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Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics

by Rachel Adler

Bibliographic information

TitleEngendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics
AuthorRachel Adler
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001
SubjectJewish Religious Thought


Rachel Adler has written a pioneering work on what it means to "engender" Jewish tradition, that is, how women"s full inclusion can and must transform our understanding and practice of Jewish law, prayer, sexuality, and marriage. Her writing bristles with passion, sharp intelligence, serious study of traditional biblical and rabbinic texts, and trenchant humor. Engendering Judaism challenges both mainstream Judaism and feminist dogma, and speaks across the movements as well as to Christian theologians and feminists.

"What would modern Judaism be like if it articulated the commitments, prayers, and visions of both men and women?" The aim of the book is to imagine quite concretely what an engendered Judaism would entail, how it would grapple with the great and diverse body of Jewish tradition, and how it would be lived. Engendering Judaism presents a theology and ethics for Judaism that men and women recreate and renew together as equals. Adler assesses the impact of gender and sexuality on Judaism"s classic texts. She brings this assessment to bear on three central areas of Jewish thought and practice: law, liturgy, and the ethics of sexuality and relationship.

Engendering Judaism discusses the remaking of Jewish law – that is, the reshaping of the moral universe that is the law's context. Liturgy, she says, demands that we balance the need for integrity and truthfulness in prayer with the inherent conservatism of the ritual process. Adler argues for an ethics of sexuality and relationship that respects all people equally. Theologies and ethics are meaningful only if they are translated into practice. Engendering Judaism culminates with a critique of the traditional marriage ceremony, and proposes instead a new legal construct, grounded in partnership law, not property law.

Rachel Adler is a leading feminist theologian. Her book is deeply rooted in tradition, and her contributions will have a lasting impact on the way we think about our lives as Jews and as products of modernity.

About the Author 

Rachel Adler ---

Rachel Adler is one of the mothers of feminist Jewish theology. She has published a series of groundbreaking articles. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the University of Southern California conjointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches.


Preface by David Ellenson



Chapter 1. Prelude: The Female Rapist and Other Inversions

Chapter 2. Here Comes Skotsl: Renewing Halakhah

Chapter 3. And Not Be Silent: Toward Inclusive Worship

Chapter 4. Justice and Peace Shall Kiss: An Ethics of Sexuality and Relationship

Chapter 5. B"rit Ahuvim: A Marriage Between Subjects

Epilogue: On Seeds and Ruins



Index of Bible Citations

General Index


At the very beginning of our people's story, our foremother Sarah has a misunderstanding with an angel about sex. Three divine messengers appear before Sarah and Abraham's tent by the terebinths of Mamre, as we are told:

Then one said, “I will return to you when life is due, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment [ednah]—with my husband so old?” And YHWH said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?' Is anything too wondrous for YHWH? I will return to you at the time when life is due, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah dissembled, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. He replied, “But you did laugh.” (Gen. 18:10–15)

This story exemplifies what Robert Alter has called a “type-scene,” in this case, an annunciation scene, in which, through a series of conventional narrative motifs, it is announced that a previously barren woman will miraculously bear a son. Usually, in the Bible, the woman herself is the recipient of the news. Sarah's situation is atypical and even comical: she eavesdrops on her own annunciation scene. Moreover, her reaction to the announcement is less than demure. Instead of being properly awed by this miraculous gift of fertility, Sarah's imagination moves immediately to the act by which the child will be begotten, and she laughs at the prospect of again having ednah. Now the word ednah is from the same root as the word Eden. It means not simply pleasure, but physical pleasure, erotic pleasure. “So the old man and I are going to do it again!” she thinks to herself. And the picture of their fragile old bodies shaken by fierce young pleasures evokes from her a bawdy and delighted guffaw.

“Why did Sarah laugh?” the divine messenger asks. But he does not wait for an answer, nor does Sarah offer one. The angel's attention is riveted upon the necessary outcome: the divine plan requires that Abraham have an heir, and Sarah is slated to bear him. The mechanics by which this is to be accomplished are of no interest to the angel.

