Chapter Six

Women of Judaism

© Copyright 1991, 2017 by Timothy Conway, PhD

In Judaism, based on the religion of the illustrious prophets Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and others, YHVH (Yahweh or Jahve) or G-d (“God,” Jews prefer that the vowels be dropped to honor the unfathomable mystery of the Divine) is beyond gender. Yet the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature—the collection of Jewish law and tradition, compiled c.400-500 CE—often often give the impression of YHVH or G-d as being a very masculine, harsh, “jealous” deity.  This not-so-loveable face of the Divine can perhaps be ascribed to psychological projections by the patriarchal, warring nomadic tribes of Israel and Judah who had originally come into the Mediterranean regions of the Near East from the south and east. They were intent on overcoming the ancient matrilineal, Goddess-worshipping societies we now know to have flourished there from Neolithic times.

We must also not rule out a possibility articulated by William Bramley in The Gods of Eden: A New Look at Human History (1990) and discussed in the Introduction to this Women of Spirit book—the admittedly extravagant-sounding “alien visitors” hypothesis, but one that certainly accounts for many anomalies in the Hebrew Bible, such as the distinctly finite, creature-like qualities of YHVH in the oldest strand of the Bible. This hypothesis was actually clearly declared as fact in more ancient scriptures, such as Mesopotamian works, on which the Bible-authors frequently drew. What Bramley and the Mesopotamian works affirm is that a lot of the cases narrated in the Bible of the Deity interacting with humans are actually aliens, “angels” or “Custodians”—highly intelligent beings with the powers of light and flight (they are dazzling luminous and capable of mastering anti-gravitational forces)—trying to guide or control a race of homo sapiens sapiens whom they had a role in genetically designing. And some of these aliens were not always nurturing and benevolent in their relations with humans, but meddlesome. 


This isn’t to say that there is not, indeed, one, true, spiritual Divine Being, the I AM THAT AM, and that many Hebrew prophets were not in spiritual communion with this One. Rather, it is to say that powerful aliens/angels may have sometimes intervened or interfered with human affairs and called themselves “God,” usurping the authentic Divine Being. Many Biblical passages (such as found in the Torah and especially the Book of Ezekiel), and passages in certain other ancient scriptures, lend substantial weight to this hypothesis. And well-documented revelations about UFOs and alien visitors in our own day indicate them to be quite real—indeed, as considerable evidence suggests (briefly discussed in the Introduction), “they are here,” these “Custodians” or “interdimensional visitors” have been interacting with certain humans or groups of humans on an intermittent basis for millennia. [1]  


Aside from all that, anyone with a feminist-theological perspective is saddened to hear Joseph Campbell point out how, whereas in most early patriarchal cultures (Egyptian, Greek, etc.), the new, “upstart” male god marries the more ancient Goddess figure, in the case of the religion of the ancient Hebrews, after it outgrew its early polytheistic version in which the Goddess was honored to some extent (as Astarte or Asherah), the Father-God would come to destroy the Goddess, and when remnants of her cult were encountered, she was called the “abomination”!    


Now despite the oft-asserted masculine nature of the Hebrew Deity, one also discovers within this tradition that G-d is referred to in several ways which reveal a more maternal, gentle aspect, especially when designated by the name YHVH (Yahweh or Jahve).  Before explicating further this matter of the maternal aspect of the G-d of Israel, however, let us pause to look at the Bible from the scholars’ perspective. 


“Few scholars would claim written historic sources earlier than 900 B.C.  From then on, myths, traditions, legends, temple and court records, legal and ethical codes and manuals were collected, edited, and rewritten with emendations by the scholars and priests of the temple.  The main ‘strands’ of Biblical sources we find intertwined in the Old Testament are usually designated as J, E, D, and PJ represents the traditions of the southern kingdom, often recognizable by their use of the name YAHWEH or Jehovah; E represents the northern tradition, referring to God as Elohim; D is for the Deuteronomic school; P is for the priestly school of editors (sixth century B.C.).  [“R” is the scholars’ designation for the last stage of this composition/editing process, the Redactor(s) who selected, changed, and fused all the scrolls together sometime after the Babylonian exile circa 400 B.C.E.] 

      “To these basic materials, compilers of the Old Testament eventually added prophetic writings, temple songs, historic tales, and the practical philosophy of the School of Wisdom.  Chronicles (a rewrite to bring Hebrew history up to date), Ezra, and Nehemiah (essentially historic rather than prophetic) were added before 250 B.C.  In other words, Old Testament history was written, edited, and re-edited by many persons and represents many theological schools of thought prevalent during a period between 900 and 250 B.C....

      “We must also remember that during much of the time this history was being produced the Hebrews were under great pressure of migration, invasion, captivity, and almost continuous war or threat of war.  They were also under pressure from religious and political rivalry between the northern and southern kingdoms and religious quarrels with surrounding neighbors.  We can only be amazed and awed that the Hebrew faith was able to emerge from these chaotic beginnings as the great world religion it became.” (Elsie Thomas Culver) [2]


With regard to that anonymous author or set of authors of the oldest strand of Biblical literature, whom scholars refer to as “J,”  Richard Elliott Friedman in his 1987 work, Who Wrote the Bible?, proposed that this “J” was a woman.  Most recently, in The Book of J, a new translation (by David Rosenberg) of the sections of scripture referring to God as Jahve/YHVH, attributed to “J,” literary critic and interpretive co-author Harold Bloom has asserted that “J” was indeed a single person, a sophisticated Israelite “great lady” (gevurah), living 3,000 years ago. It was she who told the original stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, et alia, and, most importantly, has fashioned the bountiful, “exuberantly energetic” YHVH figure. This Deity was anthropomorphized by her, apparently based on her projection of King David’s attributes—King David being, as Bloom points out, the object of great attention and affection by both lady “J” and YHVH.  “J” writes in an off-beat, unconventionally religious manner, and sometimes adopts an aristocratic and rather cool attitude toward Moses, his Yahwist religion, and the Israelite masses. “J,” says Bloom, depicts many of the women of her tales with a “grand hardness.”      


The underlying thesis here is that “YHVH” was a fictional character prior to becoming the object of religious devotion, and that later rabbis reworked J’s material, combining it with other texts, to produce the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah or Pentateuch).  Actually, there is much disagreement among biblical scholars over whether the “J” material was done by one or several authors.  But the possibility that the oldest accounts of Yahweh’s nature and deeds might have been, at least in part, the work of a female author are highly significant for this present book. 


Jack Miles, in an insightful critique of Bloom’s interpretation, admires many of Bloom’s views, but declares that Bloom has shown a “failure of nerve” in not pointing out that     his own evidence suggests that his great lady is Bathsheba. The wife of a Hittite and almost certainly a Hittite or a Canaanite herself, Bathsheba—as a nubile young woman—seduced the much older David even as Tamar, the Adullamite, seduced the older Judah. 


“If Bathsheba is Bloom’s J, we need not wonder that her sympathies tend so powerfully toward Tamar, that earlier Gentile who forced her way into Israel’s destiny and whom Bloom calls ‘of all J’s heroines... the most revelatory of J’s identity... the most memorable character in the book of J.’ No wonder, either, that David’s wife should be so in love with David as to take him as her model for the personality of God.  Or that this foreign woman should look with such studied coolness on Moses and on the fiercer, more moralistic strand of Yahweh-worship that he represented. ...

      “It is entirely possible that this indomitable queen mother survived her son Solomon as well as her husband, taking herself—quite as Bloom suggests—as the model for all those ‘hard’ women of her own patriarchal narratives...

      “And finally, once her hapless grandson Rehoboam has betrayed the Davidic legacy, who better than the queen mother to weave regal indignation into the warp and woof of Israel’s foundation myth?  It all fits.  Why does Bloom, otherwise so acute, fail to see it?” [3]


Critic Edward Hirsch, for his part, has disagreed with both Bloom and Miles, declaring that the same arguments used to build the case for a female author of the J material could also be used to infer “that the creators of ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Madame Bovary’ were women.” [4]


Keeping all this in mind about the multiple authorship of the Hebrew Bible, its dependency on older Mesopotamian sources in many of its myths (such as the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Flood), and the possibility that a female may have authored its oldest strand, let us return to the matter of the “motherly” side of Yahweh, and learn from Denise Carmody:


“The phrase ‘Yahweh merciful and gracious’ runs throughout the entire Hebrew Bible like a divine signature.  The root of the adjective merciful (rahum) signifies the womb.  Concretely, therefore, it connotes being moved in one’s womb.  The prophetic literature uses this figure abundantly. ... [For instance, a translation of Jeremiah 31:20:] ‘My womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion upon him.’  The speaker is Yahweh, moved with the most intense maternal love.  [See also Hosea 1:6 and II Isaiah 49]. ...

