The Feminist Seder

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Feminist Seder and Other Innovations


   At the beginning of the twenty-first century and in the light of the immense progress women have made in attaining equality with men in so many fields of endeavor such as the military, the economy and education it is not surprising that American women are now making an effort to reach equality with men in their religious life as well. This is particularly important for American Jewish women because the proportion of American Jewish women who have a higher education and who participate in the economy is so high. Thus, the 1990 Jewish Population Survey revealed that 25% of all American Jewish women were then college graduates although only 11% of all American women had that much education.

   Therefore, several responses to the male centered attitudes in Judaism have now been tried by Jewish women. One of these is to reinterpret ritual so as to allow female participation. This response tries to maintain tradition by accommodating the Jewish legal code even as women become more and more involved in Jewish practice. Three of the four principal American Jewish denominations have used and are using this accommodation of women into the tradition and are therefore called "modernist" in their response to women's needs. The "Torah true" or orthodox Jewish community has so far made no such changes. In the words of Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean of the Rabbi Israel Elchanan Theological Seminary orthodox seminary, "Any Orthodox rabbi who ordains a woman is by definition not orthodox."

    This attitude towards the ordination of women as rabbis is not only related to the rejection of that role for women but is also related to the view of orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians that female higher education of any kind is not necessary.

    Beginning in 1971 a group of women appeared at the convention of the Jewish Conservative movement and demanded full participation for women in Jewish life.  By 1978 mixed seating and women leading the congregation in English readings were nearly universal in Reform and Conservative congregations. In Reform congregations women were also honored with calls to the Torah during the weekly reading (aliyoth) and were also counted as a member of the ten person quorum demanded of Jews in order to pray as a congregation. Reform synagogues also permitted women to lead prayer services.

     Women in the Reform movement were also admitted to the rabbinical seminary at the end of the 1960's, so that Sally Priesand became the first woman Rabbi in America when she was ordained  by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972. Since then women have also been admitted to the Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbinate.

    Thus, the conservative movement celebrated ten years of women as conservative rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1993 at a two day conference. Although that conference celebrated the ascension of women to the rabbinical calling it was not free of controversy, as two male rabbis voiced their regrets at the departure of those who could not accept female rabbis on Halachic or legal grounds.

    Seminaries of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements also admit  women as cantors. This innovation is not only significant because it places the musical aspects of Jewish worship services into the hands of women but it is also significant because Jewish tradition holds that the cantor is the Shaliach Zibbur or Messenger of the Congregation. Accordingly, the cantor, also known as Baal Tefilah or Master of Prayer represents the congregation before God and pleads the congregation's case before Him. In view of the long tradition of Jewish male centered religious dominance it is indeed a major change in practice and opinion which has permitted this development.

    One consequence of the admission of women to the rabbinate has been the decline of the traditional role of rabbi's wife, generally referred to as the rebbetzin. Although no such official title exists in Judaism, the label rebbetzin was for centuries attached to the wife of the rabbi and carried with it, even in America, various expectations concerning her services to the congregation. In sum, the rebbetzin is an unpaid assistant rabbi who is expected to do a great many things without receiving anything but social honor or prestige in return. Such an arrangement was of course acceptable before the era of women's liberation. At the beginning of the 21st century the rebbetzin role is hardly supported by any women other than those married to orthodox rabbis. In fact, several books and journal articles have been written since the 1980's denouncing the role of rebbetzin despite the fact that a few of these women have become celebrities in their own right, thus furnishing the proof that exceptions once more prove the rule.

    The effort to include women in the rabbinate and give them equality in other areas of the Jewish tradition was initiated in the 1930's by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan founded the Reconstructionist movement and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, in which women could be counted in the minyan or quorum. In addition he introduced the Bat Mitzvah to the United States when his own daughter became Bat Mitzvah in 1936. In the 1990's Reconstructionists admitted gays and lesbians to Jewish rituals and to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, a policy followed also by the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism. In addition, Reconstructionist women have altered the traditional Jewish prayers and given God a feminist appearance. Thus, Reconstructionist women include such prayers in the English language as "yours are the cradling arms of life," and "the womb of our safe deliverance." Reconstructionists, following Spinoza, also include references to  nature in their prayers and rituals so as to defeat the male centered anthropomorphic language found in the traditional prayer book. Nevertheless, Reconstructionists have maintained the traditional prayers in the Hebrew language unaltered. An example of the effort to relate Judaism to nature is the work of Rabbi Leah Novick who functions in the San Francisco area. Involved in numerous community action activities she also serves rural Jews who have no connection to the mainstream Jewish establishment but who seek to connect Judaism to the environment and to the land. This, she claims, permits rural Jews to establish a "grass-roots" Jewish renewal movement.

      There is also a so-called "Post-modern" feminist movement among Jewish women. This group of Jewish women seeks to create new rituals focused on women's experience. Relying on such sources as the native American religion, witchcraft and some Sephardic practices, post-modern feminists engage in the ritual of burying the placenta, foreskin and umbilical chord of a new born child amidst prayers which address God as "Queen of the Universe."

    Other women have organized a "feminist Seder." That ancient Passover ceremony serves to recall the Exodus from Egypt during a festive meal surrounded by readings from the Haggadah.  The Haggadah not only recounts the events pertaining to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery but also includes numerous hymns of gratitude for that liberation together with rabbinical admonitions, sayings, proverbs and stories. Hence the introduction of a feminist Haggadah which includes a list of "the ten plagues that men have brought against women." These plagues include such hardships as men's failure to accept lesbians, the lack of research concerning women's medical needs, the media image of women, the gender wage gap, the feminization of poverty, threats to abortion rights, lack of female role models and exclusion of women from history. The feminist Seder also includes songs thanking God for Gloria Steinem and labels the Matza or unleavened bread a metaphor for a "woman flat in the relief of history."

    In New York City there is a gay and lesbian synagogue whose female rabbi, Sharon Kleinman,  is of the same persuasion. Called Beit Simchat Torah or House of Torah Joy it is also labeled the Gay and Lesbian Synagogue of New York City and is supported by 1200 members. This development has evidently angered some people so much that Rabbi Kleinman has not only received a good deal of negative publicity but also denunciations and death threats.

  Female rabbis, like Sharon Kleinman, are often anxious to change the world with particular reference to the position of women. They champion social justice causes and believe that their new status gives them a unique opportunity to bring about such changes. That is also true of women in the Protestant ministry, although female ministers are more likely than female rabbis to believe that they were "called" and that they were particularly chosen to "navigating life's passages with people."

Shalom uívracha.


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