Recently, a revival of feminism – particularly among young women – in the context of myriad eruptions of male sexual abuse and violence around the globe, has put the issue of male power and privilege back on the societal agenda. This revival also challenges us – this gathering of Bet Debora, ‘the House of Deborah’[1] – to consider what we have learnt since the days when the Women’s Liberation Movement that emerged, in particular, in Britain, Europe and North America in the 1970s, united women against patriarchy.

In the 1980s, the notion of the universality of women’s experience was increasingly challenged by groups of women who felt marginalised by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant assumptions underlying ‘the sisterhood’ – not least, by Jewish women, and also by lesbians whose experience differed from those of their heterosexual sisters. As a result, the movement fractured into a plurality of ‘identity’ enclaves.

Since the 1990s, Gay Liberation (which also emerged in the early 1970s) and Lesbian Separatism has given way to a rainbow alliance of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Queer) people – more recently extended to include ‘I’ (intersex) and another ‘Q’ (Questioning). Whether as end-goal or separatist strategy, lesbian separatism represented in the 1970s in the United States – and to a lesser extent in Britain – a way for lesbians to express absolute rejection of patriarchy by doing everything possible to live outside a patriarchal framework. The emergence of LGBTQIQ – Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer-Intersex-Questioning – represented by the rainbow flag, expresses a profusion of diverse sexualities, orientations, and genders that challenges monolithic thinking and practice.

Today, as someone who lived through all these developments, I will examine how the Jewish emphasis on ‘doing’ facilitates a creative interplay between Jewish life, feminism and LGBTQIQ practice, and invite you to take a historical journey via my own experience, from monolithic ‘sisterhood’ to tents of meeting, where a plurality of ‘others’ meet.


The Women’s Liberation Movement and the emergence of plural feminisms

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s that was led largely by lesbians, political and otherwise, and propelled by the rejection of patriarchal power was nonetheless, shaped by a dualistic, binary patriarchal mind-set, rooted in essentialist definitions of what constitutes femaleness and maleness, in which ‘women’ and ‘men’ were understood as absolute, closed identity categories. And so it was that the ‘sisterhood’ was inclusive of all women – in theory, at least, while in practice, it was not inclusive at all because ‘sisters’ did not recognise the differences between women, and made the assumption that all women share the same experience. This is how I put it in an article I wrote for the first issue of Shifra, a Jewish feminist magazine launched in December 1984 by a group of Jewish lesbians, including me:[2]

‘A central assumption of feminism is that the identity woman is a fundamental one; that everything an individual woman is can be reduced to one basic fact: she is a woman. It is this assumption that has led to another: the identity of all women in our essential womanhood – sisterhood: basically, we are all sisters because our shared womanhood underlies all other experiences – individual, cultural, economic – which separate us. The prototype feminist … is a woman who has experienced the ‘click’ phenomenon, and with the truth revealed, has ‘cast-off’ all the old bonds which tied her – to family, to class, to culture, to religion, to nation – to emerge a new woman, unfettered and eager to join hands with her sisters across the globe and create a new world.

‘Well, this had been the theory of it. In practice, some of us had to cast-off more than others. The new woman, early ‘70s variety, could be white, middle class and culturally Christian, because that is the norm in the countries where modern feminism initially developed – and so, nobody noticed; she couldn’t be black, working class, Jewish – because that would mean her ‘loyalties’ were subject to conflicting pulls, and anyway, we all know how much more patriarchal these ‘other’ cultures are… Yet, lots of ‘other’ women did try to become ‘new’ women too: rejecting, denying, repressing, forgetting, or simply camouflaging – with the rhetoric and new reflexes of ‘sisterhood’ – ‘old’ rituals, habits, customs, fears and allegiances.’

The Women’s Liberation Movement faltered as those ‘sisters’, whose lives encompassed ‘other’ identities escaped across the borders. But where did they/we go? To use another analogy: If monolithic sisterhood was a superhighway, taking everyone in one direction, identity politics turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Once the critique of patriarchy got overwhelmed by the assertion of differentiating identities to the exclusion of a sense of connection with other women, the Women’s Liberation Movement had, quite literally, nowhere to go.