      “Overall, this maternal imagery ensures that the God of the Hebrew Bible is both masculine and feminine. In other words, when it came to expressing its sense of the divine, even the highly patriarchal culture of biblical Israel was moved, at least in its poets, to sense a tenderness, an association with the origins of life, that brought divine motherhood to mind. However much it held back from the [Neolithic] fertility religions, whose female divinities manifested various aspects of ‘Mother Earth,’ Israelite religion followed through on the notion [Genesis 1:26-28] that humanity, male and female, was created in God’s image. The result was that its anthropomorphism made God both male and female. To picture God in fully human terms, it had to include the feminine. The God ‘merciful and gracious’ was as much a mother as a father. [5]


As further evidence of feminine, motherly aspects inherent within the nature of the Hebrew God, feminist scholars draw our attention to Psalm 22:9, Psalm 71:6, Job 3:2, and Isaiah 66:9 3-4 wherein God is pictured as a midwife; Isaiah 46:3-4 has God speaking as midwife and life-long nursemaid; Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, and 66:13 compare the Lord to a woman in labour, a woman attending to her suckling child, and a woman comforting her son.  One of “His” most feminine names is “El Shaddai.”  Though used only 48 times in the Bible, and usually translated as “the Almighty” (literally, “God of the Mountain”), the most probable ancient meaning of El Shaddai is “God, the Breasted One.”  Brother Daniel Stramara, a Christian Benedictine monk who makes this point, goes on to discuss how the name El Shaddai, especially as it occurs in Genesis and Isaiah, represents the nurturing, sustaining, warm and earthy aspect of God.  Elsewhere, El Shaddai depicts her own Spirit as a mothering bird caring for her young.  Stramara further observes:

“El Shaddai seems to be an Old Testament name for the one ... [Christians] now call the Holy Spirit. El Shaddai, the Spirit of God, is a feminine expression of the divine, and this endearing term of the Spirit, ‘God, the Breasted One,’ has been lost and needs to be recovered. ... Thus we see that in the Bible ... there is warrant to perceive God as feminine, intuitive, wise, relational, nurturing, the creatrix of sexuality and fecundity.  Of course, the Spirit has ‘masculine’ qualities as well:  Creator, Advocate, Power of God, etc.  All of these are but finite human perceptions of the Infinite Transcendent... God.  Femininity is not to be pitted against masculinity.  These positive qualities are part of the divine likeness, and God cannot be divided.  [In any case,] under the title of El Shaddai, we can more readily reappropriate the feminine side of God. Such a view of the Spirit can greatly influence our prayer life and intimacy with God.” [6]



The Hebrew word ruach, meaning both “spirit” and “wind,” is feminine in gender; it is Yahweh’s ruach which swept over the waters at the time of creation—and which appears to have swept down upon the apostles of rabbi Jesus at Pentecost after his passing (though in the New Testament the Greek word for spirit is pneuma, a term neuter in gender).


The divine feminine in Judaism is also to be found in the ancient Hebrew scriptural book, Proverbs, as “Chōchmah,” the divine wisdom and loving consort and coarchitect of creation with Yahveh.  Chōchmah reminds us of how wisdom is viewed as a feminine principle cross-culturally, most notably as Prajñā-Pāramitā in Mahāyāna Buddhism and as Sophia in gnostic Christianity.


Rabbi Léah Novick (one of a small number of female rabbis, or teachers, to emerge in recent years in the progressive denominations of Judaism) speaks of yet another feminine aspect of G-d known through the ages as “Shechinah” (or Shekhinah)—the luminous presence of the transcendental G-d immanent in the world. [7]  Shechinah is G-d’s glory, the animating life-force, the One who is brought down in extra measure upon the good, such as when She infuses Moses at the burning bush.  In these various aspects—as feminine aspect of G-d (not separate from G-d), as life-force, as special divine Grace—Shechinah is very similar (and note the linguistic similarity to) the Hindu Goddess/Divine Power known as “Śakti.”


Shechinah is considered to be especially present with the sick and dying, and “is intimately connected with expressions of human love, particularly romantic and marital bliss.” [8]  In later Jewish mystical thought, Shechinah, like the exiled Jewish people of different times and places, is seen as exiled from G-d, due to wickedness in the world, from which She flees; therefore, prayers are regularly said to reunite Her and the Jewish people to Her Lord.  In some of the medieval and later Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalists (e.g., the Safed school) and the Hasidim of eastern Europe, Shechinah is especially embodied in or rests upon wives and mothers.     


Though the Hebrew scriptures and later exegetical and mystical literature speak thus of G-d in feminine language, unfortunately they do not indicate much cherishing of actual women, holy or otherwise, notwithstanding that “grand hardness” of their characters, to which Bloom has drawn attention in “J’s” writings.  In fact, the oldest creation story, Genesis 2:4b-25, written circa 950 BCE by J herself, shows an unequal bias favoring the male and demeaning the female.  In this “Yahwist” account of human origins, Eve, the primordial woman, is derived from Adam’s rib and is therefore usually viewed as being of secondary importance to Adam.  By contrast with this tale, men and women are seen as virtual equals in the “Priestly” story of creation, where G-d creates male and female “in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27, written circa 450 BCE—note the plural first pronoun and the possibility/likelihood of genetic engineering by aliens, as Bramley, et al., would maintain). 


The older Yahwist version by J could very likely have been perpetuated as “ammunition” to suppress the pockets of Goddess-worship which survived from Neolithic times in the Near East. Carmody has found a way to interpret this Yahwist creation story in a positive light, like the Priestly story, [9] but the fact remains that the Yahwist creation story and subsequent passages telling of Eve’s leading Adam into sin were often used by the rabbis (and also by Christian Church fathers) to severely demean the status of women.  If J was indeed a woman author, and this Yahwist creation account comes undistorted from her own pen, she has inadvertently provided a rationale by which Jewish and Christian men have subdued women ever since.  We would here note, however, that the pre-flood stories of Genesis chapter 4 by J do give the names of women as well as men without prejudice, and thus show women in a more equal light (in the next chapter of Genesis, written by the “P” authors, only the men, not the women, have names and personalities). 


The bottom line is that, throughout Jewish tradition, Eve and women in general are not viewed in a clearly positive manner.  The female not only becomes regarded as a second-class citizen, a “legal non-person” (often not even deemed worthy of being named in a biblical account, simply referred to as “daughter of...” “wife of...”)—she is viewed with great suspicion for her powers of seduction.  In later Biblical and post-Biblical times most women are actually regarded by Hebrew males as nymphomaniacs.  In the same pattern of patriarchal domination found worldwide, the Jewish woman is regarded as property by the two main males in her life, ruled in her youth by her father and later, when married, by her husband.  Moreover, via that same widespread patriarchal misunderstanding of biology, she is regarded as “unclean” for one-quarter of each month when menstruating. Because of this mistaken notion of impurity, women are never permitted to be ordained as rabbis.  In the Talmudic literature of the late 1st century CE, the female is openly despised by the Pharisees for being “in all things inferior to the man,” “evil,” “greedy, lazy, inquisitive, vain, and frivolous.” [10] 


The earliest women of the Hebrew Bible—while it is true that they possess the “normal rights of persons,” unlike their female progeny in later times—nevertheless tend to have importance only insofar as they figure in the lives of men.  A number of them (e.g., Sarah [wife of Abraham], Rachel, Rebekah, and Hannah) are notable for being recipients of God’s grace in the form of bearing sons in their old age, and thus carrying on the male line.


These and other women such as Tamar, the daughters of Jelophehad, Jael, Rahab, Esther (probably only a fictional character), Abigail, Rizpah, et al., are often conspicuous only for their bold or clever (and/or sometimes unethical) actions within the convoluted plot-intrigues of patriarchal succession, polygamy, assassinations, battles, and other male shenanigans.  One wishes that fuller profiles were available on these women and other, perhaps much holier, women, in terms of their own spirituality, not just their “grand hardness.”  Carol Ochs has observed that these “model” heroines depicted in the Hebrew Bible

“…either function in traditionally masculine modes ... or fulfill a male ideal of femininity.... The role models ... conform to a male concept of heroism.... [Ochs redefines and expands the definition of heroism to mean:] (a) becoming who we are meant to be by being open to those forces that transform us; (b) being able to endure and find nourishment even in the most arid times; or (c) being able to live and to pass on the gifts of life, trust, openness, and the capacity to love.... It is time to look more closely at biblical women who appear not to have succeeded by men’s standards, but who nevertheless are able to remain true to themselves in the face of a harsh, unsupportive environment.  Two such women are Hagar and Leah.” [11]


Whereas Leah’s story is a rather plain one, dealing with her inner triumph in attitude over the unjust suffering repeatedly inflicted on her by male intrigue, the tale of Hagar (Genesis 16, 21:14) is quite interesting, revealing her to be, in addition to Jacob (wrestling with “the angel,” Gen. 32:24) and Moses (in his vision on Mt. Sinai), the only other person in the Hebrew Bible mentioned as one who “saw God and lived.” 

“After many years of barrenness, Sarah gives Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abraham so that ‘I shall have a son through her.’ When Hagar conceives, Sarah becomes lowered in her maidservant’s esteem, and so Sarah treats her harshly, causing Hagar to run away.  An angel of the Lord finds her by a spring of water in the wilderness and tells her to go back to her mistress and submit to her harsh treatment. And the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count.... Behold you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael (“God heeds”), for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering....’  And she called the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’ (“God of my vision”), by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’ (or “I have lived after seeing God”). The parallel with Jacob’s story is striking, the more so because the Patriarch’s encounter with God is so central to the development of the line of the covenant and Hagar’s is so completely outside it.  Both Jacob and Hagar are charged by God with establishing great nations, Jacob through the twelve tribes founded by his sons and grandsons, and Hagar through her son Ishmael.  Jacob’s story is carried forward in the Torah; Hagar’s is abruptly ended.  Hagar’s experience of going off into the wilderness is not unique. ... [But] Hagar ... flees a community from which she has been entirely excluded.  Since she is a woman, the community of ancestry and history is closed to her.  Because she is a servant, the community of wives and other women is closed. ... Hagar enters the wilderness without any sense of community and—out of this void—sees God.  It is hard at first to reconcile the vision of God... with a return to servitude and ultimate expulsion. ... Enlightenment... does not change the facts of her life, but it profoundly changes her relationship to the facts.  Rather than seeing herself as an outsider, as Sarah’s slave, she regards herself as a free, enlightened being. ... Hagar had previously understood her life in terms of the categories that Sarah, Abraham, and the other servants had assigned to it.  To see herself suddenly not as their servant but as uniquely herself, one who is precious in God’s sight, would allow her to return to her mistress untouched by Sarah’s hostility.  Hagar finds enlightenment through the very circumstances of her slavery and isolation ... She goes back to the household not to do something different but to be someone different.” [12]


Later, of course, Sarah miraculously has a son, Isaac, and Abraham sends Hagar and her child Ishmael away with some bread and water; Hagar wanders around the desert, and finally runs out of the provisions.  An angel of God spoke to her from the heavens with reassuring words, and “opened her eyes” to a well of water, which allows her to save her child and herself from perishing. 


“Both Hagar and Abraham are faced with the imminent death of their sons, after they had been promised that their offspring would be greatly increased.  ... Both sons are saved by God at the eleventh hour.  Once again, the patriarch’s encounter with God is crucial to the development of the line of the covenant [between the Hebrews and God]; Hagar, who has a similar encounter, is never mentioned again in the scriptures. The spiritual insight present in Hagar’s story is that of surrender of the self... letting go. ... If we follow Hagar’s role model, we use the experience to discover hidden springs of strength.” (Ochs) [13]



Miriam (flourished c.13th century BCE) is the first among a handful of prophetesses to appear, albeit fleetingly, in the biblical story.  One biblical passage even views her as a leader equal to her brothers, Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4).  But Miriam later falls into disgrace (due either to her own shortcomings or the bias of the narrator or redactor) before fading into utter obscurity.  Rosemary Radford Ruether observes:

“In the Exodus narratives, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam are described as the three who together led the people of Israel out of bondage, yet ... later tradition displaced Miriam from her equal status by blasting her with leprosy for criticizing Moses for marrying a foreign woman.  Aaron also criticizes Moses, but is not so punished.  Clearly, it is Miriam’s authority which the writer of the tradition wished to marginalize, although it is also said that the people of Israel refuse to continue their march through the desert until Miriam is restored.” [14]


We should not pass by the name of Moses without noting how he owed his very life and upbringing to the courage and intelligence of women:  his mother Jochebed refused to obey the Pharaoh’s orders that all Jewish male infants be killed. The compassionate Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, also defied the Pharaoh’s wishes through their cleverness.

“There was Moses’ sister Miriam who, as a child, guarding her brother and using her wits to negotiate with the Egyptian princess for his royal upbringing, seems to have shown some of the sagacity that later made her a prophet in her own right, Moses’ confidante, and an active participant in the religious worship of the Hebrews (Exodus 15:20). There was the Egyptian princess who raised and educated Moses and made him a prince. There were the seven shepherdess daughters of Jethro, to whom Moses was so gallant, and one of whom, Zipporah, he married but later divorced. There was his brother Aaron’s wife Elisheba. There were the Hebrew women who took up the door-to-door offering to finance the Exodus (Exodus 11:2, 12:35).

      “It was a much later generation (700 to 800 years later, as a matter of fact) which attributed to Moses the codes of law dealing with regulations in regard to selling one’s daughter as a slave (Exodus 21:7), ritual uncleanliness (Numbers 19), parental compensation for a virgin seduced (Exodus 22:16, 17) death for a sorceress (Exodus 22:18).  ... Whatever authenticity Moses’ name may have given to the later legislation [which made these interpolations under his name], the legislation does not reflect conditions, or the community’s attitude toward women in Moses’ own time.  This same priestly edited material from the later days alos gives a tremendous build-up to Aaron and his sons as a priestly line... It is impossible to say at what point male domination became an indisputable fact—as it most assuredly did—during and following the Exodus.” (Elsie Thomas Culver) [15]


Around 1200 BCE, the Israelites settled in Canaan (Palestine) under Joshua, unified as a nation and a religion, but this unity did not extend past Joshua’s reign. It quickly yielded to “a period of almost complete anarchy” before the arising of the centralized authority in the form of kings Saul, David, and Solomon, who ruled circa1030 to 932 BCE. Moreover, in transforming from a basically nomadic society of herdsmen into an agricultural society, it was predictable that the people began to adopt elements in the “fertility cults” of their neighbors, such as the Phoenician cults to Ba‘al and his mother-Goddess Ashtart/Asherah (the Ba‘alat, or Lady).  Initially the worship of these fertility deities of Canaan was an integral aspect of Israelite religion.  Prophet Samuel and various Israelite kings abolished Ba‘al-worship for two centuries, but there arose pockets of a resurgence of such “pagan” (“of the land”) devotions throughout this period.  King Solomon himself is held by some historians to have been a secret worshipper of the Goddess, due to influence from the foreign princesses he married; and Solomon evidently had built shrines to the Goddess all over Israel.  The twin pillars at the gate of the stupendous temple he had built at Jerusalem (950 BCE) are said to be traditional Canaanite fertility symbols, representing the masculine and feminine, even the female labia themselves. (Note that the temple was built by the stonemasons of King Hiram of Tyre, Phoenicia, where the Goddess was highly esteemed.)  The Cherubim who guarded the ultra-sacred Ark of the Covenant were in the shape of naked female figures with wings. Moreover, “the available evidence suggests that during the 370-year history of the original temple at Jerusalem it was wholly or partly used for Goddess worship for 200 years of that period.” [16] 


These shrines were later destroyed by King Hilkiah.  Why were the Jewish priests and many of their chosen kings so adamantly opposed to the Goddess religions?  Carmody offers some cogent insights:


“Not only did the Goddess religion challenge Jewish monotheism [“androtheism”], but it also threatened the male dominion that patriarchal Israel assumed was necessary for social order.  If women were allowed cultic prominence, and the cult itself stressed female sexuality, male control of the lines of descent and inheritance, as well as the priesthood, might well slip away.  Therefore, the Israelite prophets fiercely attacked the ‘harlotry’ of Canaanite religion, attempting to destroy the statues of the Baals and Astartes, which represented a fertility religion at variance with the family structure that the [divine] covenant implied.” [17] 


Sociobiologists would here interject that there is a long-standing, almost unconscious fear in males, rooted in their genetic structure, of matriarchal lines of descent, since the latter way of doing things does not enable a male to be sure that the children he is raising are products of his own genes—and why, man (or his genetic nature) argues, should he work so hard to support the propagation of another man’s genes? 


