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FEMINISM, both a political movement seeking social equities for women and an ideological movement analyzing a wide range of phenomena in terms of gender politics. Jewish feminism in the modern era has played a significant and transformative role in virtually every area of Jewish religious, social, and intellectual life.

Jewish Feminism and its Impact Prior to the 1960s

Although modern Jewish feminist movements were inspired in large measure by Enlightenment claims regarding human equality and dignity, proto-feminist efforts to raise women's social and religious position can be found in many Jewish communities prior to the 19th century. Tracing shifts in gender ideology and in women's actual status is difficult, however, because of the paucity of sources written by women prior to the 17th-century memoir by *Glueckel of Hameln. References to women in male-authored documents, particularly responsa literature and legal documents, give some evidence of sporadic agitations for change in women's status in Jewish communal life and religious life. For example, numerous sources indicate that in Germany and France between 1000 and 1300, a time of high economic and social status for Jewish women, women demanded increased involvement in religious life, including the voluntary assumption of commandments from which they were exempt in talmudic Judaism (Grossman).

Critical evaluation of the position of women within Judaism also appears as part of Christian traditions of anti-Judaism. In the Niẓẓaḥon Vetus, an anthology of 12th- and 13th-century Jewish-Christian polemic in northern France and Germany, Christians criticized Jews for not including women within the covenant: "We baptize both males and females and in that way we accept our faith, but in your case only men and not women can be circumcised." In the Juden Buchlein (1519), Victor von Karben mocks the refusal of Jews to include women in a prayer quorum. This critique continued in the notorious anti-Jewish text, Johann Eisenmenger's Entdecktes Judentum (1700), and women's inferior status within Judaism became a major theme among German (and some American) Protestant (and some Catholic) theologians in the 19th and early 20th centuries (J. Plaskow, K. von Kellenbach, S. Heschel). The inferior status of women within Judaism was presented in order to denigrate Judaism as "Oriental" and "primitive" and to challenge whether Jews should be accorded emancipation into European society. Jewish women's inferiority was also cited in Christian theological writings to argue that Jesus treated women as equals whereas other rabbis of his day did not, a claim with little historical grounding. Jewish apologetic responses to such charges began in 19th-century Germany with arguments that Judaism honors and elevates women's status in the home and community by exempting them from the religious obligations of study and public prayer incumbent on men. The nature of these charges and counter-charges made it difficult to articulate Jewish feminist criticisms of sexism.

Jewish enlightenment and, later, socialist critics of Jewish communal and religious structures often fought for women's rights, but feminists did not always ally themselves with secularism and against religion as a means to improve women's status. With modern pressures to reshape both gender roles and the status of minority groups, Jewish women had to await emancipation as both Jews and as women to enter secular society. While Jews were permitted entry into German universities in the early 19th century, women were excluded until the 1890s. At the same time, some European feminist organizations did not admit Jews. Rather, early efforts at redressing gender imbalance attempted to enhance women's educational opportunities and position within the Jewish community, creating social service and charitable organizations run by women. The *Juedischer Frauenbund (Jewish Women's Organization) was founded in Germany in 1904 by Bertha *Pappenheim and strove to win voting rights for women within Jewish communal affairs. Within the United States, Rebecca *Gratz founded the 19th-century Sunday school movement that created new roles for women in Jewish education. The tradition of Jewish women's *salons was significant not only as a new, neutral space for Christians and Jews to meet, but as an emerging culture of conversation and reflection on gender and Jewish identity. Indeed, Jewish women intellectuals, from the 18th to the 20th centuries, frequently found greater resonance within Christian society, and were sometimes only reluctantly admitted to Jewish intellectual circles; Martin *Buber, for example, initially did not want to admit women to the Juedisches Lehrhaus, the adult Jewish educational center he founded in Frankfurt am Main in 1920 (Friedman).

