Rachel Adler

How Adler uses feminist ideas to challenge Jewish law.

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In "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakhah and the Jewish Woman," Adler expressed discomfort with the treatment accorded women in Jewish tradition. However, she did so as a woman firmly ensconced in the Orthodox camp.

In "Tum'ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings," Adler argued that the ritual immersion of a niddah (the menstruating woman) in a mikveh did not "oppress or denigrate women." Instead, such immersion constituted a ritual reenactment of "death and resurrection" that was actually "equally accessible to men and women."

This approach to the ritual as well as the argument Adler constructed in its defense in "Tum'ah and Taharah" and the stance she articulated in "The Jew Who Wasn't There" marked her as a passionately committed if critical Orthodox feminist, a woman anxious to defend the tradition by employing categories taken from contemporary social scientific literature.

Nevertheless, the seeds for a different trajectory that were planted in her 1971 article began to be more fully articulated shortly thereafter. While Adler had emphasized that the niddah ritual was originally "a way of learning how to die and be reborn" of symbolic import for women and men alike, she asserted--in her discussion of the ritual in the 1976 Jewish Woman reprint of this essay--that major strains in Talmudic thought isolated the niddah and stressed "the alienness" of women.

Adler condemned these directions as "damning" of classical rabbinic tradition and gave full expression to these critiques in her powerful 1983 Moment essay, "I've Had Nothing Yet, So I Can't Take More." In this essay, Adler indicted rabbinic tradition for making women "a focus of the sacred rather than active participants in its processes," and observed that "Being a Jewish woman is very much like being Alice at the Hatter's tea party. We did not participate in making the rules, nor were we there at the beginning of the party."

Consequently, it was hardly surprising that she ultimately repudiated her position in "Tum'ah and Taharah," stating, in her essay, "In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity," published in Tikkun in 1993,"that purity and impurity do not constitute a cycle through which all members of society pass, as I argued in my [1972] essay. Instead, impurity and purity define a class system in which the most impure people are women."

Challenging Classical Notions of Jewish Law

By this point, a "new Rachel Adler" had emerged--a person who was going to contribute to a revolution in the Jewish world by paying systematic attention to gender as both an analytical and normative category for understanding and redirecting Jewish life.

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Rabbi David Ellenson

Rabbi David Ellenson is President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and I.H. Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought. As a distinguished scholar and leader of the Reform Movement, he is recognized for his research in Jewish religious thought, ethics, and modern Jewish history. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and was ordained by HUC-JIR.