Holding Up Half the Sky: Feminist Judaism

Anita Diamant Photo credit: Mark OstowBy Anita Diamant

In the introduction to my first book, The New Jewish Wedding, I wrote, "References to the rabbi as him/or her do no more than acknowledge the decision to ordain women by the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements."

That was 1985. When I went back to revise the book in 2001, I couldn't quite believe that I'd written those words. I suppose I felt the need to remind readers about what were, back then, relatively new facts on the ground. Even worse, I think I was worried about offending someone by telling a simple truth.

Of course, I left that sentence out in the new edition, as well as a few other apologetic asides that pointed out what has since become ubiquitous and obvious: Jewish women are leaders and teachers, rabbis and cantors, theologians and prophets. Women hold up half of the sky -- Jewish women among them.

The arguments about women's participation and inclusive language may linger, but they are vestigial, nothing but rear-guard skirmishes. It's over. We won, which is to say, the Jewish people have been blessed with a new, vital chapter in our history. Am Yisrael Chai, thanks to the work and wisdom of Jewish women, which has led to new paradigms in virtually every aspect of our communal and personal lives, including a flowering of more democracy, more congregational singing, more meaningful rituals, more political action, more books. And women's inclusiveness and inclusion has been the model for the enfranchisement of all Jews, regardless of ability, sexual orientation, race, or religion of origin.

The publication of New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future, a wonderful collection of essays, is yet another milestone to the fact that we have lived through an entire generation -- thirty years and more -- during which the full panel of women's voices have been heard on the public stages of Jewish life.

Everyone knows that we Jewish women have always had our voices and our opinions. We have exercised considerable power from the kitchen table and from the platform of the ladies' auxiliary. We can and should honor the participation of Jewish women behind the scenes and off to the side, just as we can and should be proud of the inherently and sometimes covertly democratic tendencies within Judaism itself that has fostered literacy and independence among women and girls.

But 21st-century Judaism begins in a radically different place. This is the first time in Jewish history that women's voices -- not just singular and extraordinary characters but a large and varied chorus -- have been added to the public discourse about everything: about God and halachah, about the governance of our synagogues, about marriage and how we educate our children, about our money, about the substance and fire of our lives.

This unprecedented participation of women results from the passion of what is now nearly two generations of adult Jewish women and men who understand that feminism is nothing less than a profound expression of Judaism's mission and part of the Torah's mandate for justice and the sanctification of life.

New Jewish Feminism is evidence of this profound change, this life-giving renewal of Jewish life and of Judaism itself. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein points out in the introduction, this enormous transformation has taken place over an extremely short period of time and yet so much of it is already taken for granted that the revolution is virtually invisible.

Ima on the bima is just no big deal. How cool is that?

Read More from: The Future of Judaism

As Jews, we reflexively look back to our sources for prototypes that root change in tradition. We cite texts -- the older and more sacred the better -- to link us to the past and thus legitimize our innovations. For years now, we have been citing Miriam the prophet as the foremother for many of our leadership roles. We claim Hannah, the spiritual seeker, as the inventor of the personal prayer we have added to communal and private devotion. We explicate Ruth and Esther as exemplars of distinctively feminine forms of courage.

These are legitimate antecedents, well-argued and footnoted and given expression by learned and learning Jewish women -- and men -- who have studied long and deep and, in the process, opened the library doors to the entire Jewish world.

And here is another radical gift of Jewish feminism. Despite our tradition's long-standing reverence for learning, the truth is, serious study was an elite practice limited to rabbis and men rich enough or lucky enough to be supported by their families. Never mind women.

7/12/2010 4:00:00 AM
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