Yentl's Revenge

The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism edited by Danya Ruttenberg

by Phoebe Kate Foster


Seeking God with New Eyes

—Marcel Proust

Picture, if you will, the dark ages of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It’s Ward and June Cleaver’s world and everyone knows that Father (in all his many familial/religious/ patriarchal/political/corporate guises) knows best, of course. Stereotypes rule. People march in a cultural lockstep from cradle to grave. Americans live circumspectly in clearly labeled little boxes of societal and ethnic identities. Jim Crow laws and the “gentleman’s agreement” mentality keep certain groups out of the mainstream. A new thought of any sort is highly suspicious and probably subversive.

In that bleak era, there appeared a nothing-less-than-amazing bread ad that ran on the radio. I was there. I heard it. It sounds silly to our multicultural, pluralistic ears now, but believe me, it was a groundbreaking concept in its day: “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s Rye…”

cover art

Yentl's Revenge

Danya Ruttenberg

The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism

(Seal Press)

Well, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism. It’s easily palatable to anyone interested in contemporary trends and multicultural influences. The twenty essays in this provocative volume offer a fascinating commentary on life, religion, politics, values, family, community, American and world culture, human nature, and the challenging process of making wise and well-considered personal choices.

Thanks to the sensitivity of both editor and contributors, Yentl’s Revenge is very user-friendly, assuming no knowledge of Judaism other than the most general. You don’t need to know what books of the Bible comprise the Torahor how people use tefillin or what a tallit is. A comprehensive glossary covers everything from Adonai to zmirot, and the articles themselves offer excellent explanations of anything that might be unfamiliar to the non-Jew.

You also don’t have to be a feminist to relate to the personal journeys of twenty young women as they discover their unique identities and own their own power. These eclectic voices speak to all of us who are searching for meaning in our twenty-first century lives, grappling with our various backgrounds and influences, and sorting through cultural baggage to salvage what is valuable as well as viable.

And you certainly don’t need a taste for the metaphysical to sample these question-raising but soul-satisfying accounts. The solidly earth-grounded seekers in these pages flavor their mysticism with social activism and balance contemporary thought with an unabashed affection for the extraordinarily rich religious tradition that shaped and molded them.

The Yentl of the book’s title is a reference to the short story by well-loved writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose folk tales of the Eastern European Jewish ghetto have graced the pages of magazines such as The New Yorker for decades. The story tells the tale of a Jewish girl who dons men’s attire and assumes a male persona in order to infiltrate the elitist world of the scholarly rabbis and study the ancient texts alongside the other boys. In 1983, Barbra Streisand starred in the musical version, a campy extravaganza that was predictably successful but served mainly to promote her reputation as a pop icon rather than shed any real light on the discrimination Jewish women have encountered for centuries in their synagogues, schools, community, and even their own homes.

To this day, in all but the most liberal sects of Judaism (and even in those circles, religious sexism may exist in vestigial forms), strong differentiations are made between the roles and responsibilities of male and female. Women are still seated separately from the men during services, denied leadership roles and active participation in worship, and often afforded limited opportunities for scholarly religious and secular educational pursuits because their future lies as a helpmeet to a husband.

In her foreword to the book, Suzanne Heschel succinctly summarizes the prevailing cultural bias that permeates many Jewish circles. She describes the reaction of male Jewish authority figures to her own intellectual pursuits: “Sure, study chemistry. It will help you be a good cook.”

The Revenge aspect of the title seems to have its origin in the foreword by Heschel and introduction by Danya Ruttenberg, both of which reflect a much harder-edged feminist line than the most of the other contributors. “It’s not about equality—it’s about who’s in charge!” is the battle-cry opening line of Heschel’s piece. “I started protesting as room as I could talk,” she goes on to relate. “But I was born into a medieval world…the bottom line was women’s submission to male authority…even when changes were made, the decisions were made by men, on the basis of texts authored by men…The real issue is not equality, but power…”

Ruttenberg echoes the same sentiment: “Now it’s Yentl’s turn to run the damn yeshiva…”

Stepping out of the box

This third wave of Jewish feminists, however, have a different agenda on their minds than seizing the corporate reins of religious power and turning the tables on the males who’ve called the shots in their world.

Instead, they’re putting their time and effort into synthesizing original and iconoclastic personal spiritualities that incorporate the best of what is available to them from any and every source—including their own, albeit oppressive, religious one. This is one group of reformers who knows for a fact that all genuine change starts at the personal, not the institutional, level. In the meantime, they are determined not to throw the baby out with bath water. “Identity is messy; it is the changing experiences, the uniquely shifting degrees between labels,” writes Dina Hornreich in her essay, “I Was a Cliché.” “Can I be both gay and straight? Can I be both masculine and feminine? Can I be both agnostic and religious? The answer to all these questions is yes.”

Like all seekers and mystics throughout history, the women in this book endeavor to transcend creeds and dogmas that keep them earthbound when their souls hunger for a taste of the eternal. They accord themselves the freedom to take what works and discard what doesn’t in developing belief systems that express their uniqueness as humans. They step outside all the societal, cultural and religious boxes to dare to evolve meaningful spiritualities, even if it doesn’t lead to acceptance within their own (or any other) circle. They even step outside the feminist box, although it might betoken a betrayal of “the cause.”

Heschel brilliantly keynotes this new boldness. She recounts an experience of being censured in a synagogue for claiming the religious right of Jewish males to dance with the scrolls of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) during Simchat Torah, customarily an exuberant yearly celebration at a synagogue:

“As soon we arrived, (my male friend) was handed a Torah scroll and welcomed enthusiastically into a crowd of euphoric, dancing, singing men. As usual, I had to stand in the back, watching with the women. After an hour, I could no longer control my rage and I simply threw myself into the crowd of men and started dancing, too. A rabbinical student angrily grabbed me and demanded, ‘Who gave you permission to dance?’ Calmly, I replied, ‘God.’ He threw me out.”

In regard to the contributors to this book, Heschel goes on to write: “The alternatives have existed since these women were born and the decision is theirs how to shape the Judaism they wish to express…”

Ruttenberg eloquently describes the brave new world of these third wave feminist Yentl’s:

“If I can be any kind of Jew, what kind do I want to be?...Now that there are tenable options for Jewish practice, young women have the luxury—and the challenge—of figuring out where on the spectrum they want to be… Where are the boundaries between culture and religion? Many of the identity markers we associate with Judaism are hopelessly outmoded… The Catskills have grown quiet and nobody thinks the Jewish American Princess thing is funny anymore… Even the old New York intellectual shtik seems to be fading… What models do we have to hold on to?”

The answer sets the stage for the entire volume: “Maybe we just have to make up our own models…”

How I became my own damn rabbi

This opening line from Jennifer Bleyer’s “From Riot Grrl to Yeshiva Girl” characterizes the process many of the women in the book have undergone as they follow their own unique paths to truth and learn to minister to themselves both spiritually and emotionally.

After a middle class Midwestern upbringing of politely devout Conservative Judaism and muddled feminism—her mother bought her Barbie dolls but balked at letting her watch the 1970’s sitcom “Three’s Company” because “it was demeaning to women” - - Bleyer’s involvement in the punk rock subculture provides the catalyst for self-realization and a new freedom.

“The Riot Grrl movement… was most daring not in its fuck-you to male-dominated society, but in its screeching fuck-you to mainstream feminism… We didn’t want the ‘equal right’ to be corporate drones, executive whipcrackers or miserable supermoms, futilely trying to balance career, family, friends and therapy. We wanted something that was off the charts completely, that transfigured every stagnant fixture of society…

Bleyer ultimately embarks on a spiritual quest that takes her from a yeshiva (religious school) in Israel where she studied the Kabbalah (the Jewish mystical tradition) to ultra-Orthodox enclaves in New York. “I began to see Judaism as something essentially beautiful that has been hijacked by a great many self-appointed authorities… This doesn’t mean trashing tradition as much as shaking the dust off it…We are allowing ourselves to be Jewish in the way that riot grrls taught us to be feminist - - boundlessly, beyond definition and with an almost erotic hunger for transcendence.”

