The last toddler house poem
A Rebbe Dream

Reprint: Interview with Rachel Adler (in anticipation of OHALAH)

Back in early 2009, I interviewed Dr. Rachel Adler for Zeek. My interview with her ran in the spring 2009 print edition of Zeek, the Sex, Gender, and God issue. (I posted about that here at the time.) Zeek no longer does a print edition, and I'm not sure it's possible to buy that back issue anymore, so in advance of Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler's keynote presentations at the OHALAH conference next week, I'm reprinting the interview I did with her. (As it happens, I did the interview by phone from OHALAH, so there's a sense of things coming full circle for me!)


Rachel Adler is one of the foremothers of Jewish feminism. In 1971, she published an article entitled "The Jew Who Wasn't There: Halakha and the Jewish Woman" in Davka magazine. Many now consider that article to have been the springboard that launched Jewish feminism into the world.

Adler's "Engendering Judaism" is a germinal classic of Jewish feminism. She was one of the first theologians to read Jewish texts through the lens of feminist perspectives and concerns -- work she's still doing today, as a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and the Hebrew Union College Rabbinic School.

I spoke with her from the hallowed halls of the Hotel Boulderado where I was attending the annual meeting of Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal -- a profoundly feminist organization which owes its existence in part to her work. We talked about entrails (she's working on a reading of Mary Douglas' work on Leviticus), congregational politics, the new Hebrew edition of "Engendering Judaism," and her hopes for the future of Jewish feminism.

Our conversation made me realize just how far we've come, and how grateful I feel to be living and learning in a time when Adler's work is part of the liberal Jewish canon. --Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: Your roots are in Orthodoxy; today you teach at Hebrew Union College. Can you give us a nutshell version of how you moved from point A to point B?

ADLER: Actually I'm a 5th generation Reform Jew, but became Orthodox in my late teens. I was Orthodox for more than twenty years, but eventually returned to Reform Judaism. I joke that I am a round-trip baalat teshuva.

51qPmncYryL._SS500_ZEEK: "Engendering Judaism" came out in 1998 -- more than ten years ago now. Do you still consider it to be a radical text?

ADLER: Yes. In Engendering Judaism I propose a basis for a progressive halakha -- a pro-active, rather than reactive, halakha which is formed at the grass roots level. I also propose a wedding ceremony which is egalitarian and halakhically feasible. And I propose that our sexuality is part of our divine image. All of these things still strike my students as radical.

ZEEK: You've argued that until "progressive Judaisms" attend to the impact of gender and sexuality, they can't engender Jewish life in which women are equal participants. Have you experienced hostility to this view, either from within progressive Judaism or from folks outside of this sphere?

ADLER: Orthodox Jews don't make pronouncements on what progressive Judaisms need to be more progressive. It's progressive Jews who sometimes pay lip service to the need for egalitarianism, and then when it comes to think tanks or executive positions in Jewish institutions don't include women.

ZEEK: You've raised the point that relegating gender issues to women alone perpetuates a fallacy about the nature of Judaism. Thinking in terms of "Women in Judaism" suggests that women are a kind of add-on to the normative body of Jewish tradition, in maybe the same way that studying "Women's literature" implies that literature writ large is necessarily in the purview of men...

ADLER: Actually I footnoted this point. It was made by another scholar, Miriam Peskowitz. Most academic disciplines now view gender as an area for scholarship by both women and men. That makes sense, since gender,both feminine and masculine, is a changing variable, affected by social and historical context.

ZEEK: You write, "Engendering Judaism requires two tasks. The critical task is to demonstrate that historical understandings of gender affect all Jewish texts and contexts and hence require the attention of all Jews. But this is only the first step. There is also an ethical task." This puts me in mind of Rabbi Akiva's response to the question of which is greater, study or action: "study, if it leads to action." What kind of action do you hope our continuing study of these issues will spur us to undertake?

ADLER: Understanding that gender practices change according to social and historical context means that we could intentionally reenvision and reshape gender practices. What would we want to create? A world where no female babies die of malnutrition because they are fed last? A world where no women are disadvantaged simply because they are women and not men? A world where women entering a profession such as law, medicine or, for that matter, the rabbinate, doesn't cause masculine flight to some other profession? Or the activity of women in congregations or in the pulpit doesn't make men take their marbles and go home? A world where there are many shades of gender and sexuality, not just two?

ZEEK: On a related note, you've written that you're interested not only in critiquing androcentric structures but in healing Judaism -- that your goal is not judgement but restoration. Does this tie in with the ethical task I just mentioned?

ADLER: Absolutely. Judaism is not a system on which I'm passing judgment from a distance. It is my home in the universe. I'm concerned that I and other women be full and equally privileged residents in our home.

ZEEK: You write, "If I were not a feminist, I would not feel entitled to make theology." How did you come to self-define as a theologian?

