Biblical Sarah scares the men
A Reform Jew and a feminist scholar with a deep knowledge of religious texts, Rachel Adler sees Judaism as patriarchal - but that is not a God given.
When Rachel Adler was 19, her grandmother died and, having no son, she wanted to say Kaddish for her. "I was told I could not, but I could pay a male stranger a huge amount of money, which I didn't have, and that radicalized me," says the famous feminist theologian. "It made no sense. Why would God rather hear from a stranger who was being paid than the mourner herself?"
That was one of the first steps along Adler's pioneering path, that of a theologian dealing with seminal Jewish texts from a feminist point of view. Her book, "Feminism Yehudi" is due to be published in Hebrew, as part of the series Yahadut Kan Ve'achshav, published by Yedioth Ahronoth, Sifrei Hemed, and translated by Ruth Blum. It was first published 10 years ago as "Engendering Judaism" and is considered revolutionary.
Adler, 65, presents a subversive and sophisticated reading of Jewish texts. She goes beyond the original feminist reading, which focused on denouncing patriarchalism, and proposes new and surprising perspectives from which to understand them. One example is how she deals with the sexuality of the elderly Sarah. When Sarah finds out that she is pregnant at a late age, the Bible tells us that she laughs, which angers God. Adler points out that the root of the Hebrew word for laughter (tsadik, het, kuf) also has a sexual meaning in the Bible, and she concludes that Sarah's laughter is connected with her enjoyment of her renewed sexuality. "That is what scares men who read this story," says the Talmud scholar Ruhama Weiss, who edited the Hebrew version of Adler's book.
Tradition, says Adler, is not static: "A tradition is not an object. A tradition is a conversation and it flows. It changes course when new voices enter. During the past 30 years, women's voices have joined in the conversation of Jewish tradition, bringing with them their own gendered experiences and perspectives."
We have to ask ourselves, she says, how to shape a Judaism that will be equitable in 21st-century terms in a world in which women are equal participants in the workforce and have political clout and policy-making power. "How will we as Jewish men and women together read and understand our texts, pray, make laws, and make relationships?"
Until now, Adler says in an e-mail interview, "Jewish tradition has always existed in social contexts that were patriarchal. However, I don't believe that patriarchy is essential to Jewish tradition. I think Judaism can flourish in a society in which men and women are equal."
In a similar spirit, she proposes in her book to establish a "brit ahuvim" (a covenant of lovers). "I hope [people] will consider the brit ahuvim as a way of contracting an egalitarian marriage," she says, which "could exist as an alternative to kiddushin" - the traditional Jewish ritual blessings.
In Adler's engrossing analysis of traditional Jewish marriage, it is a deal in which a woman is acquired, and to which, over the centuries, many complexities were added. She shows there were periods in Jewish history during which couples lived together out of wedlock. This emerges, for example, from the documents of a woman who lived at the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion.
Ancient writings from the Land of Israel indicate the status of women was only slightly less than that of their husbands. For example, either side could initiate a divorce. It was struggles between different rabbinical schools over the centuries that led to the creation of the discriminatory tradition we know, says Adler.
This background in part led Adler to present her proposal for a covenant between two people who love each other, like the covenant between God and the people of Israel, a covenant that promises exclusivity, she writes. The relationships outlined by this covenant are prolonged relationships and are monogamous unions, whether between heterosexuals or homosexuals. She adds, in the interview: "In the United Sates, I keep hearing from couples both heterosexual and homosexual who have married with a brit ahuvim. A popular book about Jewish weddings has included it as an alternative, and some couples bring it to the rabbis and say, 'This is what we want.'" There is no reason, she says, for a couple who want to marry to agree to ceremonies that go against their values. "The experience of getting married should not entail passively assenting to values the couple rejects," says Adler.
In the brit ahuvim, she explains, "men and women acquire a partnership that either partner can dissolve. No get [Jewish divorce decree] is required. A beit din [rabbinical court] in which three scholarly Jews would sit would simply certify that the brit ahuvim was terminated. This could make a big difference to women who currently can be made to pay large sums of money for a get, or can be kept waiting for long periods" or not get a religious divorce at all. The brit ahuvim, Adler says, is a proposal that could help the growing split among the people of Israel.
This is especially pertinent in Israel, where there is no alternative to the traditional Jewish marriage ceremony and where quite a few populations face difficulties on this subject.
Israeli society and its institutions will need considerable time to take on Adler's ideas. Her book in English was published in the U.S. the same year the religious feminist organization Kolech was established in Israel. Having the book come out in Hebrew a decade later, is not an instance of the Israeli trend to adopt American habits but rather reflects the deep differences between the nature of Judaism here and there.
Who is this woman who dared to enter the holy of holies of religious rulings and to make proposals that in Israel sound revolutionary? Adler is a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College's Los Angeles campus. She was born into a Reform family.
"I am a fifth-generation Reform Jew and a fourth-generation native of Chicago," she says. "I became a ba'alat teshuva [returning to religion] in my teens and lived as an Orthodox Jew for about 20 years," she adds. "Now I jokingly call myself a round-trip ba'alat teshuva. But one never returns the same as one was. Theologically, I am Reform but like many educated Reform Jews, I keep a kosher home. I honor Shabbat and holy days. I study. I pray. I try to respond to poverty and injustice with tsedaka and chesed [kindness]. My son Amitai is a fourth-year rabbinical student at American Jewish University, the California Masorati seminary. He is marrying a Reform rabbi. We are a pluralistic family."
Adler continues: "I can't really pinpoint a definitive time when I became a feminist. I think I always was... I was fortunate that I was enabled to learn Talmud. But I puzzled over texts in which I was an object, not a subject and over laws that obligated women but that women had not helped to formulate." Nevertheless, she adds, "being a committed Jew and being a feminist is not an either/or proposition for me. I cannot maintain intellectual or spiritual integrity without being both, so I have to construct a theory of Judaism in which both can coexist."
Why did she leave Orthodoxy? "I left Orthodoxy for several reasons," Adler says. "First of all, I do not believe in an ahistorical revelation. I believe God reveals Godself to us progressively and always within historical contexts. Second, for my graduate studies in literature, I learned about the redaction and recension of manuscripts and then could not ignore signs of multiple traditions joined together in the Torah as we have it. Third, I saw how rabbis manipulated halakha [Jewish law] to maintain their own power and to disempower women, and I decided my life was too short to wait for them to take the legal risks that would be necessary to make changes."
Adler says she is not out to blame or to destroy. She says the holy texts are inexhaustible. "One can go back to them over and over and come away with new insights."
These insights are not acceptable in any way to scholars of the Conservative stream of Judaism, almost all of them men, says Weiss. "Once at a seminar at the Hebrew University, someone brought a quote from Adler's book, and the head of one of the departments, an important scholar, attacked her personally and spoke about her personal family status." Weiss adds: "And he is considered an enlightened person."
It is customary to attack the womb and ovaries of feminists when there is no better way to respond, Weiss says. "Conservative scholars in the field of Jewish studies in Israel ignore Adler," she says.
"In the United States, everything is much more open and her book has been awarded prizes. The trouble is that it is very difficult to contradict her claims. Adler is a serious Talmud scholar and is very knowledgeable both about Jewish research and about feminism. And she has done things that were never done before," says Weiss.
"She attacks the world of Talmud research from two directions, from the point of view of research and from the point of view of life itself, as is accepted practice in feminism. She undermines the exclusivity of the men in the study of halakha. Without declaring that she is doing so, she has turned into some kind of halakhic adjudicator."