A year and a half ago, I had the great honor of being part of a conference at Barnard called “Jewish Women Changing America: Cross-Generational Conversations.” It was great fun.

Now they’ve put the whole thing online, so you can check it all out–sessions on culture, the American mainstream, community organizing, and, of course, religion. Lots of smart people saying smart things–video clips, transcripts, the whole deal. (I sound like Darth Vader a little bit on that video clip–every time I took a breath, the microphone seemed to have insisted on making a gigantic sucking sound.)

Anyway, check out the whole conference here. And since the thing is already “published,” I’ve included the transcript (complete with several fewer commas than I’d use) of my talk here, below. Please note that under the terms of my Creative Commons license, it’s permitted to quote from this talk IF and ONLY IF a) You do not reproduce the thing in full (I’d rather you link to me in that case) b) You attribute full credit to me and c) if it is in a not-for-profit context. I’ve already been burned by the CC thing, so I’m wary of even having this thing accessible. But here you go.


Feminist Change in Religion
by Danya Ruttenberg
Given at Barnard College, New York, NY, in October, 2005.

I’d like to raise a couple of questions to which I don’t have any ready answers, but perhaps we can discuss them

First, the issue of denominationalism around which this panel is organized. As more and more Jews and Jewish communities begin to identify as post-denominational, or outside a denominational framework, I’d like to ask: “How will this affect both the attempt to make change from within the denominational framework (where movements by their nature have an inherent organization that can be helpful or obstacle-raising), and outside of it, where we might have more freedom, but, by design, less organization?”

I’d also like to ask, as Sepharadi and Mizrahi voices are very slowly becoming more integrated into a more general Jewish
discourse, “How can we as religious communities take seriously the mandate to create spaces, (whether it’s via prayer melodies or traditions or something else) that are reflective of Klal Israel, of all Judaism, without tokenizing?” I don’t have answers to either of these questions, but I thought I’d put them out there for later discussion.

The next piece I’d like to talk about is reclamation. In the last few years, I’ve observed a renewed interest by feminists in going back through the “garbage pile,” to see which parts of tradition, initially maybe discarded as a necessary part of feminist process, might be worth cleaning off, repairing, and putting to some use? I see this impulse in many aspects of Third Wave feminism in general, such as the recent explosion of feminist knitting circles or feminist burlesque. But I think this approach may be more useful and challenging to us over here in Judaism. It demands a comfort with paradox and an ability to acknowledge that a text or ritual may simultaneously have problematic meanings and rich spiritual depth.

In reappropriation, we cannot only access the full range of treasures available in our tradition, but we also have the
potential to use all of the critical tools at our disposal to subvert or disarm some of Judaism’s most problematic tacks, to
see that they be used—God willing—for good and not for evil. Just as the feminist revolts from the left have had a tremendous impact on more traditionally Jewish circles, I think, too, as more and more women become learned in traditional texts on a very high level, we’ll see less-traditionally-religious women and men willing to consider new uses for discarded ideas, and perhaps to transform their relationship to Judaisms that have otherwise seemed irrelevant, outdated or too problematic to engage.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that feminist thought is slowly becoming more implicit in Jewish theology without being named as explicitly feminist. And though generally, I look forward to the messianic age in which we don’t need gender studies as a field at all, it’s not uncomplicated today.

I recently encountered a relatively minor example of this that I think illustrates the dilemma. After hearing about a friend’s
work on domestic abuse survivors’ relationships to Episcopalian liturgy on sin and repentance, I was inspired to give a d’var Torah, a sermon, over Rosh Hashanah about certain types of obstacles to the tshuvah (repentance) process that maybe we all encounter. Since I was speaking to a diverse crowd, I shaped the d’var to try to address the more general human concerns underlying my friend’s thesis. And while in the end, I think it was a more accessible sermon for more people in my choice to do that, I was absolutely aware that in the process I was rendering the abuse survivors’ experiences invisible.

I think it’s vitally important to present feminist theology, ethics, analysis, and interpretation as mainstream Judaism. That
ultimately is how we will make important, real, lasting change. And yet, we also must remain aware of the price that comes with this.

For each of us who are out there trying to sneak feminism into the orange juice of the average American Jew without their
noticing, there need to be other people who are keeping an eye out to make sure that not too many important feminst balls get dropped in the process. We need both.

As ideas that were once radical become absorbed into the mainstream, we also need to keep an eye on what products are
being sold, under what names. As Judith Plaskow already noted, the rhetoric of feminism, female empowerment, multiculturalism and the like are being used by the very people who are refusing funding, denying tenure, or undermining plans for a daycare program, to say nothing of charging exorbitant prices for education programs that only a select few can afford to attend. This passive-aggressive pseudofeminism is, of course, hitting hardest those who lack privilege and/or have not yet in their careers attained a measure of security and power. In some ways, we need the old feminist hermeneutics of suspicion, now more than ever, and we need to have vigilance to insure that, whether or not there is a women’s Passover seder with a Miriam’s cup, the hosting organization has a fair and equitable employment practice.

Our feminist approaches and strategies need to continue to shift and evolve in this slippery new environment to ensure that
meaningful Jewish changes accompany the rhetoric of Jewish change. I have more to say, but I can save it for the Q and A.

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