Engendering Judaism

Because the evolution of Judaism is affected by social conditions, it can be actively developed to be gender sensitive.

Print this page Print this page

Feminism recognizes that cultures, as social constructions, bear the imprints of those who participated in their development. In the case of Judaism, men have (until recently) almost exclusively shaped the terms of Jewish law and theology. In the following excerpt, Rachel Adler suggests that we self-consciously confront the relationship between gender and Judaism, recognizing the ways in which gender has affected the development of Judaism thus far, and--going forward--actively "engender" Judaism in a way which fully includes women and is aware of gender issues. The following is excerpted and reprinted with permission from the author's introduction to her book Engendering Judaism, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

What does it mean to engender Judaism? Non‑Orthodox Judaisms distinguish themselves from Orthodoxy by their belief that Jews beget Judaism; they reshape and renew Judaism in the various times and places they inhabit. If we accept this premise, it will lead us to a new sense in which Judaism needs to be engendered.

Jews in the Western world live in societies where the ethical ideal is for women to be full and equal social participants. But Judaism has only just begun to reflect and to address the questions, understandings, and obligations of both Jewish women and Jewish men. It is not yet fully attentive to the impact of gender and sexuality either on the classical texts or on the lived experiences of the people Israel.

Until progressive Judaisms engender themselves in this second sense [that is, attend to the impact of gender and sexuality], they cannot engender fully adequate Judaisms in the first sense [that is, create Jewish life in which women are equal participants]. In this book, I propose a theology for engendering Judaism in both senses: a way of thinking about and practicing Judaism that men and women recreate and renew together as equals.

Not for Women Only

All of us must participate in both kinds of engendering. Relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. It presumes that Judaism is a body of gender‑neutral texts and traditions, and that women constitute a special gendered addendum to the community of its transmitters.

It further presumes that while women are represented in Jewish tradition, they are separate from it. Scholarship about their representation is classified as "Women in…" or "Women and…" and is regarded as nonessential knowledge of interest only to women.

male and female thumbprintsMen do not need to consider these special topics; they can simply study "Judaism." The truth is that, to paraphrase an old spiritual, all God's chillun got gender. There is not and never was a Judaism unaffected by the gendered perspectives of its transmitters and augmenters.

If, as progressive Judaisms argue, social and historical factors affect Judaism, then it is hardly tenable to argue that gender is the only variable to which this rule does not apply. The impact of gender on Judaism, then, is not a women's issue; it is an issue for everyone who seeks to understand Judaism.

A Two-Pronged Approach

Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task.

That gender categories and distinctions have changed in the past tells us nothing about what sorts of changes we ought to make in the future. These changes must be negotiated in conversations where participants invoke and reexamine the values and priorities enunciated in Jewish tradition in the light of the current needs, injuries, or aspirations demanding to be addressed.

Every aspect of this undertaking is complex: applying traditional values and priorities while remaining conscious of their historical contingency and their possible gender biases; conducting conversations among Jews whose beliefs, institutional affiliations, and experiences (including gender) differ widely; identifying needs, wounds, and aspirations, now full‑time enterprises for social scientists, jurists, philosophers, cultural critics, and psychologists; and, finally, characterizing an elusive "present time" in rapidly mutating, pluralistic, postindustrial societies.

The method for engendering Judaism, then, will have to be as complex as the Jewish people and the world they inhabit.

Objectivity and Subjectivity

People who undertake ethical tasks do not come as blank slates. We bring our lives and memories, our abilities and interests, our commitments and dreams. I bring my own complex identity and commitments to this book. I am a woman descended from five generations of Reform Jews. I lived as an Orthodox Jew for many years and learned both to love and to struggle with traditional texts and praxis. I brought these concerns with me when I returned to Reform Judaism.

I am also a feminist. That is, I believe that being a woman or a man is an intricate blend of biological predispositions and social constructions that varies greatly according to time and culture. Regardless of its cultural specifics, gender has been used to justify unequal distributions of social power and privilege. Feminists view these power disparities as a moral wrong and an obstacle to human flourishing.

This moral evil can be overcome only with great effort because its distortions pervade social institutions, personal relationships, and systems of knowledge and belief, including religious traditions. My commitment to feminism is based on both objective and subjective factors. I find its analysis intellectually convincing, but it also profoundly affects how I value myself as a person and what impact I believe I can have upon those around me.

If I were not a feminist, I would not feel entitled to make theology. Accepting feminism's premises leads me directly to the critical and ethical obligations to engender Jewish theology. Judaism, like most cultural and religious systems, assigns men the lion's share of social and religious goods. Yet, as I argue during the course of this book, Judaism's commitment to justice obligates it to understand and to redress gender inequity.

By engendering theology and ethics, Judaism takes feminism to heart.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rachel Adler

Rachel Adler, a feminist theologian, earned a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California jointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches.