Author Archives: Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg

About Blu Greenberg

Blu Greenberg is the founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She was also the Conference Chair of both the first and second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy. She is the author of Black Bread: Poems After the Holocaust, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, and On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.

Turning Our Attention Outward

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

At one level, the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals—Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot—celebrate our most intimate communal moments. Beginning with their agricultural origins, the festivals summon up images of tribal relatives working the land together and Israelites traveling to the Jerusalem Temple in family units, arriving en masse at appointed times so as to connect to one another as members of the same covenantal community. On the festivals, echoes of one people sharing a common experience of planting, harvesting and giving thanks to God reverberate in our memories.



The second set of ties that bind us together are the historical narratives of the festivals. Each has its own strong story. Pesach recounts the miracle of liberation of our slave ancestors, a story we not only tell at the seder, but also carry with us every day in our prayers and every week in our Shabbat rituals. Sukkot represents our people’s journey towards freedom in the Promised Land—a vulnerable minority huddling together in booths and placing our faith in God. Shavuot, too, is understood by the Rabbis of the Talmud to commemorate Revelation at Sinai, that singular event that shaped the lives of our people forever.

All of these themes represent Jewish particularity through its peak experiences. Yet, at another level, the holidays also represent the ways in which Judaism looks outward to the rest of the world. The Talmud records the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that the 70 sacrifices brought on Sukkot were brought on behalf of the 70 nations of the world (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 55b). Similarly, the experience and memory of slavery that we recall on Pesach serves as the basis for the many commandments that require us to care for the stranger.

Shavuot, too, exemplifies this external focus, both in its agricultural and historical narratives. The Torah links Shavuot to the laws of leket, shich’chah and peah—laws of controlled and compassionate harvesting. Immediately following the laws of Shavuot (related to the harvest, sacrifices, first fruits and the waving of the loaves), the Torah issues this commandment: “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the strangers living among you. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:22). Although these laws of leket are given elsewhere in the Torah, here they are joined to the very sanctity of the Shavuot festival.

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The Deepest Response of Love

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

All Israel is a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Some among them are priests of priests. At the top of the priestly pyramid stands Aaron, the kohein gadol (high priest). The kohein gadol is vested with considerable power and responsibility. Though everything is new–and no models exist for him to follow–Aaron carries out his role with great competency and dignity as he offers up the first sacrifices to God.
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In Parashat Sh’mini, we find ourselves with Aaron and his family at an exhilarating moment. It is the climactic eighth day of dedication of the Tabernacle.

Exultant and joyful, Aaron and his sons bless the people–and the glory of God appears before all. A fire of heavenly origin consumes the sacrifices in their entirety; the people fall on their faces in awe and love of God. Aaron’s joy must surely be overflowing.

Suddenly, the scene turns into heartbreak. Though not commanded to do so, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s elder sons, put incense into pans and bring it as an offering. Instantly, a fire of God leaps out and consumes them. Aaron is devastated. These two sons were outstanding young men: they were deemed worthy of ascending Mt. Sinai in a most prestigious order—after Moses and Aaron, and before the 70 elders—and worthy of participating in the festive meal at which God’s face was shown (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).

Crime and Punishment?

What could have happened? We struggle to understand. Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire? Perhaps they were acting out of enthusiasm and desire to serve. Perhaps they were overcome simply by the pure joy of being in the presence of God-and wished only to increase awe in the hearts of the people. And even if they were guilty of not following God’s word to the last, did not their father Aaron have credit in the storehouse of good deeds? Was there not some milder punishment that could have been meted out on the scale, such as that meted out to other miscreants in the Torah?

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Betty Friedan

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Reprinted with permission from the JTA.

She was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006) was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a “take no prisoners” position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Universal Woman, Particular Jew

She was universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in The Feminine Mystique, her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends–to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

Yet this complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read The Feminine Mystique or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? How was it that she changed my own life–for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the 60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

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Mezuzah

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Reprinted with permission from How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, published by Simon & Schuster.

