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Reviewed by:
  • I Did It My Way: Women Remaking American Judaism
  • Ronit Irshai (Naamat) (bio)
I Did It My Way: Women Remaking American Judaism. Edited by Riv-Ellen Prell. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007. xii + 331 pp.

The editor of this collection of essays, Riv-Ellen Prell, characterizes the volume as a product of the “thirty-five-year gestation of American Jewish feminism” (1). The feminist movement has brought about profound changes of form and content in religious life, and the book aims to portray those changes on several planes, treated in its three sections. Part one of the book, “Reenvisioning Judaism,” deals with the new feminist theology—an enterprise that boldly exposed the intense patriarchal biases of the biblical and rabbinic traditions but also found novel ways of understanding the lives of women by reading between the lines of the Bible and expounding on its omissions. More broadly, it has proposed a fundamental revision of Jewish theology, including its concept of God and its understanding of revelation.

Part two, “Redefining Judaism,” examines feminism’s influence at the local, practical level, and considers its effects on various Jewish denominations. Taking an historical-cultural approach, the article on Reform Judaism examines how that movement’s communal practice has been affected by changes in the general culture that have afforded women more nearly equal standing. The article on Reconstructionism emphasizes Mordecai Kaplan’s religious philosophy and how the concept of Judaism as a civilization—or, more precisely, of Jewish “folkways”—paved the way to gender equality. The article on Conservative Judaism shows how efforts to find “local” halachic solutions to gender issues evolved into a broader transformation of moral consciousness itself. That transformation allowed for changes in synagogue ritual and, eventually, for the ordination of women as rabbis.

Change within Orthodoxy proceeds more gradually, and the article on that denomination therefore focuses on the revolution in Torah study by women and on women’s prayer groups. The article comes to a dead end, however, when it turns to the issue of mesoravot get—women whose husbands refuse to grant them a desired divorce (and thereby prevent them from remarrying according to Jewish law). Sounding a pessimistic note, Norma Baumel Joseph writes that “the transformations listed above [with respect to Torah study and prayer groups] emanate from the Jewish desire for increased knowledge and involvement. But with divorce the basic claims of justice in Judaism are most severely challenged . . . ” (203). Still, she believes that the new generation of female halachic scholars will pose a radical challenge to rabbinic authority, and I think it fair to conclude that the situation may well change, albeit slowly. [End Page 126]

While the other writers in this part consider specific movements within Judaism, Pamela Nadell, in her essay on the first generation of women rabbis, assesses the revolution wrought by the ordination of women as rabbis from a cross-denominational perspective. That step, in her view, provides one of the answers to the question posed by the book as a whole, namely, how it was possible for so many feminist innovations to enter the Jewish mainstream so quickly. Women rabbis, she argues, served in the front lines and were the first to adopt these changes and make them acceptable within communal life.

Part three of the book, “Reframing Judaism,” is devoted to distinctively feminine rituals that developed over the years, both within the synagogue and without. These include Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) celebrations; ritualization of the figure of Miriam through the addition of “Miriam’s cup” to the Passover Seder and the adoption of “Miriam’s Tambourine” as an element of the Seder and of Rosh Chodesh; bat-mitzvah celebrations; and the introduction of the adult bat mitzvah with its attendant effects on older women’s Jewish and community identity.

The publication of this retrospective on thirty-five years of Jewish feminism in America is an exciting and meaningful event, for as recently as one hundred years ago—a short interval in historical time—most of the religious expressions and values associated with feminism could hardly be imagined. Taking a more critical perspective, however, I believe that the book would have benefited from an effort to...