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After a Decade of Jewish Feminism The Jewry is Still Out

In 1972, a group of Jewish women petitioned the Conservative movement’s rabbis for equal access for women to Jewish religious experience, expression and education. This petition marked the beginning of the current Jewish feminist movement. Dr. Paula Hyman and Arlene Agus, founding members of that group, which called itself Ezrat Nashim, now hold professional positions in the Jewish educational establishment: Hyman is one of the highest-ranking women in a Jewish institution in the U.S.: Dean of the College of Jewish Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Associate Professor of History; and Agus is Director of External Affairs and Planning for the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. Both women have been actively writing and lecturing on Jewish women’s issues for the past decade. Hyman is coauthor of The Jewish Woman in America, author o/From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry 1906-1939, and co-editor of a volume on the Jewish family, to be published next year by Holmes and Meier. Agus, coordinator of the two national Jewish women’s conferences of 1973 and 1974, is the author of the landmark article on women’s use of Jewish tradition, “This Month Is for You: Observing Rosh Chodesh as a Women’s Holiday,” which appeared in the 1976 Schocken anthology, Jewish Women: New Perspectives; and is a founding board member of the Drisha Institute, an institution of higher learning for women.

Here they talk to LILITH about the landmarks in the Jewish women’s rights struggle over the past ten years—and about the attitudes that will have to change if Judaism is to respond effectively and justly to women’s legitimate demands.

LILITH: It’s been 10 years since the Jewish feminist movement began.—The first National Jewish Women’s Conference was in April, 1973, the same year Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement. And the year before marked the formation of Ezrat Nashim, the first contemporary Jewish feminist group, with which both of you were associated.

PAULA HYMAN: I think if you take all that happened in 1972-1973 as a package, then we’ve been at this for somewhat over 10 years. The appearance of the members of Ezrat Nashim at the [Conservative Movement’s] Rabbinical Assembly meeting at the Concord Hotel in March of 1972 with a fairly well-thought-out statement and a list of demands—many of which are still on our agenda—is what I would mark as the formal beginning of Jewish feminism

ARLENE AGUS: To me the appearance at the RA was a culmination rather than a beginning, although in terms of political clout it caused an exponential change. I remember campus movements among Jewish women in the 60’s, but not organized ones. The conceptualization [of a Jewish feminist movement] started with our more general feelings of secondary status and the absence of access to Judaism. Also, it came from a negative point of view—we felt there was an anti-Jewish focus among general feminists and we felt protective about Judaism. The more protective we felt, the more we started looking into our defensiveness only to find that our own experience as women didn’t support what we were feeling.

HYMAN: We had heard about a discussion at the New York Havurah, where one man had led a discussion about his response to the liturgy, specifically about the sexual nature of Shabbat and how the Friday night service was a ritual enactment of making love. It was all presented in explicitly male sexual terms and it was a male response to the liturgy, and the women there were struck by the fact that he was presenting it as though his response to the liturgy were valid for everybody. It was like, “click,” and we said we have to have our own study group to figure out what kind of responses we have.

AGUS: There were two equally horrifying possibilities: either his approach was true and we had missed the point of our own liturgy, or it wasn’t true—and in that case, what was true7 People then began to notice that we were referring only to male ancestors in the prayers. We had never noticed that before or we hadn’t allowed ourselves to notice it before, but we had no choice now but to notice it. And what was it we were going to do7 We thought one of the old tried and true ways of answering questions was to study, to learn about them and find out more of what you’re talking about. It was one way at least of postponing having to make political decisions.

HYMAN: Actually, we turned to politics very, very early: the group didn’t get organized until the Fall of 1971 and we were already at the Rabbinical Assembly with our mimeographed statements in March 1972. What had happened was that after two months of studying, we realized that we had good Jewish backgrounds and that our intuitive experience—our sense of lack of access and secondary status in Judaism —could be relied upon. I think we also felt a sense of mission: that this potentially affected all Jewish women and the rest of the community. And for us to sit and simply serve ourselves by studying was irresponsible.

AGUS: When we first started realizing that we could trust our intuition, we started allowing our rage to be legitimate, because we felt that it came from legitimate Jewish guts and was grounded in all the right Jewish values.

LILITH: What was on the agenda presented to the RA in 1972 and to what degree has it been achieved?

