Laura Levitt, Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home, New York and London, Routledge: 1997, pp. 224.

Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism , Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society: 1998, pp. xxviii+ 269. *


Engendering Judaism


Jews and Feminism:

As a member of the Jewish academic establishment, I assumed many things for a long time. It never occurred to me that gendered language was exclusive, nor that I needed to identify myself as male, Jewish, rabbinic, middle-aged, heterosexual, academic, and so on. Weren't we all that way? Laura Levitt taught me that that wasn't so and that I had a full right to be who I am but that I needed to identify my "homes," that is, that I had to be self-conscious about my commitments. I have tried to do this in each of the books I have written since.

Now Levitt has written her own statement of self-identification as a model for others. In doing so, she has found that one's commitments are not always wholehearted. Indeed, they are almost always ambivalent because the promises of "home" have never been quite fulfilled. This does not render them, or our commitment to them, invalid. But it does remind us of the complex texture of the many ideas and ideals which make up our personal and cultural identity.

In this very subtle book, Levitt works closely with personal history and a series of texts from sources as varied as the rabbinic marriage contract (ketubba), Locke, Napoleon, Pateman, Borowitz, Plaskow, Lorde, Miller, De Laurentis, Pratt, Martin and Mohanty, Rich, Kaye / Kantrowitz, and Klepfisz. Each chapter chooses one or more of these sources and engages in dialogue with Levitt's own personal history. The latter includes her family background and, in particularly honest fashion, her rape while a graduate student in Atlanta.

The Introduction and Chapter One set the tone and program of the book. They move back and forth between several themes: Levitt's rape and the appropriation of rape by the Ku Klux Klan in southern culture, marriage in liberal legal and social culture, and the "unheimlich" sense of Jewishness conveyed to her by her father. All these themes are developed as the book progresses.

Chapter Two deals with the rabbinic ketubba. The text and its background are set forth clearly and Levitt notes that the woman's consent is not actually given when the document is signed (p. 37) and that the ketubba is, then, rather a contract between the bridgegroom and the community than between two beloveds (p. 42). Levitt compares this with the talmudic texts that deal with compensation for rape, noting that the outrage of the victim is not the topic of discussion and that the substantive pain of the victim is but an "imagined norm" (pp. 44-48).

Chapter Three deals with the marriage between modern Jews and the emancipation. Jews, in order to "pass," were expected to assimilate to the prevailing liberal culture. They were expected to speak the local language, go to the local schools, and generally accept the local bourgeois standards of what was right and wrong. Using the questions that Napoleon posed to the Jewish community of France as her text, Levitt notes that the key was the question on the permissibility and desireability of intermarriage as the ultimate judge of successful emancipation. The nature of liberalism, then, was largely "colonial," that is, it demanded giving up a significant amount of the political and cultural autonomy of Jewish communal life. The modern Jew can only embrace the liberalism of the emancipation ambivalently.

Chapter Four deals with the institution of marriage in the modern liberal state. Using the work of the feminist legal theorist, Carole Pateman, Levitt points out that "consent" to the marriage "contract" in western culture is highly irregular: The terms of the "contract" are not written and first examined (p. 68). Until very recently, the terms included a vow of "obedience" (p. 69). And, in any case, once she gives her "consent," the woman loses many rights, e.g., to control her own property, to protest sexual abuse inside the marriage (pp. 66-67), etc. This, in turn, affects the definition of rape in the courts such that the burden of proof rests on the victim who has to prove "nonconsent" in order to establish rape (p. 71). Here, again, the liberal ideal can only be embraced with ambivalence.

Chapter Five pushes the liberal idea into Jewish theology through a study of the work of Eugene Borowitz. Levitt, a former student of Borowitz, respects his effort to develop a genuinely mutual, covenant-rooted liberal Jewish theology. However, Levitt disagrees very strongly with the hierarchical and antihomosexual stand of Borowitz's liberal Jewish theology (p. 87).

Chapter Six takes up the liberal Jewish and feminist views of Plaskow. Clearly in sympathy with Plaskow's effort, Levitt notes that Judith Plaskow replaces the hierarchical, authority-oriented view of God and the Jewish community with a chorus of divergent voices (p. 94), a nonhierarchical God (p. 95), and permission for same-sex relationships (p. 97). Still, Levitt points critically to Plaskow's hierarchicalism which values long-term monogamous relationships and full respect, as opposed to Lorde who advocates a nonhierarchical liberalism (pp. 99-102).

