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Firsts, and the Future

A wide-angle look at the Judaism we won.

New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future (Jewish Lights, $24.99), edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, is a sweeping exploration of feminism’s impact on contemporary Jewish life.

The book is divided into seven sections — Theology, Ritual and Torah, Synagogue, Israel, Gender, Sexuality and Age, Women and the Denominations, and Leadership and Social Justice. The 41 contributors represent different generations of Jewish feminists, from women in their early 30s who grew up with the fruits of Jewish feminism, to some of the pioneer “matriarchs” of the movement. All explore the impact feminism has had on varying aspects of Jewish life.

There’s even a lone article by a male rabbi: “Where Are the Jewish Men? The Absence of Men from Liberal Synagogue Life.” I braced myself before reading this, half expecting another diatribe about how Jewish feminism has driven men from the synagogue (the argument being that women’s participation has “feminized” the synagogue, making it unappealing to men). Yet in his balanced piece, Rabbi Joseph Meszler argues that men aren’t in shul because they’re spending their free time with their families, caring for their children, shouldering domestic responsibilities, and being equal participants in their family lives rather than retreating to the synagogue.

New Jewish Feminism includes an eight-page bibliography of Jewish feminist books and music — most published in the last decade and a half. While the book is very comprehensive, I would love to know more how Rabbi Goldstein and her husband raised three feminist sons, how feminist rabbis balance synagogue roles and family life, and how other Jewish feminist leaders balance their professional and activist commitments with caregiving. I would also have liked a chapter assessing the impact of feminism on academic Jewish studies, where scholarship in Jewish gender/feminist studies is flourishing. But there’s plenty here.

The Red Tent author Anita Diamant, in her introduction, triumphantly describes feminism’s impact on Judaism: “We won. Which is to say, the Jewish people have been blessed with a new, vital chapter in our history.” Literature scholar Wendy Zierler echoes this sense of achievement’s in her discussion of the plethora of women’s/ feminist Torah commentaries, when she states confidently, “It is clear, at this point, that Jewish women now own the Torah.”

Susan Sapiro, an associate at DRG Inc., and a former Lilith intern, writes on Jewish feminist issues.