American Jewish Feminism: The Movement Matures

Moving beyond equal access to express women's sensibilities and experiences in Jewish life and organizations.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. (Routledge).

Change From the Inside

Beginning in the 1980s, Jewish feminists raised ­issues that went beyond the acceptance of women into male‑defined positions of visibility and power. The emergence of women as religious leaders and as equal participants in the non‑Orthodox synagogue allowed women to see themselves in public Jewish ritual, but feminists were increasingly concerned that women’s sensibility and experience be reflected in Jewish life. 

They hoped that women would be allowed to reshape the rabbinate and the cantorate, rather than simply follow traditional male models. Most importantly, they sought to incorporate women’s voices and thoughts into Jewish liturgy and into the interpretation of classical Jewish texts. Arguing that Jewish liturgy and culture should reflect the understanding of women as well as men, Jewish feminists called for a revision of the siddur, the prayer book and the Passover haggadah and for the creation of feminist midrash, interpretation of biblical and talmudic texts.

jewish feminismScholar activists, such as Judith Plaskow and Ellen Umansky challenged male dominated concepts of Jewish theology and God-language that drew primarily upon masculine imagery. Marcia Falk created blessings that supplant traditional liturgy with innovative forms that introduce feminist concepts: a subversion of hierarchy and naturalistic images of God gendered in Hebrew in the female.

God-language

The issue of God-language raised by feminists has, to one extent or another, influenced prayer books and other ritual texts, particularly in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. In 1975, the Reform movement introduced some gender inclusive language in English sections of its new prayer book, Gates of Prayer, and published fully gender-sensitive versions for Sabbath and weekdays in 1992. The Reconstructionists also created fully gender sensitive siddur, Kol Haneshama, with the Sabbath edition published in 1994 and the weekday edition in 1996.

Although the Conservative movement has been reluctant to introduce feminist-inspired changes in liturgy, the revised version of its Sim Shalom prayer book offers the option of including the names of the matriarchs along with those of the patriarchs in a central section of the prayers. Its most recent (1982) version of the Passover haggadah, the first to be edited by a woman, Rachel Anne Rabinowitz, includes several stories of women in its sidebar interpretations. All denominations, however, have refrained from altering the Hebrew liturgy, and reconceptualizing images of God in light of feminist critiques has made only modest inroads.

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Dr. Paula Hyman

Dr. Paula Hyman is Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Among her published works are Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (University of Washington Press)and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press).