ADLER: I have to say, when I wrote "The Jew Who Wasn't There," which is the first piece of theology I wrote, I really didn't know what to call it. People around me seemed to have a lot of things to call it -- like 'pernicious trash' -- but I didn't know what to call it! It was later, when I began reading theology, that I realized that I had written theology.

And it was an awesome realization. Because I didn't know of any women who had written theology. I certainly didn't know of any Jewish women who had written theology. Later I discovered all of the Christian women theologians, and then of course there was Judith Plaskow's work. Judith was trained as a theologian. Though she was trained as a Christian theologian, which created a different set of problems. She got her doctorate at Yale--

ZEEK: Which was a Christian-focused religion department at that time...?

ADLER: Yes. Of course they're a wonderful Judaica department now, but there was not really much when Judith started her theological education.

ZEEK: Is feminist theology necessarily a theology of immanence?

ADLER: No; I don't think so. I realize I'm in the minority on that! But I would like to believe that feminist theologies can involve both immanence and transcendence. Because I think that as human beings, we live both in an immanent mode and we transcend.

ZEEK: it doesn't have to be so binary; there's a way of bringing the two together.

ADLER: I think there's a way of balancing, and I think that there's a kind of a spectrum of relational stances that we and God can have vis-a-vis one another. But my problem with radical immanence is that it becomes difficult to distinguish from solipsism.

ZEEK: You write about the need to enrich and diversify our liturgical language. In my own practice I've shifted first from the masculine God-language of my childhood, to the feminine terminology of my college years, to alternating between them, to a linguistic hodgepodge that draws often on nongendered metaphors (source, wellspring, breath) -- which is fine when I'm davening alone, but isn't always comfortable for others. To what extent do you think we need to be concerned with the ways in which linguistic creativity (especially in Hebrew, a language most liberal Diaspora Jews don't speak fluently) can throw daveners for a loop?

ADLER: It's a difficult question! Partly because when you're talking about prayer, you're talking about a need to communicate with sincerity with the divine. And you're also talking about a practice that has ritual dimensions. So that part of what we do to put ourselves in the space where we can communicate with the divine is to use language in a highly-patterned way to alter our consciousness. And the predictability of that language is partly what does it for us.

So it's very hard to help people find new God-language. Because its newness is very grating. And it's seldom that we find language that is very compelling to us. I've just been looking at the new book of women's prayers by Aliza Lavie. It's been translated and it's also got the Hebrew. These are things women wrote in Hebrew, and it makes a big difference -- there are a few prayers in there that I was tremendously moved by, and felt, 'this is something that has been missing for me that I've always needed and I never had the right prayer and here it is!' I think one thing that makes that easier is if we work on our Hebrew. And another thing that makes it easier is having translations that are really powerful and graceful translations.

I think sometimes we put up with a lot of mediocre prayers. It's amazing to me when I realize that the book of Isaiah, written basically by two and some say three different schools of prophecy -- it's as if there were three committees who produced Isaiah. And I think to myself, "committees have really gone downhill since Isaiah."

ZEEK: I think of something like [the Reform movement's new siddur] Mishkan Tefila, which we've begun using at my shul; there are things I love about it, and also things which make me crazy. It definitely feels like it was written by a committee.

ADLER: There was a decision made to try to solve the problem of gender and God-language by using language that was neutral. And what that does is, it kicks the language up a level of abstraction, and it disembodies the language. It does not appear to be masculine God-language unless you're reading in the Hebrew, in which case a lot of what you're reading appears to be masculine God-language because there isn't the choice of neutrality in hebrew. But with the neutrality, you get a kind of juicelessness. If you use "Mother" or "Father," there's something really immediate and primal-feeling there. If I use the word "Parent," it's a neuter word but it doesn't have the kind of emotional charge.

ZEEK: You write "A story is a body for God." I wonder whether the same might also be said of poetry, and whether we're generally more comfortable accepting new or uncomfortable theological language in poetry than in prose? Do you think that if there were new liturgy being written which was great poetry, maybe it would be more palatable for people?

EnbookcoverADLER: Some of the language in this Aliza Lavie volume is very impressive to me. So don't lose hope! There are wonderful things happening. They just happen slowly. Think about it: all of this has been very fast, if you think about the levels at which things usually change in Judaism. This has been a whirlwind. Women becoming fully entitled and fully responsible Jews.

ZEEK: Is there anything in "Engendering Judaism" that you would write differently now, or anything you would add? Was there a temptation to add an extra chapter?

ADLER: What I would like to add if I do another edition of the book is a ceremony for dissolving a brit ahuvim. I gave some directions, but I didn't really give a ceremony, and I would like to do that. Otherwise, no, I think it is what it is at this point. Though there may be other things that I would write.

ZEEK: Is there anything different in the new Hebrew edition that's not in the English edition?