Changes in women's status within the synagogue came slowly. In mid-19th century Germany, teenage girls were given ceremonies of *confirmation along with boys in Reform congregations, similar to ceremonies prevalent in churches, but women still sat separately from men in the synagogue. Mixed seating in the synagogue was first introduced in the United States in 1851 in Albany, New York, and in 1854 at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. It became common in the United States after 1869 when many new post-Civil War synagogues opened but did not spread to European Reform synagogues until much later and then only tentatively (Goldman).

Conversely, modernity also saw the distinct spheres of women's traditional expressions of Judaism minimized or eliminated by non-Orthodox Jews, such as *mikveh observance (immersion in the ritual bath following menstruation and childbirth), which declined radically in the modern era, though revived in the late 20th century. Since the mikveh served as a gathering place for women to socialize and also to exert authority in the absence of men, its decline undermined women's opportunities to assemble away from male presence. Further, the falloff in adherence to Jewish law weakened women's status as sources of domestic and gendered legal expertise, particularly concerning laws of kashrut. Traditionally entrusted with responsibility for the laws of *niddah and kashrut, women had been viewed with the moral trust, intellectual ability, and religious commitment necessary for their strict adherence to those often complex laws. Still, male authorities, whether fathers, husbands, or rabbis, always retained ultimate control over adherence to laws within women's domain.

The modern era opened new public and communal religious and educational opportunities for women. Pressure from the changes in secular society that encouraged women and men to take advantage of equalizing educational and vocational opportunities affected the Jewish world, too. Educational reforms in the Orthodox and ḥasidic communities of Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, led by Sarah *Schnirer, established a network of schools for religious girls, *Beth Jacob, and the liberal rabbinical seminaries established in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century permitted some women to attend courses, although not to receive rabbinic ordination.

The United States had a small and relatively uneducated Jewish community prior to the 1880s. Women received only minimal Jewish education and were not voting members of the community. The demography quickly shifted at the turn of the century, as over two million Jews from Eastern Europe arrived as immigrants between 1881 and 1924. They included women who had been exposed to political organizing and analysis, and who soon became major forces in the nascent labor, socialist, anarchist, and communist movements in New York and other cities in the early years of the 20th century. Rose *Schneiderman, for example, was a leader of the *Women's Trade Union League, the campaign for women's suffrage, and the *International Ladies Garment Workers Union. However, once those movements were institutionalized – as labor unions and political parties – women were removed from leadership positions. Separate women's organizations also played an important role within Jewish communal life in the United States; the *National Council of Jewish Women, founded by Hannah Greenebaum *Solomon at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, initially provided educational and vocational training for immigrants through a series of *"settlement houses" established in impoverished urban areas.

The Impact of Feminism Since the 1960s

Jewish women, including Betty *Friedan, Gloria *Steinem, and Letty Cottin *Pogrebin, have been in the forefront of the Second Wave feminist movement in the United States that began in the late 1960s. The re-emergence of a Jewish feminist movement, as part of the Second Feminist wave, led to major changes in women's status in Judaism and to a flourishing of Jewish feminist scholarship and theology. The most dramatic change in Judaism for many centuries came with the equality of women in synagogue worship, a movement led by American Jewish feminists and which has gradually extended to Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. The public honoring of young women in the synagogue, the Bat Mitzvah, became widespread by the late 1960s, followed by decisions by Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative denominations of Judaism to include women in the prayer quorum, call women to the Torah, and allow women to lead synagogue worship services. Perhaps the most striking transformation from previous Jewish practice has been the ordination of women as rabbis (see *Semikhah).

