Women and Judaism-the introduction


Edited by Malka Drucker
Hardcover: 300 pages
Publisher: Praeger (April 30, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0275991547 ISBN-13: 978-0275991548

Barnes and Noble


May 2009

Although traditional Jewish sources make clear that the One of Infinite Names in non-corporeal and therefore without a sex, when we speak of being in the Image of God, women as well men struggle not to imagine maleness. The gender specific language of Hebrew refers to God as male and therefore creates a picture of God. Furthermore, the predominant structure of ancient Middle Eastern culture was patriarchal, and Jews were part of that world. Men wrote the books, studied and canonized them, and apparently never considered how half the population might experience being almost invisible and silent.

The Talmud describes Torah as “black fire written upon white fire.” The figure ground description of the script hints at two narratives. The black letters, seen in contrast to white, is the narrative we know. The white space surrounding and between the letters may be the other half of the story, the piece of wisdom that we are missing. The metaphor is apt in describing the relationship of women to men. The essays in this book are keys to deciphering white fire, the often-ignored feminine in the divine.

When Moses and the Israelites stood at the foot of Sinai, what did they get? Two tablets, the Five Books of Moses? Some believe that everything that would ever be known was revealed at that cosmic moment. The catch is that only a little bit is revealed in each generation. I hope the reader is as grateful and thrilled as I to be living in the generation that is revealing the unseen and unheard Torah of women. New readings expand upon what is whispered in the text. Women scholars of the Jewish Bible are not only offering a fresh way in which to understand Scripture, they are building the bridge between the tradition and contemporary women.

Midrash, which means in Hebrew to investigate or explain, is a literature that attempts to wrestle new ideas from ancient text. This book is a modern midrash of Judaism through women’s experience. The word, Israel, is the name that the mysterious stranger gives to Jacob after a nightly encounter. It means “one who wrestles with God.” The last thirty-five years have produced remarkable holy wrestlings of women holding fast to the shadow of patriarchy until there is acknowledgment of Jewish women as equal partners with men.

The presence of women working to claim their place in Judaism is part of the great energy emerging in all movements, from Orthodoxy to Jewish renewal. It is the manifestation of this effort that the articles in this book describe the many ways in which women are changing the face of Judaism. The effort to expand the meaning of Torah beyond male perspective, the creation of new rituals and the transformation of traditional rituals such as Bar Mitzvah to include Bat Mitzvah for girls, and the increasing presence of women spiritual leaders suggest that Judaism is moving towards an embrace of all its followers.

The writers in the collection give a dual picture of an ancient tradition that recognizes that its survival depends upon its ability to change. Judaism has been a traveling road show for over two thousand years a story of a people in perpetual exile, and always struggling to overcome prejudice. Today the fear is that the population is declining. Simple demographics make clear that the gifts of women need to be embraced, developed, and included as part of the new canon.

The book contains five sections that reveal the many ways in which Jewish women are making a difference in Judaism. How women navigate themselves in the physical world, of which family is a major part, is the beginning of the exploration in Chapter One: Women, Family, Environment. Sandi Sasso describes the first Bat Mitzvah as a family affair, with Judith Kaplan Eisenstein being called to the Torah in New York, in 1922, by her father, Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism. Alice Shalvi compares the Binding of Isaac with two other cases where mothers are asked to surrender their sons. What would Sarah have done if God had asked her what he asked Abraham? Because Jewish women’s lives have always extended beyond the family into society and into the natural world, Ellen Bernstein, one of the pioneers in Jewish ecology, describes how the holidays are connected to the adamah, earth in Hebrew and it is feminine.

Chapter Two: Socio-Economics, Politics, and Authority, looks at women in the world of external power and shows how they have prevailed. The presence of women rabbis brings a new face to Judaism that shows God’s representatives as both women and men. Children today who know only women as rabbis ask if men can be rabbis too. Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb, one of the first women to be ordained, describes her own journey and the life of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi, who was murdered in Theresiendstadt in 1942.

Perhaps the new authority of women will change the lonely, bleak world that Rabbi Judith Edelstein describes. As a Chaplain at the Jewish Home for the Aged in New York, she brings us near seniors, of whom the great majority are women, and describes their yearning for spiritual connection. The isolation of the elderly, even in communal settings, exposes the fear of a society that values only the productivity and power of the fit.

Equally profound in bringing forth the divine feminine have been new readings of Scripture. Chapter Three: Body, Mind, and Spirit, introduces the challenges of keeping balance when you are part of a people who have survived on the edge of extinction from birth. Hara Person’s article shows how biblical women’s lives can guide and inspire us to live.

The women she describes are heroic not only for feminine virtues such as patience and loyalty, but also for bold actions usually reserved for men. The brilliant deceptions of Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; Tamar’s holy chutzpah in seducing her father-in-law and making him take responsibility for mistreating her; and Miriam’s prophecy are powerful role models for women to be active players in repairing a world in which the will to dominate prevails too often.

No event in recent history carries the power of the Holocaust for Jews. Through the voices of women survivors, social worker Pamela Treiber allows us to enter the hell of the concentration camps and the barest redemption of the surrogate families women created for themselves to sew, cook, give birth, and console.

Women spiritual leaders often demonstrate a different style of community that is inclusive and pluralistic. Sheila Peltz Weinberg candidly describes the choreography of keeping one’s balance as a Reconstructionist rabbi and a student of the teachings of the Buddha.

Chapter Four: Sexuality, Power, and Vulnerability, shows us the ways in which the Bible hints at women’s power and fragility. Debra Band, calligrapher and artist, gives a vivid picture of the frank sexuality of a well-born young woman’s frank passion for her lover in The Song of Songs. Joy Silver’s interpretation of the Book of Ruth becomes a narrative of embracing the “other”, in particular the gay and lesbian community.

Like Ruth, Judith Willmore chose to become a Jew. In her article, she shares her own and other contemporary women’s journeys to join the Jewish people. The angst of leaving one’s family as Sarah and Abraham did, the joy of finding one’s authentic path, and what it means to become a Jewish woman is her story.
The final chapter, Women, World-view, and Religious Practice, reveals the newest rituals in Jewish life that are inclusive of women. Shelly Fredman illustrates how Jewish women’s groups study the presence of the feminine within their tradition and create or resurrect rituals that empower women and are changing the face of Judaism.

Rabbi Jo David takes the holiday traditionally associated with women, Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the new moon, and shows how it is a time of renewal for both women and men. Another ritual traditionally connected to women, mikveh, the monthly immersion required for menstruating married women, gets a new interpretation from writer Leah Lax. She describes her first experience with mikveh as a Hassidic bride. In interviewing women around the United States, she describes new ways mikveh has meaning for anyone who understands how the ceremony uses water and prayer to mark transitions.

This volume carries an intention to do more than bring the reader new ideas to ponder. For Jewish women, it’s a charge to claim and re-claim their rightful place in their tradition. For millennia, women have educated their children to be Jews, have offered their husbands their best ideas, and only recently have these efforts been written down. For non-Jewish sisters, we hope that it encourages you to bring change in your traditions as you learn of our effort to be counted as full members of an ancient spiritual community.

Finally, the women in the book are speaking to men, too. The Book of Proverbs, written by King Solomon, the wisest of men, says, “Do not forsake your mother’s teachings” (Proverbs 6:20). We need both the black and white fire of Torah to bring a balance of feminine and masculine energy into our lives and into our world. May the words of this book and the meditations of the hearts and minds that composed them bring us closer.