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).

Jewish feminist academics Nehama Leibowitz (Israel), Blu Greenberg (USA) and Peta Jones Pellach (Australia)

Within the academic world, interest in Jewish feminism has flourished. Scholars have researched the roles of women throughout Jewish history, uncovering little-known episodes of Jewish history and practice such as the creation of ‘women’s prayers’ in the Yiddish-speaking communities of Eastern Europe and the remarkable lives of Jewish women such as Bruriah, a Second Century Talmudic scholar and Gluckel of Hamlen, a Seventeenth Century German Jewish wife, mother of twelve, business woman and diarist. Within Jewish communities, feminist concerns have contributed to the development of more gender-inclusive language in prayer, the creation of new women’s rituals and the revival of traditional women’s festivals such as Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) ceremonies.

Despite the amount of change that feminism has wrought in the Jewish world, its effects are really only beginning to be felt. While once ‘radical’ changes such as the implementation of Bat Mitzvah ceremonies (acting as the equivalent of the male ritual of Bar Mitzvah) are now commonplace, other issues such as the inequalities in Jewish divorce law remain unresolved. Yet even with regard to this vexed issue some positive change is apparent, with women learned in Jewish law now acting as advisors to rabbinical judges in Israel.

Theological issues pertaining to the characterization and roles of women in traditional texts continue to be the subject of feminist scholarship. Yet while the issues are many and the process of change is slow, it seems fair to posit that as we enter the 21st century the role of women in the Jewish world is perhaps at its most vibrant and diverse, with women assuming leadership roles both in religious and communal structures at unprecedented levels.

© Avril Alba, Director of Education, Sydney Jewish Museum, 2006

[1] For a good insight into this debate see Cynthia Ozick, ‘Notes toward Finding the Right Question’ and Judith Plaskow, ‘The Right Question is Theological’ in Susannah Heschel (ed) On Being a Jewish Feminist, Schoken Books, New York, NY 1983

[2] For an excellent overview of the history and issues involved in Orthodox feminism see Blu Greenberg, On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1981

[3] For more information on JOFA see: