Jewish Feminist Ritual

What makes ceremonies specifically for women unique?

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2. Fostering community. Often held in all-women groups, the rituals encourage supportive sharing and telling one's own story. This aspect reflects the influence of the consciousness-raising sessions of early secular feminism and has been preserved primarily in Rosh Hodesh groups, Evoking the mood of a support group that has come together, the rituals emphasize the participation of a community of equals, even when the ritual highlights the experience of one woman, They create opportunities for women's bonding across lines that might otherwise be divisive, such as age, economic class, marital status, sexual orientation, and denomination or ideology," They strive to be inclusive, so that even those without Judaic knowledge will feel comfortable.

3. Allowing for improvisation and personalization. Most new women's rituals are not meant to change or challenge laws or be legally binding, Thus, they do not have fixed liturgies, specific words that must be said, or a series of actions that must be performed to make the ritual valid. The preference for improvisation, personalization, and choice that the rituals reflect leaves a wide opening for creativity. For example, suggestions for Rosh Hodesh meetings that one might receive from the Hadassah organization or a newer group, "Moving Tradition: It's a Girl Thing" (promoting Rosh Hodesh observance among young girls) are often presented as inspirational templates from which one can pick and choose. Likewise, in Debra Nussbaum Cohen's book of rituals for baby daughters, the reader is given a template for most ceremonies, as well as "hundreds of elements to consider incorporating, in an easy-to-follow menu of options."

4. Privileging the spirituality of the individual over that of the entire Jewish people. While the new women's rituals foster the growth and cohesive feelings of communities, they tend to emphasize the psychological and spiritual well-being of individuals within the group. Thus, new rituals typically address questions of personal meaning rather than concerns about Klal Yisrael, the good of all Jews. In fact, the benchmark of a new ritual's appropriateness is generally the subjective response, "It feels right to me." Because of the emphasis on the individual over the group, it is worth noting that American Jewish feminists have not attempted to create brand-new holidays to be celebrated by all Jewish women or all Jews.

5. Taking place in less regulated space. The earliest new women's rituals typically took place in homes or in nature. They were enacted away from institutionalized settings, both physically and metaphysically, so as to avoid being subject to rabbinic, communal, or male jurisdiction. There were feminist seders that moved from one woman's apartment to another each year and then expanded so that they now take place in community centers and catering halls. There are pre-wedding mikveh parties that take place, among women friends, in the ocean, under the moonlight. There are gatherings of Lubavitch Hasidic women in basement recreation rooms for designing and decorating Miriam's tambourines. Only later, as the new rituals have become more familiar, are they held in synagogues and Jewish community centers.

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Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs is the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and associate professor of Religious Studies.