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On the Shekhina's Wings

A new collection offers four centuries of women's spiritual literature.

When Harold Bloom suggested, in The Book of J, that the oldest component of the Hebrew Bible was written by a woman--an aristocratic woman at King David's court, possibly even Bathsheba herself--he might not have been offering a testable scholarly hypothesis. But he was correctly drawing attention to the extraordinarily prominent and positive role of women in the Jewish scriptures. God may have made his promises to the patriarchs, but very often it is the matriarchs who carry out his plans. Think of Rebecca securing Isaac's blessing for Jacob; or Tamar disguising herself to earn her due from Judah; or Deborah leading the Israelites into battle against Sisera; or Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes.

It is a paradox of Judaism, then, that a religion that honors such independent and active women should have evolved a code of law that sharply restricts women's independence and activity. True, as Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton note in the introduction to their new edition of Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook, the role of women in traditional Judaism is hardly peripheral: "Since much of Jewish religious life, including the celebration of the holidays and Shabbat, was home centered, women were undoubtedly aware of the extent to which the continuation of Jewish life depended on them."

Kashrut, the keeping of the Sabbath, the ritual purity laws concerning sex and menstruation--these were the major responsibilities of women under Mishnaic law. And some of the earliest documents in this rich anthology show how Jewish women turned these domestic duties into religious occasions. The genre of tkhines--Yiddish-language prayers, many written by women--makes an ordinary activity like baking challah an occasion for worship: "Lord of all the world, in your hand is all blessing. I come now to revere your holiness, and I pray you to bestow your blessing on the baked goods. Send an angel to guard the baking, so that all will be well baked, will rise nicely, and will not burn, to honor the holy Sabbath."

Other tkhines were more abstract, such as a prayer "written by the woman, the rabbi's wife, Mistress Sarah Rebecca Rachel Leah, daughter of the brilliant and famous rabbi Yokel Segal Horowitz." Appropriately enough, this writer invoked her namesakes: "Sarah, for whose sake You commanded and said, 'Touch not my anointed ones'…Rachel, to whom You promised that by her merit, we, the children of Israel, would come out of exile." The matriarchs, in these prayers, take on something like the role of Catholic saints, or even the Virgin Mary--benevolent intercessors with a stern God.

But until the 19th century, women were "exempted"--the rabbinic euphemism for "excluded"--from the more public and prestigious realms of Jewish observance: synagogue attendance and Talmud study. The now-notorious prayer in which Jewish men thank God for not making them women is meant to express gratitude for the greater obligations laid on men in Jewish law--the more mitzvot, the more chances to please God. By the 19th century, this segregation of women from the core of Jewish life took a definite toll, as the Sourcebook shows, perhaps despite itself. Umansky and Ashton mean to honor all expressions of women's spirituality equally. But the poems and essays they gather from 19th-century Jewish women--mostly English speaking, mostly Reform Jews--have an anemic, abstract quality that betrays an increasingly remote connection with actual Judaism.

Take "Religion," one of the hymns by Penina Moise, who lived in Charleston, South Carolina and published the first American Jewish hymnal in 1842:

     To smile when we on life's breakers are tossed
     And serenely its tempest survey;
     To say, though the beacon of hope is lost:
     "Mercy's star will direct our way";
     Such trust in trial's hour,
     Springs from Religion's pow'r.

It is hard to see anything particularly Jewish about this; it is the kind of genteel Victorian stoicism that you could have heard in many a Protestant church at the same time. So, too, with the diary of Rachel Simon, whose husband Oswald was a leader of Britain's Liberal Judaism movement. "My greatest wish," Simon writes, "is to become perfectly religious; by this I do not refer to matters of form and ceremony, although the outward garb of religion must not be neglected. When I speak of religion I mean I constant inward sense of communion with God." This is praiseworthy, but again, it nearly disclaims any connection with the substance of Jewish tradition--a tradition which Simon, as a woman, could hardly be expected to know.

The document in the Sourcebook that first announces Jewish women's impatience with this state of affairs is a 1912 speech by Bertha Pappenheim, the pioneering German Jewish feminist. "The Jew was bound by law to exclusively Jewish study in the Hebrew language," Pappenheim notes, and "this very training was the best school for sharpening the mind, and has rendered him, in every age, peculiarly receptive and responsive to other subjects of study. The women remained for the most part (less by law than by ancient custom) in total ignorance. ... We have sufficient proof of the disregard of the woman in the Jewish service when we see that for purposes of prayer a woman is not counted as a member of the congregation; she is not called up to the reading of the Law, and she does not participate in the public ceremony of coming of age."

Pappenheim herself was no traditionalist--in the same speech, she insists that Judaism "has and needs no outward forms and authorities to bind its members together." Yet her insistence that women be admitted into the intellectual and legal heritage of Judaism would be responsible, in the 20th century, for an extraordinary renaissance of Jewish tradition. In the last section of the book, "Contemporary Voices," covering the years 1988-2007, we see how women are remaking Judaism, not by whittling it down to a universalistic essence, but by engaging with the texts and practices that have always been at its core.

Thus Amy Eilberg, a rabbi in Minneapolis, writes in "The Gift of First Fruits" about how becoming a mother changed her understanding of the Torah's injunction to dedicate the first-born child to God. She remembers davening for the first time after giving birth to her daughter: "That night, for the first time in my life, I encountered a feminine image of God, who rejoiced in the birth of my daughter and my own rebirth as a mother." Eilberg turns to Psalm 8 to express her gratitude: "From the mouths of infants and sucklings you have founded strength on account of Your foes." This is the kind of creative reading of scripture that is the very heart of Judaism. It is sobering to think that it was not until our own lifetimes that women could take part in it, and so help remake Judaism in their image.

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in Nextbook.

By Adam Kirsch