meeting of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly (RA) convention and presented a "Call for Change," demanding, among other things, that women be allowed to be called to the Torah, to lead services, to become rabbis and cantors, to serve as witnesses, and to initiate divorce.
At yesterday's event, ten of the original members of Ezrat Nashim spoke personally about what brought them to the group and how it influenced their lives. I was struck by a few comments. Several women pointed out how young they had been (ranging in age from 18-27) and how much chutzpah they had--assuming that they had something important to say and that the RA should listen to them and invite them to participate (at the last minute, no less). They recalled that the RA was, in fact, fairly responsive. When the women showed up uninvited at the Concord Hotel for the convention, they were given a space in which to meet, and, because of a snowstorm, put up for the weekend. In their meeting with rabbis' wives, their remarks were greeted by an old lady's exclamation: "Where have you been all these years?!?" Some rabbis, too, were encouraging, while others responded with alarm, declaring that their demands would "put the final nail in the coffin of the American Jewish male virility."
I offered the following brief observations about Jewish feminism today:
Some of today's challenges are a result of the success of Jewish feminism. Change has happened so fast that many people have no idea that women couldn't be rabbis a generation ago. The widespread representation of women in Jewish ritual roles (in liberal Jewish communities, at least) has created a false impression that Jewish feminism has completed its work. The urgency is gone, which makes it harder to organize for the changes that remain to be achieved.
At the same time, there's been a backlash, particularly in the form of anxiety about the disinterest of boys and men in Jewish life. I pointed out that this was a problem of framing--rather than a narrative of "OMG, Judaism has become ‘feminized' and boys/men can't find a place and are leaving," we should be arguing that "we've learned so much from feminism about how to be creative and inclusive in spiritual life and those lessons should be applied to the experiences of all Jews, including boys and men." At the same time, we need to address why it is that boys and men aren't interested in being part of something in which women have prominent roles (hint: misogyny has something to do with it.)
Structural changes are still needed in terms of communal power and values. The 2004 study of the Conservative movement confirmed that female rabbis are not well represented in senior positions or in larger congregations, and are not as well paid as their male counterparts. Just as bringing women into Jewish religious life helped point out the ways that ritual could be expanded, so too does having women in leadership roles point out the limitations of current organizational structures that are based on outdated models of family economy. What we need now is a revolution in what leadership looks like, how it meshes with family responsibilities, how compensation and benefits are calculated. This is necessary for both men and women.
Women have ascended to administrative leadership roles, but not necessarily intellectual leadership roles. The program for the RA convention to take place later this month is telling: women are well-represented in the practical workshop sessions, but are noticeably absent from the serious learning sessions. And this at a time when the incoming president and executive director of the RA are women. Again, it's not enough to put women into power if the larger structures and culture of Jewish institutions remain unchanged.
Where is the action at today? I note a couple of frontiers: the Orthodox world, in which the feminist cutting edge is obvious and vocal. Currently, the entire Ortho community is engaged in debating whether women can become/be called/serve as rabbis. Also, LGBT issues, especially trans issues, which explode gender as a category. While destabilizing the identity of "woman" can make feminist organizing challenging, it forces us to acknowledge how deeply ingrained binary gender is, even among feminists who see themselves as fighting essentialism, and how much gender differentiation is at the heart of Judaism. While exploding categories can be messy and painful, it creates opportunities for new understandings and fresh thinking.
Finally, Jewish feminism must be explicitly connected to other anti-oppression movements and other feminisms. Young people today are often condemned for being apathetic and unengaged. But I would argue that many young people are deeply engaged in social justice work, but just not in the traditionally defined models of the women's movement. A feminism interested only in women may seem passé and a feminism focused on Jewish women hopelessly parochial. Jewish feminism needs to be explicitly concerned with politics outside of the Jewish community in order to feel relevant. For example, the conversation about workplace issues for Jewish women must include awareness that working women often rely on immigrant women and women of color as domestic workers and nannies. The wages of custodians as well as senior women rabbis should be identified explicitly as feminist issues. If Jewish feminism is perceived as unconnected to issues of race, class, sexuality, citizenship status, environmental sustainability, etc. it will not excite the passion of the next generation.
What have I left out? What other issues matter to you today? How would you define where Jewish feminism should be going in the 21st century?
How to cite this page
Rosenbaum, Judith. "Jewish feminism, then and now." 10 May 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 6, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/jewishfeminism>.