by Joy Ladin
November 12, 2015
When we think about the achievements of feminism in the US, we usually think about how feminist political activity has changed, and continues to change, the status of women. But in demanding that American Jewish communities and institutions reconsider women’s place and status in them, Jewish feminists have also laid the groundwork for inclusion of transgender Jews by teaching the Jewish world to think about gender.
Marshall McLuhan said that whoever discovered water, you can bet it wasn’t a fish. Before feminism, in most Jewish communities, gender was like water to fish: an invisible, omnipresent medium that permeated every aspect of Jewish identity, from family life to religious practice to social roles to institutional priorities. Jewish families and communities automatically sorted their members by gender, assigning them radically different roles, responsibilities, resources and possibilities; everywhere, Jewish tradition, ritual, liturgy and sacred texts assumed and reinforced the idea that gender divisions were a natural part of Judaism and Jewishness.
American Jewish feminists were fish who discovered water. Though their names and writings were rarely mentioned in the upstate New York Jewish world I grew up in, the work done by Judith Plaskow, Esther Broner, Rivka Haut, Alicia Ostriker and so many others prompted even our backwater congregations to think about gender rather than to assume it, and to recognize that the automatic gendered allocation of roles (the most public, of course, went to men, and the most laborious largely were given to women) was not an inherent, unchangeable aspect of synagogue life, but choices we were making every day. As women in our communities started to question those choices and work toward changing them, everyone, even those defending traditional gender roles, found themselves thinking and talking about gender – and realizing that different members of same community often had very different ideas about what it means to be a Jewish man or a Jewish woman. Feminist theory, queer theory, and gender studies were never mentioned, but as synagogue members debated whether women could be rabbis and presidents, and whether omnipresent male pronouns needed to be changed in prayer books (do we really have to buy new prayer books?) and policy statements (isn’t it clear that “man” means “everyone”?), they were learning that maleness and femaleness and the language and customs that go with them are not fixed by biology or divine decree, but, like so much else in Jewish life, are subject to negotiation.
Thanks to the work of Jewish feminists, Jewish communities across the United States found ideas of gender multiplying like frogs in Pharaoh’s bed. Gender divisions were becoming a source of controversy, disruption, an endless font of inequity and grievance. Many non-Orthodox congregations responded by eliminating gender distinctions in ritual, institutional roles and prayers, creating forms of Judaism and Jewishness that don’t require Jews to be defined as, or to define ourselves, as male or female. (I saw how far we had come when my young son, who grew up with Sheila Peltz Weinberg as his rabbi, asked me one day if men could be rabbis too – a question that demonstrated both how much feminism had changed Judaism, and how hard it is to overcome our tendency to think of Judaism as bound up with and divided by gender.)