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Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism

by Karla Goldman

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-674-00221-0
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

A thorough survey of the innovations introduced into the American synagogue in the 19th century by the Reform movement, focusing on the Jewish woman’s gradual religious emancipation.

Traditional Judaism delineates the woman’s specific place in public worship, in particular prescribing the separation of the sexes during the service, proscribing female voices from joining in prayer, and, with a few exceptions, omitting any requirement that women attend the synagogue at all. These centuries-old arrangements did not jibe with the progressive ideas of gender equality espoused by the nascent Reform movement. Legitimizing a female presence in the synagogue was part of a larger project of the Reformist Jews, who wished to acquire a new American identity by making their public religious observance conform externally to the ways of their Protestant neighbors. Separate women’s galleries were first replaced by mixed seating in 1851 (in an Albany synagogue), and a decade later many other temples introduced family pews, mirroring the custom of Christian churches. Men were relieved of the obligation to wear a prayer shawl and head covering, and a mixed choir and organ music were brought in, ostensibly for the sake of decorum. Other aspects of the reform included the use of vernacular instead of Hebrew, omission of the prayer for a messianic return to Zion, and even moving the holy day from Saturday to Sunday. By the end of the century, women were admitted as full members of the congregation, which first allowed their participation in synagogue administration and then in leading the worship itself. This process eventually led to the ordination of the first woman rabbi in 1972. Goldman’s well-researched book highlights one important premise: that the original steps on the road to women’s religious liberation were initially taken by acculturated male Jews, who often indiscriminately copied Christian politics and aesthetics.

An interesting and well-written study.