Jezebel of Tyre (flourished mid-9th century BCE), the daughter of the Phoenician king of Sidon, came to Israel in marriage to Ahab, the Israelite King.  She is a woman of the Bible notorious for her “wickedness.” Yet closer examination of her story (in I Kings 16:31ff.) suggests that she was despised mainly for her strong involvement with the Canaanite fertility Goddess Asherah/Ashtart and her child-God Baal, no doubt a remnant of the old Neolithic matriarchal culture.  Jezebel—her name actually means “chaste”—was probably a priestess of the pagan faith, and her negative image in the minds of the puritanical Israelite priests is due to the explicit sexual rites she performed to Asherah.  A Canaanite “bible” might have shown her to be an extraordinary “defender of the faith” against the onslaught of prophet Elijah, the Israelite armies, and the jealous Hebrew male god Yahweh—but such are the biases of historical patriarchal documents that we only have one view of her, a very negative one.  Michael Howard observes:

“Under the influence of Jezebel her husband, King Ahab... built an altar to Baal and a sacred grove to the Goddess.... [“And Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (I Kings 16:33)].  It is said that 850 priests of Baal and Ashtoreth were entertained at a lavish banquet organized by the new queen.  She worshipped Astarte and in the streets of Jerusalem sacred fires were lit, spiced honey cakes baked, libations of wine were poured on the ground and incense was burnt as a sacrificial offering to the fertility goddess.  Jezebel was eventually overthrown by the worshippers of Yahweh because of her erotic excesses and she was killed [—trampled to death by King Jehu, her corpse then left for the dogs to eat].  However Goddess worship survived for many years and when Josiah began his crusade to restore Yahwehism he first had to destroy the shrines and altars to the pagan gods erected by the common people.” [18]


Over a century before Jezebel, Hannah (in I Samuel) was a Hebrew woman of prayer, a gentle soul, and, in her actions, an exemplar of that stereotypical “submissive, obedient woman” who is in many ways quite praiseworthy but is also a target for feminist chiding in that she is not courageous enough to stand up to the male(s) and assert a better way of doing things.  (Other exemplars of this “submissive,” “obedient” and/or “long-suffering” woman would be Jephthah’s daughter (in Judges 11), Ruth of Moab, the widow of Zarephath (in I Kings), and the Shunammite woman (II Kings).


A stronger image of a female spiritual leader in these times was the prophetess Deborah, of the northern kingdom of Israel (where women seem to have been accorded more respect than in the southern kingdom of Judah).  Deborah was the fourth judge/governor of Israel and, in a brief passage concerning her, it is said that she sat under a palm in the hill country, “and the people of Israel came up to her for judgement” (Judges 4:4-6).  Described as “mother in Israel,” she is mainly remembered for encouraging (“goading on” would be a more fitting term) the hesitant king-warrior Barak to do battle (he does, and wins).  Elsie Thomas Culver draws our attention to the likelihood that the Book of Judges, which features women as “either the heroes or at least the people who have the last word in the argument,” might itself have been compiled by a woman writing in the Deuteronomic style. 


Rev. Culver also informs us that the wife of Isaiah of Jerusalem (c.8th century) was a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3), and that the author of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah chapters 40-55 and possibly 40-66), one of the most beautiful sections of the Hebrew Bible, could very well have been written by a woman prophetess (or a very “un-macho,” God-loving male prophet, champion of the lowly and oppressed) writing in the tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem. [19]

In the reign of Josiah, in the year 621 BCE, another prophetess is briefly mentioned (II Kings 22:11-20):  Huldah, a “free-lance” seer living in a suburb of Jerusalem, to whom the king’s priests and counselors went for consultation; through her were spoken the Lord’s powerful words to the Jewish people, “You have forsaken me.” 


“We know nothing of [Huldah] except that she is a prophet. ... She seems to be something of a seer: a woman of wisdom, a guide, one who receives missives directly from the Lord.  She is not counselor as much as oracle, and her words are heard with high respect.  Woman as prophet now appears to be a stationary figure, one accepted by the community and one whose wisdom is sought.” (Janice Nunnally-Cox) [20]


Yet, as Dr. Ruether notes, we must remember that the identity of such women “has been transmitted by a male-defined tradition. Thus Hulda, the prophetess of Josiah’s time, is lauded as one who validated a king’s revolution against Goddess worship in the temple.” [21]


In concluding our coverage of salient women of the Hebrew Bible, we note that there was a band of women prophets under prophetess Noadiah, who, like Jezebel, came to incur the wrath of the mainstream Israelites—in this case the exclusive clique of Israelite exiles from Babylon who had returned to Jerusalem and were attempting to rebuild their temple sometime in the 6th century BCE; when the common people’s sincere offer to help them rebuild was rejected by the clique, some of these folk, evidently led or inspired in no small way by Noadiah and her female band, began to annoy and terrorize the builders, outraged at having been cut off (“We worship the same God, and have been sacrificing to him all along.”)  The prophet Ezekiel is given the message by “God” (who appears in prior passages to consist of a band of UFOnauts) to denounce Noadiah and the others.  (Second Isaiah, on the other hand, championed the cause of such common folk.)


A tale comes to us from the Jewish Apocrypha literature which features Judith, a beautiful, wealthy, and extremely pious young widow who lived on the rooftop of her dwelling in Bethulia, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (6th century BCE?).  Judith adopted the life of extreme mourning for her husband, fasting continuously except for the Sabbath day and holy days.  At a crucial moment when the Jewish people are being besieged, she uses her charms to gain entrance to the tent of enemy general Holofernes and, when he is drunk, she beheads him, carries his head back to the Israelites, and thus inspires them to subdue the enemy.  She never remarried, but lived a long, respected life, most likely continuing her spiritual devotions. (Judith carrying the head of Holofernes would later become a quite popular image in Renaissance art, a rather “masculine” kind of hero, in Ochs’ view.)


Aside from such tales of the few prophetesses and heroines, Carmody notes that “the prime raison d’être of the Jewish woman throughout history has been motherhood.” [22]  (And woe to the woman who does not bear any children!—again, we sense here a man’s insecurity over not having his genes perpetuated.)  For a Jewish female, except in the rare cases of playing a rather solitary, “out-of-the-mainstream” role as prophetess, there has not been much chance to participate in her Judaism, not to mention take a leading role.  By the time of Jesus, for instance, though we do encounter respected, Spirit-filled women such as the aged, widowed prophetess Anna, who “departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day,” and who prophesied great things concerning the infant Jesus (Luke 2:36-8), the fact remains that Jewish women     

“were not allowed to study the scriptures. ... Women [because of their lower status] were not required to recite daily prayers, as were the men. ... They were not even included in the number necessary for a congregational quorum.  In the synagogues women were assigned special places behind a screen, separate from the men; they were not allowed to read aloud or take any leading function.  ... In later practice women were secluded by veils and confinement to the home, although they did attend synagogue, the great festivals, and other social occasions. Women could not bear legal witness.  Rabbis did not speak to women in public, nor did they greet their own wives, daughters, or mothers.  The function of a married woman was to manage the household and bear and raise children.  Women were not permitted to divorce their husbands, although the opposite was both true and relatively easy.” (J. Nunnally-Cox) [23]


It is sometimes argued that the Jewish religion has always been just as much a religion of the home as of the temple, and that, whereas it has been the male who taught in the temple, the Jewish mother has had a quite useful role as informal “teacher” in the home.  Of course, women needed to learn a certain amount of the Torah (the Pentateuch and the traditional rabbinical teachings concerning these first five books of the Hebrew Bible)—and they would be taught this at home, never in the temple—so that they could master the rules concerning homelife, food preparation, and the socialization and education of their children.  Beyond this, it seems that the only “spiritual teaching” a woman could give her family members was the relatively silent example of hard-working, selfless service—admittedly, an often much more powerful kind of teaching than verbose, cerebral, philosophical utterances!  In any case, the overall lack of appreciation for Jewish women as holy figures and/or teachers is a striking, indeed shocking, feature these last three millennia of mainstream Jewish history.

On the more marginal fringe of ancient Jewish society, women do seem to have been given the opportunity to practice a deep spirituality within several mystical communities—though none of these women have been singled out for us by historians.  Whereas it is usually said that the Jewish ascetic, monastic, mystical group in Palestine known as the Essenes, which existed for some 400 years (ceasing sometime around the latter half of the second century CE), did not admit women into their circles, Hubert van Zeller reports on some archeological research which uncovered female skeletons buried in the community cemetery, in a place apart, suggesting

“…the existence of a sisterhood, run along lines similar to those which have been considered in connection with the men of the Qumran.  Moreover if analogy has any value in argument, that is to say, if the  history of Christian monasticism is anything to go by, it would be hard  to think of a religious community of men continuing for four centuries or so without some sort of parallel institution springing up for women.  There is no proof, but the deductions speak well for themselves.” (Hubert van Zeller) [24]


The Essenes, who numbered some 4,000 when Pliny wrote of them in 79 CE, constitute the first monastics of the western world, a prototype for the much more populous “Desert Christian” movement of monastics which flourished in Egypt and Palestine from the 4th century CE onward.  The Essenes’ communities were evidently a bit more democratic than the later Christian desert-dwellers; yet their lifestyle involved many of the same elements:

“…community of goods, celibacy, study of the law, manual labor, prayers, and meals in common.  There was a novitiate of three years, half the time to be spent outside the community but under supervision, and the other half to be spent among the religious.  They attached great importance to ritual purity and washing frequently, and gave unconditional obedience to a superior.  They ate no meat, drank no wine, wore no wool, and—in spite of their practice of bathing at dawn... —used hot water only for cooking purposes.... Their preoccupation with baths was an expression of ... [the] fear of the evil thing which was the body. Marriage was held in abomination by the Essenes, although they reluctantly allowed it as a necessity for the continuance of their existence.  Only those who had not been admitted to the secrets of the observants might embark on marriage.” [25]


In light of this latter quote, it may be that the female skeletons found at the Essene community of Qumran may have only been the marriage partners of male Essenes who were not initiates into the “secrets of the observants.”


