This is a guest post by Aurora Mendelsohn of Rainbow Tallit Baby.
Has feminism run its course in Jewish liturgy and ritual practice? Jay Michaelson (“Rethinking Egalitarianism: Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”, Forward, Nov. 5, 2010) described how young Jews, who grew up in progressive shuls, when moving to places with fewer synagogue options, end up choosing vibrant, engaged, child-friendly, non-egalitarian communities over spiritually empty, formal, egalitarian ones.
Danya Ruttenberg suggested (Sh’ma Magazine, “Messy Complexity: On God, Language, and Metaphor”, April 2011) that the goals of feminists over the 40 years—proposing alternative, less male-centric language, allowing people who value feminism to be at home in Judaism, and allowing everyone to explore the female aspects of the divine terms—have been achieved. Ruttenberg writes that the time has come to “stop thinking about language and God” because this focus becomes the totality of experiencing the divine. In a similar vein, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser argues (“Do We Still Need Jewish Feminism?”, Zeek) that within American practice, “egalitarianism has become the baseline practice for the majority of American Jews” and that in non-Orthodox Judaism, egalitarian religious practice and liturgy, the dreams of Jewish feminists have been achieved.
Kaiser also describes the great strides in the modern Orthodox world, as it “edges toward Egalitarianism” with women’s Tfillah (prayer) groups, women offering divrei Torah (sermons) and being ordained as quasi-rabbis. This is a better description of the modern Orthodox world than an op-ed in a major Canadian paper by prominent Reform Rabbi Dow Marmur, which said modern Orthodox groups now make women “full and equal participants in worship” because women were allowed to read from the Torah. He was describing an international modern Orthodox movement in which women are indeed accorded significant access to ritual participation. However, this movement deliberately uses the term ‘partnership minyan’ to describe itself to acknowledge that according to their reading of Jewish law, equal access or status is not possible. (Though one partnership minyan in Israel refers to itself as “an egalitarian Orthodox community”). Neither Kaiser nor Marmur note the strong rejection of these innovations from the large majority of Orthodoxy, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, to the extent that these congregations are considered “non-Orthodox” by the Orthodox leadership and are denied membership in the Orthodox Union.
Recently, I saw a brochure for a local Orthodox synagogue touting its egalitarian advances. I scanned it, intrigued, looking for a women’s prayer group or Simchat Torah celebration, but found that it was referring to their new policy of allowing women to sit on the board. I could not help channeling Inigo Montoya; “Egalitarian…You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” It began to dawn on me that egalitarianism in Jewish practice might be in the eye of the beholder. This uncertainty about what egalitarianism means reminded me of when I attended a college minyan, called “the Egalitarian minyan”. In terms of service leading, what people did, it was totally egalitarian. But to me, who grew up with an egalitarian liturgy, what people said, its use of traditional liturgy was most certainly not.
There are myriad ways for women to enter into public religious practices that were once dominated by men (which shows just how few there once were reserved for women). It is clear women’s roles in public ritual have evolved considerably over the past century. In the timeline of Jewish history, this is quite a short time. It seems equally clear they will also evolve during the next century. Some practices that were heretical a hundred years ago are commonplace and normative now across denominations from Orthodox to Renewal (like a public acknowledgement of a bat mitzvah). To have any meaningful discussion about whether egalitarianism has been successful, how much it may have achieved (as noted by Ruttenberg and Kaiser) or what future directions should be pursued, or how weight should be given to it when it conflicts with other values (as raised by Michaelson), one must first know what egalitarianism is, even if there are multiple answers. Towards this end I have compiled a taxonomy of egalitarianism in Jewish practice (inspired by BZ’s Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism), which looks at four areas of Jewish practice: participation (what we do), liturgy (what we say about ourselves, our ancestors, and God), identity (who we are), and legal status. To assess the merits of egalitarianism, to determine whether its goals have been achieved, or to progress, we must first know where we have come from and where we now stand.
