Rachel Adler

How Adler uses feminist ideas to challenge Jewish law.

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Adler's concerns and subsequent writings culminated in her publication of Engendering Judaism. Building upon numerous articles written in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s on the presentation and classification of women in rabbinic literature, Adler gave mature expression to her thought in her 1998 book. In this work Adler refused to reject halakhah, as other Jewish feminists had done, as a source for her own reflections on Judaism. While she recognized that traditional Jewish law had systematically excluded the voices of women, Adler contended that halakhah was too central an idiom in the Jewish experience--too vital a part of the Jewish narrative--to be rejected summarily.

However, Adler was too critical a feminist to allow classical notions of Jewish law to remain unchallenged. While sympathetic to the efforts made by non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars such as Joel Roth and Elliot Dorff in the Conservative movement and Moshe Zemer and Mark Washofsky in the Reform camp, to offer "liberal correctives"--generally of an ethical nature--to traditional understandings of the halakhic system and process, Adler nonetheless found their efforts flawed and insisted upon a completely different theoretical approach to the question of Jewish law than that found in the work of others, either women or men.

To construct this novel approach to Jewish law, Adler utilized the work of Yale University law professor Robert Cover. Cover had argued that law itself functioned in two modes, one "imperialistic" and the other "jurisgenerative." The former approach was marked by an emphasis upon authority and the application and enforcement of rules. Adler held that this was the manner in which virtually all previous theorists of Jewish law--even liberal ones--had approached halakhah.

However, Adler herself embraced the latter mode that Cover had adumbrated as more promising for her own enterprise. In the "jurisgenerative" mode, law is viewed as embodying a paidea--the highest ideal of the community--that is embedded in a master narrative of the community; the ongoing enactment of legislation and the rendering of judgments attempt to give this ideal ever more exact and just application over time. So perceived, the empire of law is a vital element of any healthy culture and the task of the legist or judge is a constructive one. Law constitutes a "bridge to a better world."

Engendering Judaism

Adler employed these insights in Engendering Judaism to maintain that a messianic goal--the creation of a more just world--lies at the heart of the Jewish story, and that the responsibility of each generation of Jews is to allow that goal to be more fully approximated so that a messianic vision of righteousness can be more fully realized.

Engendering Judaism by Rachel AdlerHer aim in this book was to indicate to men and women alike how a "more inclusive Judaism" could be forged, one that would inspire all Jews to draw upon the totality of Jewish tradition and law to fulfill the Jewish paidea of messianic justice.

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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.