In Chapters Seven and Eight, Levitt deals with the sense of exclusion that Jewish women, qua Jews, have felt within the feminist movement. The liberal promise of feminism turned out to have its own colonialism which excluded Jews, the poor, and women of mixed heritage and which generated its own "horizontal violence." "Why must there be competition," Levitt is forced to ask (p. 112). Better to let go of liberalism's demand for universal sameness and imagine other ways of "specific and local liberation" (p. 128). And better to use this new found "home" as a place from which to resist the "oppositional logic" of classical liberalism (p. 131).

In Chapters Nine, Ten, Eleven, and in the Conclusion, Levitt returns to the ambivalence she feels toward liberalism, rabbinic Judaism, Jewish liberal theology, and feminist study. On the one hand, each of these movements has fallen short of its promise of liberation. Yet, on the other hand, no alternate position has proven as liberating. "There is no other place to go," as Irena Klepfisz says (p. 151). Levitt, thus, lets go of some of her expectations of these movements. She no longer feels bound by the desire for a guarantee or permanence. Rather, she mourns the incompleteness and affirms continued, ambivalent, commitment to these ideals (pp. 157,163).

Methodologically, this is a very important and interesting book. Coming from the cutting edge of the fields of feminist and cultural studies, Jews and Feminism forces us to recognize the very "specific and local" content of all that we do. Each person writes from within a series of traditions and assumptions. It is good to clarify that point. Furthermore, no one does, or should, accept the ideals of his or her several contexts wholeheartedly. All ideals require questioning. Questioning does not invalidate them. Nor does incompleteness undermine their ethical value. One really does need to look critically, and to accept critically, the ideals toward which one aspires and works -- even if that creates a certain ambivalence, even multivalence.

Looking at this book as a male theologian, however, I cannot help wondering what Levitt believes in. What would she do with God's attributes? with revelation? with the binding quality of communal patterns of living? As we shall see, Adler has come out in favor of gendered language for God because gender is unavoidable; what is Levitt's position? Further, Adler has struggled mightily to reconstruct the wedding ceremony precisely because rite and ritual are central to Jewish existence; what would Levitt do with this motif and praxis? This is, to be sure, Levitt's first book. I, for one, hope she continues to do her specific and local work but in the context of specific and local communities who acknowledge their historical and doctrinal roots.

Engendering Judaism

return to head of document

Rachel Adler is a learned Jew, at home in halakhic as well as midrashic sources. She is also experienced in psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, feminist studies, history of religions, and other areas of modern culture. Engendering Judaism is, thus, a very learned book.

It is also a sustained argument for a feminist reading and praxis of halakha. For Rachel Adler, feminism and halakha are locked in an embrace, and cannot be separated. This means that, from the point of view of serious Jewish women, "any future community of law makers must include women, and they must co-determine with men both legal content and legal process" (p. 46, agreeing with Judith Plaskow). Adler, then, goes on to do just that. She analyzes texts which repress women and unveils texts about women who subvert the patriarchal hierarchy of rabbinic Judaism, thus suggesting how to begin integrating women into the halakhic process. She also proposes a modification of the halakhic marriage ceremony which embodies a feminist view of what marriage could, and should, be about.

Chapter One analyzes four texts in which rabbis are depicted as heroes but which, when seen in a feminist light, show a different face. In two of them, rabbis, who were once dependent upon women, grow to power and then degrade the women upon whom they had once depended. In the other two, rabbis deal with sexual temptation in a way that debases women. "Why don't women get haloes? Why don't crowds acclaim their deeds or heavenly voices assure them of their portion in the world to come?" asks Adler (p. 10). Using object relations psychology, Adler offers an answer which explains the androcentric nature of rabbinic hero stories.

Chapter Two surfaces stories of Skotsl and of Yalta, about women who challenge halakhic praxis from within. Using these stories and reason, Adler very firmly, and in the face of opposition from feminists, maintains that women cannot reject halakha because halakha is the structuring mechanism of the covenant and, because it is the norm-defining function within Judaism. Jewish women, therefore, must work from within halakha to embody the feminist vision. Concerning the latter, Adler mounts a blistering critique of "liberal" halakhists who tinker with the system but accept its basic androcentric structure and methods. Feminist legal method, she suggests, has renewed general legal thinking and praxis by use of narrative as a way to imagine a world in which men and women can flourish together (p. 38) and by use of rich contextualization of already-embedded narratives (p. 39). This renewal could, and should, extend to halakhic thinking and praxis. The incorporation of women in the halakhic process is part of the "engendering" of Judaism.

