The Rhetoric of Heteroglossia of Jewish Feminism: A Paradox Confronted

By Jones, Kevin T.; Mills, Rebecca | Women and Language, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Rhetoric of Heteroglossia of Jewish Feminism: A Paradox Confronted


Jones, Kevin T., Mills, Rebecca, Women and Language


Abstact: Judaism has been unprecedented in its efforts to include women in a traditionally patriarchal religion. Over the past thirty years, the language of ancient rituals and ceremonies, sacred to the faith, have been altered and re-written to include women by uniting the forces which hold it together with the forces which were pulling it apart. This essay examines how Judaism has confronted this paradox by using Bakhtin's notion of Heteroglossia, or co-existing dialects, as the vehicle that makes this union possible.

Baum (1998) notes that in the winter of 1972, ten well-educated young women from Manhattan, caught up in the enthusiasm of the 1960's and the writing of a relatively unknown Jewish woman named Betty Friedan, braved the snowy roads of the Catskill Mountains to confront an assemblage of Conservative rabbis at the famous Concord Hotel. The young women wanted the Conservative movement to consider ordaining female rabbis and investing female cantors. These issues were controversial within the Jewish community, of great significance to these women and the others they represented, and would have drastic consequences for years to come. Not only was specific change sought, but the most emotionally charged issue became the question of literally, "who counts?" Traditionally, Judaism requires a quorum of ten people, a minyan, for public prayers to be said. Traditionally, Judaism counts only men. For these first women who sought change, the so-called mothers of Jewish feminism, their dream was to reform and reconstruct J udaism while not abandoning tradition. Their effort culminated one year later when the Rabbis ordained the first woman. These women embarked on a delicate journey that would attempt to both create change and maintain consistency.

This perceived struggle between language and faith is a paradox for Jewish women as it confronts them with inherent contradictions. Jewish feminists have sought to develop a language which includes their much ignored voice, while at the same time maintaining a belief system based upon ancient premises designed to ignore that voice. The paradox has been successfully confronted as Judaism has embraced feminism. Accomplishing this goal was no simple undertaking by any means. Adler (1998) in her book Engendering Judaism, explains the hurdles Jewish feminists have had to overcome: "Jewish law needed to be reconstructed to eliminate the ancient premise that women are subordinate to men, yet at the same time maintain the law. For without law there is no means to translate the stories and values of Judaism into action" (A14).

Jewish feminists maintain a role of general significance throughout most of Judaism. While still not recognized by the Orthodox, today women routinely become rabbis and are counted in minyans of Reform and most Conservative synagogues (Zaidman 50). Their influence is profound and powerful. American women have transformed their status in Judaism, creating one of the most dramatic cultural shifts in centuries of Jewish history. This cultural shift in the United States has had a profound influence on the movement of Jewish feminism in Israel (Ben-David B3). Heschel, a scholar and author of one of the first books on Jewish feminism notes, "The newfound power of women is the greatest change in Jewish life since the destruction of the Temple in the first century" (Baum 1998, Al).

This position of power has been accomplished through the altering of Jewish rites, rituals, and celebrations. The language of the law has been changed in order to create change while maintaining consistency. Jewish ceremonies such as the Passover Seder have been rewritten to include the plight of women. Exclusive Feminist Seders, held for women only, are celebrated every year around the country. Women argue that their faith is strengthened and they are allowed to focus more on what it means to be Jewish through the inclusion of women in traditional services (Zavoral 2000, 7B). …

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