Jewish feminism has had a significant impact on the development and expression of Judaism. They have faced many obstacles and brought about much change in the Jewish tradition. Jewish feminism is a movement that seeks to improve the religious, legal and social role and contribution of women within Judaism. Feminism can be traced back to the early 1970s where women began to question their roles amongst society. For Jewish women, they wanted to focus on the composition of the minyan, the exemption from some mitzvot, exclusion of women as witnesses of Jewish law and the position of women in relation to divorce proceedings.
Each variant has responded differently to feminism and the level of impact as differed amongst Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. Judaism is known for being more patriarchal than many other organised religions. This has made it difficult for Jewish feminists to bring about equity and tzedakah. Jewish feminists have one main agenda and that is to challenge and fight sexism within Judaism. They see their work as part of their duty to tikkun olam and believe their actions bring tzedakah to their faith community.
Jewish feminism created much controversy as many men thought that it would have a weakening effect on Jewish life, however many would argue that it has been strengthened. The Orthodox Jewish communities found the impact of Jewish feminism to be a significant issue for their interpretation of the halakah and how their religion is to be expressed. They seeked change in a manner that can be defended by Jewish law and always worked within the framework of traditional worship. However, amongst the Reform and Conservative Jews, their attitudes have been much greater.
Reform Jews have accepted that a woman can perform any religious ritual that a man does. They were the first group to do away with the mehiztah, that separated men from woman in the synagogue, they felt the customs and practices should be more in keeping with modern society. This had a significant impact as it led to the change in service and synagogue, and the service was rewritten in English from Hebrew. Jewish Feminism called upon all variants of Judaism to reconsider its response to the mitzvot and other elements of the halakah.
Jewish feminists challenged Judaism in areas such as the patriarchal interpretation of sacred texts, role of women in rituals, role of women in leadership eg: Rabbi and the general rights of women. In 1972, ten New York Jewish feminists calling themselves Ezrat Nashim presented a document, “Call For Change”, to the Conservative movements Rabbinical Assembly. This “Call for Change” demanded that women be considered to perform all mitzvot, allowed full participation in religious observances, be counted in the minyan, have equal rights in marriage and initiate divorce.
Judaism was changed by this document in 1977 when Conservative Judaism introduced feminist rituals. Until the 1950s Jewish women traditionally took a back seat in communal worship. The synagogue was divided with a mehitzah as they felt that men could not concentrate and keep their thoughts purely on prayer and their individual connection with God. Jewish feminism’s impact on this issue was significant as they changed the physical direction of the mehitzah in the synagogue so women could see the front and yet the men were still separated from them.
This change of the direction symbolises the change of views. Jewish feminism had a strong impact on the religious observances, laws and services. The role of women amongst society was changed in 1973 when the first female Rabbi, Sally Priesland, was ordained. There were many objections to the allowance of female Rabbis and numerous questions were raised such as their abilty to raise families and cope with the religious demands and if they were able to interpret the Scriptures correctly.
However, non feminists were able to see that these women brought intuitive perspectives that positively questioned the base of the Jewish beliefs. Therefore the extent of change in response to Jewish feminism varies across the differing expressions of Judaism. It has brought new and fresh perspectives to the nature of worship services. Women will continue to demand and receive equality in both the secular and religious worlds. Jewish feminism has brought to each of the variants a closer relationship and a stronger response to the call tikkun olam.