A Jewish household is created by the people who live in it–by the way they act, the things they do and don’t do, the beliefs they hold. To a great extent, a Jewish way of life is a portable faith: you can take it with you anywhere you go. This is true for Shabbat, kashrut, Taharat Hamishpachah [family purity laws], daily prayer, and study of Torah

It is generally accepted that Judaism as a religion is more oriented to holiness of time than holiness of place. There are many occasions we sanctify, but very few places we call holy.

Is that the whole truth? Not at all, for the very place in which we live, our permanent residence, is sanctified. This is achieved through a very concrete ritual, through the mitzvah of mezuzah.

Origins

Mezuzah is of Biblical origin and therefore carries great weight. “And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9, 11:20). What is to be inscribed? Divine instruction is very clear: “The words that I shall tell you this day”: that you shall love your God, believe only in Him, keep His commandments, and pass all of this on to your children.

Thus, a mezuzah has come to refer also to the parchment, or klaf, on which the verses of the Torah are inscribed (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21). Mezuzah refers as well to the case or container in which the parchment is enclosed. A mezuzah serves two functions: every time you enter or leave, the mezuzah reminds you that you have a covenant with God; second, the mezuzah serves as a symbol to everyone else that this particular dwelling is constituted as a Jewish household, operating by a special set of rules, rituals, and beliefs.

Before describing the act of affixing a mezuzah, let us examine some of its attendant laws:

The klaf must be hand-lettered by a kosher scribe–one who is observant of halakhah (Jewish law) and who qualifies for the task. The case or container, on the other hand, has not special requirements. It can be purchased or homemade; it can be of any size or shape or material. The scroll is rolled up from left to right so that when it is unrolled the first words appear first. The scroll is inserted into the container but should not be permanently sealed because twice in seven years the parchment should be opened and inspected to see if any of the letters have faded or become damaged.

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Eruv & Women

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The author, when writing about the familiar Jewish ambience of her own childhood and adulthood, uses the traditional Ashkenazi terms for Shabbat (“Shabbos”) and for synagogue (“shul”). Reprinted with permission from How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, published by Simon & Schuster.

Jewish law forbids the carrying of objects into the public domain on Shabbat; it doesn’t matter if the object is as light as a handkerchief or a house key or as heavy as a book of Talmud. Nor can one push a baby carriage or stroller, or even carry a baby who cannot walk by himself or herself. 

This law can definitely clip one’s wings! Particularly with babies, one can feel “locked in” on a Shabbat. But Jews have found a way to resolve it; or, rather, several ways. One way is by having objects that one needs outside of the home available at the other end of the line. For example: having prayer books and Bibles at a synagogue for everyone who comes is a solution to a Jew’s not being permitted to carry his/her own siddur (prayer book) through the streets.

eruv and womenWhen I was a teenager, I would periodically apply my talents toward finding a good safe hiding spot for my comb and lipstick in the small ladies’ room of my shul. I couldn’t carry these items, and yet there was no way on earth I would walk into shul without recombing after the ten-minute walk there. So I had to provide for these things properly. Best friends were those girls to whom you would tell where your “Shabbos comb and lipstick” were hidden. When I married, and moved away, I left my comb and lipstick in place. It was like leaving a small part of me behind in the shul of my youth. I wonder if it’s still in place. I know no one is looking anymore, because an eruv has since been put up in that neighborhood.

A second solution is to have craftsmen create things like Shabbos keys. A key, nicely gilded, is affixed to a belt buckle or tie clip or pin back; thus, it becomes part of a person’s clothing or jewelry on which there is no restriction of carrying. One would also tie a handkerchief around the wrist rather than carry it in a pocket. Some of this seems ludicrous to an outsider, but it is all part of the total commitment of an Orthodox Jew.

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Halakha and Feminism

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The following article is excerpted and reprinted with permission from On Women and Judaism, published by the Jewish Publication Society. Originally published in the early 1980s, its depictions of the state of feminism in general, and Orthodox feminism in particular, are somewhat dated. Nevertheless, this classic essay captures many of the important issues at the core of the encounter between feminism and Jewish tradition. Specifically, Greenberg argues for retaining an allegiance to Jewish law while also shaping it to be more inclusive of women and responsive to women’s ethical claims.

