Feminist icon Rachel Adler on #MeToo and Jewish law

February 25, 2019

This article was originally published on The Jewish News on February 25, 2019. View it here.

Early in her lecture last week in Berkeley, theologian and feminist icon Rachel Adler brought up the #MeToo movement, but she quickly narrowed the focus to the #GamAni movement (Hebrew for MeToo). Her target? The long-standing male supremacy embedded in Jewish texts.

“My task,” said the professor of modern Jewish thought and gender at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, “is to problematize certain halachic categories.”

Billed as a feminist perspective on halachah (Jewish law) and #MeToo, Adler’s Feb. 21 talk was this year’s Robbins Collection Annual Lecture in Jewish Law, Thought and Identity and was sponsored by the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. About 120 people were in attendance.

Arguably the doyenne of Jewish feminism, Adler, 75, broke ground with her 1971 paper “The Jew Who Wasn’t There: Halacha and the Jewish Woman.” Since then, in books, articles and academic papers, Adler has sought to reconcile the misogynistic strictures of classical Judaism with the modern world.

Inserting a feminist take on Torah and Talmud is no easy task. Nevertheless, Adler asserted, “Repair is needed” so that halachah can be a vehicle for healing rather than a “tool for oppression.”

One of her core arguments for progress was the power of women’s stories, which formed the basis of the #MeToo movement. In contrast to the days when Anita Hill was readily disbelieved in her 1991 testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, women today are more likely be believed when they recount stories of abuse.

That fits into a broader acceptance of women’s input, even in the realm of Jewish theology. “Only recently,” Adler said, “have women become educators, rabbis, adjudicators and contributors to halachic precedent.”

But they swim against the strong current of ancient understandings of Jewish law. Adler listed several examples of Talmudic statutes having to do with rape, abuse and sexual battery. According to her, the Talmud narrowly defines sex as intercourse. Period.

"My task is to problematize certain halachic categories."

“That’s quite a narrow definition,” she said, noting that Talmud ignores other possibilities, such as grabbing and groping, not to mention modern-day problems such as obscene phone calls or cyber-stalking.

She noted that one tractate of Talmud asserts that the minimum age for a female person to have sex is 3 years old. Not that Talmud endorses sex with children, but neither does it criminalize such an action, Adler said. Nor are there halachic penalties for rape of older unmarried women.

Adler framed the remedy in halachic terms: kavod habriyot, or respect for human dignity, is a concept so elastic that the Talmud even allows for violations of Shabbat rules to avoid embarrassing another person. She also cited the halachic prohibition against wounding with words.

She illustrated the latter with a story about a rabbinic colleague, a woman, who, while sharing the bimah with a woman cantor while readying the sanctuary for Shabbat found themselves confronted by a male congregant who barged in and exclaimed, “I drove 55 miles to get here and what do I get? Two chicks.”

What is her prescription for repairing halachic systems? Adler outlined a four-part plan, starting with listening. The guardians of halachah “must begin to hear the anguished narratives of those who cry out,” she said.

Next would be re-evaluating the “problems and injuries known to the tradition,” perhaps by, for example, recasting underage sexual abuse as a far more serious crime than the Talmud suggests. Part three would be demanding accountability from Jewish institutions when it comes to core women’s issues, instituting policy changes where needed.

Her fourth and final step: re-educating Jews to practice what she called “gender justice” as a mechanism for restoring human dignity.

The latter, she said to some knowing laughter in the Boalt Hall lecture room, “is something that will take centuries.”

Dan Pine is contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.

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