And yet, the emergence of particular identities was necessary – for all the ‘others’ who did not fit into ‘sisterhood’ as defined by WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – cultural assumptions, and because it demonstrated the plurality of women’s and lesbian experience. Nevertheless, the WLM in Britain, for example, did not survive the disruption that was played out, in particular, in the pages of the weekly Women’s Liberation Movement Newsletter, and the monthly feminist magazine, Spare Rib. The Jewish Lesbian Group I was part of in the early days of Jewish feminism, 1982 to 1984, did more than serve as a forum for mutual support and exploration of the intersection of our Jewish and lesbian identities. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, we found ourselves in a very uncomfortable place when the pages of the WLMN, Spare Rib, and the black feminist magazine, Outwrite, began to engage in the wider media campaign that equated Zionism with racism. In addition to our collective responses, I remember writing a long piece on the history of anti-Semitism for the WLMN in an attempt to educate my non-Jewish ‘sisters’ about Jewish experience. I decided to write the piece, following a meeting at ‘A Woman’s Place’ on Sunday July 10 1982 to discuss the newsletter’s policy on ‘no anti-Semitic and racist entries’ – which became little more than a forum for women to be openly anti-Semitic.

So, the assertion of particular cultural, ethnic and religious identities on the part of lesbians and women who had regarded one another as ‘sisters’, put an end to the collective identity of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Arguably, other developments also led to schisms between groups of women – in particular, Greenham Common, with its focus on women uniting for peace, which was seen by ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ lesbian feminists as diverting women’s energies from the wider project of challenging patriarchy.[3]



From ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Gay’ to ‘LGBT’ – and ‘Q’

As the Women’s Liberation Movement gave way to clusters of engagement, the trajectory of the Gay Liberation Movement, which formed after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, and was established in Britain in 1972, was profoundly influenced by the HIV-Aids crisis that erupted in the early 1980s. The emphasis of GLM was on political struggle. Highlighting the ‘lifestyle’ choices of gay men, the HIV-Aids crisis revealed the importance of community for gay people – community which extended beyond gay men, to include lesbians who supported their gay brothers, who became ill, and all those whose lives did not mesh with heterosexual assumptions. In an important sense, the adoption of the rainbow flag came to symbolise the transformation of gay activism into the alliance of all LGBT people. The rainbow flag proclaims not so much identity as connectivity.

The emergence of LGBTQ – expanding in recent years to encompass ‘I’ (Intersex) and another ‘Q’ (Questioning) – has created the context for inclusive community. Nevertheless, for those whose lives also encompass ‘other’ allegiances, it is clear that LGBTQIQ does not yet fully live up to the promise of the rainbow flag. When, as a radical feminist lesbian separatist, I first crossed the border of lesbian nation[4] to enter Jewish life, and study for the rabbinate in 1984, many of my lesbian feminist sisters regarded me as a traitor. Meanwhile, in the early years of my rabbinate, just one of two lesbian rabbis,[5] and the only one employed full-time in the mainstream, I experienced rejection and persecution in response to my attempts to make Jewish life more inclusive – particularly, around the issue of same-sex marriage.[6] So, I lived, like a desert creature, in a wilderness ‘in between’ these two territories: a strange hybrid; a Lesbian Rabbi.

It has only been in recent years, since more LGBT Jews began to knock at the door of Jewish life, and LGBT rabbis began to proliferate as rabbinic training within the progressive Jewish world became non-discriminatory,[7] that the progressive Jewish world, initially, Liberal Judaism in Britain,[8] has become more inclusive. However, since most of Jewish life remains impervious to the needs of LGBT Jews, and Jews remain largely invisible within LGBT life, LGBT Jews continue to inhabit – albeit in greater numbers – the borderland ‘in between’.


Building Tents of Meeting

So, how might we foster a creative interplay between Jewish life, feminism, and LGBTQIQ practice, so that the borderland ‘in between’ becomes a genuine meeting place?

My experience as a lesbian separatist, who went on a journey of exploration into Jewish life, and who has inhabited multiple borderlands since,[9] has taught me that my life is not about who I am, but rather about what I do, together with others, and where I go.

Significantly, the emphasis on ‘doing’, rather than ‘being’ is at the heart of Jewish teaching. Indeed, the very first lesson of the Torah emphasises the centrality of ‘doing’. And so, we read at the conclusion of the first narrative of Creation (Genesis 2:1-3) – and this is the literal translation:

Heaven and earth were finished, and all their host. / On the seventh day God finished the work which He had done, and ceased on the seven day from all the work that He had done. / Then, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it, He ceased from all the work which God had created to do.