The first ordination of a woman as a Reform rabbi took place in Germany in 1935; she was Regina *Jonas, murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Ordination of women as rabbis and cantors was initiated in the United States in the 1970s by Reform Judaism (1972) and was subsequently adopted by the Reconstructionist (1974) and Conservative (1984 for rabbis, 1986 for cantors) movements. Several hundred women rabbis and cantors have been ordained thus far in the United States, and in Britain. Commissions within the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements have revised the prayer book *liturgy to use inclusive or gender-neutral language and include references to the biblical matriarchs as well as patriarchs. Feminist biblical commentaries, written from a range of religious perspectives, have also been published (Frankel; Goldstein; Kates and Reimer). Numerous collections of feminist rituals and blessings to mark occasions in women's lives have been developed, including feminist Passover liturgies, prayers for the birth and weaning of a baby, and ceremonies for naming baby girls (see *Birth), egalitarian wedding services for hetero- and homosexual couples (see *Marriage), and celebration of *Rosh Ḥodesh, the New Moon, as a women's holiday.

Within Orthodoxy at the beginning of the 21st century, women now have opportunities for studying rabbinic texts, heretofore limited to men. With training in particular areas of Jewish law, women serve as legal advisors to Orthodox women regarding issues connected with divorce and niddah observance. Orthodox women have established women-only prayer groups and institutions for studying rabbinic texts, and a few Orthodox synagogues have started to permit women to read from the Torah under certain circumstances and conditions, deliver a sermon, and even lead the service. Several clauses have been proposed for inclusion in the *ketubbah (religious marriage contract) that would provide recourse for a woman whose husband refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce, though none has yet attained universal approval by Orthodox rabbis. The problem of the *agunah remains a central issue for Orthodox feminists, particularly in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate has exclusive control over Jewish marriage and divorce. Organizations of Orthodox women attempting to address the problem of the agunah include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and Getting Equitable Treatment.

By contrast, the Reform movement has entirely eliminated the *get, the divorce decree given by a man to his wife, while the Conservative movement has developed a clause that can be inserted into a ketubbah that allows a bet din (court of Jewish law) to issue a get to a woman if her husband refuses to do so. Since 1980, the Reconstructionist movement has used an egalitarian get that can be issued by either spouse.

Feminism, Zionism, and the State of Israel

During its early years, the political Zionist movement, centered in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, harbored considerable ambivalence toward women. Although *Zionism presented itself as an emancipatory movement for Jews, positions of political leadership were firmly maintained in men's hands. The Zionist negation of the Diaspora was linked to a negation of piety, and overcoming the Diaspora meant "becoming a man" (le-hitgaber). During the early waves of immigration to Palestine prior to statehood, women worked alongside men in the cultivation of farmland; they have also served with men in Jewish self-defense forces prior to and after the foundation of the state. Yet with the establishment of the State of Israel, women were not granted proportional roles of power within the government, even though Israel's Declaration of Independence proclaimed full equality (Herzog; Hazelton). Instead, a myth of gender equality within the State was promoted to disguise the reality of women's subservience. Thus, while women held traditionally male positions within the kibbutz system, few men took on traditionally female positions, such as childcare, and while women are drafted into the Israeli army, they are generally assigned subordinate tasks and are not given combat duty. Most problematic, since the Orthodox rabbinate holds full legal control over marriage and divorce, women's freedom to initiate and control marital relationships is impeded and women rabbis are disempowered. Women are also prohibited from public communal prayer at Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall in Jerusalem, despite years of court challenges by feminist groups.

Although a woman, Golda *Meir served as Israel's prime minister from 1969 to 1974; few women have held senior positions within the Israeli cabinet or parliament. Given the central role of army service in establishing careers within the political and financial arenas, the unequal position of women in the Israeli military has had long-term career consequences. Racial discrimination within Israel against Jews from non-European backgrounds and the Israeli emphasis on large families has also affected women's ability to acquire an education, escape poverty, and achieve career success. Nevertheless, women are increasingly educated and constitute a high percentage of the Israeli workforce. The Israel Women's Network, founded by Alice Shalvi in 1984, is an advocacy group for women's rights that concentrates on legislative and political efforts to overcome discrimination against women in the workplace, military, religious courts, and in the healthcare and educational arenas. With particular attention to violence and sexual harassment, the IWN helped secure passage in 1998 of legislation criminalizing sexual harassment and holding both the harasser and employer responsible for civil damages.