HYMAN: The agenda was a full and complete one. First of all, it defined a problem and it offered a feminist analysis. It said the Jewish tradition, which was once progressive regarding women—something I’m not sure really was true—was now out of date, that women lacked equal access to the heart of the tradition and equal access to positions of power and status within the community—and that this is an ethical and political problem confronting Jewry.

Then we developed a specific set of demands: we asked that women be given positions of power within the organized Jewish community. We asked that women be permitted and encouraged by all branches of Judaism to be rabbis and cantors. We asked that women be counted in a minyan (quorum of 10 worshippers) and given aliyot (calls to the Torah reading). Aliyot had been available as an option as early as 1955, but we included it on our list. We asked that the disabilities that women have been subject to in divorce proceedings also be dealt with by the Jewish community. We asked that women be declared obligated under Jewish law to observe all the commandments, because we recognized that the exemption of women from certain time-bound commandments placed women in a second-class category vis-a-vis Jewish tradition.

LILITH: Do you see this as the core of the religious problem?

HYMAN: I think it is an important theoretical issue because in the decisions that are being made in other areas, the halachic [Jewish legal] considerations are all linked to this exemption of women from most positive time-bound commandments. In Jewish law if you’re not obligated, you’re in an inferior position to those who are obligated. I think those of us who are formed by Western concepts would tend to think that if you choose to take upon yourself obligations that are not legally yours, this placed you in a higher category because you’re volunteering for them. But in Jewish law, you’re in a lower category. Second, if you are not obligated, you cannot help others who are obligated to fulfill their obligations. A minyan is supposed to be formed as a prayer quorum of those who are obligated to pray. So to leave out this central issue of obligation is to fudge the question of counting women in the minyan.

Also on the issue of women serving as cantors: the cantor in Jewish law, the chazan, is the representative of the community and helps the members of the congregation fulfill their obligation to pray. If the cantor herself is not obligated to pray, there are problems with whether she is halachically qualified to help others fulfill their obligations, or to represent them in doing so. Those who are concerned about women serving as cantors and rabbis are concerned because of the legal status of women who are not obligated.

LILITH: How can this be remedied?

HYMAN: There is a real reluctance—certainly on the part of the Conservative movement, not to mention the Orthodox community, which hasn’t addressed this issue at all—to use some of the mechanisms that exist within halachah to rectify what I would see as this major problem in the tradition regarding its view of women.

One mechanism would be the takanah, the rabbinic enactment. It was used throughout history to deal with major social problems, and it was also always a response to social reality.

I think the social reality of women in the modern world is not the same kind of social reality that you see reflected in the Jewish tradition. One could issue a takanah and say that the reality of womens’ lives today is such that there is no longer any conceivable rationale [such as women having conflicting time obligations to care for their families] for excluding them from observing all the positive time-bound commandments.

LILITH: Who is going to make such a takanah?

HYMAN: Judaism at this point, for better or for worse, is an institutionalized religion, and therefore the major institutions in Jewish life have to make some of these decisions. There are such institutions. The Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, for example, could and does issue decisions. It issues both majority and minority reports, and individual rabbis can accept either one of them. Counting women in the minyan, for example, was a majority decision in 1973.

There absolutely must also be a takanah that women’s testimony is valid. It is an insult to every woman to be told that our testimony is not valid in Jewish law courts according to halachah.

LILITH: Why hasn’t this been done yet?

HYMAN: People are reluctant to use the takanah mechanism; first, out of a sense of humility: “We do not have sufficient authority to use these mechanisms as our forefathers did.” Second, there’s the argument of Rabbi Joel Roth, the head of the [Conservative] rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, that it would be unfair to women who don’t want to be obligated to be compelled by rabbinic decision to be obligated. On the other hand, from the vantage point of Jewish tradition, men have no choice whether or not they want to be obligated: they are obligated. I think a takanah would make women face the same decisions about their religious observance that men have to face. It would obviously affect the lives of Orthodox women profoundly.

LILITH: And they are not interested in this issue at all?

HYMAN: I have been at conferences where observant men will get up to daven, and I always chafe because not only don’t they invite me, but it is very clear that they don’t want me to be there in the room, even if I am not being counted by them. But the Orthodox women that I am with will say things like: “I’m so glad that I don’t have to face these problems that the men face. How would I ever do it?” It is a real kind of “poor weak me” position. These are women who handle everything else in their lives—they are professional women; they manage their families. But if they think of having to daven at eight o’clock in the morning, this suddenly becomes something that they cannot handle.