It is very difficult not to produce a clumsy translation of the original Hebrew. One of the reasons for this is because of the repeated use of the Hebrew root, Ayin Sin Hei, to ‘do’, or to ‘make’, and of the Hebrew root, Lamed Aleph Kaf, from which the noun, m’lakhah, ‘work’, is derived. The passage leaves the reader in no doubt that for six days God was ‘doing’ the ‘work’ of creation.

Significantly, messengers of God in the Torah – often referred to as ‘angels’ in older translations – are, more literally, God’s ‘workers’ – m’lakhim. But ‘work’ is not confined to the Divine realm. The Torah makes it clear that to be a human being is to imitate the Divine architect of the world and so be engaged in ‘doing’. Martin Buber drew attention to the parallels between the account of Creation and the account of the building of the Mishkan, the elaborate tent constructed by the ex-slaves in the wilderness, identifying seven correspondences between the two narratives.[10] Within these seven parallels, Buber noted that the root Ayin Sin Hei, which appears seven times in the Creation narrative, is repeated 200 times in the chapters outlining the building of the Mishkan. The correspondence between the two accounts is underlined by the way in which they both conclude. And so, just as God ‘finished’ the work of creation (Genesis 2:1-2), Moses ‘finished’ the work of building the Mishkan (Exodus 39:32; 40:33).

To understand the significance of the way in which the account of the construction of the Mishkan mirrors the account of Divine creation, it is important to understand that the Mishkan represents individuals coming together to create community.[11] While the Divine architect of Creation may have worked alone; the human architects of the Mishkan worked together. We read at the beginning of the Torah portion, T’rumah, directly after the account of the closing scene of Revelation in which ‘the glory of the Eternal dwelt (Va-yishkon) on Mount Sinai (Exodus, Chapter 25:1-8):

The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites that they shall take for Me an offering, from each person whose heart is willing you shall take My offering. / And this is the offering which you shall take from [what is] with them: gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats hair; rams skins dyed red and dolphins skins, and acacia wood; / oil for the lighting, spices for the anointing oil and the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the cape and for the breast piece. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary (mikdash) v’shakhanti b’tocham – that I may dwell among them.

Note that the verse says: that I may dwell among themnot that I may dwell in it. The construction of the Mishkan – literally, ‘dwelling’ – is an exercise in community building in which each individual offers their gifts with a willing heart to the collective enterprise.[12]

Imagine the scene: the profusion of wonderful, varied gifts: some glittering in the sunlight; others radiating deep plush colours; a plurality of fabrics and textures and scents. And let us also imagine that these varied and beautiful gifts are expressions of the variety of the individuals, who bring them.

So, who were these individuals, who gave their offerings for the building of that glorious tent with a willing heart? The answer seems obvious: the Israelites; the descendants of Jacob/Israel and his family. But the wilderness journey we find in the Torah was not the journey of a people, with a singular identity. The ex-slaves were a rabble made up of the Israelites, and erev rav – a ‘mixed multitude’ of others, who made the dash to freedom with them.[13] The individuals who brought their magnificently varied gifts were also themselves magnificently varied. It was the experience of fleeing the house of bondage that enabled them to cooperate together to forge a community and to build a framework of meaning and a sense of connection.

The differences between individuals, who nonetheless collaborate together, cannot be overstated. In their German translation of the Hebrew Bible, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translated the key verse that expresses the obligation of individuals to one another, V’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha; Ani Adonai – ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ (Leviticus 19:18), as: ‘Love your neighbour as one who is like you.[14] By contrast with this emphasis on shared identity as the basis for relationship, the French Jewish philosopher, Emanuel Levinas, argues that we are obligated to acknowledge, above all, the otherness of the other. [15] Indeed, our responsibility to the other as other supersedes our responsibility to ourselves. He writes, for example:[16]

My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world, within the ontology of sameness.

Ontology is a philosophical concept drawn from a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being, of becoming, of existence. What Levinas is saying that there is no such thing as an essential self. The meaning of the self emerges only in relation with others, for whom we bear a responsibility.