Chapter Three deals with worship. Again, Adler points out the basic androcentric focus of rabbinic prayer -- e.g., Jewish liturgy confesses only men's sins (p. 63) -- and mounts a withering critique of the various evasive manoeuvers that are used to avoid confronting a community praxis that would be best for both men and women (pp. 69-73). She maintains, too, that Jewish women do not need "their fair share of the God-language pie" (p. 86). Rather, Adler proposes, that women must be involved in the creation and compiling of liturgy right from the beginning, thus enabling not only new language but new genres, gests, and styles of prayer (p. 67). She even suggests the shape that such a new approach might take. Arguing against Marcia Falk, Adler proposes a "spirituality of otherness" which honors the otherness of God and of humans. It is a spirituality in which both sides can ask, "Where are you?" and in which the images of friends, lovers, co-creators -- and not the hierarchical images of lord-servant, king-subject, father-child -- predominate (pp. 92-93). For Jewish women the issue is creating "words of power" in this realm of "inherited words of religious power" (pp. 78, 81,103).

As part of this renewed metaphoric world, Adler takes a strong stand in favor of anthropomorphic (anthropopathic, would have been a better term) imagery. Neuter language lacks vividness and power -- e.g., "mother" or "father" is more vivid than "parent." Adler notes that one cannot expunge gender from human speech and, even if one could, it would not be desirable because "All God's chillun got gender" (p. xiv) and because gender implies relatedness, which is what covenant is all about (pp. 95-96).

Chapter Four deals with sexuality. Adler expounds very carefully the text of Genesis 1 in which sexual difference, that is, creating intersubjective space, is part of the image of God in which God creates (pp. 118-19) -- in contrast to Genesis 2 where woman is constructed, not created, as the oppositional other to man, yielding a "gender polarity" which is a burden on the subjugated as well as on the dominant figure that must constantly defend its superior position (pp. 121-25). Adler, then, moves on to interpret Leviticus 18, the Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, and the violent prophecies of Hosea. Each interpretation is stunning; I shall note only two. The "polymorphous eroticism" of Song of Songs stands in sharp contrast with the "spiritualized homoeroticism" of its rabbinic interpreters (pp. 138-40), and the violent degradation of marriage in Hosea is useful because it affirms "God as an injurable other enmeshed in a danse macabre of reciprocal injury ... God, the husband, as erotic subject who can be hurt ... Israel with the power to hurt" (pp. 160-61).

In Chapter Five, Adler sets about what she intended all along -- a reconstruction of the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony. She reaches into texts, showing that the kiddushin text (ring and ketuba) embodies an acquisitional view of marriage while the blessings at the end embody the celebratory, covenantal aspect of marriage. Adler firmly rejects the idea of kiddushin because that idea is rooted in a unilateral acquiring of the woman by the man, because that method imposes the unilateral dissolution of the marriage by the man, and because such an attitude commodifies the human beings involved. She, therefore, reframes the documents and the ceremony on the basis of Jewish partnership law. Adler argues for her position and, then, presents in Hebrew and in English the text of her brit ahuvim or "Lovers' Covenant," a ceremony that could be used in a same-sex context. Adler even argues that this brit ahuvim could be classified by the orthodox as "non-halakhic kiddushin" and, hence, exempt couples who use it from rabbinic divorce procedures (pp. 204-6). Doing so would "save the collective Israel" (p. 206).

Several responses to this rich analysis and careful reconstruction:

First, after detailing meticulously the intensity of resistance within deeply androcentric rabbinic halakhic culture (e.g., p. 202) and after interpreting -- correctly, to my mind -- why this is so, it seems to me more than naive to think that that culture will accept this proposal as a non-halakhic form of marriage for the sake of "saving the collective Israel." The men who dominate that culture, be they modern orthodox or haredi, are, by Adler's own analysis, more likely to opt for stubborn resistance than to yield power to women on the issue of the role and place of woman in the patriarchal household.

