Changing Opportunities for Women in American Judaism

In most segments of the American Jewish community today, historical patriarchal Jewish public religious and communal structures and behaviors are no longer the norm. Manliness in traditional Jewish societies was constructed through male Jews accepting familial, communal, and religious obligations: marriage, paternity, ritual piety, public prayer, sacred text study, societal responsibilities, and, usually, some breadwinning as well. In historical Jewish societies, women were "free," that is, not obligated. Women were not expected to engage in sacred study or participate in rituals such as communal prayer with strict time schedules. Instead, women were expected to "serve as facilitators" so that men might meet their religious "obligation' to serve as performers, which in turn reinforced the facilitator/performer dichotomy in the family, social, and political realms," as historian Moshe Rosman emphasizes.

Some argue that these and other traditional Jewish legal and social mores were (and are) structured to domesticate male aggression and libido, with putative benefits for Jewish women. Partly to accomplish this goal, rabbinic texts urged marriage in early adulthood for young men and traditional Jewish societies looked on unmarried males with suspicion. For hundreds of years, Jewish culture preferred the nonviolent, scholarly, and in many ways passive (but not asexual or celibate) male, as Daniel Boyarin and others assert, and male power "was redefined as the power of the mind and intellect … spiritual resistance," in Aviva Cantor's words. Meanwhile, "women's enabler role was to facilitate [male religious learning and spirituality] and to accept exclusion from it." In contrast to many patriarchal cultures, in Ashkenazic Jewish communities, breadwinning "was gender neutral in most periods of Jewish history."

Encounters with modernity disrupted these traditional Jewish constructions of maleness and femaleness that imposed primary religious responsibilities on men. Eventually, non-Orthodox American Jews absorbed the American assumption that women are innately more spiritual and religious than men, whereas men are innately more skeptical and detached. As Rodney Stark articulates the supposedly universal assumption, "By now it is so taken for granted that women are more religious than men that every competent quantitative study of religiousness routinely includes sex as a control variable."

Some researchers suggest that differential socialization creates gender differences, arguing that "men are assigned [by society] roles that are more instrumental than socio-emotional and thus are less concerned with problems of morality" but that women are socialized to be more relational in their development and more inclined toward religiosity. Male disinterest in religion and religious culture is neither universal nor inevitable, an important recent study shows. In 2006 D. Paul Sullins used international data to reveal that in religions other than Christianity — especially Judaism and Islam men are often equally or more religious than women. Sullins commented, "Worldwide there is no measure of religiousness on which Jewish females score higher than Jewish males. Jewish men report significantly higher rates of synagogue attendance and belief in life after death than do Jewish women; otherwise there is no sex difference in religiousness among Jews."

How Jewish Education for Women Transformed Contemporary Jewish Life

Jewish education for girls and women is the transformation that made all the other gendered religious changes possible, although the ordination of female rabbis has attracted the most public attention. Orthodox girls as a group began to receive substantive Jewish education in (all-female) classroom settings after Sarah Schnirer created the Bais Yaakov schooling system in Poland in 1917. Thereafter some level of Judaic study for girls gradually became normative, but, despite a few exceptions, rigorous text study for girls and women was neither a widespread aspiration nor a societal reality.

In Orthodox congregations and until the 1950s, when bat mitzvah ceremonies first began to proliferate in many Conservative congregations, fewer Jewish girls than Jewish boys acquired liturgical competence in Hebrew, because young men but not young women were expected to participate in public prayer services. Although Reform Judaism and later Conservative Judaism brought mixed seating into their sanctuaries and abandoned the language of gendered difference, women were still not active religious leaders in either type of congregation, as both laymen and laywomen typically made up a passive audience-style congregation. In addition, in Orthodoxy it was considered immodest for women to hold public Jewish communal positions.

However, by the 1960s these historical patriarchal religious assumptions among American Jews were well on the way to widespread transformation. Even in Orthodox communities it had become unthinkable even in non-coed schools that girls would not receive substantial Judaic education. Sometimes, the subjects that girls studied were considered by teachers, students, and parents to be "inferior" to the Talmudic curriculum of boys and have been construed to consist of a curriculum that made them "educated but ignorant," in anthropologist Tamar El Or's pungent phrase. Nevertheless, today the image of girls and young women in serious study, bent over many Hebrew texts, has become commonplace in the world's two largest Jewish communities, the United States and Israel. In terms of social psychology, the normalization of the visual imagery of the studying girl was important to the eventual acceptance of women's high-level rabbinic text study, historically referred to as lamdanut, and women's lamdanut made possible a whole range of socioreligious reversals.