We who are committed to traditional Judaism are standing today at the crossroads on the question of women. Feminism disturbs our previous equilibrium, for it makes a fundamental claim about women contrary to the model generated by halakhah [Jewish law].gender quiz 

Principles of Feminism

The feminist ideology can be summed up as follows:

1. Women have the same innate potential, capability, and needs as men, whether in the realm of the spirit, the word, or the deed.

2. Women have a similar capacity for interpretation and con­comitant decision-making.

3. Women can function fully as “outside” persons, in broader areas of society beyond the home.

4. Women can and should have some control over their own destinies, to the extent that such mastery is possible for anyone.

Principles of Jewish Feminism

Let us reduce these broad statements from the level of generalization to a theology of woman as Jew:

1. A woman of faith has the same innate vision and existential longing for a redemptive‑covenantal reality as a man of faith. She has the same ability and need to be in the presence of God alone and within the context of the community. Such a woman is sufficiently mature to accept the responsibilities for this relationship and the rights that flow from these responsibilities. If these spiritual gifts do not flow naturally from her soul, she can be educated and uplifted in them in much the same fashion that Jewish men are.

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Rabbinic and Post-Rabbinic Divorce

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This article describes the efforts of the talmudic and later rabbis to protect the wife in what was an inherently unequal relationship. In the medieval period rabbinic authorities continued to issue rulings that curtailed the absolute power of men vis-à-vis divorce and at the same time consistently expanded the legal rights of women. Excerpted with permission of the author from “Jewish Divorce Law” in Lilith Magazine, Summer 1977.

The rabbis were not insensitive to the inequities in biblical divorce law. In talmudic and post-talmudic literature, they articulated many elaborations and emendations of this law (as they did with biblical law touching all areas of life), which gave women greater protection. Little by little, the imbalance of biblical law was tempered by numerous restrictive rabbinic measures. Thus, the theoretical basis of the law–that divorce was a man’s God-given right–remained intact: It was not challenged but rather modified in many practical ways to neutralize its force. 

We can see this pattern–which characterizes much of rabbinic action, or nonaction, for many ensuing centuries–begin to emerge in an early rabbinic dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai (first century B.C.E.). Shammai, the strict constructionist of biblical law, maintained that the scriptural words ervat davar [meaning “some fault or indecency,” which was the standard biblical grounds for divorce] meant, literally and exclusively, “adultery.” Thus, a woman’s infidelity was the only legitimate grounds for divorce. Hillel, known as a liberal because he generally interpreted Scripture more broadly, interpreted ervat davar as anything that was offensive to the husband. As in most disputes, rabbinic law followed Hillel.

divorce in judaismFor the next few centuries, major talmudists reiterated the principle of the unrestricted right of the husband to divorce his wife. The opposing view restricting this right made itself felt in the many critical moral judgments against divorce (such as Rabbi Yohanan’s statement that “He who divorces his wife is hated by God”) and in the growing number of curbs on a man’s absolute right.

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Divorce in the Bible

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Excerpted with permission of the author from “Jewish Divorce Law” in Lilith Magazine, summer 1977.

A year ago, while on a sabbatical in Israel with my husband and children, we employed a Yemenite woman of 33 as an ozeret (housekeeper). During the course of the year, she went through a costly divorce. While both Tikvah and Shmuel wanted the divorce, as he got closer to the rabbinic courts he began to sense what he did not know before–that he had great power over her.divorce quiz 

What had started out as a fairly just settlement turned ugly. Little by little, his demands accelerated. Finally, Tikvah’s lawyer told her to sign over to him her half of the apartment’s eventual resale rights and be through with him; otherwise, the case would drag through the rabbinic courts for years. And that is what she did. Despite some flashes of resentment, she considered herself lucky.

Traditional Jewish divorce law points up two things: how much change has taken place during the evolution of this halakhah (Jewish legal system) and how much further development it needs to serve women more equitably and indiscriminately.