Throughout the modern era women managed to retain some influence in Zionist social service organizations within the Jewish communities of North America and Europe, collecting and distributing funds and goods, and running schools and vocational training programs. Those activities, a central feature of maintaining Jewish communal cohesion, became the basis for modern women's organizations, such as *Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, *WIZO, *Na'amat, and Women's *ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation and Training), which became wealthy and powerful institutions during the course of the 20th century.

In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that left Israel with control of the West Bank and Gaza, several feminist organizations emerged that called for return of the occupied territories to Palestinian control, and condemned the violence and impoverishment in those territories. Women in Black, founded in 1988 to hold weekly silent vigils of Israeli and Palestinian women calling for an end to the occupation, soon became an international peace network and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. New Profile is a feminist organization that seeks to change Israel from a militarized to a peace-seeking culture, and works especially on educating children for peace (see essays in Fuchs, Israeli Women's Studies).

Feminist Scholarship

Historical study of Jews, which began in the 19th century, was initially seen as a manly endeavor and women's lives and contributions were virtually ignored in chronicles of the Jewish experience. The growth of the field of women's studies, particularly in the United States, helped establish a counterpart within Jewish Studies. Feminist analysis has criticized masculinist biases in describing the Jewish past, but has also used historicism to justify feminist innovations (see *Historians, Women). Feminist analyses of rabbinic literature have uncovered legal precedents for changing halakhic prescriptions regarding women (Hauptman) and interpretive patterns of leniency in establishing Jewish law (Biale), as well as patterns of gendered rhetoric in rabbinic literature that create the masculinity of men and of God (Boyarin; Baskin; Eilberg-Schwartz).

Feminist attention to gender has also exposed the male biases in describing Jewish experience (Koltun; Heschel; Rutenberg). Modernity has been elevated as rational, progressive, and male by describing pre-modern Judaism via tropes of nostalgia using female metaphors. Modern Judaism was described as both positively masculine, in seeking political and religious emancipation, and negatively feminine, as in Haskalah literature in which leaving the Jewish fold and associating with Christians was described as a kind of prostitution (Feiner). In early 20th century debates over which language was more appropriate for Jews, Yiddish or Hebrew, the former was viewed as an effeminate, women's language, while Hebrew was valorized as male. Few women writing modern Hebrew or Yiddish literature were accorded the same recognition for their work as their male colleagues by a literary establishment dominated by men, and few writings by women have been included in the "canon" (Seidman; Fuchs).

In the early years of women's studies, the task seemed to be fairly straightforward. Textual expressions of misogyny and male-centeredness were demonstrated, and even if the thinker had been dead for centuries, his influence was generally said to continue to this day, as part of a long chain of patriarchal tradition. More recently, however, feminist scholars have developed more complex analyses, demonstrating ambivalences toward women within the same thinker and text, and also turning to metaphorical uses of masculine and feminine imagery in matters not explicitly related to men and women. Male privilege is not always a straightforward matter. For instance, classical and modern Jewish texts evoke an identification between men and the male God, yet undermine that identification by depicting all Jews, including men, as female in relationship to God.

Feminists differ in how to interpret women's experience and power in patriarchal structures. Some find ways in which women turned their exclusion from aspects of Judaism into a positive experience. C. Weissler has discovered numerous prayers traditionally recited by early modern women as they undertook various domestic duties, such as baking ḥallah and kindling Sabbath lights (Voices of the Matriarchs (1998); see *Tkhines; *Liturgy). S. Sered has found that women respond to the male-oriented religious system by becoming ritual experts within the female sphere, sacralizing and holding authority over the domestic sphere and the laws of niddah and mikveh. Excluded from the realm of men, she argues, women redefine their realm as normative and meaningful. J. Bahloul's study of Algerian Jewish women delineated a strong social network of women. Still other feminists argue that finding women's empowerment in female spheres mandated by men undermines arguments for gender equality and may romanticize women's experience unjustifiably.

