It has been an incredible week for Jewish women. The confirmation of Elena Kagan as the next Supreme Court justice, bringing the total number of women to three and the total number of Jewish women to two, has the effect on me of lighting fireworks in my soul. Despite all the rubbish women have to put up with in society and in Judaism, this is a moment when I can put that all aside and think, “Yes, Jewish women can!”
One of the greatest moments for me in the process that began with President Obama’s May 10 announcement of her nomination, was watching law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler on PBS NewsHour analyze the significance of her appointment. After coolly describing some of her many strengths — pragmatism, moderation, swift negotiation, mental agility, and wit — he diverted from his dispassion, smiled and said, “She’s brilliant and she’s charming!” Wow, I thought. Really smart people love and appreciate her. That is just so wonderful.
As the congressional confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan take center stage, one headline leapt out in its oddity: “Jewish Clergy Group: Elena Kagan Isn’t ‘Kosher’ to Serve on Supreme Court.”
Indeed, a group called the Rabbinical Alliance of America is calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee not to confirm Kagan. Spokesman Rabbi Yehuda Levin said that “a great deal has been made about the fact that she would be the second Jewish woman on the court, and we want to signal to people across the country that we take no pride in this.”
He continued with the following pearls of wisdom. “We feel that Elena Kagan turns traditional Judaism on its head — from a concept of a nation of priests and holy people, she is turning it into, ‘Let’s homosexualize every segment of society. And by the way, partial-birth babies have no right to be delivered.’”
It is indeed horrific that even one rabbi, let alone an alliance of rabbis, would use the excuse of a Jewish nominee to hammer at their obsessive opposition to homosexuality and abortion. The group Levin represents claims to include “800+ members … congregational leaders, religious teachers, chaplains, heads of Jewish organizations and communal leaders.”
• Maureen Dowd, writing that Elena Kagan “as resigned herself to a cloistered, asexual existence,” suggests that the nominee for the Supreme Court join JDate.
• The online Jewish women’s magazine 614 is out with a new issue all about the Jewish psyche. It features pieces about psychoanalysis’ Jewish roots, a social worker who combines handwriting analysis with Jewish mysticism, and what Jewish women talk about with their therapists.
One of the biggest questions Jewish groups and feminists have debated since the nomination of Elena Kagan is whether it’s possible to effect genuine but incremental change from within or more desirable to work outside the system. This kind of insider/outsider anxiety is particularly potent for contemporary Jews, who are mindful of our historical status as outsiders but fascinated when one of us gets a place in the halls of power (See the excitement over David Axelrod.) From her bat mitzvah onward, Kagan has never presented herself as someone who stood at the gates and demanded revolution. Instead, she’s someone who has marched through the gates, climbed the ladder inside, and been pragmatic once she got there.
As a result, she’s made a lot of compromises. Her roots, her much-debated senior thesis and a few hints suggest to many that she’s “one of us” — that is, a liberal, intellectual Jew with high-minded ideals. And yet the endless shroud of mystery over her genuine political passions and her reputation as a compromiser has led to lots of suspicion from the progressive Jews and feminists who have, in their own lives, taken the risk of putting their strong, sometimes unpopular beliefs on display. As
In honor of Shavuot, the Jerusalem Post printed a special supplement on “The Fifty Most Influential Jews in the World” — and there are only seven women in the list.
A woman doesn’t even make an appearance until number 10 — US Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Bizarrely, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes in at a mere 22, which makes me wonder why a nominee (no offense Ms. Kagan, I’m a big fan) is presumed to have more influence than an actual, sitting Supreme Court justice.
The other five Jewish women who made the list are: Israel Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch (#20), biochemist and professor Ruth Arnon (#29), businesswoman and philanthropist Shari Arinson (#41), French politician Simone Veil (#42), and South African Bank Governor Gill Marcus (#44).
I’ve been loving the coverage of Elena Kagan’s youthful challenge of her rabbi over her right to have a bat mitzvah. I love it because it confirms what I’ve always believed — that the chutzpah of young girls is not just pre-teen attitude but a sign of inner strength and a harbinger of great things to come (and I say this not only in a self-serving way as a former obnoxious girl-child or as the mother of a burgeoning one).
I also love it because it places Kagan in a long line of daring Jewish women who, early on in life, honed their sense of justice and right to protest in confrontation with religious leaders. I’m thinking of Bella Abzug, who at age 12, insisted on saying kaddish for her father despite the fact that it was customarily recited only by sons. Or Emma Goldman, who chafed openly against the authority of the teachers at her religious elementary school in Königsberg.
But one of the other things that has struck me in the coverage of Kagan’s bat mitzvah is that men in power often get the credit for changes sparked by a young woman’s chutzpah.
While there’s a lot of immediate excitement in the progressive Jewish and feminist communities about Elena Kagan’s nomination — Jewish! Female! Liberal! Possibly gay! — her lack of experience as a judge leaves many people guessing as to what legal and political principles Kagan stands for. Meanwhile, we cultural critics ponder what her nomination symbolizes in terms of women’s progress.
Personally, I can’t help but be a little pleased that a strong Upper West Side-reared Jewish woman (like me!) has made it thus far. It’s also plain exciting that the nomination of a woman is now becoming routine. Meanwhile the optics of Kagan sitting on the bench along with two other woman, another Jewish one and a (wise) Latina one, are hard to beat. As Jessica Grose at Slate wrote, the nominee’s blatant, longtime ambition should serve as a clarion call for women that it’s okay to stake out your territory and demand success. Still, Sisterhood contributor Deborah Kolben writes that such ambition, combined with the fact that both Kagan and Sotomayor have not had children, still sends women the message that you can’t be successful and be a mother at the same time.
Beyond the implications for women, there are a lot of questions swirling around about just what kind of justice Kagan would be.
It’s hard not to get excited about the nomination of Elena Kagan to replace Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. If seated, she would bring the number of women on the Supreme Court to three, the number of Jewish women to two, and the total number of Jews on the bench to three. On paper, Kagan’s a great choice. An Upper West Side girl who went to public school and then off to Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she became the first woman to be named the Dean of the Law School. And then she became the first woman to serve as Solicitor General of the United States.
You go girl!
Of course, it’s also hard to miss that the two women nominated to the Supreme Court have one thing in common — neither one is married or has children. So the obvious question is whether it’s impossible to be ambitious to the extreme and have a family? Sure, the first two women to serve as Supreme Court justices are both mothers, but some are skeptical.
As we anticipate the possible Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan — she is Jewish, pro-choice and said to be on Obama’s short-list — pro-choice activists are preparing themselves for a tough, abortion-focused confirmation process, no matter who is nominated.
Meanwhile, a recent Newsweek article has generated heated online debate, by positing that there’s an “intensity gap” between young women in favor of abortion rights and their elders, whose activism was forged during the pre-Roe era. Not only that, but young pro-choicers are far less motivated than their anti-abortion counterparts, according to new data from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The NARAL survey of young people found that ” the millennials surveyed didn’t view abortion as an imperiled right in need of defenders. “
For young self-identified feminists, the reaction to the article was “not again.” For years, young feminists have taken to blogs to write about feeling ignored, counted out or lumped in with the apathetic masses by their elders.