by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
Over two thousand years ago, 70 men cloistered in separate rooms, tradition tells us, wrote the Greek Septuagint, the first translation of the Bible. On March 21, 1992, 70 women joined to speak out together to honor Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, who in 1922 became the first Bat Mitzvah. Over two thousand years ago, 70 men wrote a translation out of their experience, a translation that influenced generations of those who read the Bible. During the last three decades, Jewish women have translated their experience into ritual, liturgy, and sacred narrative, and are influencing generations yet to come.
Seventy years ago, Judith Kaplan, a young girl of twelve and a half, stood in front of her congregation, as no woman had done before, to recite the Torah blessings and read Torah as a Bat Mitzvah. What began that day with the determination of a young girl and the wisdom of her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, became a revolution in religious creativity. We are still unwrapping that gift.
From birth to death, the ritual life of the religious community has been renewed. From welcoming girls into the covenant, from menarche to menopause, through infertility and miscarriage, through marriage and divorce, new landscapes are being sculpted from the soil of tradition.
Simple Decision, Difficult Choice
When I decided that I would be a rabbi I was 16 years old. It was 1963 and there were no female rabbis then, though I was aware that Sally Priesand was studying at Hebrew Union College. In many ways it was a simple decision: I was in love with Judaism and wanted to teach and serve the community just as my rabbi did. But in other ways it was a difficult choice. For many years I told no one of my secret ambition except the rabbi of my congregation, my beloved teacher and mentor. Who knew, I told myself, maybe this desire would pass and I would find another passion, another career goal. Throughout college I tried, but nothing else satisfied me. Finally, when I was about to graduate from college, I applied to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.
I joined the second entering class of the seminary in 1969. I did not consider that being a woman would make any difference in my studies or my rabbinate. It did not take me long to learn differently.
What struck me most was the absence of female voices, of women’s thoughts and stories in the text. I read of men’s struggles with God, but not of women’s. What I read either excluded women or did not understand who I was as a woman. No one was answering my questions; in fact, no one was asking them. I felt ill at ease in the emerging feminist culture that did not address my Jewish soul. I felt marginalized in the Jewish community I sought to serve because it did not embrace my woman’s soul.
At the same time, there were those who sought to discourage me from my goal of becoming a rabbi. A few months into my first year at seminary I received a letter from a woman I had never met who had read that I was studying to become a rabbi. “I don’t know what gives you the chutzpah to want to become a rabbi,” she wrote. “In my letters I usually wish people success, but in your case I won’t. I hope you don’t make it, for your sake and for Judaism’s sake.”
These were not the only discouraging words I heard. Just before I was to be ordained I was asked to speak at a large synagogue in my community about women and Judaism. After the presentation, when the rabbi would typically thank the speaker, he instead said, “When you grow up you’ll change your mind.” Clearly I didn’t, but he did. He eventually voted for the ordination of women in the Conservative movement.
I came to realize over time—as have other female rabbis—that my goal was not just to fit in, but to bring who I was to the rabbinate. Our being women is not the only point, but neither is it beside the point. A woman minister in Indianapolis once told me that at the beginning of her career she tried to be neither male nor female, just a good minister. “Then I heard God say, ‘I call you because you are a woman. You bring the pain and healing of your life.’” She was right. For more than three decades, women rabbis have brought the pain and healing of their lives and, in the process, renewed the Jewish community.
Is Women’s Spirituality Different?
Most sacred pilgrimages had led up a mountain. Abraham on Moriah, Moses on Sinai, and Elijah on Carmel. There were steep climbs and dizzying descents, but mountains and ladders with angels coming up and down did not find a resting place in a woman’s soul. For the last three decades, Jewish women have begun to wonder what a pilgrimage to Sarah’s tent and Miriam’s well might feel like—whether women’s spirituality was different. They have wrestled with God and tradition and they have not let go until the tradition has blessed them. In the process they have renewed Jewish ritual, prayer, theology, and history.
Because women have been traditionally denied a place in the public square, they have often experienced the sacred as it moves through interior space, through the interpersonal. Having been excluded from the religious center, women’s spirituality and leadership style is especially marked by inclusivity —a sensitivity to those on the periphery, a belief that difference doesn’t mean superiority or inferiority.
Women have a propensity for simultaneous attentiveness. They can watch a baby, answer the phone, keep the soup from boiling over, and edit a sermon all at the same time. Today we call that multitasking. It’s a mark of women’s spirituality and a skill women bring to their leadership.
I remember when, as a young mother, I watched with my toddlers a program of Mr. Rogers. He built a tower of blocks and said, “This is the way boys build.” Then he took the same blocks and made a circle and said, “This is the way girls build.” And that is exactly how women rabbis have helped to change the way we build Jewish communities—constructing networks, not hierarchies, bringing together diverse voices, building consensus. Studies have shown that women leaders are less concerned with rank, listen more, and interrupt less. Their reaction to stress is not “flight or fight” but “tend and befriend.”
The spirituality of the tent and the well is, after all, different from that of the mountain. We ascend the mountain alone and feel all-powerful. From the top, the vision is of superiority. We draw water from the well and express gratitude. We find shelter with others in the tent. The vision is of the shared good.
Women have made themselves a seat at tradition’s table and poured their souls into Torah, prayer, and ritual. They have blown a woman’s breath through the hallowed vessels of sacred texts and forms and renewed them.
Some years ago a woman came to my office. Her first child was stillborn 18 years before. She was still grieving. She was angry with Judaism because it gave her no prayer, no ritual, no comfort. I told her things had changed. I offered her a new prayer and ritual for her loss. She returned home, went to the unmarked grave of her stillborn child and, for the first time in 18 years, said Kaddish.
It has been the unwritten narratives of women’s lives that have shaped the contours of a religious ritual renewal. Women’s questions have helped to sanctify these unmarked passages of time, the spaces left empty by the generations. Throughout the life cycle new landscapes are being sculpted from the soil of tradition.
In rabbinical school, when a fellow student’s wife had a baby girl, I asked, “What should we do?” In response to the answer, “Nothing much,” my husband and I helped to create a covenantal ritual for girls. Today, 30 years later, it is tradition.
I remember the questions we first asked: In a tradition that dictates ritual from awakening until preparing for sleep, can there be symbolic acts and holy words to sanctify the moment of learning of pregnancy? In a faith that celebrates escape from danger with a prayer, can there be a prayer for the healing of a battered woman? In a tradition that counts hundreds of blessings, can there be one upon the birth of a daughter? For a community that counsels an intricate ritual of mourning, can there be a ceremony to carry a family through the sorrow of miscarriage and stillbirth? Now the answers to each of these questions is yes. Yes, there can and there is!
Women have helped not only to create new ritual, but to reshape its enactment. Ritual is not something acted out upon us but something we enact. One member of my congregation said after being asked to speak at the birth ceremony of her child, “Thank you for giving me a voice. Last time I was silent.”
Most striking have been the ways in which women have added their voices not only to life cycle ritual but to holy day celebrations. For 15 years I have conducted a women’s seder in Indianapolis. Women have come to see themselves as active participants in the seder, to hear how women played a role in redemption, to go back and see themselves as having made the journey out of Egypt, and this time to leave footprints. They have brought new rituals like Miriam’s cup, which celebrates the well that accompanied the Israelites in the journey through the desert. They have added stories that narrate the role women played in redemption. Now women are no longer silent servers; they have speaking parts. They have helped us read our history in a way that pays attention to power that is informal and not publicly acknowledged.
Our responsibility, according to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, is to “look upon ourselves not merely as descendents but as ancestors of posterity, responsible for preserving and creating symbols and rituals for future generations.” Women have done just that and enriched Jewish life.
As women have transformed the ritual landscape, so they have begun to be narrators of sacred stories. In reading Torah women no longer accept their absence from text, but stand as full members of the community of Israel and reestablish their relationship to Torah.
Women have become interpreters of Torah—writing commentary, creating midrash. In the process, they have given voices, names, and stories to women who had none.
As the renowned Israeli author Amos Oz taught, “Fundamentalists live their lives with an exclamation point. I prefer to live my life with a question mark.” That is how women have been reading biblical texts—with question marks.
Just as women asked questions of ritual, so they asked new questions of the Torah text: Whose story is told? Who is excluded? Who is other? Who is Lot’s wife, the wife of Noah, the daughter of Pharaoh? Now, through new commentary and midrash, we are finding answers. We know Lot’s wife as a woman named Idit who turns not out of disobedience to God but out of compassion for her daughters, who are following her. The pillar of salt is her tears. Now we know the loving arms of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bityah, daughter of God, who saves Moses from the Nile. We know Noah’s wife is called Naamah, because her deeds are ne’emim, pleasing. We know women’s names, hear their voices and their stories, and we better understand ourselves and Torah.
New Names for God
Women have also begun to bring their experience to understanding God and to prayer. The rabbis gave new names to God. One of them is “HaMakom,” the place. We call God out of our place, and the place where we stand is holy. Each calling, each name, is a partial apprehension of the spirit of divinity. As the divine moves through the interior world of women, God has become known by names other than Father and King. Women call God Mother, Friend, Womb of Life, Healer. And as the names for God change, so does the way a woman views herself as a valuable partner with the Divine, and so does our understanding of God.
Through women we have come to know God not as one who has power over us, but as one who empowers us. What is important is not what God can do to us or for us, but what we can do because of God.
That understanding of God has also found its way into prayer. The only women’s prayer recorded in the Hebrew Bible is Hannah’s prayer for her son, a prayer of the heart. It is silent. Women’s prayers of the heart are no longer all silent. They are finding their ways not only into alternative readings or collections, but into the Siddur, a book that we kiss when it falls.
By adding their voices and valuing their perspectives, questions, and insights, women rabbis and other female Jewish leaders and teachers have helped to renew and enlarge Jewish tradition. To the comment, “Well, it doesn’t all look like tradition,” I offer the following story of Picasso: When someone saw Picasso’s drawing of Gertrude Stein, he said, “That doesn’t look like Gertrude Stein,” to which Picasso responded, “It will.”
We create ceremonies, we tell stories, we make and enliven rituals in the tradition of Sarah and Abraham, who celebrated Isaac’s weaning; in the tradition of our ancestors, who taught a new generation not to sit in darkness but to light Sabbath candles; in the tradition of the rabbis, who told the Hanukkah story for generations. In their name, in the name of all those who went before them, and in the name of all those generations yet to come, we light candles, we preserve, and we create. We marvel at how much remains the same in our cycles of time, what ancient words still move us, and yet how different we are, what silences must still be broken. What really matters is not just that we are descendants, but that we are ancestors who bequeath our spiritual quest to the next generation.
We accept this awe-filled responsibility with a deep sense of humility. After all, who are we, tied as we are to our own time and place, to fashion the sacred words and create the holy drama to carry us through the passages of our years? We accept this responsibility with a strong sense of duty. After all, who are we, bearers of the image of God, not to pour our souls into the crucible of time, to affix our name to the holy narrative of our people?
Summer 2004, Number 3