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"Seeking the face of God, striving to live in His presence and to fashion the life of holiness appropriate to God's presence--these have ever been the core of that religious civilization known to the world as Judaism." Arthur Green, Jewish Spirituality (2)
In their landmark volume, Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton gathered scores of Jewish women's religious reflections. (3) Recognizing and seeking to fathom the deep wellsprings of Jewish women's spirituality have propelled much of the research of the pioneering generation of Jewish feminist scholars. For example, Chava Weissler saw in the tkhines, the private prayers of early modern Ashkenazi Jewish women, "a directness of passionately emotional personal prayer, mostly absent from the more collective and formalized male worship experience." (4) Anthropologist Susan Starr Sered opened up the deep, non-textually based piety of the "religious lives ... of the illiterate, uneducated, but spiritually attuned elderly Jewish women of the East." (5) Umansky, Ashton, Weissler, Sered, and other scholars have established unequivocally that spirituality is as central a rubric for understanding the lived experiences of Jewish women of the past as it is for comprehending the history of Jewish men, whose prayer and sacred study lay so visibly at the heart of Jewish communal life for millennia. (6)
Yet this theme of Jewish women's spirituality is one I ignored for the cohort I called Women Who Would be Rabbis (1988). In that book, I wrote of women like Ray Frank, the "girl rabbi of the golden West"; Martha Neumark, the rabbinical school student who thought she should have a high holiday pulpit; and Irma Levy Lindheim, the Zionist leader and friend of Jewish Institute of Religion President Stephen S. Wise. I argued that the women who would, if they could, have been rabbis unknowingly conducted a debate across time and space, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. Largely unaware of those who had preceded them in raising the possibility that women could be rabbis, these women studied over and over again the same religious texts, discovering each time, as if de novo, that there was not a single statement in all the sources of Jewish tradition excluding women from the rabbinate. Then, for additional prooftexts, each paraded a long list of the learned Jewish women of the past, uncovering how their engagement in sacred study had conferred upon them the authority to teach and even on occasion the legitimacy to rule. (7)
I viewed the women enmeshed in the debate over women's ordination largely as students, as scholars, as readers of Jewish texts. Because of the arguments I made in Women Who Would Be Rabbis, I disregarded what, if anything, these women had to say about whether or not they read their encounter with such texts as a spiritual exercise. As I read their writings, I skipped over the parts where they began to reflect specifically upon living "life in the presence of God." Since these musings did not advance my argument, they did not then interest me.
But a popular interest in spirituality has emerged since I wrote that book, along with a growing literature on women's spiritual narratives. In Sentimental Confessions, a 2001 study of the spiritual narratives of nineteenth-century African American women, Jocelyn Moody railed against feminist scholars who tended, as I had, "to overlook, to 'read around' the spiritual dimensions present" in autobiographical narratives. Accusing Christian feminist scholars of neglecting "an essential and vital aspect" of these texts, she argued that "faith in the mystical need not be seen as an indication of imbecility." (8) In Holy Boldness, Susie Stanley's 2002 study of women preachers' autobiographies, she uncovered a substantial cohort of women in the Protestant Wesleyan/Holiness tradition whose writings chronicled their spiritual growth. (9) Moody's and Stanley's scholarship and the call for essays on spirituality for this special issue of Nashim convinced me to turn once again, with a different set of questions, to some of the narratives written by the women who would have been rabbis.
Did the Jewish women who argued for women's ordination write of their striving "to fashion the life of holiness appropriate to God's presence"? If so, were there commonalities to their spiritual experiences, like those gleaned from their study of sacred texts? Rereading the words of three of the women who entered the debate affirms that they indeed …