Philo Judaeus (c.20 BCE to 50 CE), a Jewish Platonist flourishing in Alexandria, one of the historians who wrote about the Essenes, also speaks in his De Therapeutis of the Therapeutae (“Devotees”), who faded out of existence around first century BCE.  Less well known than the Essenes, undoubtedly because they were centered in Egypt and not Palestine, the Therapeutae were semi-monastic, contemplative Jewish communities around Alexandria and “in many places in the inhabited [Jewish] world,” comprised of celibate men and women, living ascetic, solitary lifestyles, spending the weekdays in their cells in prayer and study, and on the Sabbath meeting together to hear a sermon and hold a spiritual discussion—though men and women were separated by a partition; on the Shavu’ot holiday (every fiftieth day) they enjoyed “communal prayer, Bible discourse, a frugal repast, and choral song and dance.” [26]  Again, we would mention that these men and women of the Therapeutae can be regarded as another important prototype for the Desert Christians of the 4th century onward and the Sūfīs of the 8th century onward who would go into the desert in search of the same kind of contemplative, ascetic lifestyle which yields a powerful communion with God.


During the period of Roman occupation of Judea (from 63 BCE onward), only one woman stands out: Imma Shalom, “Mother of Peace,” sister of Rabban Gamaliel II and wife of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.  She is one of the few women mentioned by name in rabbinical literature (and note that her name seems to be more of a title); therefore she must have been noted for her intellect, wisdom, and/or holiness.  Rabbi Eliezer sometimes let himself be guided by her opinions in ritual questions, and an anecdote tells that, after he was put “under the ban” by the Jewish rabbis (including her brother), she did not want him to say the 6th Psalm, since it ends with a curse upon one’s enemies; but one day he forgot this and said the psalm, whereupon her brother died.  One also hears briefly of Michal, the daughter of Kushi, who somewhere around this time wore the phylacteries, or tefillin, the leather cubicles containing scriptural texts, the sign of the covenant between God and Israel, normally reserved strictly for use by male rabbis, indicating her to have been either a learned, revered person or a radical nonconformist. [27]    


Though the pious Rabbi Simeon ben Azai of the Mishnah period (2nd-3rd century) was of the opinion that every father should teach the Torah—the “Law,” or God’s “teaching” given unto Moses—to his daughter, most other rabbis disagreed with him.  The fact is that there is a paucity of recognized Jewish holy women since ancient times.  Denise Carmody reports several cases of Jewish women being honored, though not without a dark side to the picture:          


“In terms of the self-image it offered women, the Talmud [which includes the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the latter finished around the 6th century] ran a full gamut.  Instances of hyperbolic praise included the story that when the people asked Rabbi Abba Hilkia to pray for rain, the first cloud to appear came from the direction where his wife was praying. (Ta’Anit 23a, b).  When Mar Ukba and his wife were in physical danger, she confided in him that they would come to no harm because of her many kindnesses to the poor (Ket. 67b) [note, however, that these women go unnamed].  Women therefore could be saintly, despite the talmudic instinct that saintliness demanded learning.  They could also be clever. ... Beruriah [Brurya], wife of Rabbi Meir [2nd century], chastized him for praying that all sinners should perish, since Psalm 104 asks for the disappearance of all sin, not all sinners.  This same Beruriah stands out as a learned woman, ‘the exception that proves the rule’ that women did not study.  [Scholar Elie Weisel says Brurya was superior to most of the rabbinic scholars of her day—a beautiful, pious,independent, moderate woman, though sometimes arrogant and insolent; she also endured many tragedies in her life:  her father, Rabbi Hananiah benTeradyon, was burned at the stake; her mother was decapitated; her sister was sentenced to serve as a prostitute for the Romans; and her brother was murdered under strange circumstances.]  However, when Beruriah scoffed at the rabbinical saying ‘Women are lightminded’ (Kid. 80b), she provoked her husband to test her.  According to later, probably vilifying tradition, she yielded to the student whom her husband encouraged to seduce her, and then committed suicide from shame.  [Biographer Greta Fink has claimed this story to be most likely a fabrication.]  In the same way, other prominent women came in for misogynistic denigration....

      “To say the least, then, the talmudic attitude toward women was ambivalent. The misogynism of the priestly tradition... continued to exert a strong influence on the rabbis. ... Talmudic attitudes towards women formed most of Jewish culture until the nineteenth century, when modern ideas of enlightenment and emancipation started to affect traditional European Jewry. Women were usually cherished in private and treated with respect in public, but Maimonides summarized the continuing legal view when he lumped women with the ignorant. The Jewish medieval mystical movement called the ‘Kabbalah’ stressed a female aspect in divinity (the Shekhinah) ... However, the Kabbalists also equated the feminine with the passive, left side of reality, which was the side most susceptible to demonic influence.” [28]


Looking carefully for the names of any other notable Jewish women of medieval times, we hear the perhaps only apocryphal tale of the nameless daughter of Rabbi Samuel ben Ali ha-Levi of Baghda, living almost a millennium later (12th century), who taught the Bible to men, albeit through a covered window so that no man could look upon her; we also come across the name, though nothing in the way of details, of one Bella, a “famous woman Talmudist,” who lived from 1564-1622.  Undoubtedly the fact that she was a woman was cause for historians to quickly gloss over her case. 

The Nistarim were a secret society of Kabbalists founded in 1621 or 1623 by that long-lived wonderworker, Rabbi Eliahu Baal Shem of Chelm (1537-1653) (the Kabbalists/Cabalists, dating from about the 13th century, were interested in a mystical communion with God through intense, concentrative prayer, and meditation on the divine qualities or sefirot). Significantly, the Nistarim felt moved to empower Jewish women to a certain extent.  Says the esteemed contemporary scholar and teacher of Jewish mysticism, Aryeh Kaplan:

“An important activity of the Society of Nistarim was to raise the status and educational level of women.  During this period, most Jewish women were not even taught how to read.  On the rare occasions that women came to the synagogue, the Zagaka, an older woman who knew the service by heart, would lead them in worship.  Members of the Society set up the first rudimentary educational system for girls, a system that would eventually encompass most of Europe.  The wives and daughters of the Nistarim were encouraged to study, and many became distinguished scholars and mystics in their own right.” [29]


Regarding Kaplan’s last sentence, it is unfortunate that no names of these “distinguished [female] scholars and mystics” have come down to us. By and large, however, neither Kabbalism nor Hasidism (a powerfully mystical, 18th century Jewish movement of Eastern Europe which superseded Kabbalism’s demise in popularity) gave women the chance to study the Torah, the sacred Jewish scriptures.  Note here that the influential second century Rabbi, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, had declared, “The words of the Torah should be burnt rather than taught to women.”  Maimonides (d. 1204) an illustrious Torah and Talmud scholar, was more tolerant, saying that women could learn oral Torah, i.e., the teaching and interpretations of the rabbis given in the Mishnah and in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, but women were still considered ineligible to study the written Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch).  Vanessa Ochs informs us that the first yeshiva, or academy for learning Torah, was set up by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai in Yavneh, about 70 CE; all the yeshivot since then up until recent times have been for males only—with one exception:  a women’s yeshiva that flourished in Rome sometime in the 15th century.  Ochs further mentions that a “women’s Torah,” the “clear, inspirational, moving” Tzena Urena, appeared in the 16th century, a vernacular (Yiddish) interpretation of biblical stories, including bits of textual exegesis and instruction in upright living. [30]


Despite the fact that Jewish women were not allowed to study the original Torah (written in Hebrew and Aramaic), and thus were always at least one step removed from the formal power of their tradition, in the spirit-filled Hasidic movement of Eastern Europe, two women emerged, loved for their considerable holiness.  Carmody tells us about one of these women, Oudil, daughter of the founder of Hasidism—the amazingly charismatic figure known as the “Baal Shem Tov” (Master of the Holy Name), Rabbi Eliezer of Mesbizh, Poland (1700-60):

“As Beruriah stood out among the women of the Talmud, so Oudil stood out for the Hasidim.  She was one of two children of the Baal Shem Tov...  But where her brother was shy ... and unable to succeed the Baal Shem Tov as the head of a rapidly expanding movement, Oudil was an extrovert. ‘No woman is as romanticized, as admired in Hasidism, as she was. She brought to the movement an added dimension of youth and charm’ [E. Wiesel, 1978].  Thus Hasidism came to honor her as though she were a rabbi herself. Indeed, she was always at her father’s side, full of life, ideas and enthusiasm.  The Hasidim [“the devout”]... said that the Shekinah rested on her face.” [31]


