Yom Kippur: Feminism Meets Tradition

Tonight at Kol Nidre, which marks the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, my husband and I will fight over prayer books, as we do at the start of every service during the Jewish High Holy Days. We own two copies of Gates of Repentance, first published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1978; the one we both want is the new version, revised in 1996.

The first edition is full of heavy-duty masculine god-language, and given that our Reform congregation no longer uses the divine “He” or “Lord,” it makes it hard to keep up with the congregational responses. The newer version self-consciously responds to what its editors call “the modern crisis of faith and the longing for a tradition in which we can feel at home, the new consciousness of women and the need for straightforward and elegant expression.” Still, it’s hard to find any women’s names on the liturgy committee that produced the book or on the acknowledgement page, which even includes the name of the patriarchal, cranky rabbi from the synagogue where I was raised, may he rest in peace.

In general, the newer version has shifted from “O Lord, our God” to “Eternal God,” or just plain “God.” In the references to our forefathers, the editors included our “mothers”–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Of course most of these changes are in English only–the Hebrew remains as sexist and as male centered as ever.  Every major prayer begins the same exact way–Baruch ata Adonai, Praised be the Eternal God–with the masculine pronoun firmly intact.

This is most telling in the great confessional prayer recited at every Yom Kippur service, which is called in Hebrew “Avinu Malkenu”–literally “Our Father, Our King.” The phrase is repeated line after line: “Our Father, Our King, We have sinned before thee. … Our Father, Our King, have compassion upon us and upon our children.” The newer prayerbook doesn’t even try to translate this important phrase;  it simply uses the Hebrew:  “Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us for a blessing in the Book of Life.”

I confess:  I’m pretty traditional when it comes to “Avinu Malkenu,” or at least the music for it. I deeply love the folk tune we sang when I was growing up, which seems to have fallen out of fashion lately (it’s not the version Barbra Streisand does). It’s the tune everyone knows and can sing–and I mean everyone. When we do sing it, the sanctuary fills with a wave of sound that rises from the congregation–the largest of the year in every synagogue in the world. That wave sweeps over me, my eyes usually fill with tears, and I’m suddenly a young girl standing in the synagogue of my childhood, between my sister and my mom (my dad would be off ushering, or standing with the men outside, some years listening to the World Series on their transistor radios). I’m wearing my new school clothes, which we couldn’t wear to school until after we had shown them off at High Holy Day services. “Oseh imanu, tzeddakah v’chesed” we would all sing, swaying, eyes closed: Cast over us your justice and loving kindness. …” The new tunes for “Avinu Malkenu,” which I know are also beautiful, do nothing like this for me.

Would I want to change the words, as some feminists and egalitarian groups have tried? I don’t know if I could; the Hebrew seems so deeply imbedded in my spiritual consciousness. I worry about the words in English, to be sure, but when I sing them in Hebrew, all I hear (or, perhaps, choose to hear) are the emotions.

Is there any escape from the patriarchal weight of the language? Are there times when we simply don’t have a good alternative to tradition? I feel caught between my feminism and my capacity for a spiritual moment.

Adrienne Rich, who once described her own Jewish identity as “split at the root,” wrote in  her poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” “This is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you.”

Do you feel that same pull between tradition and feminism in your religious or spiritual practice?

Photo of women celebrating Kol Nidre at Occupy Boston last year from Flickr user leahbee5 under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. I absolutely have the same issue. I was raised Catholic and ran from that faith years ago, because of the patriarchy. I have tried, over the years, to maintain some form of spirituality, but have a difficult time reading prayers because I have to spend so much time translating, in my mind, the masculine verbage to a more gender neutral language. But do it I must, because otherwise I feel slapped in the face with the fact that the religion of my birth thinks of me as “less than” simply because I was born with a vagina.

  2. This is such a great piece. I’m a lesbian, a feminist and I’m in the process of converting to Judaism (I meet with the rabbi next week to talk details!). I have been going to High Holiday services at a Reform temple and definitely had issues with a lot of the oppressive and patriarchial language. It sent me into a tizzy for a bit, like “if I’m having problems with all this language, maybe I shouldn’t convert”. Then I realized that I don’t whole-heartedly accept all pieces of anything I’m affiliated with: the Democratic party, feminism, even my wife! My approach is sort of 12 step. I will take what I like and leave the rest and I still get to have my people. That’s what religion comes down to for me- the community, the people, the intentions. Not the books or even what specific “leaders” say. It’s what is in the heart, for me.

  3. The one thing I love about Judaism is the encouragement to learn and grow as your own person within the religion. That for me is my “green light” to comfortably combine my feminist ideals with my Jewish roots. Now that we’re raising my son, that means more to me than ever. We create our own traditions around old ones, weaving old and new until they mesh into a place that has both meaning and relevance in our lives. In fact, I even took on work last year to create the feminist-framed pieces for a “DIY” Haggadah project.

    I think for the times when we feel like there’s no escape from certain weighted language, we can engage in discussion about *why* that language is troublesome. Judaism, above all else, has certainly taught me to question and debate.

    An aside – I love that version of Aveinu Malkeinu and look forward to it every year.

  4. Interesting post about faith and patriarchy. I am now an atheist because I just think religion doesn’t benefit women or society in general. It was made by men for men. I come from a very conservative family but I even had a revealing conversation with my Dad about atheism and he actually agreed with me that “god” doesn’t make sense. People just try to fill in the holes that exist with science with “God.” I see many of my feminist friends who feel the same way. Whenever someone asks me or tries to argue with me about atheism I say my religion is common sense, reason, and scientific discovery.

  5. I’m Wiccan, so I never have this problem.

  6. Great piece, MK! You capture perfectly the way I have to think of (or rather ignore) the literal meaning of the language and find meaning of the prayers in the melody and the memories that melody evokes.

  7. You have eloquently stated the conundrum for many women. The exclusion of women is part of what drives my agnosticism. It is as if there is a tacit agreement that we don’t really matter or have equal value before the deity, which is inherently false. Otherwise we would not exist.

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