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The Rabbi’s Feminist Zionism

Welcoming Zionist Ideas Into the Sukkah, Day 4: ‘A Jewish Feminist-Womanist Appreciation’ from the first Israeli-born woman rabbi

Gil Troy
September 27, 2018
A screenshot of Einat RamonYoutube
A screenshot of Einat RamonYoutube

In the tension between the ephemeral and the eternal. We build flimsy huts through which we can see the stars, to symbolize how transient life can be. Yet, typically, we Jews have turned this lesson in evanescence into a lasting tradition. This paradox is a central Zionist tension, which the founder of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl, captured in his novel Altneuland (Old-New Land), spurring homeless Jews to erect a modern state on our ancient homeland.

For every day of Sukkot, we will provide a text from Gil Troy’s newest book, an update of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic Zionist anthology, The Zionist Idea. Troy titled his update, The Zionist Ideas, to open the conversation, from right to left, religious to secular, traditional to modern. He organizes the book into three defining periods: Pioneers until 1948, Builders from 1948 until 1998, and Torchbearers – modern Zionists. In each time period, he identifies six schools of thought – whose ideas echo in all these essays: Political Zionism, Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, Cultural Zionism, and Diaspora Zionism. Since April, thousands of people have participated in Zionist Salons, reading these texts, developing their Zionist Ideas.

A Feminists Fight Against Postmodernism — Einat Ramon (b. 1959)

“My particularist perspectives: I am a Womanist and a Zionist.”

Increasingly, Zionism felt countercultural in the 21st century. Radical activists tried turning progressive movements like feminism against Israel because many of Zionism’s philosophical underpinnings were no longer trendy. Einat Ramon became the first Israeli-born woman rabbi in 1989, and the first woman and first sabra to head a Conservative rabbinical school, the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 2005. Today a scholar and a pioneer in pastoral care, she endorses Zionism and feminism as counters to contemporary identity politics. Resisting postmodernism’s homogenizing cosmopolitan identity soup, she stands for Jews – and women – standing out and standing strong.

Born in 1959 to a family steeped in Labor Zionism, Ramon appreciates that, for the pioneers, Zionism was “a personal, existential redemption, a one-time opportunity to endow their lives with meaning . . . reclaiming their souls from assimilation, emptiness, decadence and alienation.” Hoping to renew that old-new existential vision, Ramon champions “Torah learning with modern Hebrew culture” to access “the stories of Jewish inner, spiritual strength.”

Ramon represents a broader Zionist impulse to liberate Jewish learning and ideas from the ghetto. Studying Jewish texts in different contexts, applying them to everyday life, living them—and sometimes ignoring them —has invigorated religious and secular Jewish culture. The sovereign state has taken Ahad Ha’am’s cultural revolution further than he imagined, expanding the range of cultural expressions and intensifying Zionism’s cultural impact, in the Land of Israel—and beyond. In embracing Jewish particularism, Ramon not only shows how to fight back against post-modernism from the left, she joins the chorus moving beyond a more narrow, state-based Political Zionism to a more expansive, meaning-seeking Identity Zionism.

Zionism: A Jewish Feminist-Womanist Appreciation (2017)

Living in the Land of Israel grants Jews the opportunity to indulge their particularism at its best, expressing Jewishness every moment. We are just learning how to master this huge spiritual challenge. A. D. Gordon explained that here was our chance to follow the Torah’s philosophical teachings fully, naturally. We not only celebrate the Sabbath and the holidays on Jewish time and in our Jewish space, but, today, we run Israeli military, agriculture, industry, and economics on Torah time and in the Torah’s sacred space. These wonderful opportunities also offer daily challenges for a young state struggling with the curse of terror and facing the blessed challenge of absorbing Jews from so many different countries and cultures.

Both nationhood and Womanist perspectives are particularistic perspectives. The term “womanist” was coined originally by African-American women seeking an alternative to the feminism that strives to blur and ignore “essentialist” differences between men and women. Post-gender feminists are not even allowed to speak about “men” and “women” anymore, as these are regarded as “compulsive” terms. By the same token, the postmodern and post-Zionist climate rejects any affirmation of the uniqueness of any people, let alone the Jewish People.

In the same way that I long for the moment when women and men, once again, will not be ashamed to speak about their concrete female or male experiences, encouraging discussions about how to create the conditions of covenant between them, I long for the moment when all Jews can again revel in their uniqueness, as we did when the State of Israel was declared. Jewish uniqueness is rooted in the Torah’s ancient traditions translated into secular realities in daily Jewish life. Celebrating the plurality of human experiences, we must promote just enough pluralism—but not too much as to create chaos by denying a common denominator.

We Israeli Jews are the “dry bones” that came to life (Ezek.37). We become a living people as we gather here in Israel from our different diasporas and as we (re)discover our common denominator rooted in the Hebrew Bible and made relevant through our learning and actions. Yes, we are not yet the holy “kingdom of priests” that God and the world expect us to be. There is much to learn, much to improve. We do not always succeed in defeating all the patriarchal ills that affect the rest of the world: sexual abuse, pornography, economic and cultural discrimination, etc. But following the Zionist thinker, Ahad Ha’am, we trust that we will eventually find our own unique Jewish moral voice and wisdom in the face of modern and postmodern challenges.

Our modern experience teaches us that when Jews gather as a sovereign nation in the Land of Israel, they bestow many blessings to the world. Today, we proud Zionist men and Zionist women hope to bring even more, through innovations in all fields of life, through fulfilling the vision and the goals set out for us when we stood thousands of years ago at Mount Sinai.

Professor Gil Troy, a Senior Fellow in Zionist Thought at the JPPI, the global think tank of the Jewish people, is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.