Shema Bekolah—Listen to Her Voice: Women and Gender in Jewish Education
Modernity disrupted that stable Jewish canon (as it did the notion of “canon” itself), and the past two hundred years have seen lively arguments about how to define an educated Jew. What balance of secular and Jewish learning yields the perfect alchemy? And what even counts as “Jewish learning”—does it include Jewish history? Popular Jewish culture?
One important shift in the image of the educated Jew is that “he” may now be a “she.” In all but the most Orthodox settings, Jewish women and girls now have access to traditional Jewish texts once thought to be the purview of men only. And in liberal Jewish settings, the rabbi may even be a woman.
This relatively new visibility of women within the leadership of Jewish religious life has given some people the mistaken impression that the struggle against sexism in the Jewish community is over; that feminism has achieved its aims and no further attention need be devoted to women and gender in Jewish life.
Despite these notable advances, the subject of women and gender remains an important priority for Jewish education today—a subject that should be integrated into curricula, not ghettoized in special-interest electives. Awareness of women’s history and perspectives and of the role of feminism in Jewish life contributes to producing educated Jews for the 21st century.
Expanding the Definition of “Jewish Text”
Including the voices of women among those taught to young Jews requires a rethinking of what constitutes a Jewish text. If we limit the study of Jewish texts only to classical and rabbinic sources, we will encounter the voices of very few women. Seeking out female perspectives forces us to expand our scope to include other kinds of sources, including modern, historical, and cultural texts—a letter by Henrietta Szold, a newspaper report on a garment workers’ protest, a new feminist ritual such as Miriam’s Cup, a short story by Grace Paley. While I am not arguing that these texts need be placed on the same authoritative footing as Torah and Talmud, I do believe that juxtaposing classical and modern sources enriches the learning in our batei midrash and helps young Jews find Jewish meaning in a wide range of sources.
The inclusion of modern texts also requires that students learn to do close readings not only of biblical and rabbinic sources but also of primary historical and literary sources. An educated Jew in the 21st century must know how to read and interpret a poem as well as a page of Talmud, a blog post as well as a Rashi commentary. There is no reason to teach these critical reading and analytical skills separately in Jewish and general studies courses.
Expanding Jewish Role Models
If our students are to make their way in the world today with enthusiasm for their Jewishness and confidence in their ability to participate fully in both Jewish and American culture, they must have a wide range of role models—male and female—from which to learn and draw inspiration. Educated Jews today should know where they come from and on whose shoulders they stand. They should understand and appreciate the richness of their full heritage.
Of course, not only girls are empowered by learning about female role models. Both girls and boys benefit from exposure to a diversity of role models. Jewish women’s lives convey messages that are both gender-specific and universal. Learning about people such as Rebecca Gratz, Bella Abzug, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg may help raise the expectations girls have of themselves, but boys, too, have much to learn from Gratz’s commitment to community building, Abzug’s chutzpah and persistence, and Ginsburg’s quiet yet forceful integrity.
Moreover, one of our most important functions as Jewish educators is to convey to our students that Judaism is relevant to their lives and has wisdom and meaning to offer them. If we limit the role models to which they have access, we risk losing students who will dismiss Judaism and the Jewish community because they do not see themselves and their interests reflected in what they are taught.
Understanding the Value of Inclusion
Teaching students about women and gender accomplishes more than simply introducing female voices and perspectives. Acknowledging women as valued contributors to Jewish life and giving attention to gender issues also makes a case for inclusion more generally. When students learn to honor women, who have traditionally been on the margins, they will be more attuned to the experiences of other marginalized groups. They will have been trained to notice not only those who are present in the traditional narratives but also those who are absent; they will have learned the value of diversity to Jewish (and American) culture. They will be prepared to carry on the work of expanding and enriching the Jewish community with more voices and perspectives.
Empowering Students to Change the World
Some educators are hesitant to teach about women and gender because they fear the story of exclusion and sexism in Judaism and the Jewish community will alienate students. Indeed, it can be challenging to explain Jewish traditions of sex segregation to students who take for granted (at least theoretically) that discrimination on the basis of sex is wrong. However, the story of Judaism and feminism is one with many empowering lessons about the possibility of social change. Only a few decades after American women brought feminism into the Jewish community, Jonathan Sarna and other historians of American Judaism recognize the women’s movement as a central force in the renewal of Judaism in the late 20th century. This is a story that emphasizes the power of individuals and of movements to effect change and to revitalize Jewish life. An educated Jew must know that s/he has the power—and the responsibility—to see and act on the potential for change in the world. We educate students, in part, to take on the task of reimagining, reinterpreting, reinventing, and renewing Judaism for their generation.
Educating Jews for the 21st century presents an exciting but daunting challenge. In addition to the content of traditional and modern Jewish texts and the analytical skills required to understand them, students must also come to appreciate the relevance to their own lives of these subjects and skills. We need to be sure our students acquire not only knowledge but also tools for building rich Jewish identities. They will be ill-equipped to do so without an awareness of women’s contributions and gender issues in the Jewish community.
Pioneering Jewish feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote in a recent article in the Forward (“The Ten Plagues—According to Jewish Women”) that “The people of the book have too many blank pages because women’s voices have been largely unrecorded or silenced by the arbiters of what and who gets into the text.” We expect our day school graduates not only to know, love, and value our “book” but also to write the next chapters of the Jewish people. How can they do so if they are missing pages—even entire chapters—in between? ♦
Judith Rosenbaum PhD is Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org), where she develops and directs major educational initiatives including national Institutes for Educators and the “Living the Legacy” social justice curriculum. She can be reached at [email protected].