“See This Day”: Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Shabbat R’eh Friday August 14, 2020

Imagine that this is the year 1848. The first women’s rights convention has just been held in Seneca Falls, New York – which produced a “Declaration of Sentiments” that included a demand for American women to have the right to vote.[1]

Imagine that you are attending a women’s rights rally in the days that follow Seneca Falls – maybe in New York, maybe in Boston or Philadelphia.

You are there, of course, to see the suffragist Susan B. Anthony, who already is famous for her passion and her idealism. And of course you’re hoping to get a glimpse at her famously radical bloomer dress, which consisted of pantaloons tucked under a scandalous knee-high dress.

A century and a half before there was any such thing as a “social media influencer,” you’d be able to spot Susan B. Anthony in a second. Anybody would.

But you might be overlooking that slightly older woman standing next to her. Like Anthony, she was also an abolitionist – championing enfranchisement for both blacks and women. Unlike Anthony – and most of the other more famous suffragists – she was Jewish.

Ernestine Rose was actually born to a traditional Jewish family in Poland – the daughter of a rabbi, no less.

But she rebelled against the customs and strictures of her family and community, and migrated to Western Europe and then to the United States in search of her own freedom.

Ernestine Rose was by no means the only Jewish woman who was a leader of the suffragist movement. There was also Hannah Greenbaum Solomon, who was the first president of the National Council of Jewish women, and Maud Nathan, who got involved in women’s issues through her work in progressive activism and labor movements. And many more.

With all that, however, there wasn’t a single Jewish women’s organization that took the lead in demanding or endorsing suffrage. According to Melissa Klapper’s article on American suffrage in the Jewish Women’s Archives, “Neither the Ladies Auxiliary of the socialist Workmen’s Circle nor Haddasah formally endorsed suffrage until 1917 and the National Council of Jewish Women never did so.”

Now, that’s pretty shocking to those of us who know the impact these organizations have had on women’s lives.

But Klapper, in her article, suggests three reasons this was the case. First: These groups held a lot of local programs in the south, where white women – as well as men – feared the enfranchisement of Black women. Second, many women might have opposed their organization taking on an overtly political agenda. And third: antisemitism was rife in the women’s suffrage movement and had been for decades.

Like modern-day leftist coalitions that single out Jews for criticism and isolation under the guise of intersectionality, elements of the supposedly progressive women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th century publicly despised Jewish women.

This was especially true during the mass migration to America of poor eastern European Jews who flooded the streets of New York and other large cities.

Within the organized Jewish world, there was quite a bit of support for women’s suffrage, based often on the Biblical examples of the prophetess Deborah and of Queen Esther, who put herself in danger to save the lives of her fellow Persian Jews.

And so it was with the Jewish leadership of socialist parties, trade-unions and working-class communities – who saw and adopted women’s suffrage as another facet in the struggle for power and dignity for every person.

As Klapper points out, the Jewish tradition of social justice – of equal treatment for every human being – also played a role here. It’s a tradition that plays a prominent place, as well, in this week’s Torah portion.

The parashah – R’eh, the fourth portion in the Book of Deuteronomy – is ostensibly about communal worship and the annual cycle of the ritual calendar. But, tellingly, the portion both begins and ends with a command that is powerfully and intentionally inclusive.

R’eh! – the parashah begins.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Adonai your God.

The first few paragraphs adjure the Israelites not only to reject the pagan worship practices of the Canaanites on the other side of the Jordan river, but to actively destroy their altars.

The rest encourages joyous celebrations of accepted worship practice throughout the Israelite community, starting with this command:

“And you shall rejoice before Adonai your God with your sons and daughters and with your male and female slaves, along with [the family of] the Levite in your settlements” (Deut. 12:12). The parallel command at the end of the parashah adds in “the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities” (Deut. 16:11).

Male and female, young and old, Jewish and not, those of means and those without, those with families and those without. Everyone is to be included.

Now: I should point out that there is one oddity – one omission – that’s common to both of these verses: Neither one of them explicitly mentions wives in the celebration. Were wives automatically included? The Hebrew makes it hard to tell. The first verse is written in the plural and the second is in the singular – but both are written in the Bible’s default mechanism of masculine language. [2]

There is, however, one hint: This phrase that appears earlier on, at the very beginning of the portion to introduce the notion of festive celebration:

You shall feast there before your God Adonai, together with your households אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם  – happy in all the undertakings in which Adonai your God has blessed you. [Deut. 12:7]

אַתֶּם וּבָתֵּיכֶם  That’s key phrase here:  “you and your households.” Who all is in the household? And why would the wife specifically not be mentioned when daughters, female slaves and widows are?

In an essay to the Women’s Torah Commentary, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert[3] points to a rabbinic tradition that when the Torah says “household” in these situations, what it actually means is “wife.”

In the Mishnah’s description of the laws of Yom Kippur, for example, Rabbi Judah himself cites Scripture (Lev. 16:6) this way:

As it says, and he shall make atonement for himself and for his house – and “his house” refers to his wife.

And she points to this quote in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 118b):

Rabbi Yosei said that he always spoke euphemistically: In all my days, I did not call my wife, my wife, nor my ox, my ox. Rather, I called my wife, my home – בֵּיתִי, — because she is the essence of the home, and my ox, my field, because it is the primary force in the fields.

Yes, there are – in traditional Judaism – time-bound mitzvot like the offerings given for the altar that only apply to men, based on this same section of Torah. But those are the mitzvot that don’t even apply in a post-Temple world. And the predominant mitzvah of celebration includes us all.

I think that this parashah is not just about festivals. It’s really about the bayit, the Jewish home – the essential building block of Jewish community and Jewish history. And its goal is to establish, from the bayit outward, equality and inclusion as building-blocks of Jewish life.

One hundred years after the passage of the 19th amendment – an anniversary we celebrate this coming Tuesday – we marvel at the strength and the courage of the women who battled for most of their lives to achieve women’s suffrage. We marvel, especially, at the Jewish women – who not only had to face down the power of the patriarchy, but also of rampant hatred against them – even among other women. Because they were immigrants. Because they were Jewish. Because they didn’t fit someone else’s definition of what it meant to be a true American.

And we recognize that these battles are still being fought a century later. Women still are not fairly represented in government or in business; women are still not promoted at the levels men are; women are still not paid anywhere near what men are.

So we continue to fight this millennia-long Jewish battle for social justice and individual dignity that is rooted in the Torah itself. We fight for legislation. For education. For equal pay.

We fight for ourselves. And we also fight alongside so many others who also don’t fit into narrow, and narrow-minded, definitions of what it means to be a true American.

We Jewish American women take pride in our foremothers – those of the 19th and 20th centuries and those thousands of years ago – Miriam and Deborah and Esther and all the unknown women in unremembered Jewish communities who demanded attention, and justice, and equality.

We know we deserve it. And we know that the Torah says so.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will – and our continuing mission. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin





[1] Much of this material comes from the Jewish Women’s Archive’s article “Suffrage in the United States” by Melissa R. Klapper, accessed at https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/suffrage-in-the-united-states

[2] See The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), in the footnotes to both of these verses on pages 1119 and 1133.

[3] See “Post-biblical Interpretations” in The Women’s Commentary, pp. 1134-1136

One thought on ““See This Day”: Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Shabbat R’eh Friday August 14, 2020

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