Laughter, moreover, is a physical spasm as mysterious to him as sex. Indeed, laughter, from the Hebrew root tzahak, is sometimes associated with biblical sex. The king of the Philistines sees Isaac mitzahek, “playing” with his wife (Gen. 8). Potiphar's wife accuses, “That Hebrew slave, whom you brought into our house came to me l'tzahek bi [to dally with me]” (Gen. 39:17). Its use in Exodus 32:6 in connection with the feast for the Golden Calf where the people “sat down to eat and drink and then rose l'tzahek, “to make merry,” leads the classical commentators to envision an orgy. Laughter is erotic, spontaneous, and anarchic, a powerful disturber of plans and no respecter of persons. How then do you go about explaining to an angelic herald that you were laughing about getting laid? Sarah does not even attempt it. Intimidated and alarmed, she denies her laughter and swallows the angel's theology lecture. The encounter is never resolved. “You did laugh,” the angel insists. But Sarah is silent and will not explain.

The classical commentators take their cues from the angel. They all assume that Sarah's incredulity is about the miracle of birth, ignoring the miracle-for-two that must precede conception. Sarah's allusion to ednah is either misconstrued or forgotten. To construct a feminist Jewish theology/ethics of sexuality, we must return to that original miscommunication and retrieve the meaning of Sarah's laughter.

Laughter has not figured very prominently in Jewish theologies or ethics of sexuality, nor has appreciation of the erotic. Instead, sages and philosophers have concentrated their concern on how sexuality is to be controlled and channeled. Their texts require us to talk about bodies and passion in an exclusively rational manner, as if principles and paradigms, rules and consequences were sufficient to reflect all that shapes us and all that impels us as sexual beings. This juiceless discourse is so wildly incongruent with the explosive sensuality of its subject matter that with every word it undermines its own credibility.

The truth is that we learn different languages for talking about sexuality: a formal language spoken rationally and solemnly in school, in synagogue, in the courtroom, in the doctor's office, or the scientist's laboratory and, flowing steadily beneath it, a subterranean language whispered in bedrooms and daydreams, burlesqued and boasted among laughing friends, growled from alleyways over a loaded gun. This language is itself a sexual experience, a kind of “oral sex.” I will call it the language o/sexuality, or for short, language-of.

Formal language, on the other hand, is language about sexuality, distanced from the experience of it. Laughter and eroticism have been banished from its precincts. Abstract, rational, and objective, fluently polysyllabic, syntactically intricate, it is the language spoken by authorities and professionals. In it, speakers present themselves as utterly detached from bodies, including their own bodies, their maleness or femaleness, their vulnerabilities, hungers, and delights. This language-about both disembodies and depersonalizes. Descriptive statements such as “subsequent to arousal, the penis is introduced into the vagina,” or “penetration was effectuated digitally” separate sexual body parts and acts from whole bodies and from the selves that inhabit them.


In this passionately argued envisioning, Adler insists that theology and ethics are meaningful only in practice and proposes strategies, through interpretations of classic texts, that point the way to a 21st-century Judaism of full gender equality.

- Reform Judaism Magazine

Rachel Adler has finally published what will surely be the major text of the new Jewish feminism...Engendering Judaism is a crucial work, courageous, dialectical, learned, and persuasive...a truly new Jewish feminism takes wings, ascends upwards, filling our sky with beauty and hope.

- Judaism

The first full-length Jewish feminist theology since Standing Again at Sinai, it both builds on and departs from earlier feminist work, creating a theology and ethics that are dazzling in their inventiveness and analytic power.

- Judith Plaskow,Feminist Review of Books

With searing intelligence and a deep knowledge of the sacred texts, the author crosses the borders of movements both conservative and radical to tackle the question of how women can shape the future of Juadaism, from laws and prayer to sexuality and marriage.

- The Reader’s Catalog

[Adler’s] ideas are original and provocative.... Her inclusion of Talmudic texts, accompanied by an innovative feminist interpretation, solidly roots her varied proposals in tradition.

- Dr. Judith Hauptman, Professor of Talmud, Jewish Theological Seminary

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