Today there is little gender difference in types and years of Jewish education received for American Jews under age 35, according to the Sheskin Decade 2000 data set, and in their study Gender and American Jews, Harriet and Moshe Hartman note that in the 2000-2001 NJPS study gender differences "have almost disappeared' among Orthodox and Conservative Jews ages 18-44. In the non-Orthodox world an inverted gender gap has emerged: Girls are much more likely than boys to continue with Jewish education into their teen years, after the ages at which bat and bar mitzvah would have taken place (around 13 years and a day for boys and after 12 for girls). This is significant because of the powerful association of education in the teen years with adult Jewish connections. Boys who do not participate in some form of Jewish education with peers as teenagers may grow into adults with lower levels of Jewish ethnic capital than girls who do continue with Jewish education as teenagers.

Beginning in the early to mid-1970s, while Reform and Conservative women were advocating for the ordination of female rabbis, the first women's tefillah (prayer) groups — all-female Orthodox worship and Torah-reading services — were beginning in several American and Israeli communities. Para-rabbinic roles began to be created by liberal Orthodox schools and institutions in the following decades; for example, some Orthodox congregations hired female "community educators" or "interns" who quasi-rabbinic roles. In Israeli Orthodoxy female legal advocates, toanot, received formal credentials from educational institutions such as Nishmat in Jerusalem and became active in difficult divorce cases. Israeli yoatzot (female ritual advisers for women concerning religious behaviors connected with Jewish family law) received similar credentials. Although they were first viewed with suspicion by some male rabbis when they began actively advising Orthodox women, yoatzot and toanot eventually garnered appreciation by many in the Orthodox rabbinate, who began to believe that female rabbinic advisers might actually increase levels of piety among Orthodox women.

The existence of these Israeli cadres of Orthodox women trained in rabbinic texts and competently performing aspects of rabbinic functions foreshadowed the creation of an American Orthodox rabbinic seminary for women: Yeshivat Maharat, which graduated its first rabbi, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, in 2009. It had gradually become obvious that women were capable of mastering rabbinic legal texts. But the use of the term rabba (Hebrew for female rabbi) generated vociferous controversy in the Orthodox community. As Yeshivat Maharat moved toward the ordination of three women at its inaugural graduation ceremony on June 16, 2013, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America reissued a statement from 2010: "We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title." The school's leaders, including Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of the modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as well as Yeshivat Maharat and rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, decided to call all successive graduates maharat, an acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit (female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah), instead of rabba.

New opportunities for girls and women to acquire the intellectual tools to engage in rabbinic study were created during the same time period that American Jewish women were exploring diverse new roles in Jewish religious and liturgical settings. Some American women took advantage of educational innovations being offered in Israel, such as the nondenominational Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, a coeducational program that opened its doors in 1973 to offer men and women the opportunity to engage in the study of classic Jewish texts in an open environment. Drisha, an innovative adult women's learning environment under Orthodox leadership, opened a full-time study program in 1984 and in 1992 created a credentialing program said to parallel rabbinic ordination. Unlike female students today, most Drisha students in the 1980s and 1990s did not aspire to the rabbinate but rather simply to high-level knowledge of rabbinic texts.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of women enrolled in the Judaic studies departments and programs that were proliferating on American college campuses in the later decades of the twentieth century. These programs, together with opportunities provided in liberal rabbinic seminaries and other institutions, gave women the ability to acquire the intellectual skills to read, understand, and analyze rabbinic materials, including the Talmud, in a setting outside the traditional yeshiva world. These academic settings added new elements to the mix: all the tools of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the historical, critical, and analytical study of Jewish civilization, culture, and texts), including placing textual materials in their sociohistorical contexts and trying to understand how those contexts influenced the men who contributed their opinions to the corpus of rabbinic texts. This academic approach interrogates the Talmud and other rabbinic literature through the lenses of history, sociology, political theory, psychology, economics, literary analysis, and, more recently, gender theory.