Perhaps the most controversial field of feminist scholarship is study of gender and the Holocaust (Ofer and Weitzman, eds.). Women were more likely than men to be chosen by the Judenraete for deportation from ghettos to death camps, and women were more likely than men to be selected for immediate gassing upon arrival at the death camps. J. Ringelheim suggests that women and children made up 60 to 70 percent of those gassed in the initial selections. Based on deportation and death figures as well as the numbers of Jews in DP camps at the end of the war, Ringelheim concludes that more Jewish women were deported and killed than Jewish men, a disparity due to Nazi policies of killing pregnant women and those who arrived at camps with children, as well as the far larger percentage of elderly women than men among Jewish deportees.

Feminist Analyses of Judaism

During the 1970s feminist critics began to expose the absence of women's voices within the male-dominated structures promoted by Judaism's exclusively male-authored texts. Feminists also strove to reconstruct the lost voices of women, trying to recover evidence of women's history and self-understanding that would allow a more diversified picture of the multiple Judaisms that have flourished throughout the Jewish past. While Judaism traditionally defines itself as a divinely revealed religion, its beliefs and practices have been interpreted and regulated almost exclusively by male authorities until the modern period. Feminist analysis has pointed out that men have created the legal systems articulated in the Mishnah, Talmud, and codes of Jewish law, and acted as supreme arbiters of its interpretation by reserving the rabbinate for men. Courts of Jewish law were historically run by male rabbis, and women were excluded as witnesses in most court cases. In rabbinic law, men may contract a marriage or divorce a wife, but women can neither acquire a husband nor divorce him. Women enter into rabbinic discourse as objects of discussion, when their ritual purity, sexual control, or marital status impinges upon men's lives.

Many Jewish feminists have suggested that the insistence on overwhelmingly male imagery for God was a deliberate effort to strengthen the male-dominated institutional arrangements of Jewish life and undergird male authority over women in the religious and societal realms. As a result, feminist analysis views Jewish texts with suspicion for their collusion with societal patriarchy in silencing women's voices, or, even worse, as creating patriarchal oppression and endowing it with the aura of divine sanction. At the same time, some feminists have culled biblical and rabbinic texts to find counter-patriarchal traditions that support principles of justice and equality, or voices of trickster women seeking to correct halakhic inequities (Pardes; Adler). Even as D. Setel argued that the prophet Hosea's metaphor of Israel as God's adulterous wife was pornographic, R. Adler noted that God's reunion with the adulterous Israel, which violates Deuteronomic law (20:4) mandating a husband's divorce of an adulterous wife, might be understood as a "constructive violation" of Jewish law – "the metaphor that preserves the covenant breaks the law" (Adler, 163–64).

By the 1980s, Jewish feminist theology (see *Theology, Feminist) began redefining classical, male-authored Jewish understandings of God, as well as associated concepts, such as revelation, the problem of evil, and the nature of prayer. Basing their critique of Judaism on the premise that all experience is gender-based, theologians like J. Plaskow and R. Adler demanded a reconsideration of theological and ethical categories assumed to be universal, but which, they argued, reify men's experience and have little relevance to women. Jewish feminist theology flourished in particular in the United States, supported by the growth of the academic field of women's studies at American universities and by the theoretical insights of Christian feminist theology.

Under the influence of postmodernism, feminist thought has attempted to denaturalize assumptions regarding women, emphasizing the social rather than biological creation of "woman" and the attendant assumptions regarding heteronormativity. An ideology of compulsory heterosexuality, not innate inclination, feminists argue, has pressured women into marriage with men and defined homosexuality as sinful. Feminist analysis has noted that in contrast to male homosexuality, lesbianism was never clearly defined in biblical literature, and never condemned with the severity of male homosexuality in rabbinic literature. Similarly, the condemnation of male masturbation in rabbinic texts finds no female counterpart, and the genital self-examination by women that is mandated in rabbinic laws regulating the laws of niddah replicates masturbatory acts. Freedom of sexual expression for women and men is considered central to women's rights but also essential to reclaiming women's control over their bodies after centuries in which fathers, husbands, and male rabbis regulated women's lives (Schneer and Aviv; Magonet).

