Rosie The Riveter As Queen Esther?

Feminism Re-jigs U.S. Judaism

The scholars who contributed to Women Remaking American Judaism, edited by Riv-Ellen Prell (Wayne State University Press, $25.95), many of whom helped to create the revolution that they document, celebrate and reflect on the revitalization of contemporary Judaism that feminism has brought about in only 35 years.

Prell introduces the collection with a concise history of North American Jewish feminism. She notes that its effects have been so thoroughly absorbed into modern Judaism that, as with secular feminism, a woman can reap its benefits (attend rabbinical school, become president of a synagogue, read prayers in gender-neutral language) and not necessarily identify with the movement that made these changes possible.

In the section “Reenvisioning Judaism,” the authors analyze feminist thought’s impact on Jewish theology, the Bible, and halacha [Jewish law]. Rochelle Millen examines the theologies of three major Jewish feminist thinkers (theorists): Rachel Adler, Judith Plaskow and Tamar Ross. Despite theological and denominational differences, the three women share a belief in the importance of Jewish law and a critique of hierarchy.

In “Redefining Judaism,” scholars and activists assess how feminism influenced Judaism’s denominations. Karla Goldman observes that while Reform Judaism has engaged with gender issues (women’s participation) since its inception, the movement’s institutional culture remains male. Shuly Rubin Schwartz documents the contentious history of feminism in Conservative Judaism through an analysis of the movement’s popular and scholarly magazines and journals. Norma Baumel Joseph examines how women’s tefillah [prayer] groups have provoked strong criticism and resistance from Orthodox rabbinic authorities, who interpret women’s desire to pray separately as an affront to their authority. Pamela Nadell’s chapter on the impact of women rabbis on American Judaism looks at the writings of contemporary female rabbis and notes that their style is much more autobiographical and personal than male rabbis, even contemporary ones.

In the last section, “Reframing Judaism,” the authors examine feminist developments in Judaism outside of synagogues or other institutions. Jody Myers writes of the history and practices of Rosh Hodesh ceremonies, the most visible manifestations of “cultural” Jewish feminism. Vanessa Ochs explores the uses of new ritual objects inspired by feminism, specifically Miriam’s cups and Miriam-themed tambourines. Lisa Grant examines the phenomenon of adult bat mitzvah and how women’s participation can spur change in communities.

This impressive volume, with its cover featuring Rosie the Riveter reimagined as Queen Esther on a tambourine, includes a detailed timeline of both Jewish feminist and U.S. feminist milestones. Maybe by the time my toddler daughter grows up, groggers at Purim will be a distant aural memory. Instead, each time Esther or Vashti is mentioned in the Megillah (many more times than Haman), she’ll wave her Esther/Vashti flag decorated with bells, or shake her Esther tambourine.

Susan Sapiro works at a nonprofit focused executive search firm and is a freelance writer/reviewer on Jewish women’s studies and work-life issues.