Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks. March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights. How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies. We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.
I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves. But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.
This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech. On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech. This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.
On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that. Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else). That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.
At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side. It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective. I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.
It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech. But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it. Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard. They set the tone for the rest of us.
A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012
There is no conformity for liberal Jewish women in the synagogue when it comes to wearing a head covering. Look around you the next time you go to a bar/bat mitzvah. How many women and post bat mitzvah girls are wearing a kippah? Is the female rabbi wearing any kind of headgear? Does it vary from denomination to denomination? Is there a growing cultural tradition that is evolving in the 21st century? Are Jewish women being shaped by what we wear or don’t wear on the bimah?
Enter Diaspora Girl, a website that sells sassy headcoverings for the girl who wants to “rock” on a Shabbat morning at the local temple. The site asks women to decide between “those flimsy little white things at the door of the shul that look like Thanksgiving turkey decorations” and their affordable and spiritual hip designer hats. If you are a modern Jewish girl who likes the idea of ritual headgear, but you are “cognizant of the fact that traditional kippot look about as cool on women as sandals with black socks look on men” then these hand-made gems are calling you to take action with a credit card.
What is a Diaspora Girl? According to the owner, Rina Barz Nehdar, a diaspora girl is someone who refuses to conform to the mainstream. They have their own thing going on and the power and the chutzpah to stand out from the crowd.
“The women most attracted to my product are women who are trying to find their niche in the Jewish world without giving up their individuality,” writes Nehdar.
Diaspora’s funky and feminine kippot are crocheted from cotton and/or cashmere and are adorned with beads, sequins and ribbons. Each style has a fun name, “Dreamcatcher,” “Japanese Blossom,” Goldilocks and “Belladonna.” Women like choices in their style of headgear. A skullcap by every other name looks and feels ritually different.
Are they cooler to wear than hats or kippot for women? Do they really prevent “hat hair”? Inquiring heads want to know!
When I began leading Shabbat services during rabbinical school, I dressed up for prayer. A weaver from Asheville, North Carolina supplied me with a dozen kippot of various shapes and colors and yarns. No black yarmulkes for me. I am a fashion-conscious female rabbi looking to distinguish myself and my wardrobe from the masculine model. My tallit matches my kippah and sometimes the color of my dress. As a rabbi pioneer on the bimah, I continue to cause a red carpet stir at the Oneg.
Today, when I walk into a reform synagogue, a kippah on a woman is an anomaly. In Conservative synagogues those white doilies are still quite popular. More women wear a tallit and a kippah during a Reconstructionist service. I continue to individuate my synagogue look. By definition, I am a diaspora girl.
My eldest daughter Na’ama wore a kippah and a tallit at her Conservative bat mitzvah in 1985. She has not worn her handmade prayer accouterments for 27 years. Perhaps these funky hip kippot will convince her to be another diaspora girl. It is never too late to begin a trend even in my own family where the heads of three girls lie in the balance. Let’s all go funky! My treat!
My daughter sings in the choir at her Jewish high school. Only her mother can attend the annual concert. I am not allowed to attend as this would violate “kol isha” hearing the voice of a woman sing. While the school certainly allows my daughter to sing, out of modesty it cannot take place in front of men.
In many Hasidic sources, based on a Zohar passage, the Exodus from Egypt is viewed as the movement from silence to speech. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was so intense that initially the people could not even respond to God and Moses’s call of redemption. They lacked the strength to simply listen to Moses. The Exodus became the restoration of the authentic Jewish voice to the People, for at Sinai they spoke loud and clear as one to accept the Torah. Moses who in Egypt complained he cannot speak well gained a full voice at Sinai and for the rest of his life. It is no accident that our annual retelling of the Exodus story at Passover is such an important verbal activity. It is precisely though telling and talking that we show we are free of the oppression from Egypt. What emerges from this is that to give someone voice is to liberate them and to suppress voice is to enslave them.
In an American context this can certainly resonate with our concern for free speech. While Jewish tradition has many laws concerning proper speech and would recoil from the repugnant nature of much of what passes today as protected free speech, nonetheless one should be very hesitant to suppress someone’s voice because that borders on enslaving them. At the same time, there is much American society could learn from the ethics of speech that plays a role in Jewish tradition.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I have followed as many have, the issues of “kol isha” hearing a women’s voice that have played out both in a singing context and even women not being allowed to present at a medical conference in Israel recently sponsored by a very important organization Puah which works on issues in fertility. While this is not the place to enter into the legal arguments, there is an underlying tension being played out between traditional understandings of modesty, unfortunately and incorrectly placed as a burden/responsibility on women, and an open society where women are full participants in the public square. At least one leading rabbi has argued for a more open understanding of this issue, but what I have seen lacking is this viewing of suppressing women’s voices as an act of oppression. It returns the woman to a form of slavery and the silencer to a type of Pharaoh. However this will play itself out in Israel and in America, this imperative of giving voice to people must begin to enter into the discussion, even as the community wrestles with the imperative of modesty.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
The words of this song reverberated in my head on Friday night as I attended a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both men are being remembered this weekend. Though from very different traditions, they became friends and fought for justice and civil rights together in the sixties.
The power of their work and the words they preached hold a special significance for me this year. Earlier in the day on Friday, I attended a meeting about female rabbis and their job placement issues. Last spring, all rabbis faced a very difficult job market, but women, older rabbis, and single rabbis had especially hard times finding jobs. Congregations gravitate towards male rabbis in their thirties who are married and have young children. The meeting I attended was to help brainstorm ways to cut through this narrow image of what a rabbinic leader looks like. Many ideas were shared; one was to have a “Diversity Shabbat” during which time congregations would learn about women rabbis. I interjected “and gay rabbis too” another woman said, “and single rabbis.” “Well, wait a minute” a voice said, “I don’t know that we want to lump together women and gay rabbis. A gay rabbi can hide that he or she is gay on a resume, but a woman can’t. We need to stand up for ourselves and protect our interests.”