Jewish Sanctification of Women's Lives

All civilizations, societies, and religions devise rituals and ceremonies to mark passages in the lives of their citizens and adherents. Participants find these observances meaningful for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is that they legitimate not only the life-cycle event itself but also the individual whom it affects. Although Jewish societies created meaningful ceremonies to sanctify life-cycle events of Jewish males — the brit milah (ritual circumcision) and naming ceremony, the celebratory bar mitzvah for coming of-age and the assumption of religious obligations, the wedding kiddushin in which the bridegroom signs the document and utters the words that acquire a wife, the mournful chanting of the Kaddish prayer with which generations of Jewish males have mourned departed loved ones surrounded by a minyan (prayer quorum) community-Jewish girls and women found many of life's most profoundly moving events unmarked by formal communal and ceremonial responses.

However, over the past few decades, these lacunae have been addressed. Jewish ceremonies and naming celebrations for newborn girls, prayers to sacralize the childbearing process, and bat mitzvah services and celebrations are now ubiquitous in American Jewish communities across denominational lines, and meaningful roles for brides in their own Jewish weddings have become the norm for many American Jews. American Jewish women bereaved of loved ones and the men among whom they worship-now assume wom en's public recitation of the Kaddish in the vast majority of American syna gogue services. It should be noted that this is not true in Jewish communities worldwide. American Jews, male and female, frequently assume a level of Jewish religious involvement for women that is not shared among some Jewish communities in other countries.

American non-Orthodox Jewish worship environments look different from their historical predecessors. Many girls and women participate in spaces previously reserved for males, such as Torah services and sacred study halls, often wearing symbolic ritual clothing long associated with men at prayer. It is now customary in American Conservative, Reform, and other liberal. wings of United States Judaism-and not unheard of in open Orthodox congregations for women to don kippot (skullcaps, yarmulkes) and prayer shawls (tallitot) at prayer services. Recently, a modern Orthodox day school made headlines when it gave female students permission to wear tefillin (phylacteries) at morning prayers."

The Challenge of the Inverse Jewish Gender Gap

As I have detailed in this essay, American Jewish women today enjoy profoundly broader choices in every dimension of their American and Jewish lives than women in historical societies. Jewish women have played a proactive role in expanding their own secular and Jewish opportunities. To me, their achievements are unequivocally worthy of celebration.

But American Jewish women's successes over the past few decades have been accompanied by an ironic-and utterly unintended-challenge. In traditional patriarchal Jewish communities, men have been the "signifying Jews." As women have increased both leadership and grassroots participation in American Jewish religious, scholarly, and communal life, men have conversely become less involved.

This de facto feminization of almost every aspect of non-Orthodox American Jewish life is not caused by women's greater participation, but it is real and it is measurable: Girls and women greatly outnumber male counterparts as worshippers and in Jewish educational settings. Male estrangement emerges early, in boys' precipitous departure from Jewish education during their teen years, whereas girls more frequently continue after their bat mitzvah. Jewish men less often attend synagogues, join Jewish organizations, or participate in adult Jewish learning or Jewish cultural activities. They are less likely to perform Jewish rituals and ceremonies. Jewish women have increasingly assumed prominent public religious and communal roles while men's pursuit of these roles has declined.

This gender imbalance is also evident in attitudes, attachments, and personal life choices. As Harriet and Moshe Hartman quantify American Jewish "significant gender differences'' (from the 2000-2001 NJPS), "women express stronger religious beliefs than men, stronger (tribalistic) attachment to Jewish people than men, and a greater tendency than men to express 'being Jewish' as being active in the current Jewish community and practices." That male/female divide is especially pronounced among Reform Jews." jewish male ambivalence often includes negative feelings about other Jews especially Jewish women. In contrast, American Jewish women are more engaged than American Jewish men in the peoplehood aspects of Jewishness: visiting Israel, seeing Israel as important, having mostly Jewish friends, wanting to marry a Jewish husband and to raise Jewish children.

This feminization of Judaism can be regarded partly as a form of assimilation into American norms. Whatever the complex causes, contemporary American Jewish gender imbalance has a problematic effect on the lives of individual women and on the American Jewish community as a whole. Research and honest conversations are needed to create programmatic responses that will honor egalitarian advances while seeking to re-engage the entire gendered spectrum of American Jewry in meaningful connections to Jews and Jewishness. American Jewish women will no doubt play an important role in this critical process.