The situation where women are not obligated leads to a kind of deprecation of their religious sensibility and of their strength.

LILITH: Granted, this is important for religiously committed women. But why should secular Jewish women be concerned about it?

HYMAN: I think that these issues have enormous ramifications for the ways in which Jewish women see themselves and in the ways in which they are perceived by others. Judaism is still a religious civilization; Judaism was always a religious ethnic community. Religion has always been central and is central in what it means to be a Jew. In America you might argue it’s become even more religious in terms of its definition and self-definition than it ever was throughout history.

So that even if you personally are not religious, if you do identify as a Jew and the Jewish tradition says that women have only a marginal connection with serious Jewish study, and that women have only a marginal connection with many mitzvot [commandments], and that women’s role is to be enablers for their husbands and their sons—and that indeed the Adam-Eve story in Genesis is intended to tell us that God wants families organized in a patriarchal fashion—then your self-image, your sense of self, is affected by these prevailing dominant images within the Jewish tradition. That is why I think it is important for an alternative vision to be granted legitimacy by the Jewish community. Feminism is very much an alternative vision to the patriarchal underpinnings of Jewish tradition throughout history.

LILITH: Some in the Jewish community argue that feminism is a very narcissistic, selfish philosophy—and that it is in some way in conflict with Jewish values.

HYMAN: I think that element in feminism is in conflict with Jewish values, which stress the good of the community. But that element in modern life is in conflict with Jewish values. Individual achievement is not really an essential part of the Jewish tradition. Incidentally, the feminist argument that denying an individual the opportunity to express, to find, to pursue happiness wherever it may lie was powerful because it’s in tune with the American culture. I don’t think it’s so powerful in the traditional Jewish community.

On the other hand, when I hear the narcissism argument directed against women, it seems that I am hearing that it is only women who should defer any sense of self-gratification and achievement, for the good of the community. There is a double standard that is being applied here, because I don’t hear people telling Jewish men that they shouldn’t be achievement-oriented or that they should curtail their careers in order to focus all their energies on the survival of the Jewish community.

I would add that the “self-gratification” element is one strand within feminism. There is also sisterhood, and there is a strong element of cooperation within feminism that I think could only work to the benefit of the Jewish community. It could be seen as a different kind of model as to how people should relate to each other, a cooperative rather than a competitive model.

It seems to me that the issues that Jewish feminists have raised can be divided into two different categories: 1) equal access, and 2) the feminization of culture. Certainly much of what Ezrat Nashim was asking of the Conservative movement in 1972 had to do with equal access, that women should have all the opportunities that men have had to participate fully in religious and secular life and to have positions of status and authority. To my mind, we haven’t achieved the equal access. We also haven’t done enough in the other realm, the feminization of culture. What would a feminist perspective tell us about how human beings should relate to each other? As Judaism depends upon the ongoing reinterpretation of sources, what would a feminist interpretation of Jewish sources and Jewish experience and the Jewish past contribute to all Jews?

LILITH: Why haven’t Jewish feminists done enough in this realm?

HYMAN: We are reluctant to get too far from the Jewish community. We can’t simply do what a number of more radical feminists have done, which is to say: “I will build an ideology and a view of the world based only on women’s experience and that will be sufficient” (for example, Mary Daly’s Exodus communities), or to say: “Women should just walk out of these institutions and meet their own spiritual needs.” I don’t think Jewish feminists can do that or want to. That means that we have to be able to translate our needs in such a way that the rest of the Jewish community can share them.

AGUS: I often ask myself whether there is something more fundamental that we are not courageous enough to ask ourselves that will somehow imply a contradiction between our community or our religion and ourselves, and therefore we are terrified about asking it. Or will the next step be a rupture, not an incremental change but a major change in kind, and frightening. That is certainly true in family questions, sexuality questions, religious questions, theological questions. For example, the God-language issue terrifies me.

HYMAN: We haven’t done a great deal within the Jewish community on the theological issues that feminism raises in terms of concept of God. This is an area where the impact of feminism would make people think differently.

The Reform movement has really taken significant strides in that direction by saying that these issues are important, that one has to look at language in textbooks, and at the language of prayer. When I spoke in my course on Feminism and Judaism at the [Reform] Hebrew Union College and I talked about whether there were any boundaries in feminist discussion, I said I thought the issue of bringing the Goddess into Judaism was beyond the pale. Not for everyone around the table!

