In the elevator of Lilith’s office building, news is perpetually flashed at us on a small TV screen, just in case we might be tempted to say hello to our co-passengers. Last week, on the two-minute ride to the 24th floor, I learned that, according to “a recent survey,” 20 percent of North Americans feel guilty that they are not doing more for “the environment.” It’s not exactly news, as we swing through the 21st century, that, deep down, we feel increasingly uncomfortable depleting natural resources — trees, water, fossil fuels, the shoreline — however much we might be tempted to buy yet another cheap T-shirt made in China and shipped to us from halfway around the world.
This issue features Jewish women who have become ecopioneers, giving us new ways to think about the ways we utilize the natural and manufactured universe. These women are deeply conservative, in the strict sense of the word. They want to conserve: to protect and not waste precious resources, and they look to Jewish sources to buttress them.
I’m worried now about another kind of waste: the squandering of intellectual capital.
Jewish women — 51% of the Jews — are underrepresented in a lot of Jewish life. Years ago, in Lilith’s pages Cynthia Ozick wrote a memorable piece naming “the Jewish half-genius.” By this she meant that while there’s much naches from Jewish achievement in all fields, and a lot of rant about “Jewish genius,” this is more correctly labeled half-genius, since women are left out from the count and the canon. Think this accusation is so Twentieth Century? Think again.
Just this week — the same week in which the elevator’s mini- TV reports on our worries for the planet — three emails arrived in my in-box. Maybe in yours too.
• JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, writes to Jewish schools and other institutions, warning them not to order the new, visually beautiful Artscroll women’s siddur. This prayerbook virtually ignores the fact that Jewish women, even the most traditionally observant, are permitted to participate in much more of Jewish worship than this prayerbook indicates. Here’s what Jennifer Stern Breger says in her review of the prayerbook for JOFA: “Every time Mourners Kaddish appears, rather than saying that there are different opinions, the notes say clearly, ‘Although reciting Kaddish is a comfort for the soul of the departed, even silent recitation by a woman is generally frowned upon’.”
• The Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for Jewish federations across the U.S. and Canada, announces videos of four rabbis commenting on Torah texts for the High Holidays, choosing four male rabbis to represent current Jewish thinking. (The UJC leadership subsequently issued a statement acknowledging the error and promising to do better in the year to come.)
• Melanie Weiss, a blogger and Lilith assistant editor, posts on Lilith’s blog about relegation of the opinions of smart Jewish women — Cynthia Ozick among them — to the arts and culture pages of Jewish periodicals (not Lilith, obviously) and how infrequently they’re called upon for comment in hard news stories.
The number of remarkable Jewish women in our midst today — and their books, and films, and paintings and classes and conversations and book groups and, now, salons — is stunning. We’re all — male and female — enormously lucky to be living in an era where we can benefit and rejoice in the intellectual productivity of these women along with men.
And yet, and yet, there is a chariness, a stinginess. As if the organizers of a conference on the future of Jewish life — with only male speakers — or the author the book Fifty Key Jewish Thinkers — with not one woman in its Pantheon of 50 — can’t acknowledge how much they’d gain from including women, and Jews of every background, on their lists. What are these guys thinking?
These lacunae squander a precious resource—the intellectual production of Jewish women. And women, especially younger women, get it. Believe me. They vote with their feet when they see, after working in a Jewish organization, that their chances of advancement are little better than nil, or that when they are inveigled into attending a Jewish event they don’t see people like themselves on the podium, or that after an experience in youth groups or Hillels they’re not nurtured as future leaders.
Eight gorgeous and provocative pages in this issue of Lilith spotlight women with fresh ways of thinking about how we live, who have been ahead of their time in recognizing the value of not-wasting, of living well, perhaps even better than the ways they were raised. As we praise their work, and learn from it, and commit to our own pledges to honor this planet’s physical gifts, we’ll need to push for using women’s intellectual capital wisely as well.