The way in which we express that responsibility is by ‘doing’; by actively relating with others. And so we might say that while ‘being’ is passive, essentialist, separatist, individualist and isolationist, ‘doing’ is active, and potentially creative, relational, connective and collaborative. Further: while the emphasis on identity, on ‘being’, separates: it proclaims that I belong ‘here’ and you belong ‘there’; ‘doing’ unites through relationship: it has the potential of bringing a plurality of ‘others’ together and forging relationships between us. What individuals share when we engage together is not our identity and being, but rather the relationships we create. The significance of the building of the Mishkan in the wilderness is underlined by the teaching of Levinas: By contributing our individual offerings to shared endeavours, individuals generate connectivity and community. There are limits to identity, by definition. There are no limits to the possibilities for connectivity.


Conclusion: Towards Rainbow Judaism

Intriguingly, the Jewish emphasis on ‘doing’ is echoed in gender and queer theory, the post-modern incarnations of feminist thought and gay discourse that emerged in the 1990s. Gender and queer theory understand that gender is socially constructed, and that ‘identities’ are not essential and fixed, but rather, who we are, is expressed by what we do – and what we do is varied and subject to change. Perhaps the most influential work in this arena was Judith Butler’s ground-breaking book, Gender Trouble, published in 1990.[17] While the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s advocated for females as it challenged male power, crucially, queer and gender theory provide a theoretical framework for pluralist expressions of LGBT existence. Moreover, the emergence of the Q (Queer) category, creates a bridge that enables heterosexuals, who do not regard the way they live as mainstream, to become part of the ‘queer’ embrace. In this way, the rainbow flag has the potential to become a rallying emblem for all those who choose to challenge patriarchy and its coercive social norms.

This is where we come in: we; a plural pronoun, expressing plurality in its broadest sense: women who are plural; plural genders and sexualities; plural Jewish religious, spiritual and cultural expressions; plural experiences and life situations. In recent years, feminism has found new life, invigorated by young women struggling against male definitions, expectations and sexual objectification. Unlike the feminism of the 1970s and 80s, this new feminism is not just for women, and is attracting young men who are also troubled by gender normative stereotypes. Similarly, nowadays, rainbows are not simply for LGBTQ Jews – that is, individuals who adopt an LGBTQ identity. The rainbow extends to encompass all of us – LGBTQIQ+ – when we let go of the fixed singular notions of identity that constrain us, and participate in building tents of meeting. This is how we – all of us together – generate Rainbow Judaism: Jewish life that embraces diversity and is dynamic and inclusive.

And so, as we gather together as Bet Debora, ‘the House of Deborah’, for our shared endeavours, like the Israelites and the mixed multitude before us, determined to escape tyranny, let us rise to a new challenge: to return to the wilderness of the world as a bold company of nomads, setting up and dismantling our tents, ever-ready to offer hospitality to others along the way.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

[1] This paper was delivered at the 7th International Bet Debora Conference of European Jewish Women, Activists, Academics, Artists and Rabbis, ‘Engendering Jewish Politics – Redefining the Role of Women.’ The conference was held at the High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, April 16-19, 2015.    Bet Debora: ‘House of Deborah’ – a rendering of the Hebrew: Beit D’vorah.

[2] From ‘Knowing No Bounds – Or, What’s a Nice Jewish Lesbian Doing Holding the Sefer-Torah?’ First published in Shifra – Jewish Feminist Magazine, issue 1, December 1984. Included in Trouble-Making Judaism by Elli Tikvah Sarah (David Paul Books, 2012, pp.125-6). The Shifra collective: Jane Black, Bev Gold, Linda Bellos, Marilyn Fetcher, Riva Krut, Libby Lawsn, Scarlet Pollock, Leah Ruth, Sheila Saunders and Elizabeth Sarah (Elli Tikvah Sarah – I adopted Tikvah, ‘Hope’, as my middle name in 1998).

[3] Breaching the Peace: A Collection of Radical Feminist Papers (Onlywomen Press, London, 1984). Most of the papers here were written for a radical feminist half-day workshop called “The Women’s Liberation Movement versus The Women’s Peace Movement or How Dare You Presume I Went to Greenham?” held at ‘A Woman’s Place’ in London on April 10, 1983.

