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Ritualwell.Org -- Loading the Virtual Canon, or: The Politics and Aesthetics of Jewish Women's Spirituality
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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 9.1 (2005) 101-125

The Politics and Aesthetics of Jewish Women's Spirituality

Lori Lefkovitz

Rona Shapiro

In the several decades since spirituality was rediscovered and popularized by a generation of middle-class Americans in rebellion against empty religious conventions and in search of meaning and self-expression, Jewish women's spirituality has been manifested largely in creative prayers and innovative Jewish rituals. Sharing the ironic fate of many successful rebellions, religious expressions that once derived their appeal from their spontaneity and originality are now vying for formal recognition and acceptance in a spate of new publications, including rabbis' manuals and websites created with the purpose of sustaining inclusive, progressive Jewish communities and meeting the spiritual needs of mainstream American Jews.

The pair of us are responsible for the content of the Jewish feminist website Ritualwell.org, (co-sponsored by Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, a program of the JCC in Manhattan), the purpose of which is to make contemporary feminist Jewish liturgy and rituals broadly accessible. It is from this perspective that we want to explore in these pages the relationship between women's spirituality and the codification of ritual. Our quick review of forces that combined to enable the emergence of a modern Jewish women's spirituality movement reveals some underlying tensions in the project of expressing women's spirituality through Jewish ritual. We hope to show how the theoretical and practical concerns we have confronted in considering material for the website have been informed by the gender analysis to which both spirituality and ritual have recently been subjected.

Balancing the Individual's Spiritual Needs and the Needs of the Collective; Gender-Neutral Spirits in Gendered Bodies; and Other Formative Challenges

Women's spirituality movements emerged from the marriage of two distinct challenges to American institutions and social and religious norms and roles, both enabled by the political and economic conditions of the late 1960s. One offshoot of the sixties youth rebellion was the spirituality movement, which reclaimed religion from establishment church authority; another was the women's movement, which invited women to re-imagine their collective position in society. While the former championed the individual against the heretofore-unexamined coercive power of large group traditions, the latter sought to organize women, often disadvantaged by their isolation in suburban homes, into groups that would become an alternative base of power. The more particularistic manifestations of these social trends among young, bourgeois Americans included a budding Jewish spirituality movement and what may best be characterized as the imaginative possibility of a Jewish women's spirituality movement.

This fantasy of a Jewish women's spirituality movement was represented notably in E.M. Broner's novel A Weave of Women (1978) and was realized in a smattering of Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) groups, Jewish variations on secular women's Consciousness Raising (CR) groups, but built around the reclamation of an ancient Jewish festival with a traditional relevance to women. Like CR groups, Rosh Hodesh groups included personal sharing, but they also often included Jewish learning and new rituals and foods related to the Jewish calendar and holiday cycle as well as to the personal, individual lifecycle needs of women in the group. At once a product of a political ideology that imagined building women's community and of a social ideology that maintained the right of each individual to unique spiritual self-expression, the Jewish women's spirituality movement was imbued with contradictory principles favoring individual creativity, on the one hand, and group solidarity, on the other. Innovative and traditional at the same time, Rosh Hodesh groups became a laboratory for creative rituals. Several decades later, we are now seeing the fruits of conversations among these communities, as Jewish women seek to identify the ritual needs of women more broadly and meet them by way of the best mature representations of these early innovations. This process of selection has become our work on Ritualwell.org and the work of the editors of new publications in this area.

In effect, these early women...



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