Searching for a Usable Past
By Michal Raucher.
Deborah. Bruriah. Yalta. The Maiden of Ludmir. Osnat Barzani. Regina Jonas. Gluckl of Hameln. Sarah Schneirer. Blu Greenberg. Belda Lindenbaum.
At the annual graduation ceremony for Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox Jewish seminary in the United States, someone often mentions one or several of these women as pioneers in the field of women in Jewish leadership positions. Since 2013 Yeshivat Maharat has been the only Orthodox seminary in America ordaining women as rabbis.
I’ve written here before about my research on Orthodox rabbis who are women. Most of the time, women’s Orthodox ordination is discussed as groundbreaking. While other contemporary Jewish movements have been ordaining women as rabbis since the 1970s and 1980s, many Orthodox institutions have remained opposed to women’s ordination. Nevertheless, since Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s conferral/ordination in 2009, Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 43 women who work as clergy members in synagogues, schools, hospitals, communities, and non-profit organizations. There are currently 29 women studying at the Yeshiva and in the pipeline to be ordained. This is something that few (if any) people would have expected to occur in such a short period of time. Indeed, the ordination of women in Orthodoxy is revolutionary. And yet, in their search for a usable past, Yeshivat Maharat and its graduates aim to establish a precedent for women’s religious leadership.
In an article for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Emily Mace defines “usable past” as a history that serves a contemporary or future goal. Mace writes of second wave feminist scholars of religion who claim that Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible (1895 and 1898) was a “historical predecessor to their own work as feminist theologians.”1 Feminist scholars chose Stanton because they saw “similarities between Stanton’s feminist concerns and their own…” and they hoped to “further the work Stanton had started.2 When Stanton’s bible was first printed, it led to significant controversy. So much so that by the 1920s it was largely overlooked by many in the suffrage movement. In fact, Stanton’s bible was not re-printed until 1974, when scholars of women and religion picked it up as their usable past.
However, Mace shows that finding a usable past is a choice to create one type of historiography and not another. It is a choice that ultimately excludes other feminist biblical commentators who came before Stanton as well as many of her contemporaries, among them women of color and women with more radical theologies.
Feminist scholars are not the only ones who search for a usable past. Feminist religious innovators also search for precedent to bolster their claims of authenticity. In Sanctified Sisters, Jenny Legath writes about Protestant deaconesses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who claimed Phoebe from Romans 16:1 as a “proof text that deaconesses were biblical and thus of unquestionable authenticity.”3 Legath points out, though, that this claim is not so simple. The King James translation of the Bible would have read, “Phoebe, our sister, which is a servant of the Church…” It wasn’t until the 1870s when a group of English and American biblical scholars began revising the King James edition of the Bible and added a textual note to the word “servant” that read “or deaconess.” Early leaders of the deaconess movement were disappointed by this “halfway measure,” but Legath points out that when deaconesses quoted Romans 16:1 in their own promotional literature they substituted “deaconess” for “servant” without comment. 4
Frankly, we all construct a narrative about our past. We select historical figures, texts, and ideological positions to tell a particular history of ourselves and to validate our current identities. And at different points in time, distinct histories are important to unearth. Feminist religious innovators are slightly unique in that they consistently struggle with the tension between creating something new and connecting it to tradition. Searching for a usable past is a way of making feminist innovations less strange and more familiar. It is a way of claiming authenticity, despite the many ways feminism is often seen as external to religious traditions. Searching for a usable past is how feminist religious innovators negotiate with their opponents at every step.
And yet, what we see is that claiming historical figures as precedent is never an easy task. It is, on the one hand, reviving historical figures who have long been overlooked. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s bible might not be as well-known as it is today were it not for those second wave feminist scholars. The history of religion in the suffrage movement may be more of a footnote than a robust scholarly endeavor. This is, however, also a process of exclusion. Which historical figures are not part of the past that has been deemed “usable?” Whose contributions have been overlooked? Who is being re-interpreted to fit a particular mold that serves a purpose for today’s movement? As we tell a particular history about ourselves, are we excluding certain figures because they do not fit with the image we want to present today?
Feminist Studies in Religion (FSR) is currently engaged in examining our own practices of inclusion and exclusion. We, like many other members of the academy, are actively working toward an antiracist historiography, and central to those efforts is thinking more broadly and critically about our past, and not just looking for a usable past. Who have we overlooked and marginalized? What scholarship deserves more attention? Whose work has been highlighted despite its problematic content? Answering these questions is not just important for understanding our past but also for shaping an antiracist present and future.
Michal Raucher an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. Her research lies at the intersection of Israel studies, Jewish ethics, and the anthropology of women in Judaism. As a Fulbright Fellow, Dr. Raucher conducted ethnographic research on reproductive ethics of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish women in Israel. She has been awarded grants from the Wenner Gren Foundation for anthropological research, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, and the Crown Family Foundation. Drawing on this research, Michal published her first book, Conceiving Agency: Reproductive Authority among Haredi Women with Indiana University Press in 2020.
Professor Raucher’s second book is titled Tapping on the Stained Glass Ceiling: the Ordination of Orthodox Jewish Women in Israel and America. This book surrounds the recent ordination of women in Orthodoxy, comparing the phenomenon in Israel and America. Research for this book has been supported by the Israel Institute, the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, the American Academy of Religion, and the University of Cincinnati. Michal has also published on sexuality and gender in Judaism, religion and bioethics, abortion legislation in Israel, and female religious advisors on the Internet.
Dr. Raucher has been an assistant professor of Israel and Modern Jewish Thought in the Department of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati, a fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center, and Yale University’s Center for Bioethics. She has consulted for the United Nations Population Fund, where she worked with colleagues from around the world on improving reproductive and sexual rights and health for women and children. Michal earned her PhD in Religious Studies with a concentration in religious ethics and anthropology from Northwestern University. She has an MA from the University of Pennsylvania in Bioethics, and graduated from the Joint Program with The Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, earning a BA in Hebrew Bible and a BA in Religion.
Read Michal’s FSR Blog posts.
- Emily Mace, “Feminist Forerunners and a Usable Past: A Historiography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 25.2 (2009): 6.
- Mace, “Feminist Forerunners,” 12.
- Jenny Legath, Sanctified Sisters: A History of Protestant Deaconesses. (New York: NYU Press, 2019): 7.
- Legath, Sanctified Sisters, 8.