[4] For the classic presentation of ‘lesbian nation’, see Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution by Jill Johnston (Simon and Schuster, 1973).

[5] The other lesbian who entered the Leo Baeck College at the same time as I did in 1984 was Sheila Shulman, who sadly, died in 2014 – Zichronah livrachah – May her memory be for blessing. Sheila and I were both part of the same Jewish Lesbian group, but, interestingly, did not talk together about applying to study for the rabbinate.

[6] See the Preface to my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, London, 2012), for an account of my experience. An earlier account, ‘Being a Lesbian Rabbi’, was included in Lesbian Rabbis. The First Generation edited by Rebecca T. Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell and Shirley Idelson (Rutgers University Press, 2001).

[7] Sheila Shulman and I were ordained on July 9, 1989. Since then, a further twelve Rainbow Rabbis have received s’mikhah from LBC, and four others have contributed their talents, who were ordained elsewhere. That’s 19 so far – over 20% of the combined Liberal and Reform rabbinate in Britain. In chronological order, the LBC ordinands are – Rabbis: Lionel Blue (1958), Sheila Shulman (1989), Elli Tikvah Sarah (1989), Indigo Jonah Raphael [Melinda Michelson Carr] (1996), Alex Dukhovny (1999), Erlene Wahlhaus – zichronah livrachah – May her memory be for blessing (1999), Michael Pertz (2000), James Baaden (2001), Irit Shillor (2002), Shulamit Ambalu (2004), Judith Levitt (2009), David Mitchell (2009), Judith Rosen-Berry (2009), Anna Gerrard (2011) and Rene Pfertzel (2014). And those who were ordained elsewhere – Rabbis: Mark Solomon, Roderick Young, Ariel Friedlander and Hillel Athias-Robles (who is now in New York).

[8] Liberal Judaism – a movement founded in Britain in 1902. See ‘Liberal’ or ‘Progressive’ Judaism as a worldwide phenomenon, first emerged in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century.

[9] One of these ‘borderlands’ is the borderland of Jewish Christian Muslim encounter. For my reflections on this ‘borderland’, see my chapter: ‘In the footsteps of Dinah; a Feminist Perspective on JewishChristian/Muslim Dialogue’, in: Beyond the Dysfunctional Family. Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue with Each Other and with Britain , edited by Tony Bayfield, Alan Race, Ataullah Siddiqui (The Manor House Abtahamic Dialogue Group, London, 2012).

[10] Martin Buber. The Way of the Bible. (Bialik Institute, Jerusalem, 1964, pp.54-58). Hebrew. Nehama Leibowitz outlines Buber’s seven correspondences in her Studies in Shemot (Exodus), Part II, Terumah 2, pp. 479-481 (The World Zionist Organizations, Jerusalem, 1981).

[11] Mishkan, meaning ‘Dwelling Place’, is often translated as ‘Tabernacle’. Another name used in the Torah account, as we see in the passage from T’rumah, Exodus 25: 8, is Mikdash, meaning ‘Sanctuary.’ Elsewhere the Torah also refers to Ohel Mo’eid, ‘the Tent of Meeting’. The Ohel Mo’eid is presented, both, as another name for the Mishkan, and as a place distinct from the Mishkan, which Moses would pitch up outside the camp – see, e.g., Exodus 33:9-11.

[12] See Chapter 11, ‘Empowering Individuals and Creating Community’ in Trouble-Making Judaism.

[13] Exodus 12:38.

[14] In his treatise, The Star of Redemption Franz Rosenzweig provides an insight into this translation: ‘…. Your neighbour is ‘like you.’ …. ‘Like you,’ and thus not ‘you.’ You remain You and remain just that. But he is not to remain a He for you, and thus a mere It for your You. Rather he is like You, like your You, a You like You, an I – a soul.’ [My emphasis]

[15] For an exploration of the differences between Levinas and Buber, see: Levinas and Buber: Dialogue and Difference edited by Peter Atterton, Matthew Calarco, and Maurice Friedman. Duquesne University Press, 2004.

[16] From: ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’, a series of interviews conducted, edited, and translated by Richard Kearney, and reviewed by Levinas. Reprinted in Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard A. Cohen. State University of New York Press, 1986, pp.23-24.

[17] Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (Routledge, 1990).