Second, Adler asserts the value of the stormy, indeed abusive, image of covenanted marriage of Hosea, denying thereby the affirmation of God as the Abuser (p. 192 with pp. 157-58). It seems to me that, if God is depicted as wishing, or encouraging, the gang-rape of his bride, Israel, then God has a problem. One must admit the problem and confront the abusiveness of God as directly as tradition and spiritual courage allow -- especially if one is to assert the value of this metaphor.

Third, I applaud the call for a gendered Judaism and, particularly, for a gendered God. I have called for personalist language in talking about, and in talking to, God (see my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest). "All God's chillun -- and their God -- got gender." I agree, too, that Jewish women must find gendered words of power. I think that some of this already exists -- e.g., Siddur Nashim (ed. privately by Margaret Wenig and Naomi Janowitz) which, very early, used not only feminine pronouns but also womanly imagery -- though Adler rejects this as imagery that limits both men and women (p. 99).

Fourth I, personally -- and perhaps I speak for other Jewish men -- prefer my God male. I want Him to be a He. I also want Him to be in the psychological image in which He created humanity -- powerful, yet not omnipotent; wise and just, yet not perfect; and caring and loving, even with His true faults. I do not object to God being fallible; the texts and history support that. I also want, as does Adler following the tradition of covenant, to be interactive with God. I want to love Him, to support Him, even to comfort Him -- as He loves, supports, and comforts me. I understand that I am His co-worker, His partner. I do my share, and He does His. When I fail, He reminds me and, when He fails, I remind Him of our mutual responsibilities. While I appreciate deeply, and agree with, Adler's analysis of the androcentric nature of rabbinic texts and institutions; and while I also appreciate deeply, and agree with, her proposal that only by adding women into the decision-making bodies and processes can that androcentrism be corrected; I am not sure I agree that we need a united community worship praxis. My God works for me and I don't feel the need to change Him, though I feel that His Presence and even His representation has been distorted by androcentric trends in Jewish culture. I hear the call for a united liturgy backed by a united image of God, but why not, as Levitt might suggest, more "specific and local" solutions? Why not multiple liturgies for different groups?

Finally, I need to confess, as a traditional Jewish male who also wishes to be in shared discussion, that I feel threatened by Adler's insistence on a genuinely shared responsibility for rabbinic Jewish religion. Part of me welcomes sharing the burden of the present and the responsibility for the future; yet, part of me resists that. As Adler comments, Jewish men fear that this new partnership will lead to a Judaism that is not recognizable, to a way of Jewish being that is no longer familiar, under control (p. 74). I admit to that, though I have no reason not to trust Rachel Adler, Laura Levitt, and the other women colleagues with whom I have been in dialogue for a long time. Perhaps, time, experience, and books such as this will heal this separation wound.


As a sympathetic outsider, I see these two recent and important books in Jewish feminist thought and praxis as part of a full-fledged effort to renew the consciousness and place of women in Jewish culture. One really cannot turn back the clock on women's economic, political, social, and cultural emancipation, at least not in the broader segment of Jewish society. Rachel Adler's book puts the texts clearly before us, the "good" ones and the "bad" ones, and it proposes a new conception of, and a new praxis of, Jewish marriage which is as learned as it is novel. Would I, as a rabbi, use the brit ahuvim ? Yes, I would. Would I make it the only form of marriage? No, I would not.

These two important books talk to each other, too. I think Engedering Judaism raises the question for Levitt: What is your view of praxis? How do you pray? How do you marry? Where do you belong? That is, given the subtlety of your self-identification and the ambivalence of your embrace of liberalism, rabbinic Judaism, and feminism, what do you do to be Jewish? And, what do you teach others about how to be Jewish? How do you respond to the claim that halakha is the structuring mechanism of the covenant?

I think, too, that Jews and Feminism raises the question for Adler: Who are you? What is your history and how does it relate to your theology and praxis? On what grounds do you generalize from your own undisclosed self-identity to the larger community of Jewish men and women? Also, given the learnedness and critical stance of your exposition of the sources, how does your ambivalence toward them express itself? What are your fundamental doubts and hesitancies about the traditions and assumptions upon which your life is based?

The dialogue has only begun, here and throughout the community of serious Jewish thinkers at the end of this twentieth century.

First appeared in Association for Jewish Studies Review, 24:1 (1999) 111-19.

return to head of document

return to index of Selected Book Reviews

David Blumenthal's HomePage