At what point does Judaism cease being Judaism? We are always treading that line—are we going to do something that will cut us off from our people? I think that is the source of the terror.

LILITH: Does that also apply to communal matters?

HYMAN: In the early years of Ezrat Nashim, we debated whether we should ask women to withhold their contributions to Jewish institutions, to put them in escrow or to announce publicly that they were not going to make contributions because they were not granted equality within these institutions. One of our members did do that in a Conservative synagogue and was almost run off the stage by the rabbi. I feel torn because of my commitment to particular Jewish institutions. I’m not sure that I would want to turn to women and say, “Don’t give to these institutions until the Messiah comes and they grant equality to women.”

LILITH: You spoke of articulating Jewish feminist goals and having the community share them. To what extent is this happening?

HYMAN: The feminist issues that we have raised are either seen as incidental or potentially dangerous for Jewish survival. They have never been seen as positively linked with Jewish survival, which I think they are. Even when I think of my own Conservative movement, the concern about the ordination of women as rabbis has been expressed primarily in terms of fear of splitting the movement. I never hear people say that we are bleeding in this movement because of the loss of talented women and that there will be disaffection in the movement not only by those women who want to be rabbis but by other people within the movement.

AGUS: What is going on in the 1980’s in the Jewish community is that the specter of Jewish power has no substance behind it. It’s only a ghost, and it operates as if it still exists. More so now than at any other time in the last quarter-century, the Jewish community cannot identify priorities, cannot come up with an agenda. You can’t find anything now that motivates Jews, not Soviet Jewry, not Israel. At the recent conference of NCJRAC, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, you could not find (a) a single strong agenda item, or (b) a single strong figure from anywhere in the world who would draw people to a conference. The same happened in November 1982 at the GA, the General Assembly of the Federation people. The energy level was so low you had to be propped up to find yourself seated.

HYMAN: Federation has always been one secular form of affiliation for Jews, but the Federation world has been significantly closed to women. You can’t talk about real possibilities for women at this point within the leadership of the Federation.

AGUS: I don’t think that it’s true. Women in Federation, probably more than almost any other organization I can think of, play central roles in decision-making, both officially and unofficially. Some of them wield money, several of the large committee heads are women, some of the people who are taken seriously in halls of power are the heads of the Women’s Campaign. So I think on every level in the Federation world this blanket condemnation is sort of outdated.

LILITH: But are the Federations committed in any way to dealing with feminist demands?

HYMAN: I spoke recently at a conference on “Jewish Women Who Work,” sponsored by the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Aside from some Federation men who were asked to speak at one session, no man—none of the male leadership of the Federation—was present during the entire proceeding. Important issues of concern to an entire community were raised and only women were listening.

LILITH: This is seen as a “women’s issue” just like day care is, and, for that matter, ordination

HYMAN: My lectures on Feminism and Judaism at the HUC were open to all rabbinical students as an elective. When I arrived, I discovered that the class was entirely female. Now women do make up between 30 and 40 percent of the rabbinical students, but I was struck by the failure of male rabbinical students to think that this was an issue that might be of some concern to them.

I think also of some egalitarian communities that I have been a part of where women read the Torah and are called up to the Torah and can lead services. Yet on the issues of adding the names of the Matriarchs whenever you mention the Patriarchs, when some women lead the service they do it, but I’ve never heard a man do it.

AGUS: I don’t really get a sense that we have accomplished a great deal even in the relatively tolerant communities. I think of a recent Havurah Institute, where the issue was pluralism vs. tolerance, and “tolerance” meant that we must also tolerate discrimination against women. There was a conflict between feminist egalitarian concepts and the feeling that they have to allow all Jews within the Havurah movement to express themselves. And if some Jews feel they can only express themselves religiously in services where women are not counted, that’s supposed to be O.K.

For the feminists at the Havurah Institute, it wasn’t O.K. We want to feel that we are part of a broader community that says equality for women is so fundamental that if you don’t accept it you don’t belong, in our community. In the same way I would feel that I don’t want to be in a community with anti-Semites. I feel just as uncomfortable with anti-feminists as I feel with anti-Semites. I find that a lot of Jewish men don’t recognize that in any way, they think it’s amusing to joke about women’s equality with a feminist.