In “Challah for the Queen of Heaven,” Ryiah Lilith, who grew up in a secular Zionist home, unapologetically forges a vibrant and remarkably beautiful new spirituality for herself based on both Jewish and Wiccan rituals and prayers. She describes her little home altar, with crystals and stones and symbols of the Goddess side by side with her Sabbath candles and Hanukah menorah, and incorporating Jewish elements into the pagan group rituals that she creates.

“I may not be able to explain exactly how I manage to be both Jewish and Pagan,” Lilith says,“but I know with certainty that I am both….I found a religion and spirituality that allows me to embrace and express all aspects of myself…I feel at home and at peace. I don’t believe that makes me less of a Jew; it simply makes me another type of Jew.”

Emily Wages, in “You Wear a Kippah?” analyzes the problem of balancing personal conviction with a dogmatic religion hidebound in inviolable rules and customs. “Is it possible to be a thinking individual and an observant Jew at the same time? Or can I have a personally meaningful spiritual life and simultaneously take part in Jewish tradition?”

For Wages, the answer is a resounding yes. Her spiritual search takes her down the path of increased observances as she comes to appreciate their symbolic significance. She explains why she wears the kippah (yarmulke, the traditional male head covering): “It’s a metaphysical instant in which I take a step closer to the divine. It is also a shared, collective moment, in which I visibly and tangibly express my connection to the Jewish community and tradition of my ancestors.”

Haviva Ner-David, the writer of “Parenting as a Religious Jewish Feminist,” daily dons the tallit (prayer shawl) and the tefillin (little boxes strapped onto the arm and forehead that contain scriptural passages), both traditionally worn by only men for prayer, which she believes enhances her perception of God and the sanctity of her own body.

Though Ner-David points to precedence in ancient Jewish texts for women wearing tallit and tefillin, the usage by women of men’s specific devotional items is still a controversial one—permissible in some liberal circles, but strongly discouraged (if not outrightly forbidden) in more traditional ones.

In the words of Susannah Heschel, “Third wave Jewish feminists are their own authorities.”

A matter of interpretation

During the course of my research for writing this review, I interviewed a rabbi to solicit his input on the attitude toward women and the parameters of their freedom within his congregation. Ritual and custom vary tremendously in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sects of Judaism. Even within a specific sect, there may well be considerable differences between one congregation’s “norm” and the next’s. I deliberately selected a rabbi from an Orthodox synagogue, because it is in that particular sect that the most frequent complaints by women of discrimination, bias, and spiritual disenfranchisement occur.

Predictably, the rabbi I spoke with, being Orthodox, strongly discouraged women from wearing tefillin, tallit, and kippah. However, when I asked him upon what he based this opinion, he gave a startling and completely unexpected rationale for the prohibition.

The contributors to Yentl’s Revenge uniformly contend that the wearing of these religious articles is a privilege accorded to men because, in essence, women are viewed as intrinsically inferior spiritually to men. About this matter, I quote the rabbi verbatim (this was an interview conducted online so the choppiness and abbreviated chat reflect that reality):

“I would respectfully but strongly urge her to reconsider (the wearing of these items.) This is not a medium by which God intends women to connect to him. I will give you a general parable. Women are connected to God more directly (Kabbalistic teaching), like DSL. Men need to renew and refresh their connection. They forget. Are influenced by external visual symbols. Like a dial-up connection. Hence men wear tefillin, tallit, etc. External reminders reconnecting them consciously to God. This is redundant for a woman.”

I don’t propose that this is every rabbi’s answer to the legitimate questions and problems raised by Jewish feminists. I simply suggest that there are many interpretations to any situation. The one that we most easily and quickly ascribe to (and which feels most comfortable to us) may be a reflection of yet one more confining box we need to exit in order to arrive at the real truth. What we perceive as an injustice may be, if we step into another perspective, a compliment or an acknowledgment of a superiority we have not yet recognized.

Even when we’re free of boxes, we still need new eyes.

