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Jewish Feminist Movement Assessed

March 3, 1977
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Jewish feminist movement, which has already forced dramatic changes in the Jewish communal structure, must be “confronted and accommodated” if American Jewry is to survive.

This view is expressed by Anne Lapidus Lerner, instructor on modern Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in a booklet title “Who Hast Not Made Me A Man,” published by the American Jewish Committee and introduced today at a news conference at its headquarters. The 40-page booklet offers a comprehensive survey of where the American Jewish women’s movement is going in the synagogue, communal organizations, on campuses and in the counter-culture.

Although both female rabbis and cantors are now being ordained by Reform seminaries, Mrs. Lerner declares, “the question of their acceptance by congregations must be faced.” No religious problem is involved but one of male acceptance of women in this role, she points out. Similarly, the long period of time that it has taken for the Reform movement to ordain women was due not to religious impediments but to male attitudes, she declares.


Reviewing the changes that the Jewish feminist movement has already effected in Jewish life, Mrs. Lerner suggests that of the various denominations, the Reform Movement has been most flexible in admitting feminine participation into various aspects of ritual. She recalls that as long ago as 1845, a rabbinical conference, meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, declared that “woman has the same obligations as man to participate from youth up in the instruction of Judaism and in the public services, and that the custom not to include women in the number of individuals necessary for the conduction of a public service (a minyan) is only a custom and has no religious basis.”


The progress that has been made in the Reform Movement in the acceptance of women in religious roles stands in sharp contrast to Orthodox Judaism, where “little has changed,” Mrs. Lerner points out. Although there have been some voices raised in Orthodoxy to change the status quo, the degree of acceptance of change has been limited. Nonetheless, “Orthodox Jewish feminists…will not indefinitely be satisfied to remain in a passive role in segregated sections of synagogues.”

The situation in Conservative Judaism as it relates to women’s roles is decidedly more complex, the booklet states. “Given its dual commitment, to tradition and to change, the (Conservative) movement comprehends a great diversity of opinion about the place of women in its religious life. Many congregations, as well as the national institutions of Conservative Judaism, are debating and arguing the issue.”

Mrs. Lerner points out that Conservative Judaism has granted substantial rights to women from its earliest years. This trend has been markedly increased in the past five years, she continues. “The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue of America…the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly, and the Jewish Theological Seminary all moved in varying degrees toward a recognition of the merits of the feminist demand for increased women’s rights.”

The most dramatic instance of such change. Mrs. Lerner explains, was the 9-4 decision of the CJLS in September, 1973 stating that women could be counted equally with men in the minyan. This followed a previous decision that women could be called to the Torah for aliyot. These decisions were not binding on rabbis or congregations, and there is a wide diversity now among Conservative groups as to their acceptance in practice, the author states.


The booklet also surveys the changes that have taken place in the Jewish communal structure to accommodate feminist demands for recognition. Included among such changes, the author points out, is the establishment by the AJ Committee of a National Committee on the Role of Women and the establishment by B’nai B’rith of co-ed units.

Summarizing the reactions of organized American Jewry to the feminist movement, Mrs. Lerner declares that many perceived it as “threatening, overly strident and destructive. While many men and women have come to accept the movement’s assumptions, a significant proportion of Jews have reservations about one or another part of its program, and a small minority remains in total opposition.”

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