Forum puts Jewish women at forefront

It wasn't their mother's Sunday Hebrew School class, what with the panel discussions on cosmetic surgery and Jewish sex manuals and the yoga in the library.

But the room was packed all the same. More than 100 people - 20-somethings, grandmothers and even a few teenagers - came to the Jewish Museum of Maryland yesterday to hear a half-dozen experts talk about everything from prayers said during pregnancy to what the Torah and other sacred texts have to say about intercourse.


The event, "Women's Sexuality: Bodies, Beauty and the Ethics of Intimacy," was part of Rashi's Daughters, a Jewish education organization that, until now, has focused on teaching women about sacred texts in small groups during monthly gatherings. The group takes its name from the medieval commentator and scribe Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi, known as Rashi, who taught his daughters to interpret Scripture because he had no sons.

Yesterday's event was the first time the group put on a large-scale community program in hopes of engaging more women in a traditionally male-centered religion that some feel has excluded a female perspective.


"After 2,000 years of men constructing the basic texts that form contemporary Judaism, it's time for women to contribute to the construction of these fundamentally sacred texts," said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, one of the founders of Rashi's Daughters and a featured speaker at yesterday's event.

The religion may be thousands of years old, Cardin said, but the texts are peppered with commandments and commentary regarding body image, sex and even cosmetic enhancements.

Ellen L. Taylor, chief of Northwest Hospital Center's department of gynecology, told the group that sexual satisfaction is part of the ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, and that a healthy sex life is considered a mitzvah, or good deed. As she spoke, a PowerPoint presentation behind her ran images of women such as Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and side-by-side photographs of Katie Couric - the natural one and the digitally slimmed-down one that CBS News used to promote her ascension to anchor last year.

The fact that it wasn't the typical Jewish education class is what drew many of the attendees.

"The topic of women's sex - I don't often see that available for Jewish adult education classes," said Amy Shulkin, 50, a middle-school psychologist from Owings Mills.

Added Sarah Gratz, a 26-year- old architect from Pikesville: "I don't think women get together often enough to talk about issues such as sexuality."

Women have always been a crucial part of Jewish life, with responsibilities for keeping the home, lighting Shabbat candles and raising the children. But Judaism has not always carved out a place for liberal women.

It was only 20 years ago that the first woman was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the center of learning for Conservative Judaism. More recently, Conservative synagogues were debating whether to allow women to read Torah or lead services. And in some Orthodox circles, the devout still say a blessing thanking God for not making them a woman.


In recent years, though, there has been a national movement to become more inclusive. Events like yesterday's help make the religion even more relevant to modern life, said graphic artist Ellen Kahan Zager of Pikesville.

"It's a challenge for women to read themselves into very old traditions," she said. "Every time we come to something like this, we learn a little more."