Another important woman zaddik, or Hasidic saint, was the Ludmirer Moyd (“the Virgin of Ludomir”), Hannah Rachel Berbermacher (Chane Werbermacher). Born at Ludomir, in the province of Volhynia, Russia, circa 1815, she was fortunate to obtain extensive knowledge of Haggadah (the literature pertaining to the ancient exodus of the Jewish people) and Midrash (the body of homiletic exegeses of the Scriptures), and spent much of her time in ecstatic meditation, which soon brought her recognition from the locals as an authentic zaddik.  The death of her mother and the prevention of her marriage to a man she loved led to her retiring from society into solitude; sometime during her isolation she underwent a profound deepening and increasing of her spiritual energy, after which she began to conduct herself like a man, observing all the religious duties observed by Jewish men, for instance, putting on the Tefillin (leather cubicles with scriptural texts) and praying in a Tallith (prayer shawl).  With tales of her miracles spread by the hasidim devoted to her, multitudes came to see her, crowding into the house of prayer she had constructed, listening to her edifying preaching from an adjoining room.  Prominent zaddikim finally persuaded her to marry, and she in fact married twice, divorcing each one. She eventually re-located to Palestine, where she lived until her death in 1905. [32] 


No other women stand out within the history of this three-century-old Hasidic movement; but as we shall see later in this chapter, women are being given more chance to participate in some of the neo-Hasidic movements in America in the latter 20th century and hopefully some of these women will come to the fore for their holiness.


Two Jewish women of distinction are to be found a few centuries earlier, whom we must not neglect to mention.  Doña Gracia de Luna Nasi Mendes was a great philanthropist, born around 1510 in Portugal of Marrano parents (the “Marranos”—a cruel gentile epithet meaning “little pigs”—were Jews who were forced by the Inquisition and antisemitic attitudes in Spain and Portugal to live outwardly as Christians while trying to observe their Jewish customs in private).  Widowed at age 26, Doña Gracia successfully managed her late husband’s lucrative banking business, though pressure from the Inquisition and greedy kings eventually forced her to re-locate her family and a portion of her wealth to Antwerp, then Venice, then Ferrara, finally coming to safe port under the Turkish sultan at Constantinople.  All the while she risked danger by working hard and lavishly giving of her wealth on behalf of Jewish (“Marrano”) refugees.  She saved hundreds of Jews from persecution and death, and, at Ferrara and Turkey, built synagogues and schools, supported scholars and Talmud teachers, and so forth.  Noted rabbis and poets waxed eloquent over her virtue, wisdom, and kindness.  She even forgave her younger sister, who, in foolishly hoping to obtain something of her older sibling’s estate, revealed Doña Gracia’s plans to escape and denounced her as a practicing Jewess (the plan backfired, both women were denounced as Jewesses, and a substantial amount of the wealth was confiscated).  The last years of Doña Gracia’s life, up until her death in 1569, were spent in helping to resettle Palestine; she established a veritable “garden of Eden” at Tiberias, complete with an important Talmudic academy.  (Unfortunately, subsequent Bedouin attacks caused the settlement to diminish, though it would later rise again under Rabbi Hayim Abulafia.) [33]


Glückel of Hameln, Germany (1646-1724) emerges as another prominent Jewish woman of those times, noted for her seven volumes of memoirs, begun in 1690, which speak on a wide range of topics, including tales of drama, mundane, family affairs concerning her 12 children and two husbands, her business (she ran her first husband’s stocking factory business after his death in 1689), and—notable for our purposes—a number of spiritual counsels, which reveal a pious heart and fairly lofty stage of spiritual realization.


Fanny von Arnstein (1757-1818) and the American Jewess, Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) are two of the earliest among a dozen or so great Jewish women philanthropists of the 19th-20th centuries.  Ms. Gratz is not only “the first woman in American Jewish history worthy of note” (chiefly for founding the first Jewish Sunday schools in this country—an enterprise, unfortunately, which was not significantly developed by the rabbis), she also renounced the pleasures of married life (graciously turning down her many Christian suitors) for the sake of maintaining her religion, at a time when many wealthy Jews were converting to Christianity so as to maintain or increase their “prestige.” [34]  Other noted Jewish women philanthropists and/or social welfare workers include Cecille Furtado-Heine, Bertha Dworsky, Bertha Rayner Frank, Stella Heinsheimer Freiberg, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, Madelein Borg, Sidonie Gruenberg, and Lillian Wald. Many of these women had much to do, given that, between 1881 and 1923, some “three million of the approximately twelve million Jewish population had crossed the Atlantic to America.” Jewish women represented a percentage higher than found in any other immigrant group—and the Jews were enduring a terrible time.  Not only did they suffer from poverty, linguistic difficulties, and overcrowding (in several square blocks of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, there were cramped “hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over Europe”), but also they suffered the travails of prejudicial discrimination and having to adjust from the old ways to the new.  Many Jewish women were empowered by the Americanization process to become active in radical politics and in the labor movement, especially in the garment industry, where 20% to 25% of workers were young Jewish girls. 


Perhaps the most illustrious and inspiring of Jewish women in modern times is an American Jewess, Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), the sole female exemplar along with 11 males in a recent book on Jewish sages and saints of the 20th century. [35]  Henrietta was born in Baltimore, daughter of the famous liberal and scholar, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, whose home was associated with the movement to liberate American blacks from slavery, later serving as a hospice for immigrant Jews.  Rabbi Szold, having no sons, gave Henrietta religious instruction.  As a young woman, she taught in an upper class school by day and conducted one of the first night schools for immigrants in this country.  She translated important Jewish works for the Jewish Publication Society, wrote articles for the Jewish Encyclopedia, and co-edited the American Jewish Year Book; she also was notable for being the first woman to study Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (the main educational institute for Conservative Judaism, a progressive movement which separated from Orthodox Judaism).  Visiting Palestine in 1909, Henrietta became a staunch Zionist and was inspired to be the principal founder and designer of the Hadassah mission which rendered so many welfare services and improvements in health conditions to her fellow Jews living in the Holy Land (Hadassah is now one of the largest Jewish women’s organizations).  From 1913 Henrietta began her tours of the U.S. on behalf of Hadassah, and from 1919 to 1939 she travelled frequently back and forth between Palestine, Europe and the U.S.  Henrietta also was the organizer and administrator of Youth Aliyah, an organization which rescued thousands of orphan children from Nazi terrors.  In the words of a Jewish rabbi who has outlined her life-story, “Henrietta  ... fulfils through her life-work the Jewish conception of sainthood.  She loved God and her fellow creatures more than herself...  She gave sixty years of her life selflessly and unstintingly to saving men, women, and children.  She fought prejudice, ignorance, inhumanity, disease and persecution... and won.” [36]


Rebekah Bettelheim Kohut (1864-1951) was a prominent American social welfare leader, educator, and a patron of Judaic scholarship.  Among other things, Rebekah served from 1894-8 as President of the National Council of Jewish Women (the volunteer women’s organization of the liberal Reform Jewish movement—she was one of its main developers), and was made president of the World Congress of Jewish Women in 1923. 


Commenting on Jewish women’s organizations which developed in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ann Braude observes:

“Throughout the boroughs of New York and the suburbs of American cities, women organized a network of organizations to meet every need of the Jewish communities.  ... One cannot help but be impressed by the vast array of associations that came into existence during a few short decades. ...

      “Participation in Zionist and social service organizations provided Jewish women with a way to maintain contact with each other. In America, a set of voluntary associations replaced the kehillah, which had governed Jewish communities according to Jewish law in Europe.  Next to the synogogue, women’s service organizations became among the most important factors in knitting together the fabric of the Jewish community. ... Zionism acted as a counterforce to the strong pulls toward assimilation experienced by Jewish women in America.

      “Women have been at the forefront of the modern [early and mid-20th century] movement to secure a national homeland for the Jewish people. ... Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, was founded in 1911 by Henrietta Szold to provide health care for the residents of Palestine. It was America’s first national Zionist organization and has remained the largest. ... Hadassah gave women a sense of meaningful service and a feeling of solidarity with women of a distant land....

      “Pioneer Women, the Women’s Labor Zionist Organization of America,... and another Jewish group, the Women’s American ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training), aimed to insure the equality of Jewish women by training them in agricultural and industrial skills, which would prepare them to work side by side with male workers.” [37]


Looking to Europe for notable Jewish women of the modern period, we encounter the case of Sarah Schenirer (1873-1925):  born to a Hasidic merchant in Cracow, Poland, she was a modest, sincere, and very pious woman of great integrity who, in 1918, founded the first of what have come to be many hundreds of Bais Ya’akov/Beth Jacob (“House of Jacob”) schools for Jewish girls.  This was the first institution to give Jewish girls a religious education, as well as something of a general education.  Sarah’s work, which, through her tireless soliciting, became very strong not only in Poland, but also in Israel and America, was acclaimed by Orthodox Jews worldwide.


