Pioneering Jewish American feminists of the 1960s and 70s, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug
The 20th century witnessed a radical change in the traditional roles of women throughout the western world. The experience of suffrage in the first half of the century, followed by second wave feminism in the 60’s and 70’s ushered in far reaching changes in women’s roles and identities, in both the personal and public spheres. While change comes slowly to established religions, the influence of the feminist movement has made inroads into the practice of all world religions and this influence is apparent in the practice of Judaism in all its diversity throughout the last century and into the present.
The role of women in Judaism has always been central and it is important to note that women have largely been treated with respect and dignity both in Jewish religious law and Jewish communal life. Yet while women’s roles were valued, and even at times exalted, they were limited and the traditional roles of wife and mother were the dominant frameworks within which female Jewish identity was expressed.
As women began to challenge traditional roles, many questions arose concerning the ‘source’ of women’s inequality within Judaism. This problem was approached from a variety of perspectives but the central question could be formulated thus: Is women’s inequality in Judaism a sociological or theological problem?1 If the former, then what is in need of change are the various organizational and communal frameworks that keep women from achieving full equality within the Jewish world. However, if the latter, then it is Jewish belief itself – its theological foundations, textual canons, religious law and rituals – that is in need of examination and review. While the distinction is not absolute since sociological and theological concerns necessarily intersect, it is with these two central issues that Jewish feminism has been primarily concerned.
How Jewish feminists have responded to these questions has rested largely upon their view of Judaism itself, based in their interpretation of the binding (or not) nature of Halacha (Jewish law). Thus, the changes that have taken place regarding the role and participation of Jewish women in Jewish life over the past century have taken place primarily within the boundaries of the various streams of Judaism. Sociological changes came first to those movements such as the Progressive (Reform) movement. In its understanding of Halacha as historically contingent, the Progressive movement rejected those aspects of Jewish law that, for example, precluded women from undertaking leadership roles such as those of the rabbinate. It is no coincidence that the first movement, therefore, to ordain women as rabbis was the Progressive.
Within the Orthodox movement, changes in women’s roles have been slower, largely due to the Orthodox understanding of Halacha as divinely given, and therefore immutable. This is not to suggest that changes in Halacha are not evident in Orthodox practice, however, the process of change is much slower and is subject to traditional laws of interpretation and implementation. The Orthodox movement has produced many outstanding female scholars and activists such as Nehama Leibowitz and Blu Greenberg, whose commitments to both the practice of Halacha and to full equality for women have led to major innovations with regard to women’s participation in ritual practice and communal leadership within the Orthodox world2. Thus, while Orthodox seminaries will still not ordain women as rabbis, there are now more and more Orthodox women undertaking traditional forms of Jewish study and an Orthodox feminist movement (JOFA)3 has been formed in North America. Some current developments in some Orthodox congregations include the creation of women-only tefilla (prayer) groups in which women are encouraged to lead services and read from the Torah and modified Bat Mitzvah services which allow girls to read Torah (excluding blessings).