Egalitarianism In Jewish Practice
Part 1: Egalitarianism in participation. Historically (and in some parts of Orthodox Judaism today), this simply meant the non-religious aspects of synagogue life like the right to be a voting member of a synagogue or to sit on the board. This is in part why Sisterhoods and Ladies’ Auxiliaries were formed. Women were excluded from the main areas of synagogue governance and active membership. Having female board members and presidents is still controversial in the Orthodox world. The National Council of Young Israel, founded a century ago as a “modern” Orthodox movement, expelled a synagogue in Syracuse, NY for having a female president, an action that included claiming ownership of their building and other assets when the synagogue switched to another Orthodox affiliation.
But for most of the Jewish world concerned with egalitarianism, participation now means performing ritual acts in public and leading the congregation: leading the service, reading from the Torah, having an aliyah (being called to the Torah), being counted in a minyan (quorum of 10 required for public prayer), writing a Torah as a scribe, wearing a talit (prayer shawl) and tfillin (phylacteries) or leading the grace after meals.
Currently, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, and the vast majority of the Conservative movement are fully egalitarian in terms of participation. ‘Traditional’ Conservative synagogues and the modern-Orthodox partnership groups, allow women to lead introductory parts of the service, have aliyot, and read from the Torah, but not to be counted in a minyan or lead the main parts. Partnership minyanim are more egalitarian than many traditional Conservative shuls (especially in Canada) in that they require 10 men and 10 women for a public service and allow more public roles. However, in most groups, if the last possible time for the service approaches, they will begin with 10 men, regardless of the number of women.
Some Orthodox synagogues have women-only prayer groups in which women lead parts of the service and read Torah, usually without the traditional blessings which would indicate their ritual obligation. Some have women-only celebrations of Simchat Torah and Purim Megillah readings, but all of these practices are seen as controversial most Orthodox circles.
Even congregations that consider themselves “fully” egalitarian in terms of participation have some ritual practices that differ for men and women. In my shul, men, but not women, are required to wear a talit when they are called to the Torah. Usually, men, but not women, are required to cover their heads in the sanctuary. In many synagogues girls, but not boys, may be called to the Torah (become bar or bat mitzvah) at age 12. Traditionally boys became ritually responsible at 13, girls at 12. Pure egalitarianism would be the same age for both.
Others may be more subtle practices. When bestowing honors at a simcha or at a luncheon, are men asked to lead the prayer for wine and women to lead the prayer for bread? When there is a discussion of a text, are men called on to respond first or more often? Are only men asked to lift the Torah (hagbah), but not women whom we see lifting weights at the gym or swinging their toddlers overhead? In communal (or even home-based) Shabbat dinners, how often do men light the candles? Are boys and girls equally exposed to gifts of tfillin and training in their use?
Part 2: Egalitarianism in Liturgy. A: Female worshipers. The first level of egalitarianism in liturgy is simply acknowledging female participants in the words of prayer. Some prayers implicitly state that the congregation is all male. The traditional prayer after the Torah reading asks for a blessing on “them, their wives, and their children”. It is unlikely that lesbian couples were being considered. Similarly, another prayer asks to “preserve among us the sages of Israel, them, their wives” assuming no female sages, which may come as a shock to the disciples of Nechama Leibowitz. The word “wives” was dropped by the Conservative movement in the 1980s, but only from the English “translation”. It remains in the Aramaic. These prayers are not in the Reform liturgy.
Beyond language that assumes a male-only congregation, the traditional morning blessing specifically thanks God for “not making me a woman.” Looking at reactions to this blessing over time demonstrates how attitudes towards women in prayer evolved. Early prayerbooks truly assumed few female readers, so this blessing was not seen as problematic. In the middle ages, women developed the custom of saying an alternative blessing, “for making me as God wished”, which rabbinic commentators of the time viewed as a resignation to their lower status. During this time many variants existed, including thanking God “for making me a woman” and “for not making me an animal”. These alternative blessings first appeared in the notes of rabbis describing what women said and then, much later, in prayerbooks intended for women’s use.