*Lesbian Jewish identity as both homosocial and homosexual has been marginalized in the recent efflorescence of queer Jewish studies and its attention to the (male) body as a site of Jewish cultural, sexual, and religious identity. Lesbian thinkers have emphasized the body as a source of the spiritual, celebrating manifestations of women's sexuality and arguing the centrality of eroticism to religiosity (Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai). Although numerous gay and lesbian synagogues, as well as a World Congregation of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations have been founded in recent decades, only the Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis (R. Alpart, S.L. Elwell, and S. Idelson, eds. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001)).

Adler has argued that the traditional male-only environments of rabbinic study not only fostered homoeroticism, but was dominated by a "methodolatry" that revolved around male concerns, omitting those of women. Responding to a husband's post-World War II query, asking a rabbi if he is halakhically obligated to divorce his wife because her incarceration in a concentration camp may have included forced intercourse, Adler notes that only the man's requirements form the question and not those of his wife. In responding to the absence of women from the formative practices and exegeses of rabbinic Judaism, Plaskow insists that women as well as men stood at Sinai and received God's revelation, and that their experiences and interpretations should be included as equally normative as the rabbinic law developed by men in response to the revelation.

Other feminist analyses of halakhah proceed differently. Both R. Biale and Hauptman have pointed to halakhic interpretations that have been favorable to women, and to sociological processes of analyzing halakhah that result in lenient conclusions. These scholars explain certain traditional practices, such as excluding women from being called to the Torah for an aliyah, as reflections of particular social settings, not as eternal legal dicta.

Changes in Feminist Theory

Postmodernism, which has had a strong influence on feminist theory, has changed the modes of understanding power and analyzing language. Instead of viewing power solely as hierarchical domination, feminist theory, influenced by M. Foucault, has come to understand power as capillary, a disciplinary regime maintaining its force not only through conventional sources of domination, but also through the unconventional, including language itself. Complementing Foucault's understanding of the exercise of power are studies by Gramsci and Althusser of the consent of the disempowered to regimens that maintain their subjugation. Changing the understanding of power opens new ways to interpret women's position within Judaism. T. El-Or's study of ḥaredi (ultra-Orthodox) women demonstrates that their education is designed to keep them in a state of ignorance and subordination to men. By contrast, Sered's studies argue that women's piety and rituals create a sense of personal self-worth and permit female religious leadership within women-only domains, such as the mikveh and ezrat nashim. L. Levitt has challenged classical liberalism as a tool of feminist empowerment, and M. Peskowitz has called for greater attention to the ideological function of rabbinic texts in creating power structures and the adherence to them. Surprisingly little attention has been given by Jewish feminism to theorizing race and class, in contrast to other feminisms. E. Shohat has written on Arab-Jewish identity and the biases toward Europe in Jewish self-understanding, and K. Brodkin has described How Jews Became White Folks (1999) in the United States. Feminist efforts to address antisemitism as part of a larger critique of racism are notable within a multicultural atmosphere that has tended to ignore Jewish experience (Biale, Galchinsky, and Heschel, eds.; M. Brettschneider, ed.; Bulkin, Pratt, and Smith, eds.).

Contemporary attention to the ways Jewish women's experiences have differed from those of men has led to both internal and external critiques of Judaism. While countless Jewish theologians in previous generations proclaimed the moral superiority of Jewish law, most disregarded the ethical significance of the inferior status of women in Jewish law. Written in apologetic terms for a wider Christian readership, traditional Jewish theology tended to defend the traditional, subordinate role of women as an expression of respect for a femininity that is considered intrinsic and not culturally produced. Jewish feminism has struggled with the fine line between its critique of Judaism's sexism and antisemitic attacks on Judaism.


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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.