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Special to the JTA Jewish Feminists Assess Challenges and Gains in Struggle for Equality

October 31, 1983
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Challenges facing American Jewish women in their long-standing effort to achieve equality in all areas of Jewish life and ways to attain this objective was the basis of a recent two-day Jewish feminist conference here. The 250 women who met in Congregation Ansche Chesed also examined achievements gained during the past decade.

One of the primary goals Jewish feminists set a little more than 10 years ago was met last week when the Faculty Senate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America voted 34-8 to admit women to the Seminary’s rabbinical school for ordination as Conservative rabbis.

The vote culminated a decade-long struggle that was sparked by the members of Ezrat Nashim, the first Jewish feminist organization, founded in 1971, to convince the Conservative movement that women are equally capable of intense study of the Jewish religion, are equally devoted to keeping traditional Jewish precepts and practices, and should be considered bound to fulfill all the religious obligations (“mitzvot”) of men.

On March 14, 1972, the 14 members of Ezrat Nashim attended a plenary session of the Rabbinical Assembly, where they issued a “Call for Change,” requesting that women be granted: synagogue membership; inclusion in the minyan; full participation in religious observances; recognition as witnesses in a Jewish court of law; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; permission and encouragement to attend rabbinical and cantorial school, and to perform these functions in the synagogue; encouragement to join decision-making bodies and assume professional leadership roles, both in the synagogue and the secular Jewish community; and to be considered obligated to maintain the mitzvot.


Arlene Agus, a founding member of Ezrat Nashim, and currently the director of external affairs and planning at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, reminded the conference at Ansche Chesed that 10 years ago, at the first Jewish feminist conference, “We had three rabbis speaking, all of them men. Today we have five rabbis speaking, all of them women.”

(There are now more than 60 women rabbis, ordained through the Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism; at the time of the conference 10 years ago, there was only one, Sally Preisand.)

Agus, who was the moderator of the recent conference titled “Jewish Women’s Conference: Challenge and Change,” a project of the National Council of Jewish Women-New York Section and sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Resource Center, said that although many of the changes sought in the early years had been achieved, there were “not enough. We’re asking more fundamental, more difficult, and more frightening questions about structure, form, theology, prayer language, and perhaps prayer routine.”

Paula Hyman, another founding member of Ezrat Nashim and now dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, referred to the conference as “our bas mitzvah year.” A leading feminist and coauthor of “Jewish Women in America,” Hyman pointed out that the Jewish feminist movement had accrued great strength since its inception. She called Jewish feminism an “eloquent voice” which has defined and presented the “needs and claims of women.” Stressing that women’s claim to equality is “profoundly moral,” Hyman outlined a two-fold agenda for change: “equal access” and “equal valuing” of women.

She defined “equal access” as the opening up to women of “major aspects of Jewish experience formerly denied to us,” including the assumption of Jewish religious study and the taking on of leadership roles within both the religious and communal realms of Jewish life. This “equal access,” according to Hyman, is the easiest part of the agenda to accomplish.

The “equal valuing” of women, she said, meant taking seriously their experiences and their point of view. She underlined that valuing women’s experience within Judaism would be of benefit to the whole Jewish community, men and women alike. Hyman stressed that women have their own spiritual resources, creative wellsprings, and a “specifically feminine way of reading Torah, which must be liberated and legitimated.”

She called for the creation of a women’s midrash (exposition of scriptural text), which she considers the primary task facing Jewish women. Listening to that midrash, she said, would then be the primary task facing men.


Among the workshops which followed each day’s symposium were two sessions on midrash, conducted by Rabbi Ruth Sohn of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Columbia University. In defining midrash, Sohn emphasized the inherent need to delve into both the text and “ourselves.” She said that “whatever one’s level of elucidation, we all have the ability to write midrash.”

The class, none of whose members had previously done such an exercise, proceeded to examine and write about texts on Miriam and Jacob’s marriage to both Rachel and Leah. Two Orthodox women from Montreal, who expressed the initial feeling of being unable to even begin the task, created such an intricate and well-written commentary that the rest of the group broke into spontaneous applause.


In a workshop on prayer language, Annette Daum, of the Task Force on Equality in Judaism, and Rabbi Jules Harlow, director of publications of the Rabbinical Assembly, presented a “Glossary of Substitute Terminology” which contains suggestions for non-sexist words and phrases in prayer.

The glossary, prepared under the aegis of the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues, offers specific substitute language, including, God, Almighty. Blessed One, for “Lord”; One, God, Maker, Creator, for “Father”; humanity, people, us for “man”, ancestors, forebears, patriarchs and matriarchs in lieu of “fathers, “hpointingout the present masculine-biased language in prayer, Daum stressed that “both God and Judaism are beyond sexuality.”

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