Biology Is Not Destiny

The binary system of “male” and “female,” so deeply at the root of Judaic practice, is being challenged in even more radical ways than women wearing yarmulkes and seeking ordination as rabbis. In her essay “Blood Simple,” Danya Ruttenberg brings the transgender theory into very Holy of Holies of the temple and argues her case with the skill of a Talmudic scholar.

“Identity,” she writes, “is a strange, mutable thing…we constantly change the way we see ourselves - - and consciously or not,the way we conceive of our gender, of ourselves as gendered, changes too. Change can be as simple as a renewed interest in lipstick or the acquisition of combat boots, or it can be much more complex.”

In Judaism, gender rigidly dictates the rituals one follows. Men are obligated to pray specific prayers three times daily (and these aren’t short little prayers, either), while women are exempt from time-bound praying. Women are required to purify themselves in a ritual bath (mikveh) after menstruation each month. Men and women are forbidden to wear articles of each other’s clothing - - no guys in skirts carrying purses, no gals in trousers or sewing up the fly on a pair of polka-dot boxers and using them for shorts.

Ruttenberg reminds us: “There’s no such thing as ‘perfect gender’... If a woman wears an article of clothing, doesn’t it become an article of women’s clothing?...What is woman? What is man? And how do we know?... Not even those who identify as male and female—and are comfortable and happy with that identification—embody ‘perfect manhood…or womanhood.’”

She goes on to say: “I know butch dykes who consider their gender box c) none of the above, and femme lesbians who identify more with drag queens than straight women. There are places in the United States where people believe that gender can be chosen—which can mean anything from ‘what we’ve been taught about (gender) is a crock of hooey’ to ‘I use words that resonate with my internal knowledge of myself’ to ‘I need a change on the biological level.’”

Ruttenberg advocates a more open understanding of gender within the Jewish community that might include all on a more flexible and realistic continuum, from female to female-masculine to androgynous to male-feminine to male and back again. However, even she allows as how the ramifications to the gender-specific halakha (traditional Jewish laws and regulations) are “almost too radical” even for her, as she envisions men voluntarily taking on the women’s obligation of going to the mikveh as an expression of their sense of personal biological identity on the gender continuum and so forth. Logically, however, she admits this is not really any different that women wearing tefillin.

Ruttenberg offers the fascinating insight that Judaism—far more than any other religion—has always been a faith in progress rather than a completed work. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. changed Jewish religious practice in a radical way—and it hasn’t stopped changing since. “The beauty of Jewish law is that it’s constantly evolving…every generation of rabbis offers a new opinion on everything from the most ancient of issues—defining kosher food, for example—to the most modern, such as in vitro fertilization…”

The spirit of Jewish law gives the individual opening points for relationship with the sacred

This remark at the end of Ruttenberg’s provocative essay sums up the essential message of all the contributors in Yentl’s Revenge. All the writers, regardless of their individual experiences, have found their perplexing, sometimes aggravating, sometimes backward and oppressive faith to be a channel to knowledge of self and knowledge of the divine.

In “The Nice Jewish Boy,” A. C. Hall offers a deeply moving account of a mystical experience she had. Hall, a feminist with strong reservations about everything from marriage to most of Jewish practice to the nature of God, visits the mikveh the first time for a ritual immersion. In her own powerful words:

“I chanted the shehechianu, the prayer for something new, which I translate as ‘Thank you, Whatever You Are that is in charge of all this, for bringing me to the beauty of this moment.’ Then…I let myself go…Three times, I made sure to float freely before standing and sinking again. Three times, I curled into a ball and went deeper into a tight spot in my heart. The third time, I felt it open. I almost wept. I shivered and pulled back. I still wonder what I would have experienced had I been brave enough to go further…”

Yentl’s Revenge is rich with shimmering moments of truth, flashes of brilliant insight, a wealth of fascinating personal experiences, and plenty of food for thought. The reader is drawn out of his or her own “box” and into an intriguing, unfamiliar, and often exotic world. My honest reaction after finishing the book was to wish I could email all these interesting, lively women so we could keep the discussion going.

And maybe, who knows, the way things are going, I just might. The adventure, as so many of these women seem to indicate, has just begun.

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