Lilian Helen Montagu (1874-?), born in London, became, according to the Jewish encyclopedia, the dominant spiritual figure in social work in England, especially Jewish social work.  She helped start the Liberal Synagogue of England (opened in 1911) and, in 1902, the Jewish Religious Union—an even more radical offshoot of Reform Judaism.  This organization authorized her to be a lay preacher, the first woman to perform this function (in 1942 she was even made president of the JRU of England).  Lilian, who authored several works and was awarded an honorary D.H.L. degree by Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College in 1929, spent much of her time advocating liberal Judaism throughout the U.K., the U.S., and elsewhere, and helped call together the first international Conference of Liberal Judaism.


Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) was providentially able to flee to Sweden with her mother after losing all her other relatives and many of her friends to the Nazi death camps; here she wrote volumes of poetry and inspired drama, imbued with rich—often highly enigmatic—Jewish mystical themes and, in addition to the sorrow over the plight of her people, a spirit of forgiveness and magnanimity.  Nelly went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. This much-acclaimed poetess is reputed to be the greatest writer of verse in the German language (it seems that, had she been writing in English or Hebrew, hers would be a household name among Jewry throughout the world).


Fayvelle Mermey (1916-77) became the first woman to serve as a president of a synagogue (in Larchmont, N.Y.), doing so for two different terms—1960-2 and 1972-4.  Working as a journalist, Fayvelle also founded the Women’s Interfaith Seminar to promote an ecumenical spiritual awareness. [38]     


Tehilla Lichtenstein (d. 1973) may also be mentioned as someone who, for 35 years, preached a Jewish version of Christian Science and New Thought with the Society of Jewish Science.  This was organized by her husband, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, back in 1922, based on the ideas of Mary Baker Eddy (see chapter 8) and Alfred Geiger Moses, a Reformed rabbi from Alabama who published Jewish Science, emphasizing spiritual healing through God-centered affirmations, right diet, and even-mindedness.  After Rabbi Lichtenstein’s death in 1938, Tehilla occupied his pulpit for the next three and a half decades, preaching to the main congregation in New York City, and groups elsewhere (which now can be found as far away as Albuquerque and Los Angeles). [39]


Among the strictly traditional Orthodox Jewish women, several remarkable figures have emerged in the latter part of the 20th century.  Nehama Leibowitz (1905-97), born in Riga, Latvia, came to Palestine in 1930, where she has become hugely famous as “the Bible teacher, par excellence” and “the acknowledged role-model for women in Torah learning.”  According to the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli, Nehama is Israel’s most outstanding living “rabbi,” though, of course, she has never been ordained as such.  Living in Jerusalem and still actively teaching now in her 80s, Nehama’s biblical interpretation is considered authoritative, and she has been invited to teach at many male schools, and without a screen in front of her—something over which a few traditional males have objected in vain.  For years Nehama had a weekly radio lesson broadcast to millions of people.  Winner of the Israel Prize for Education in 1957, her papers have been edited into the 6-volume Studies in the Weekly Sidra (from 1953-71 her mimeographed self-instruction sheets on Torah were distributed around the world to male and female students).  A deeply humble woman, noted for her great loving-kindness (and even reported to appear in many people’s dreams at night as a teacher), she did not want anyone writing about her and drawing too much attention to her person.  Judith Hauptman is also notable as a specialist in the Halacha (Halakhah), the body of Orthodox Jewish law supplementing the scriptural and forming the legal part of the Talmud.  Dr. Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in N.Y., is “the first woman teaching Talmud since Beruria, and certainly the first with a Ph.D. in Talmud studies.” 


Vanessa Ochs, who has highlighted Nehama’s and Dr. Hauptman’s roles among Jewish women, also writes of other contemporary women in the Orthodox Jewish world whom she discovered during a year-long odyssey in Israel in the late 1980s, women who are learning and teaching Torah; Ochs profiles Batya Gallant, who teaches Jewish thought at Michlelet Bruria in the Kiryat Moshe section of Jerusalem, an English-medium school founded by the famous Rabbi Brovender (from New York’s Yeshiva University); at this institution, which is the first place to allow women to study Talmud, some of the most learned women Torah are teaching.  Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, who teaches powerful Torah classes here and at Jerusalem College for Adults, and at various homes in Jerusalem, is a married woman in her 40s, with a family, originally from Scotland, descended on her father’s side (Rabbi Zeev Gottlieb) from Polish Hasidim, and on her mother’s side from a number of rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Rumania.  She lives in the Katamon section of Jerusalem.  (Speaking of the Michlelet Bruria, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem is a co-ed school, though classes are segregated down the middle with a low white ribbon. Two-thirds of the students here are women—most men want to go elsewhere for “undistracted” studies, yet men lead the praying, while the women sing along, which is at least a major improvement since Orthodoxy strictly decrees that women aren’t supposed to sing in the presence of men since this might “erotically stimulate” the men.  The overall assessment of Pardes, however, is that of “kind men opening up their doors to women; we were guests on male turf.”)  Deborah Weissman teaches Jewish Education at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, specializing in women’s education.  Malke Bina, who studied for 3 years at Michlelet, was made the educational director of the newly-opened Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem, the first such school for women and run completely by women; here 12 young women scholars are studying Talmud, Torah, and other sacred writings fulltime, along with over 100 part-time students.  Chana Safrai is the director of the Judith Lieberman Institute (founded in 1981), which offers programs in Torah study for Israeli women; Chana is herself an accomplished Talmudist, a strongly feminist woman in her 40s (she organized a conference on Jewish feminist theology) who believes that “women were there” on Mt. Sinai when God handed down the Torah (“teaching”) to Moses.  (Incidentally, Judith Lieberman [n.d.] was wife of the Conservative Judaism Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman and became dean of Hebrew Studies of the first Jewish day school for girls in North America, the Shulamit School for Girls in N.Y.) [40]

Vanessa Ochs discusses other lesser-known women in Jerusalem who are not only studying from the sacred texts, but also have launched study groups and seminars to teach other women.  (She also mentions such women as Penina Peli, widow of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, and a well-known activist among observant feminist women, who is chairperson of the Jerusalem International Conference on Halakhah and the Jewish Woman; and an obviously holy woman named Yehudis.)  Nevertheless, the overall situation remains frustrating—women’s opportunities to study and teach the Torah and Talmud in the original languages and in depth are still woefully meager in the Orthodox world.  Today, “an Orthodox woman who wants to study Talmud at the very highest level within a religious context [that is, not in a university, but in a yeshiva] has no place to go.”  Moreover, even among the women who have studied and are teaching at the university level, Rabbi Brovender, in conversation with Mrs. Ochs, offers this sad commentary, though including a ray of hope for new developments:

“In [Orthodox Jewish] religious circles, women are not taken seriously. To be taken seriously you need a certain kind of knowledge—Talmud—and connectedness to tradition [i.e., to male rabbis]. ... Finding ways to study with great rabbis of their generation is generally impossible [for women, since the latter refuse to teach women in an ongoing way]. ... But because women are not taken seriously, they can do creative things.  [Brovender wants to see women develop a connection between the fine arts and the Torah.] ... Women have an advantage, because they’re not under pressure [like the men] to think like 17th century rabbis. ... Some exceptional women have gone through [Michlelet] Bruria, but they have had a hard time organizing structures to make an impact.” [41]


The only other option for Jewish women dedicated to their faith is to go over into the more progressive movements—Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, or the much smaller Reconstructionist Judaism, though in doing so they would incur a loss of respect from their Orthodox sisters and brothers. Reform and Conservative Judaism have afforded certain women, including some of the earlier-mentioned ladies (Szold, Kohut, Montagu, and Mermey) to come to the fore with their admirable qualities. 


Reform Judaism—which started in the early 19th century in western European centers like Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, London, Vienna, and Prague, and came to flourish from the latter 19th century onward in America (before the mass immigrations brought the more traditional Orthodox law and forms of worship to the new world)—was inspired by the liberal, humanist “Enlightenment” climate, and involved a reduced emphasis or in some cases an elimination of many traditional elements, such as the Hebrew language in its worship services, literal messianism, Zionism, and obedience to the myriad details of Jewish law (in the 20th century, some of these elements would make a return, in mild form, into Reform Judaism in America).  In its inception, Reform Judaism called for family seating in the synagogue, and removed the mehitsah (divider) between men and women, thus obviating the traditional azrat nashim, the “women’s court” and separate prayer area for women. 


