Jewish Feminism in the ’90s: Women Gaining Access to Virtually Every Sphere of Jewish Religious Life

In the two decades since Jewish feminism first took shape, women – especially in the liberal movements – have gained access to virtually every sphere of religious life.

In the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements, they have become rabbis and cantors working in pulpits, hospitals, seminaries. In a more limited way, they have also had a hand in making policy as administrators and lay leaders of their movements.

Feminism’s impact reaches far beyond issues of access. It has led to explorations of the nature of spirituality, the nature of God, theology, prayer and ritual.

Even in the most stringent segments of the Orthodox community, women are devoting more of their energy to the serious study of Torah and becoming an increasingly learned constituency.

Liturgy in all the non-Orthodox movements has changed as a result of women’s participation – dramatically in the Reconstructionist movement and slightly in the Conservative movement. Ritual has been expanded and renewed.

The stories of pivotal women in Jewish history are being unearthed. Female voices – largely ignored in classical Jewish literature – are now being woven into the cloth that makes up the whole of Jewish experience.

And the entire paradigm of rabbinic leadership is being reconsidered. Young male rabbis are beginning to expect that they will no longer be "married" to their congregation.

Taking a page from their female colleagues’ book, they are striving for a different balance between professional and family responsibilities.

The rabbinate in all these movements has been transformed by the women’s more intimate and empowering form of spiritual leadership.

Jewish women now in their 20s were raised seeing women as rabbis and cantors, and expect to participate fully in the life of their religious community.

"With women so visible on the bimah, there is a real understanding that women can go where they want to go," said Francine Klagsbrun, an author who championed women’s ordination in the Conservative movement.

Today’s reality stands out in stark contrast to 1973, when organizers of the First National Feminist Conference included a session on women and Jewish law, and all of the rabbis who spoke were male. There was no one else who could.

Two decades later, most of the 221 female Reform rabbis and 55 female Reconstructionist rabbis say that they are accepted as rabbis, not "women" rabbis. Both these movements have been ordaining women since they early 1970s.

"For 10 years it was really oppressive to deal with the novelty. It’s very nice to have it be normalized," said Susan Schnur, editor of Lilith magazine and the founding rabbi of an independent congregation in Princeton, N.J.

Schnur was the fourth woman to be ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College.

"Feminism was along for the ride, but an internalized piece of the agenda" in the founding of her congregation, said Schnur. "People just wanted something intimate and to be taught."

Feminist Jews have achieved many changes in Jewish religious life, but many challenges remain, say observers.

Female clergy are often not considered for pulpits because they are women, and Jewish life has a long way to go before women’s experiences are truly integrated into Jewish literature and liturgy.

Reform rabbis, like all female rabbis, are still fighting for important benefits like maternity leave.

And in each of the movement’s three branches – congregational, rabbinic and seminary – the upper echelon of leadership is exclusively male.

But according to Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, co-coordinator of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a Reform group, "the movement as a whole has gone far, especially in the last five or 10 years, to incorporate more women into the ongoing work.

"Almost all new members of the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the movement’s rabbinic arm) are women. There has been a very conscious and concerted effort to be more inclusive," she said.

Reflections of feminist influence are visible in the Reconstructionist movement more than any other.

The movement’s new series of prayerbooks, titled "Kol HaNeshama," has integrated feminist approaches to addressing the divine.

Instead of using the traditional terms "Adonai" (Lord) or "Melech HaOlam" (King of the World) for the name of God in Hebrew, it uses the term "Yah."

In English, 100 different terms are used, the particular form of address selected to fit the context of each individual prayer.

According to feminist scholar Judith Plaskow, the term "Yah" in Hebrew, and the English-language range of terms, allow for "a much more immanent understanding of God and for the feminine form of blessings."

And the entire process of reconsidering the way to address God, "the process of breaking open our imaginations, is very much part of the feminist impact," she said.

The Conservative movement, which approved the ordination of women in 1983, is having a difficult time negotiating the tensions inherent in being a pluralistic movement with both non-egalitarian and egalitarian congregations and leaders.

Many female Conservative rabbis voice deep frustration with the lack of progress their movement has made on addressing the tensions. Even the leaders of the movement seem ambivalent about women’s leadership, they say.

The result is a sometimes strange brew of practices. At one New York-area Conservative day school, the director of Judaic studies, who is female, is prohibited from praying with tallit and tefillin at the school’s services, although her female students are allowed to do so.

There has been discussion of establishing an office at the Jewish Theological Seminary or United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism that would be a central address for congregations and rabbis who are exploring the often-divisive issues of egalitarianism and women’s ordination.

"There are probably hundreds of synagogues within the Conservative movement struggling with women’s rights," according to Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who teaches theology at JTS and is editor of the publication Sh’ma.

"You can’t just admit women and say we’re done. We’re at the infant stage of dealing with this," Cardin said.

One of the unexpected outcomes of Jewish feminism’s impact on religious matters has been a cross-denominational bond on matters of common concern, like Women of the Wall.

The controversial group has gathered for Rosh Chodesh (beginning of the month) prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem since 1989. Representing all denominations, they gather to pray with a Sefer Torah, some wearing tallitot. They have been physically attacked by fervently Orthodox worshipers at the Wall.

After lengthy negotiations with the ministry of religion and the rabbi in charge of the wall, Meir Yehuda Getz, the women were told to conform to the accepted norms: no tallitot or Sefer Torah, and they must keep their voices low.

Doing that, they have still been attacked and so now pray with a Sefer Torah away from the Wall.

After suing the government of Israel for failing to protect them as women trying to pray within halachah at the Wall, the Israeli Supreme Court’s verdict required a government commission to recommend a resolution. The recommendations are due next February.

The cause has captured the hearts of women across the religious spectrum. According to Orthodox feminist Rivka Haut, the idea of women following Jewish law and praying together at the most meaningful Jewish site in the world "is overpowering as a symbol of Jewish feminism."

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