ADLER: No. It's a good translation. My friends who have a better ear for Hebrew style than I do keep telling me that it's really interesting Hebrew, so I'm encouraged by that! But no, it hasn't been amended in any way.

ZEEK: It just came out in December, so I imagine it's still rippling in the pond; do you have a sense yet for how people are responding to it in Israel?

ADLER: I had an interview in Ha'aretz, and they referred vaguely to the people who don't agree with you or the people who are not in favor -- I'm not sure exactly what language they used. But it was odd, because I usually don't get to hear that kind of criticism. In fact, the reviews here were almost uniformly good reviews.

ZEEK: What's the project of your heart these days?

ADLER: Right now I'm working on a book for laypeople about suffering. It's tentatively titled "Why we suffer: a guide to choosing answers." And what it will do is, give a number of ancient and modern ways of answering that question, why do we suffer. And give an analysis of each of those options. For those who are in the first throes of grief, they just want it to stop; but when you get some perspective, you become curious about 'why?'

ZEEK: Was there something in particular that sparked that project?

ADLER: Yes. My mother died after being ill with dementia for five years. It was a protracted death from dementia. Most of that time she could not communicate, could not move. It was very difficult to tell if anything was happening in there.

ZEEK: That would open up questions of theodicy if anything would!

ADLER: Yes. At the time, I would visit her and I would sit with her an entire weekend and she would maybe say one word to me. And the word would either be "why" or "help."

ZEEK: I'm sorry you went through that.

ADLER: Well, part of my answer is, it's part of being human. And what it is in us that makes us suffer is pretty much the same as what it is in us that makes us able to have pleasure and joy.

ZEEK: Have you heard the accusations that Judaism is being "feminized," and that this is why in some communities there are now more women active than men -- e.g. we're driving the men away? (What do you think about that? I suspect I can guess, but I'd love to hear your take.)

ADLER: I've listened to people talk about this, and I've read people's writing about this, and two things occur to me. One is that we're not talking about men who are highly educated Jews. They really have the same grasp on the tradition that they've always had. We're talking about men who have had the power in liberal synagogues but who don't necessarily have a good Jewish education.

What happened with women is that women came in and started to acquire that Jewish education, and started trying to acquire those skills, and what happened -- at least from some of what I hear, what I read -- with the men is, they feel at a disadvantage. The problem is, you don't admit ignorance, you can't learn! If it's a matter of being in control of the synagogue as an institution and now men no longer are able to do that all by themselves, that really should not be so terribly traumatic! There really aren't other places in society where men are able to have social activities that women are totally absent from. Why should the synagogue be any different in that way?

So if it's a question of "the men didn't like women being active in the synagogue so they took their marbles and went home," I think that we have to make them feel that there's a place for them in the synagogue. But I don't want to leave the women out so that men can try to reclaim some kind of patriarchy somewhere. That doesn't make sense.

ZEEK: At the beginning of the epilogue to "Engendering Judaism", you write, "Seeds contain both the past and the future. As legacies from the dead, they reproduce the world. As pledges to the future, they change it. Every seed points to some future seed that will both incorporate it and differ from it." This puts me in mind of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's writings about what he calls "integral halakha," which needs to maintain continuity with the past and also evolve from it -- to include and transcend what came before.

ADLER: All halakha evolves. I think the question is, who gets to participate in that process? And whose stories get to be part of the data that evolution needs to take place. I would like to see a halakha that men and women engender together. One that would draw the best from all of us.

ZEEK: When it comes to feminist halakha, whose work would you recommend?

ADLER: One of the most brilliant people writing about halakha today is Tamar Ross. I agree with where she ends up though I don't see why she had to go to such lengths to get there! She ends up with the notion of an evolving Judaism which she traces back to Rav Kook; and I don't see that what she ends up with is that different from what Zalman Shachter-Shalomi would say, or what Reform Judaism would say about the evolution of Judaism. But I have tremendous respect for her acuteness. And the philosophical precision with which she's able to talk about halakha.

ZEEK: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about which I haven't asked?

ADLER: The thing that I would want to say is that when I wrote "Engendering Judaism," for the parts of it where I dealt with rabbinic feminist hermeneutics or Biblical feminist hermeneutics, I really felt privileged to deal with what was already a tremendously rich literature that women had created on these topics. And now there's even more. And it's wonderful! It's wonderful to run barefoot through.

ZEEK: That's a great image.

ADLER: I think about it because sometimes I think of how hard it was for the first generation of women who became Talmudists to do that. And there are a lot easier ways of doing it than the way I did it, which involved a lot of crying out of sheer frustration. But to think that there are now all of these women who are able to be playful with these texts that were tremendously oppressive to women...! I just find that a delicious irony.

ZEEK: And maybe a sign that we're moving in the right direction. May it continue.