HYMAN: At meetings of [an “alternative” Jewish institution] I feel like I am an anthropologist watching a foreign tribe, with the “counter-culture” males who think they have different values from their elders. After an argument about including more women on the board, one of the men said to me, thinking it amusing, “You know, I’m just an old male chauvinist sweetie-pie.” The next day, he came up to me and said, “If anyone can convince me not to be a sexist, Paula, it will be you.” That was a compliment, right? I said, “How would you like it if someone came up to you and said: “If anyone can convince me not to be an anti-Semite, it will be you ‘?” He didn’t know what I was talking about.

I think there is a very strong emotional resistance to some of the changes we are suggesting. The passion of those who oppose feminist demands is very, very deep-seated and powerful.

LILITH: Isn’t it a question of power—no powerful group gives up power easily… ?

HYMAN: Unless we create communities only of women, if we choose to work with the rest of humankind then we face that dilemma. We are for the most part without power in comparison to men. I know that there are men without power too. But as a group we are without power. Then we face the dilemma of how do we achieve the sharing of power. What is it that persuades people with power that they cannot hang onto it or that it is not good for them to do so, that it should be shared, broadened? Sometimes it happens through revolution, but often it happens without revolution.

Ten years ago, Judith Hauptman (teacher of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary) and I wrote a letter to Ger-son Cohen, JTS Chancellor, on the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. One of the arguments we made was that the leadership has to lead, and that we couldn’t wait for there to be an absolute consensus that women should be rabbis. The leadership within a community can articulate a moral position which is not yet held by the majority, particularly on an issue like this, where you have the weight of tradition and a lot of psychological opposition to any kind of change.

AGUS: Because of the crisis in the community that I spoke of earlier, there is no perceptible leadership suppressing women right now. To some extent, the leadership, such as it is, does carry on the tradition of sex-role divisions, with the old-boys’ network and the system still operating in much the same way as always. But there is no potent force now suppressing us, and this is a very ripe time to take action, to move away from the dead end we’ve hit.

We haven’t achieved a lot of our aims partly because of our tactics and partly out of a lack of clarity of goals. If we rethink the last ten years this was not a revolution at all. I think it was pockets of resistance that we have formed. I think we did what we did as a kind of guerrilla resistance force.

HYMAN: We are a transitional generation, and I imagine that the next generation will be able to do better than we.

Certain things that are very new for us will not be new for our children. Every time I have an aliyah, I remember when I didn’t have one. I remember the first time that I had an aliyah, and I remember being part of the community which did not grant women aliyot. My children have always had the experience of seeing women having aliyot. This should have the same emotional feel and legitimacy for them as anything else in the Jewish tradition.

On the other hand, just recently my six-year-old was saying that there were certain things that boys could be that girls couldn’t be. I asked, “Like what?” And she said, “Like a daddy.” I said, “Wonderful answer; anything else?” She said, “A rabbi.” I said: “Wrong.” I mentioned certain people she has met who are in fact women rabbinical students.

But it’s clear to me that there have to be not just role models but a new social reality out there, so that every Jewish child will have met a woman rabbi; so that when asked about the two or three things that only men can be, “rabbi” won’t be the second thing that pops into the consciousness of the child who’s getting an egalitarian Jewish education and who davens in egalitarian synagogues and havurot. I go out of my way not to lead my daughters into places where women are subordinated.

I really do believe that the feminist revolution is a permanent revolution and not a fad of the decade that will disappear. One of the reasons that I am less concerned about the permanence of feminism is that the reality of men’s and women’s lives has changed significantly in the past 20 years, partly out of economic necessity when half —close to half—of all mothers of preschool children are in the labor force. That creates a profound social reality that in some way has to be met.

LILITH: What should we be concentrating on doing? What is the great challenge to come?

HYMAN: I think that we have to be willing to bring our message continually to the Jewish community: that is, not only to issue a list of demands, but to point out the negative impact on the Jewish community of doing nothing and of the loss of women to that community.

We feminists have not been completely successful in communicating that this is a fundamental and basic moral issue. If the subordination of women is at the core of Judaism, then Judaism doesn’t deserve to survive. As a feminist, I am not willing to accept my subordination and the subordination of my daughters and my sisters as the price for the survival of Jewish tradition.

We are, in a sense, calling Judaism morally to account—Judaism is on trial in some ways for us. It must be able to contend with this moral issue—and resolve it.