Jewish Feminism in the ’90s: New Rituals Created by and for Women Enhance Women’s Connection to Juda

On the occasion of her 60th birthday, Edie Cohen had a croning ceremony. On a luminous autumn day her best friends gathered in her backyard and listened to Edie speak about her life.

Dressed in a kittel – the simple white garment in which she will be buried – Cohen spoke about the joy and the pain of her first six decades, raising her children, being divorced and learning self-sufficiency in midlife. She spoke of her grandchild and the daughter she had lost in an accident. She spoke of her development as a Jew.

She also spoke of the passage from midlife into old age and what she hoped to accomplish in her years ahead.

Then she and her friends recited a "Shehecheyanu," the blessing of thanksgiving, and a prayer created to mark the occasion of her croning.

"Crone" was once used as an epithet, meaning an old hag. But the term has been reclaimed by feminists, including Jews, who have developed ceremonies to honor women as they turn 60.

Croning ceremonies – sometimes called Simchat Chochmah in Hebrew, or Celebration of Wisdom, and occasionally celebrated by men – are but one type of the dozens of new rituals and blessings that have flourished under the influence of feminism.

Although first introduced in the early 1970s, there has been a proliferation of new rituals and blessings in the last decade.

In the tension between canon and creativity, "canon usually has primacy in Judaism," according to feminist Arlene Agus. "Women have begun elevating the role of creativity so it has become incorporated into our daily life."

New rituals have been created to mark the birth of a daughter, to welcome an adopted baby, to celebrate a child’s weaning from her mother’s breast, to honor a first menstruation and to celebrate a new home.

They have also been developed to grieve a miscarriage and infertility, and to mark the beginning of recovery from rape and from surgery.

Other rituals have been created to expand and replace traditional brit milah, wedding and divorce rituals.

The mikvah, the ritual bath in which observant women immerse themselves seven days after monthly menstruation ends, has also been "reclaimed" by liberal Jewish women and integrated into rituals of healing and renewal.

New and expanded blessings are being created – sometimes spontaneously – to mark daily occurrences as well as life-cycle events.

Bedtime blessings for children, adapted from traditional liturgy, is one example of the type of ritual Jews are seeking out for "a sense of security and equilibrium in a world shaking beneath our feet," said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell.

Elwell, a Reform rabbi, is founding director of the American Jewish Congress’ Jewish Feminist Center in Los Angeles and rabbinic director of Ma’ayan, a new feminist center in Manhattan.

New blessings have also been written, both for the new rituals and as part of regular prayer. Some contain new words for God.

When Marcia Falk, a leading feminist liturgist, first introduced the term "Ain HaChayim," or Wellspring of Life, as a grammatically feminine alternative to the Hebrew words "Lord" or "King" when addressing God, response was sharply divided. People either hated it or loved it, she said.

That was 10 years ago. Today the term, and others that she and other feminist liturgists have developed, are widely accepted in liberal Jewish circles.

"It shows you how quickly tradition can move to change when innovation responds to a hunger," she said.

The "Hebrew liturgical tradition ossified and we ended up with a limited number of terms with which we point to divinity. I want to set in motion a process of naming the divine from our experiences that would flower to include the full diversity of the Jewish community," Falk said.

Some of the new rituals and liturgies have been collected in a new book edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein, "Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones," published by Jewish Lights.

The one new ritual observance that has become most widely accepted, especially among liberal Jewish women, has been the celebration of Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month.

For women who are new to Jewish observance, Rosh Chodesh is a flexible point of entry without a set liturgy. It provides a Jewish connection to feminism, as well as a uniquely female connection to Judaism.

For more traditional Jews, current observance is legitimated by the history of the day. Jewish tradition holds that God gave Rosh Chodesh to Jewish women as their own minor festival as a reward for refusing to contribute their jewelry to help build the Golden Calf in the desert.

On that day each month, women abstained from housework and did mitzvot instead, like collecting charity or washing gravestones.

Contemporary Rosh Chodesh observance, first begun in the early 1970s, takes many forms. But wherever Jewish feminists gather, the first activity they typically hold is a Rosh Chodesh observance.

For some, it means studying Jewish texts and creating midrash, or feminist commentaries. For others, it means discussion of a topic related to the month, or an art project.

Observance of Rosh Chodesh "has helped connect women horizontally and vertically to one another, and given us an unbroken link to biblical history," according to Agus, who began holding ceremonies to mark the new month in 1972.

Even strictly Orthodox women have begun adapting the traditional liturgy to make it more inclusive of their presence.

According to Karen Bacon, dean of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, it has become common in recent years for Orthodox women who have eaten together as a group to recite the form of Birkat HaMazon, or Grace After Meals, that is traditionally said only when three or more men are present, rather than the form said by individuals

The celebration of the birth of a new daughter and the Bat Mitzvah have also become widely accepted in the Orthodox world.

Adaptations of existing blessings and the creation of new rituals have, for many Jewish women, bridged a chasm between their own experiences and the practice of Judaism.

"It’s about connection, being able to put ourselves in the prayers. People want to hear their own experience in the prayers and when they do, they feel connected, part of a greater whole," said Falk.

According to Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who teaches theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary and edits the publication Sh’ma, the benefits of this new liturgical creativity reach beyond Jewish women to the whole of the Jewish people.

"If women are ignored by the tradition, they don’t have to suffer or leave. They can affect the tradition," said Cardin. "One has to do it from a position of study and great respect for the tradition. But the tradition can be pushed and expanded. That’s helping Judaism grow."

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