Women Remaking American Judaism

January 1, 2008
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Women Remaking American Judaism, Riv-Ellen Prell, ed. Detroit: Wayne State 
University Press, 2007. $25.95, 352 pp.
Reviewed by Judith Rosenbaum

We have arrived at a time in history when the powerful impact of feminism on the shape of American Judaism is not only acknowledged but sufficiently accepted (by scholars, at least), making possible critical analysis of this phenomenon. Women Remaking American Judaism, an anthology that expands on a May 2004 conference at Wayne State University, not only ably documents the transformation of Jewish life sparked by the past 30 years of feminist activism in the Jewish community, but also examines the process, meaning — and incompleteness — of these widespread changes in leadership, institutions, theology, and ritual.

The book is organized into three sections that demonstrate the diversity of Jewish feminist approaches: Reenvisioning Judaism, which explores how feminism has questioned and revised Jewish theology, God-language, and modes of biblical interpretation; Redefining Judaism, which analyzes changes in the denominations brought about by feminism; and Reframing Judaism, which considers how feminists, through innovations such as Rosh Chodesh celebrations, Miriam-centered ritual objects, and adult bat mitzvah ceremonies, have created a Judaism that includes women’s voices, perspectives, and experiences.

Riv-Ellen Prell’s introduction to the collection is masterful (if one may use that word in describing a book about changing gender roles and challenging hierarchy). She goes beyond the usual introductory summary and synthesis of the individual essays (which she does gracefully) and creates a larger context for the project by examining the relationship between Jewish feminism and the Enlightenment. Prell sees some early roots of Jewish feminism in Enlightenment claims to equality and to the compatibility of Judaism and modernity. While she compares feminism to the Enlightenment in terms of feminism’s   commitment to equality and the radicalism of its impact on Judaism, she also demonstrates how feminism challenges notions about gender — particularly, the relegation of women to the domestic sphere — that are central to both the Enlightenment and Judaism.

Even as she makes a bold claim for Jewish feminism’s radicalism, she also points out that Jewish feminism is, paradoxically, deeply accommodationist; it has a vested interest in sustaining Jewish community. This argument is further developed in the essays in the last (and to my mind, most interesting) section of the book. The authors of these essays argue that women’s ritual innovation — which may, at first glance, seem to be among the most radical developments of Jewish feminism in that they create new forms of religious practice — are in some ways the most accommodating because they focus on including women’s experiences rather than on changing existing practices or questioning authority. Not surprisingly, some of the most accepted feminist contributions to Judaism are those that reinforce certain traditional concepts of gender roles and/or women’s nature. This dynamic, as Chava Weissler demonstrates in her provocative article on meanings of Shekhinah in Jewish Renewal, is noted with discomfort by some, but goes unnoticed and unchallenged by many.

The generous number of illustrations help to capture the creativity and diversity of Jewish feminism, and the timeline of American and Jewish feminism at the back of the book — which begins in the mid-19th century with the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 and the first use of a family pew in an American synagogue in 1851 — reminds readers of the relationship between secular American feminism and Jewish feminism, the long history of feminist activism, and the inseparability of feminism and the development of American Judaism.

Beyond the scope of the project but something that would be important to address, is a detailed analysis of what might be the biggest feminist challenge today: the persistent institutionalized sexism in communal organizations in regard to leadership and workplace issues. Though mentioned briefly within the discussion on denominations, these problems require greater attention in a consideration of Jewish feminism’s agenda for the 21st century.

In her introduction, Prell writes that “Jewish feminism, then, is very much like Second Wave feminism and no different from other social movements in the United States and elsewhere that bring about transformations whose origins are often forgotten and whose claims are imagined to have been unnecessary.” This collection is an important contribution toward recovering the history, power, and impact of Jewish feminism, and will, I hope, spark continued conversation among scholars and lay people.

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Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is Director of Education at the Jewish Women's Archive and curator of the online exhibit “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution” (jwa.org/feminism).

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