Last weekend, I went to the Jewish Museum exhibit Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life. If you looked for it, the whole exhibit was about the male-centric nature of Jewish ritual and how, through the combination of Jewish feminism and technology (hello, blogs!), we can reinvent ritual so that Judaism can become more inclusive and equal.
Rituals and how we perform and conform to them are sociological phenomena. If you go to a Carlebach service, you may or may not see – depending how high the mechitza rises – men dancing in a way that can only be described as tribal, instinctual, and testosterone-filled. They jump up and down. They shake. They shimmy. They wear ritual garb like tallit and kipot. They are in the ritual setting (the synagogue) and they perform this ritual in a group of like-minded people yet when they step outside the synagogue walls, the dancing stops. The ritual has been performed and it has come to an end.
Especially in diaspora cultures in which assimilation is natural, it can be hard to recognize Judaism as more than a few words in a foreign tongue whispered during High Holy Days. Ritual gives the feeling of Jewishness, the authenticity that we are what we preach. Jewish ritual has a very sound foundation in patriarchal values. It is up to Jewish feminism to rock that foundation so that this ritual and this connection is no longer exclusive.
I am not saying that we should put an end to ritual. Far from it, I am saying what this exhibit said: we must reinvent ritual through examining the embedded sexism, digging it out, throwing it away, and creating something new to fill that hole. That is where intergenerational Jewish feminism differs from intergenerational feminism. To incorporate the traditions of past generations in a way that makes sense for feminism today is necessary in the perpetuation of Judaism. At times, I have rejected Judaism on the basis of sexist ritual. Now, I embrace Judaism on the notion that sexist ritual can turn feminist once the root of the sexism is examined. And how can we examine it? Through talking to those who’ve lived through times when Jewish sexism was the norm and who want to change it for our generation.
Ritual is a celebration of culture. It is not meant to be skewed and distributed to only one part of the population. Jewish ritual must be available and accessible to both men and women. When it becomes accessible through dialogue between older Jewish feminists and young Jewish feminists, we can truly celebrate.