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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2004
Number 61
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Reflections by the Author: Rochelle L. Millen

Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice by Rochelle L. Millen
Waltham, MA: University of New England, Brandeis Series on Jewish Women

Growing up in a traditional Conservative synagogue during the 1950s (there was no other kind back then), a child of Polish immigrants who had left Brooklyn for suburbia, certain aspects of Jewish life flowed forward with nary a force forming a counterpressure. In junior congregation—and later in youth services—boys and girls sat separately, although without a mehitzah, as did men and women in the adult service. All public ritual was enacted by males, and gender roles were well-defined. In the excellent public school system my three siblings and I attended, boys took shop while girls had home economics. In our home, however, my mother worked full-time with my father, and it was my father who did much of the food shopping, made our lunches early every morning and often washed the dishes when he was home at night.

I never felt restricted in what I could do; it was understood that all of us would go to college, although neither my sister, a”h (may she rest in peace), nor I were ever asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Women, even bright women, became teachers and then, after marriage, mothers. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that women like myself became aware of some of the social, cultural and religious assumptions that had been — and still were — so greatly influencing the trajectory of our lives.

For me, as related in Part II of my book, Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice, the intertwined threads woven into the tapestry of my life became tangled and knotted as my desire to recite kaddish for my mother, a”h, met with negative — indeed, often nasty. The resulting inner conflict became the impetus for exploring in what ways the sources of my deeply rooted Judaism paralleled, and were intergrated with, the other central aspects of my identity. The book is the outcome of years of study and struggle, which is evident in a paper given in 1982, articles and book chapters published in 1990 and 1996, both informal and academic presentations in between.

The plan of the book, as first envisioned by Dr. Phyllis Deutsch, senior editor of University Press of New England, involved a study of all lifecycle events — birth, puberty, marriage and death — with an analysis of rabbinic sources followed by discussion of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform laws and practices specifically related to women. A well-done investigation of such a broad nature, I felt, could take two, or even three, volumes; examination of the halakhic sources alone requires extensive discussion and much had already been done in other studies. Therefore, I decided to focus on issues relating to the beginning and end of life, birth and death.

The inquiry into classical rabbinic sources is framed by theoretical questions that bring to the fore the central issue of how Judaism, feminism an the broader historical/ cultural context are interrelated. As a scholar of religion, I have always been interested in the vital interplay between religious traditions and cultural circumstances. Beginning in the late 19th century — although with much earlier foreshadowing — what today is called feminism increasingly develops into a powerful social and cultural force. One can gauge its early influence on modern Judaism in the famous responsum of R. Meir Hacohen written in the early 1920s and in the later comment of Yeshayahu Leibowitz that “barring women from the study of Torah is … a denial of a basic Jewish right.” These illustrate well the intertwining of sociology, cultural history and religious legal discourse and limit the ways in which religious law can be understood as metahistorical.

For some, feminism is seen as the culprit of many ills besetting the Jewish community, especially assimilation and the weakening of the traditional family structure. But to avow such culpability is to look at the world through a narrow lens since women in Eastern Europe frequently supported their scholarly husbands and the pious Glueckel of Hameln was a businesswoman par excellence. Indeed, it is to fail to discern the constant interplay between Jewish sources and ever-changing history. The various denominations of Judaism — and the spectrum of opinions within each, perhaps especially within Orthodoxy — manifest the various ongoing stages of this complementarity. In the Middle Ages, economic relations with Christians and Muslims led to important rabbinic responses later incorporated into mainstream halakhah, while the 19th century development of the Reform Movement resulted in considerations of how modernity and Judaism might be conjoined. Feminism is the challenge of our time: how the values, rituals and teachings of Judaism can remain a richly lived reality while affirming the dignity and autonomy of girls and women as understood in our historical context. To do this is not to affirm cultural forces as prior to Judaism but rather to acknowledge their necessary interrelation. Jews live within the constant tension, the push and pull, of tradition and history and no group, whatever its protestations, has succeeded in withdrawing from the arena. Despite attempts by some to remain isolated from mainstream culture, no one can be hermetically sealed off from the historical context in which s/he lives.

I believe that Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice contributes to the growing literature on feminism and Judaism by demonstrating how the concepts of gender, sexuality, public/private and com-munity/autonomy are essential concepts of modernity and of the rabbinic discourse that is the foundation of all manifestations of Judaism. Both permutations must be carefully considered as contemporary Jews struggle with how to live lives that are simultaneously deeply feminist and deeply Jewish. My work is part of this ongoing conversion.

Rochelle Millen is Professor of religion at Wittenberg University and a contributing editor.

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