According to biblical law, a man is permitted to divorce his wife at will and send her away from his home. The second aspect highlights biblical women’s vulnerability: economic, physical, and psychological uprooting faced the woman who displeased her husband sufficiently to cause him to divorce her. She had no leverage to prevent or refuse the divorce. Neither could she divorce him.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if she finds no favor in his eyes because of ervat davar (some fault or indecency) and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house–and she marries another man, and the latter… writes her a bill of divorce… or dies–then her former husband cannot marry her again because she has been defiled… ” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Yet there were qualifications, important because the rabbis who interpreted biblical law for later generations built the legal structure on them.

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Writing & Delivering the Get

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Excerpted with permission of the author from "Jewish Divorce Law" in Lilith Magazine, Summer, 1977.

A Jewish divorce goes something like this: After all attempts at reconciliation have failed, and the husband and wife have either been granted a civil divorce or have mutually agreed to seek one, they arrange to appear before a beit din, a Jewish court of law. The beit din consists of three rabbis, each of whom is an expert in the intricate laws of gittin, Jewish divorce.

Since Jewish divorce is not a decree of the court but rather a transaction between two parties, various authorities maintain that a single expert suffices. (The prevalent custom in America is to require only one rabbi.) In either case, a sofer (scribe) and two male witnesses must also be present. The wife will often bring along a friend to help her get through the trying time; so will the husband. The appointment with the beit din or officiating rabbi can be scheduled by one’s own rabbi, lawyer, or by the parties themselves.

Writing the Get

First the scribe must write the writ of divorce. Before he begins the actual writing, however, he makes a formal gift of his materials to the husband, who must authorize the writing of the get on his behalf. The husband lifts the writing materials and offers them back to the sofer, saying, "I give you this paper, ink, and pen and all the writing material, and I instruct you to write for me a get to divorce my wife."

The sofer hand-letters the get, filling in the details such as the names of the two parties, the city, the time, and the standard text of the writ of divorce in which the husband attests to divorcing his wife and setting her free to marry any other man. It generally takes an hour for the scribe to write the get in Hebrew lettering, during which time the man and woman to be divorced usually wait in separate rooms.

Questioning the Participants

After the sofer finishes his writing task, he and the witnesses make a distinguishing mark on the get. The witnesses read the document and affix their signatures to it. One of the three rabbis of the beit din will then ask the following questions:

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Shopping for Kosher Food

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This article is supplemented by articles on buying kosher meat and fish. The author’s list of symbols of approved kashrut laboratories has been replaced with a hyperlink to a more up-to-date list, for which the author is not responsible. Reprinted with permission from How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, published by Simon & Schuster.

What we bring into our homes is as important as how we prepare it. Oddly enough, the more sophis­ticated and extensive the prepared-food industry becomes, the more cautious an Orthodox Jew must be about reading labels. Not only must we ascertain if a food is meat or dairy, but nowa­days there are preservatives and additives used in almost every type of prepared food that is on the market. Some of these addi­tives are made of dairy or meat or nonkosher by-products such as gelatin from a nonkosher animal.

shopping for kosher foodA seemingly harmless little olive thrown casually into a salad could disqualify that salad for a meat meal: olives are often prepared with lactic acid, which makes them dairy, and therefore unusable with a meat meal; or shortening marked pure vegetable shortening can contain stearic acid, which is derived from nonkosher animals; or peanut but­ter, which might include a glyceride of nonkosher origin.

What is a Hechsher? What Are All Those Symbols?

So there is an art to buying kosher. The easiest way is to “let Chaim Yankel do it.” To save any hassle, some Jews will shop only in a store that sells kosher products exclusively. One doesn’t have to read fine-print labels; even the words meat, dairy, or parve are stamped in legible letters on all prepared foods.

The alternative is to buy in regular supermarkets but to check all prepared foods for the seal of rabbinic supervision. What it means is that there is a reliable independent supervisor (mash­giach), a person who is knowledgeable in laws of kashrut, who spends time at the plant overseeing the entire process, from re­ceipt of the new foodstuffs to shipment of the finished products. There are a number of registered kashrut symbols to look for. Among them are [those listed at http://www.kashrut.com/agencies/].None of these symbols should be confused with ®, which does not mean Orthodox rabbis; it means registered trademark. For reliability of the above certifications, one should check with one’s own rabbi.

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