In 20th century, “for making me as God wished”, which became the main Orthodox option, appeared as a selection in smaller type in the main prayerbook with “women say” printed above it. Current Orthodox prayerbooks have this blessings presented side-by-side with “for not making me a woman”.
In the 1850s, the Reform movement issued a prayerbook with a positive blessing to be recited by both men and women thanking God, “Who has created me to worship Him”. In the 1940s, the Reconstructionist and then the Conservative movements introduced the blessing “who has made me in God’s image”, for both men and women. Using this single, positively-phrased blessing is the current practice in all non-Orthodox synagogues.
This egalitarianism has not reached all areas of daily prayer, as seen with the prayer said upon waking, Modeh Ani (I am thankful for my soul). As Hebrew is gendered, a woman says Modah Ani (the female form of thank). The first Orthodox, translated prayerbook to include this form came out in 2009 (Koren Sacks). The majority of day schools, camps, and junior congregations, even in progressive synagogues, still have everyone sing the male form.
Another example is the ubiquitous Grace After Meals which includes the line, “We thank You for the covenant which You sealed into our flesh”, which refers to circumcision and seems an odd phrase for women to recite. An alternative phrase, “sealed in our hearts” was introduced by the Reconstructionist and Reform movements in the early 1990s (Kol Haneshamah: Shirim Uvrahot, 1991, On the Doorposts of Your House, 1993, and Birkon Mikdash M’at, 2005; Previous Reform prayerbooks omitted the whole paragraph).
Part 2: Egalitarianism in Liturgy. B: Female ancestors. The next level of egalitarianism in liturgy is acknowledging that some of our ancestors were women. This is most commonly seen in the addition of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, to their husbands in the Amidah, which is done to varying extents in all non-Orthodox movements. However, this inclusion of female ancestors can enrich other prayers as well. The Reconstructionist prayerbook adds the phrase ‘our mothers’ to the many places where ‘our fathers’ appears in the liturgy, since our patriarchs appear in many more places than just the Amidah such as in the blessing on Hanuka (who performed miracles for our fathers). Matriarchs can also be added by name, as in mentioning Miriam alongside Moses in the prayers about singing at the sea. Various female ancestors are added to the Ushpizin, the biblical guests we invite into the sukah (as in the Conservative prayerbook, Sim Shalom). Some congregations, like Havurat Shalom in Boston, extend this idea, adding in the biblical word for female slave every time the word slave is mentioned in the liturgy (which is quite a lot) as well as many similar changes.
Our immediate ancestors, our parents, also play a liturgical role. Traditionally people were called to the Torah by their Hebrew name and their father’s Hebrew name. Since the late 1970s progressive movements have used both parents’ names in calling people to the Torah. However, the mother’s name is still seen as optional in a majority of “egalitarian” synagogues and almost always follows the father’s name.
Conversely, when we pray for the recovery of the sick in the Mi shebeirach l’cholim, we use the person’s Hebrew name and only their mother’s Hebrew name. The Zohar describes this as an appeal to God’s compassionate side, as mothers are more compassionate than fathers, which is not a very egalitarian concept! So far, even in most progressive circles, there has been no campaign to add the father’s name to the blessing for the sick. This reflects a common misconception about egalitarianism, which is that it is only about giving women rights and roles that were traditionally held by men alone and not about giving men rights and roles that were previously reserved for women.
Part 2: Egalitarianism in Liturgy. C: Female or Feminine God. The third and most contentious level of egalitarianism in liturgy is acknowledging that God may be female or have female aspects. This can be done as simply as directly translating prayers that already have female imagery. The “V’hi sheamdah” section of the Haggadah is usually translated as “That which sustained our ancestors and us”. Because Hebrew is gendered, the word “that” in this sentence is the same word as “She”. Tradition defines the unspoken antecedent of “that” as the promise God made to us. Rabbi Kalischer, in the 19th century, wrote that the female pronoun refers to the feminine aspect of God. Following this interpretation, feminist Haggadot today use the translation “She who sustained our ancestors and us”..
