- Gender, Judaism, and Bourgeois Culture in Germany, 1800-1870
Feminist historians often portray religion as a bulwark of patriarchy and misogyny. Women's rights activists from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Mary Daly have denounced organized religion as a major barrier to women's emancipation. And many a feminist biographer has celebrated a female protagonist's disillusionment with her religious heritage as her first step toward liberation. But most nineteenth-century women did not share this view of religion as the enemy of emancipation. Rather, many expressed their aspirations to dignity and self-determination through an increased commitment to their faith communities. [End Page 217] The trend known as the "feminization of religion" has been examined in several histories of German Protestant and Catholic religious life in the nineteenth century. Now, Benjamin Maria Baader traces the development of women's status in Judaism during the same century.
Baader, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, bases this study on archival and published materials produced by German Jewish women and men during the first part of the nineteenth century. During this era, a Jewish culture based on ancient customs and rituals was transformed by new aspirations to modernity, middle-class status, and German citizenship. Among Jews as among Christians, familial norms that stressed authority and subordination were superseded by a new view of the home as a center of love and intimacy. Moralists and religious leaders placed a high value on women's work as wives, mothers, and educators. And women assumed active and visible roles in congregations and communities. Marion Kaplan has traced this transition as it affected secular activities such as housekeeping, organizational life, and education. Baader completes this picture by showing us the relationship between domestic and religious cultures.
Baader looks at changing gender roles in several areas: congregational worship, private devotions, education, organizations, and theology. In the synagogue, a service that had privileged the traditional Jewish learning that was available only to men became accessible to women through the inclusion of German-language sermons and choral music. Some synagogues modified or eliminated gender segregation in worship, and others introduced a confirmation ceremony for girls. Women increased their visibility both in and outside the synagogue by founding organizations dedicated to charitable work among Jewish women and children.
Meanwhile, women gained authority not only as practitioners, but also as interpreters of the faith. Although most works on Jewish theology and ethics were still produced by men, these authors now acknowledged women's importance as moral teachers and the custodians of religious tradition. And many female authors advised Jewish women on spirituality, home and family life, and child-rearing. By the 1840s, women such as Johanna Goldschmidt of Hamburg ventured outside the Jewish community to join forces with like-minded Christian women to promote religious tolerance and new approaches to education such as the kindergarten.
This study is richly detailed, deeply researched, and written in an appealing style that brings us closer to the Jewish men, women, and families of this era. Like any such stimulating study, it raises many questions. Clearly, the developments that Baader describes were very similar to those that occurred in the Christian churches of the era. But Baader says little about the [End Page 218] contacts between the two religious communities that might have exposed Jews to Christian practices or motivated them to imitate their Christian neighbors. Moreover, Baader ends this nuanced and complex text with some sweeping conclusions: "In the new rites of modern Jewish religious culture, women were men's equals" (p. 217). But, as Baader explains in earlier chapters, the Jewish law that governed gender relations in and outside the synagogue was never changed, and continued to reinforce male supremacy. As women were not ordained as rabbis, men continued to lead worship services and exercise authority over community life. Baader is right to emphasize the positive significance of nineteenth-century domestic ideology. But women's position in the family was still subordinate. No more than their Christian counterparts could Jewish wives and mothers...