Questions for an Unfinished Revolution

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January 1, 2000
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Tamara Cohen

I didn’t attend the First National Jewish Women’s Conference in New York in 1973. My mother wanted to bring me, her two year-old daughter, but the conference organizers asked her to either stay home with her baby or attend the conference alone. Although she resented the choice, she went to the conference without me.

Over the years, my two sisters and I have embraced a feminism we feel takes my mother’s feminist thinking to the next step. So it is with a deep respect for her, and the feminism with which she raised me, that I voice the following, somewhat critical, observations and questions.

Is Jewish feminism about finding new images for God, ordaining women as rabbis, generating new midrash and developing new ritual? Or is it about becoming partners with women of color, protesting the human rights abuses in the West Bank, and demanding changes in an unfair economy?

The answer to both of these questions must be yes. Jewish feminists have made significant changes to the fabric of Judaism and the shape of the Jewish community. While we continue that work, we must also acknowledge — with equal creativity and energy — our responsibility to the broader questions of feminism, seeing other women’s issues as our own.

How many Jewish feminists are managing their increasingly busy and over-committed lives by relying on the labor of women of another class and race, women who can’t afford good care for their own children? What is a community-sponsored, feminist seder, if it is served on non-recyclable plastic plates, harmful to the environment and manufactured by underpaid Third World women?

I want a Jewish feminism that lays claim both to the heritage of Bundist women as well as the women who wrote techines; that acknowledges both the women of the Emma Lazarus Federation (secular American socialists) and the women of Ezrat Nashim (who lobbied for Conservative women’s ordination). It’s time for Jewish feminists to refute the dichotomies of secular and religious, insisting rather that feminism is always political as well as spiritual. It’s time to recognize that the liberation that is central to Jewish feminism is seriously compromised if our commitment to our own spiritual enrichment is not coupled with a commitment to societal change specifically aimed at improving the lives of less privileged women.

How much is the socialization of Jewish boys and girls changing? Are Jewish children being exposed to multiple models of how to be Jewish men and women? Are school children still paired into model heterosexual families for model celebrations of shabbat? What do teacher’s behaviors and ritual participation reflect about Jewish families and society? I want Jewish feminists to support children — including their own — as they explore their gender and sexual identities.

I want every feminist to recognize the connection between supporting the goals of Jewish feminism and supporting Jewish gays and lesbians. If we honestly value women as much as we value men, then our daughters can love whomever, as long as they are happy. These are feminist, not just gay and lesbian, issues. Ezrat Nashim demanded the right of all women to be Conservative rabbis, but only heterosexual women now have that right.

Finally, I want Jewish feminists to be creating lives for themselves that are more fulfilling, not more exhausting. This means that if women are going to prepare additional seder readings, then men will have to assume some of the traditionally female Pesach duties. It also means that we need to balance a Jewish feminism of the head with one of the body. Like all American women, Jewish feminists are deeply effected by society’s messages about what we should look like. Are we raising our daughters and sons with healthy body images? Are we modeling a balanced life?

I raise these questions not as an indictment of the “past generation,” but rather as an invitation to begin answering these questions together. I can’t count the number of times I have sat at a table with older Jewish feminists and heard my generation categorically criticized, “Where are all the young women? Why has feminism become such a bad word these days?” Should I stand up as proof that we are active feminists? Or should I add my fears about the future of feminism?

I too am worried for the future of feminism. The feminism I want will build on its remarkable achievements and transformations. It will also, however, widen its vision, ask hard questions, and bring women and men together, across generations, in prayer and in protest, through scholarship and song, in synagogue and on the streets.

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Tamara Cohen is the Program Director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project. She is pursuing a Master's Degree in Women's History at Sarah Lawrence College, and active in many community groups.

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