In spite of a more egalitarian view of women, Reform Judaism refused to ordain Martha Neumark in 1923 and Helen Hadassah Levinthal in 1939 as rabbis, though each had completed the curriculum for the Reform rabbinate at Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Reform Judaism (based in Cincinnati, with campuses now in New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem).  Reform Judaism, a few decades back finally made the move to grant women equal status in all synagogue affairs, and in many Reform temples today women hold high office, helping minister to the several million Reform Jews in America, representing over 41% of American Jewry.  The year 1972 witnessed the ordaining of Sally J. Preisand as a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College—she thus became the first official female rabbi in Jewish history—though, of course, Orthodox and Conservative Jews would not accept her authority.  Serving as assistant rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, “she has received numerous honors for her outstanding work with Jewish youth, and for championing the rights of women.” [42]  Other women have since followed in Rabbi Preisand’s footsteps, such as Jacqueline Tabick, who, at age 26, became the first woman ordained a rabbi outside of the U.S. (in London).  Currently there are 1,558 rabbis in Reform Judaism, of which 158 are women, that is, 10% of the total, a figure comparable to the percentage of women ministers in many Protestant Christian traditions.  Reform Judaism has also long-since approved women as cantors (the religious official of a synagogue who conducts the liturgical portion of a service and sings or chants the prayers and parts of prayers designed to be performed as solos).


The Conservative movement within Judaism, a countermovement to Reform Judaism, originating in Germany in 1845, occupies a mediating position between Reform Judaism and traditional Orthodox Judaism; in the New World, Conservative Judaism has moved more slowly than Reform, but now almost all Conservative Jewish congregations have family seating, and with women joining the men in liturgical responses.  In 1985, Conservative Judaism, which embraces about 42% of the 5.5 million American “core Jews,” began to ordain its first women as rabbis, since its Jewish Theological Seminary (N.Y.) voted to admit women to its rabbinical program in 1983.  This is a highly significant step, in that Conservative rabbis claim to make their decisions in accordance with halacha (Jewish law).  As of Spring, 1991, 31 women rabbis are serving within an overall number of 1,300 Conservative rabbis, which is admittedly only 2.4% but a much greater percentage of women as rabbis will soon be the case, given that the number of women enrolled in the JTU is growing higher each year.  In yet another breakthrough for women, in August 1990, the Conservative movement finally allowed, by the requisite two-thirds’ vote, women to become cantors; in May, 1991, fourteen women were inducted into Conservative Judaism’s Cantors Assembly, among them Marla Barugel of New Jersey, a longtime advocate for women cantors.    


We would mention in passing that Reconstructionist Judaism, an offshoot of Conservative Judaism founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in America in the 1930s, numbering about 50,000 in the world today (mainly found in the U.S. and Canada), has also been ordaining women to the rabbinate since the graduation and ordaining of Sandy Sasso in 1974 from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.  As of June 1990, 135 ordained rabbis had come from this institution, 44 of whom are women—and I am informed by the college that women graduates/ordainees will come to represent an even higher percentage of the total in the near future. [43]


In all three of these denominations, women are counted in a minyan (the number required to be present to enable the lawful conduct of a public Jewish service, a minimum of ten, formerly limited to Jewish males 13 years of age or older).  A recent Jewish encyclopedia declares:  “Under the impact of feminism, some liturgies have been altered in non-Orthodox trends (e.g., by defining God in neutral rather than masculine terms and by mentioning the Matriarchs along with the Patriarchs).  The Bat Misvah ceremony [for girls] has taken its place alongside the Bar Mitsvah (also in Orthodox circles but not as part of the regular synagogue service) and new rituals have been developed to welcome baby girls into Judaism.” [44]


Thus Judaism in its Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist denominations in America has begun to show strong signs of female empowerment.  One of the many fruits of this can be seen in the work of Rabbi Léah Novick, founder and spiritual leader of Beit Shekhinah (a Jewish spiritual renewal group centered in San Francisco), who has beautifully articulated a mystical path for contemporary Jews based on a strongly experiential approach to Shekhinah, the luminous, gracious divine feminine.  This spiritual path makes use of deep meditation, prayer, the arts, awareness of nature, and the energetic experience of Shekhinah as loving light.  Two more Jewish feminists strongly involved in liturgical development are Rachel Adler and Lynn Gottlieb.  (There is something of a precedent for this honoring of God as “Goddess”:  the progressive, Connecticut-based group, The Society of the Bible in the Hands of Its Creator, was formed in 1943 by Ukranian-born Moses Guibbory, and based on his massive theological volume, The Bible in the Hands of Its Creators, which espoused the view that Yahweh is not only both one and many, but also male and female.) [45] 


Certain circles of Orthodox Judaism, though severely bound by the halacha legal tradition, have nevertheless “increased women’s involvement in worship and study and have restructured the synagogue partition (mehitsah) so that women are no longer confined to the back of the hall.”  This is undoubtedly in response to the heated debate which occurred in the early part of this century, when, in the words of one Orthodox rabbi, congregations were “formed or dissolved” over it.  (Another rabbi declared, around the same time [early 1920s], “The modern Jewess, more than the modern Jew, is responsible for the disintegration of our faith.”)  “Several modern Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. have welcomed women’s prayer quorums (minyanim) in which women act as readers and are called to the Torah. However, such changes remain within the traditional male-female roles, with no major alteration in halakhah or ritual.  There is no suggestion of calling women to the Reading of the Law or being counted in a prayer quorum at a regular service, and certainly not of ordaining women as rabbis.  In Israel, women have been selected to boards responsible for the appointment of rabbis, despite strong objections in many Orthodox quarters.” [46] 


On the American Jewish scene, where Orthodox Jews comprise only about 8% of the total “core Jew” population, Ann Braude reports that New York’s Yeshiva University (f. 1886, a major Orthodox Jewish educational institute), itself an adaptation to the desire of Orthodox youth for secular education, opened a high school for girls in 1948, and in 1954 opened Stern College for Women, at which students could pursue a standard educational program with an extensive curriculum of Jewish studies under Orthodox auspices.  Braude also notes:


“With the destruction of European Jewry [by Hitler in the 1940s], the way of life that had supplied models of piety for Jews throughout the world ceased to exist, and American Jewry assumed a new cultural significance.  A total of 250,000 Jews arrived in the United States during and after the second World War.  This immigration included some Jews so traditional that they would not leave their ancestral communities in Europe until death was the only alternative.  Among these were Hasidic Jews, who emphasized a traditional role for women, including practices such as attending the mikvah (ritual purification following menstruation).  The Hasidic Lubavitch Women’s Organization [in America] encourages nonobservant women to light Sabbath candles and observe the ‘women’s mitzvah’s’ [religious obligations].  It is too early to judge the full impact of this most recent immigration on women’s roles and religious practices.” [47]


The earlier-mentioned Dr. Judith Hauptman, a specialist in the Halacha, the body of Orthodox Jewish law, is presently working on how to change it to accomodate feminist ideas.  Tamar Frankiel is an Orthodox Jew of the San Francisco area who, looking at things from a “make the best of it” perspective, has come out with a recent book, explaining how the traditional Judaism ruled by males need not necessarily be seen as an instrument of andocratic oppression, but can offer insights and practices edifying for feminist women. [48]


Meanwhile, a number of “neo-Hasidic” Jewish movements have arisen, starting in the 1960s, which are acknowledging women in different ways: 1) The communally oriented Havurah Movement, arose (in New York City, Ithaca, Rochester, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Madison, Austin, Phoenix, etc.) to study Torah, Hasidism, traditional arts, and contemporary subjects, drawing from each of the three Jewish traditions (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform); full equality of women has been a major thrust for these havurah communities, several hundred of which have survived into the mid-1980s, when the last count was made.  2) Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in 1962 founded the B’nai Or (sons of light) Religious Fellowship, involving study of Torah, the mystical Kabbalah, and Hasidic lore on the one hand, and, on the other hand, transpersonal psychology, cross-cultural meditation practices, and ecumenical exploration of other spiritual paths. In the mid-1980s, more egalitarian policies were adopted within Rabbi Zalman’s movement and women (along with gay and lesbian Jews) were invited into full participation at all levels of the organization; moreover, the name was changed to the nonsexist “P’nai Or [Faces of Light] Religious Fellowship.”  3) Rabbi Sholomo Carlebach, the charismatic “hippie” rabbi/rebbe of a neo-Hasidic movement, encouraged women to participate in the prayer and study of Torah in his House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco (started in 1969) and, after that disbanded, in his Congregation Kehillath Yaakov in New York City since then. [49]


Most likely all these developments in the different traditions of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and neo-Hasidic—will occasion the emergence of many more Jewish holy women in the near future who will teach with great forcefulness and inspiration the ancient way of the prophets:  “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul,” (Deu. 10:12) and “Love thy neighbor as thy self” (Lev. 19:18).  In time, perhaps the former commandment may even be amended in certain Jewish circles to read, “Love the God/dess...,” and the latter commandment to read, “Love thy neighbor and all the God/dess’ creatures as thy self.”