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Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics

Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics
by Rachel Adier, with a preface by David Ellenson
The Jewish Publication Society, $34.95

Almost thirty years ago, Rachel Adler published an essay called “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman.” In it she argued as a then-Orthodox woman that the classical Jewish tradition marginalizes and degrades women, and that either halachic authorities should begin using halachic means to heal the wrongs, or women should “take steps to amend halacha” (Jewish law) themselves. Naturally, a storm followed. Adler was accused by learned Jewish scholars and rabbis of ignorance; if she were properly versed in Jewish learning (which of course was inaccessible to women—a nice Catch- 22) she would recognize her errors. Even worse, she was accused of secularism (i.e., feminism).

Well, rabbinic authority has not exactly risen to the challenge of self-scrutiny regarding women and women’s issues. But women have, and Adler has been in the vanguard of feminist writers working to imagine a Judaism that will be truly “inclusive,” not simply permitting participation in religious forms that treat women as second class or slapping band-aids on top of deep spiritual wounds. Seeking a Jewish justice built on the spiritual, moral and intellectual needs and insights of women as well as men, Adler has engaged in friendly debate with feminists like Judith Plaskow, Ellen Umansky and Marcia Falk. Engendering Judaism, summarizing the thinking of a lifetime, is the first major work of feminist Jewish theology since Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai.

Though Adler no longer describes herself as Orthodox, this is a book that reaches out toward the whole of klal Yisrael, the community of Israel, by combining her rich knowledge of Biblical, Talmudic and Rabbinic texts with strands of feminist thought, legal and ethical philosophy, dashes of folklore, and the salt and pepper of humor and personal experience.

Mixing ingredients is, in fact, Adler’s methodology. She likes word-play (itself a key characteristic of Talmudic discourse), but with a twist. So the “engendering” of her title means that Judaism must take account of the female as well as the male gender, but also that Judaism as a living tradition, not a finished one, needs to be continually re-conceived. You need two sexes in order to create. But how are rebirth and transformation to occur? How can traditions created by and for male privilege change from within?

Adler concentrates on issues in Jewish law, liturgy, sexual ethics and marriage. Unlike some other feminist theologians, Adler wants to keep Jewish feminism rooted in the texts of Jewish law and liturgy while recognizing, resisting, and altering those elements that demean women. A chief problem for Jewish feminists from the beginning has been the legal exclusion of women from traditional communal prayer as well as the legal negation of women’s agency in marriage and divorce proceedings. Orthodox feminists lately have been struggling for reform within a unchanged halachic system while non-Orthodox feminists have tended to dismiss the category of Jewish law as totally hopeless. Adler’s vision differs from both. Instead of polarizing Jews into “us” and “them,” she points out that halachah has always been “diverse rather than monolithic,” and multiple opinions have always been seen within Judaism as “dispute for the sake of Heaven.” So, using the legal theorist Robert Cover’s view of law as a bridge between the world we have and the world we seek, she hopes to place Jewish law in the hands of communities committed both to shared practices and to human (including gendered) variousness.

In her discussion of liturgy, Adler surveys a wide range of alternative styles of inclusive liturgy from the sixteenth century to today. She supports the plethora of new prayers, ceremonies and rituals women have been inventing to celebrate women’s life cycles—from b’rit bat ceremonies to welcome girl babies into the covenant, to ceremonies for first menstruation, to celebrations of Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, to rituals to honor women’s entrance into old age. Women’s prayer groups and women’s seders have also multiplied, and are “valuable because they articulate the possibility for holiness in women’s experiences” and offer “new language and imagery about God and about the praying community.” Even more important, Adler feels, is the creation of progressive prayer books which engage both men and women. This is not just a matter of making female God-language an option which lets some people pray to the Shekhinah while others do “real” prayers, or of keeping patriarchal language in Hebrew while offering gender-neutral versions in English. For Adler argues that Hebrew is at the core of Jewish worship, and that the power of community prayer is indivisible from community ethics.

If it matters how we imagine God, how can we make new metaphors for God beyond the masculine images of father, king, warrior, etc.? Adler praises the “radiantly beautiful feminist liturgical Hebrew” in Marcia Falk’s Book of Blessings. But she also worries about visions of God (like Falk’s) that reject anthropomorphism. Adler insists on a personalized God, not an abstraction. “We cannot talk about the God of Israel,” she claims, “without talking about the Creator, dweller in the thornbush, liberator, covenanter, nursing mother, adversary, voice in the whirlwind, scribe, judge, and exiled Shekhina…. Only through stories can we glimpse the wildness of God, of infinite and untrammeled possibility, untamable within the confines of any systematic theology.” But in order “to grow a prayer language that is authentic and inclusive and powerful” for our own time, we need more stories, more metaphors, more images.

The final chapters of this groundbreaking book address questions of sexuality and marriage definitively. Like Judith Plaskow, Adler sees Jewish tradition on sexuality as divided. On the one hand are rigid legal codes in which women are property, and on the other hand are poems and stories which celebrate a loving equality between the sexes, human generosity, and even divine violation of law. Critiquing the “dominance and submission” view of relationships stemming from Genesis 2, she offers other models: the mysteriously androgynous God and adam of Genesis 1, the joyous and mutual sensuousness of the Song of Songs, the generous loving-kindness, chesed, described in the Book of Ruth, and the lawbreaking “covenant marriage” between God and Israel described in Hosea.

As the climax of Engendering Judaism, Adler argues for a radical reconceptualization of the Jewish wedding ritual and of the meaning of marriage, based on covenant instead of ownership. Her b’rit ahuvim, or lovers’ covenant, is a practical and beautiful design that retains “as many elements of the traditional ceremony as possible,” but derives from partnership law instead of the law of acquisition and possession. The idea is that the couple is joining in a mutual commitment of equals, to share a love that may have mortal faults yet comes ultimately from the love God offers us and asks of us. Not coincidentally, variants of Adler’s proposed ceremony would be available for same-sex couples. When I read this chapter, with its carefully thought out details, its clear yearning for a better way Jews could find to spend lifetimes together, and its yearning as well for a way to re-knit the loosened ties between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, I felt a pang. I wish this ceremony had been available when my daughter was married. Will young people across the spectrum of Jewishness embrace Adler’s wishes for them? Will their rabbis ultimately share Adler’s idealistic hopes? Surely her ideas will be hotly debated. If received in the spirit with which they are offered, this too will be a dispute “for the sake of heaven.”

Alicia Ostriker is a poet, critic and author of, among other books, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (Rutgers University Press, 1994). The Little Space: Poems Selected and New is forthcoming this fall from the University of Pittsburgh Press.