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

Further Reflections on Rochelle L. Millen's Book

by Sarah Barbara Watstein

Rochelle Millen and I share several experiences. We are both Jews who came of age during the same period, both women and academics and we are both women who have struggled with the multifaceted challenges of identity. I share her experience of growing up in a traditional conservative synagogue in the 1950s; however, unlike Millen, I did not benefit from an excellent public school system but, instead, as a consequence of a mediocre (at best) public school system, I was sent to boarding school at age 13 — an Episcopalian school at that. In my family, unlike in Millen’s, at least during my childhood and early adolescence, gender roles were more clearly and more traditionally defined. Like Millen, I too was deeply influenced and changed by the late 1960s and early 1970s. Millen’s study and struggle suggest that many of her inner conflicts about religion and gender have been resolved. Despite my having turned 50 earlier this year, my struggle with being Jewish and a female in America continues, as does my struggle with being a Jew, a woman and a professional. This struggle is rich, and it is always challenging. Indeed, it was with an appreciation for our shared experience that I approached Millen’s book — a book that promised to be relevant for both scholars and the educated public. I was not disappointed. Millen’s explorations succeed in challenging a diverse audience. Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice has much to offer Jews, women, scholars and the educated publc.

As Jews, ritual is the way we live; it is our metronome. Indeed, we come of age celebrating, through the seasons and through our holidays, critical aspects of the Jewish life cycle, birth and death. As women, these cycles take on special meaning as we develop and, through aging, pace and experience these various life cycles and personal milestones. Millen is drawn to text, traditional and contemporary, as a way of exploring meaning and creating identity. As an academic with advanced degrees in several fields, I share this compulsion and continuously grapple with examination and analysis, drawn to text, traditional and contemporary, print and electronic, as a way of exploring meaning and creating as well as redefining identity. For scholars — anthropologists, sociologists and theologians alike, as well as feminist theorists — Millen’s work is confirmation that there haven’t been enough compelling and soundly researched texts that seek to explore the identity of Jewish women — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — in relation to the life cycle events of birth and death. And, finally, for the educated public, with years of learning and living, there is room for yet another book on Judaism and feminism.

It is the methodology of this volume that distinguishes it from other studies of women in Judaism and other topically oriented histories and criticisms of rabbinic literatures. A thorough and sensitive analysis of gender is interwoven throughout the text. Millen pays attention to Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. Her indepth knowledge of the denominations of the Jewish community results in a balanced text that provides a rich learning experience. She also equally emphasizes gender, the public/private nexus and the community/autonomy dialectic. Millen identifies birth, contraception, fertility, the welcoming of a new daughter, Kaddish and the funeral as fundamental factors in human life — a “safe” assumption that positions her to cast a wide net. The Jewish rites of birth and death form the organizing construct of the book. Part I, “Issues Surrounding Birth,” includes four chapters dealing with birth, conception, birth control, fertility and celebration on the birth of a daughter. “Death and Mourning” is the focus of Part II; here the readers will find in-depth reflections on Kaddish and the funeral. This structure not only lightens the reader’s load but also reinforces the themes of the book. In her Epilogue, Millen notes: “The conceptual apparatus of the analysis — gender, sexuality, public/private spheres and community/autonomy — has provided a frame of reference that demonstrates not only the patriarchal assumptions undergirding the classical texts but also some of the possibilities for moving behind them.”

For me, Part II was the stronger, more compelling “read” in this work. The subject of women and Kaddish has long intrigued me, as have contemporary discussions of grief, mourning and Kaddish. Additionally, as a feminist and a writer, I am fascinated by the relationship of language, religion and feminism. What better place to reflect on all three than here, thinking about death and mourning, about the powerful Kaddish? In this part of the book, Millen deftly explores women and Jewish law as well as the transformation of tradition. Her knowledge of historical context, biblical context and rabbinic origins results in text that flows — scholarship at its best. Notes and works cited following the Epilogue reflect the quality of Millen’s scholarship and provide valued suggestions for further reading or research.

For Jews and feminists alike, you won’t be disappointed. Being open to Jewish and feminist inquiry is required, as is a willingness to reconsider your values both as a Jew and as a feminist. Millen will satisfy scholars and the educated public as long as they are genuinely open to critical reflection on contemporary culture and to thinking differently about ritual. For these and other readers, I say this — let Millen be your guide — there are patterns emerging in American Judaism, patterns that defy, and yet celebrate, and in their own way, incorporate tradition. Women, Birth and Death in Jewish Law and Practice is, at bottom, about continuity and change, gender and assimilation, construction of Jewish culture and identity, traditions and counter-traditions. I suspect you’ll agree with my sentiments when you finish this book. Millen deserves our respect and recognition for moving us toward a more mature Jewish feminist theology. Hers is a progressive approach to Jewish culture and identity.

It is not within the scope of this brief critique to explore the reality, let alone the cultural identity, of those from whom birth, conception, fertility or the welcoming of a new daughter are not fundamental factors in their lives. Nonetheless, as a single lesbian without children, I found myself curious as to how Millen would approach and examine this reality. Millen does offer readers a note, if you will, as to her scope, mentioning that neither Reconstrucionism nor lesbianism/homosexuality would be discussed.

Sarah Barbara Watstein is a Professor and an Associate University Librarian for public services, VCU Libraries, Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a contributing editor.

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