The most far-reaching step is to change not just occasional prayers, but the most common and frequent references to God. In the Hebrew of the prayerbook, and in older English translations, God is primarily referred to as male, as King, Lord, and the-Holy-One-Blessed-be-He. The basic formula of all blessings begins “Blessed are you, God, King of the universe”. More liberal branches of Judaism have created alternatives, using female gender for the formula with Elah (God), Shechina (Presence). Some also replace the word Melech (king) with Ruach, which means wind or spirit; others use Malkah (queen) in Hebrew and Sovereign in English.
Some prayerbooks use these exclusively female blessing formulas (Ma’ayan Haggadah, Kohenet, Siddur Nashim). Others (like the Reform and Reconstructionist) present them as an option in one section with the idea that they could be used for all blessings, but leave most blessings in the text in the traditional formula. There are few prayerbooks that use both male and female God language in close to equal measure (e.g. Or Chadash).
Some have tried gender-neutral terms or gender-ambiguous terms such as Yah for God, popular in the Renewal movement, but this still raises difficulties in Hebrew, a gendered language. Marcia Falk introduced an avoidance of the third person (and thus of gender in English and in Hebrew), beginning her blessings with “Let us bless the source of life”.
Part 3: Egalitarianism in identity. The obvious debate in identity issues is over patrilineal descent. Some liberal movements affirm the rights of fathers to independently pass on Jewishness to their children in the absence of a Jewish spouse. The Orthodox and Conservative do not, based on the rabbinic rulings that paternity can be questioned, but not maternity. Less discussed is the hereditary nature of being a Cohen (priest) or a Levi (member of the biblical tribe who served in the temple), which is passed on only through the father. Some synagogues allow women to inherit the state of being a Cohen or Levi as a bat-Cohen or bat-Levi (daughter of a cohen or Levi) and thus be eligible for the first two Torah readings traditionally set aside for them. This move does not afford full ritual equality, though, as a bat-Cohen is often not permitted to perform the priestly blessing of the congregation (duchanen) (though there is a Conservative opinion permitting this) nor is she permitted to pass on her status to her children. More liberal synagogues have simply dispensed with the public honours associated with Cohen and Levi (for other reasons), which is egalitarian as neither gender performs them.
Part 4: Egalitarianism in legal status. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, women cannot initiate Jewish divorce. Other movements have egalitarian divorces, but they are not widely used and participants are often counseled to get an Orthodox divorce as well. Similarly, women traditionally cannot serve as valid legal witnesses. Though status in a Jewish court is not something we think of as relevant on a daily basis, a witness is required to sign a ketubah (marriage contract), witness the giving of a get (divorce contract), or approve a conversion. This is a right that most movements of Judaism have denied women (because the Talmud specifically bans women from this role). So even though for 20 years female Conservative rabbis have been able to lead services, teach conversion classes, perform circumcisions, officiate at funerals and weddings, and serve on and author papers for the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, they were only counted as legal witnesses in 2001, in a ruling many do not accept.
Why is this delineation important? Because naming is powerful. The generic term ‘egalitarian’ allows us to take where we have come as the end product and to become complacent. Engaging and wrestling with our ritual practice keeps it alive and relevant and meaningful. If we are already ‘egalitarian’ than we do not need to engage with what it means; we do not have to ask ourselves, what does egalitarianism mean now? In what ways is our observance egalitarian and it what ways is it not? How do women’s roles in ritual life relate to their roles in the larger society? What in the past motivated us to pursue ritual changes? What does now? The way forward is through answering these questions.
I do believe that we are not done and that there is a way forward. I was raised in an egalitarian synagogue, the dream my feminist parents’ generation worked hard on and created for themselves and their children. For much of my youth I saw little of other forms of Judaism. It is the nature of feminism and all progressive movements that what was a dream come true for one generation, what was pushing the envelope, is what is expected as a minimum without question for the next. Just like my parents, the world I try to create for my children demands more of the concept ‘egalitarian’ than the one I was raised with. The native-born children always expect more from their home country than their immigrant parents.