I was shocked by this response. The Conservative Movement only recently decided to ordain openly gay rabbis, and it is still controversial in some circles just as women’s ordination was almost twenty years ago. (And some will argue still is.) However, I strongly believe that once the Movement decides to ordain a particular class of rabbis like, women and gays, then the Movement must support all of its rabbis and help them find jobs. For a woman rabbi, herself a minority to stand up and say that we should not be concerned with the plight of gay rabbis is abhorrent to me. We are all in a very small boat together. If we do not protect and stand up for each other, then we are all going to sink. Dr King’s famous line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks to me loud and clear.
Add to this that the meeting took place in a congregation in Bergen County New Jersey. Over the past few weeks four synagogues in the county have been vandalized. In the last event, a rabbis home was firebombed while the rabbi and his children slept inside, just as black activists homes where firebombed in the south in the sixties. Luckily the rabbi and his family escaped with only minor injuries. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/new_jersey&id=8498756 As a result of this criminal activity police are actively patrolling the streets around every synagogue in Bergen County.
Seeing a police car sitting outside of both the synagogues I attended this shabbat was at once reassuring and anxiety provoking. The anxiety came from the fact that the police felt we needed protection, and then, the fact that they were there was reassuring. It was a strange mix of emotions. I would rather the need for them to be there did not exist at all.
But there is a need. There is still a need for Jews to be protected in this country. There is still a need for African Americans to treated equally. There is still a need for homosexuals to be seen as created in God’s image like every other human being. And there is still a need for women to fight for their rights. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”
On this day when we remember the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King we need to stand up and fight for justice, for equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal pay. We cannot let minorities turn on each other as they fight over a very small slice of pie. And we cannot let hate and fear take over our communities. I hope you take some time today to both remember and to take action. What injustices affect your life? Start there and then work to help others.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
People often ask me why I decided to become a rabbi. Some would say in a condescending tone, “You want to be a rabbi? What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish girl?” In response, I would smile and say, “A very good job, thank you.” But it would not be lost on me that those who expressed this question did not think that women should be rabbis. Though I entered rabbinical school almost a decade after the Conservative Movement started ordaining women, and almost two decades after the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements had done the same, a woman becoming a rabbi was still an oddity.
My path seemed strange to almost everyone I encountered. There were no rabbis in my family, so I was not building on a family tradition, and I did not grow up going to Jewish camps or day schools. I did however have a rich Jewish home life, and discovered Jewish feminism in college. Jewish feminism hooked me. Yes, I know, this sounds strange to many. But I voraciously read about the Jewish women’s movement and emerging feminist theologies in writings by Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg, Rachel Adler, and Paula Hyman. Their way of looking at the traditionally patriarchal Jewish tradition through a feminist lens captivated me. My mind whirled with images of a female God, of women’s seders, and stories based on female biblical characters. This was my way into Judaism. I saw that Judaism was not a closed tradition ruled by men is long beards, but rather was something living and growing before my eyes. The idea that I could add my voice to creating new rituals, writing new stories, and opening up Jewish wisdom to others excited me. And so, I found myself applying to rabbinical school much to everyone’s surprise.
What I encountered when I entered the professional Jewish world was not quite what I expected. I naively thought that the major battles had been won. Women could be rabbis right? That meant that the Jewish world was open to women in leadership roles, that women would get jobs, be paid equal salaries, and not suffer sexual harassment and stereotyping right? Right?
Take a look at the survey published last week by the Jewish Daily Forward. The article’s title says it all, “Gender Equality Elusive in Salary Survey.” In the Jewish professional world, Jewish non-profits, women earn 62.5 cents to every dollar a man earns, and women make up just 12% of the top leadership positions. An article in The New York Jewish Week last spring chronicled the difficulty women rabbis are having finding jobs. Surveys of women rabbis also find that they are paid less then male rabbis in the same positions and that a stained glass ceiling exists. Only one woman in the Conservative Movement is serving a congregation with more than 500 families. (The larger the congregation, the larger the salary of the rabbi, generally speaking.)
Contrast this to an article in the New York Times this week with the tile, “ They Call it the Reverse Gender Gap” which states that: “For starters, young women today — and not just in the United States — are moving quickly to close the pay gap, or in some cases have closed it already. ….Women are ahead of men in education (last year, 55 percent of U.S. college graduates were female). And a study shows that in most U.S. cities, single, childless women under 30 are making an average of 8 percent more money than their male counterparts, with Atlanta and Miami in the lead at 20 percent.”
There is more work to be done in the Jewish community. I am still inspired by the first wave of Jewish women who fought for women to be counted equally in a minyan, who argued that women could be synagogue presidents, read from the Torah, and be rabbis. This week, as one of the women who inspired me down my path, Dr. Paula Hyman, who was the was one of the founders of Ezrat Nahim a Jewish consciousness-raising group that advocated for women’s equality in American Jewish life, and who went on to be the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, died from cancer. her death is a wake up call. Though women have accomplished a great amount in the past thirty years, there is more work to be done!
Many borders still exist in the Jewish community. In the next thirty years I hope to see them come down. Women who choose to enter the rabbinate, or become leaders in Jewish non profits should have the same opportunities as men, and should be paid the same salaries. According to The New York Times, the rest of America is already there. The Jewish community should be too. I want other women to be excited about what they see happening in both secular and religious Jewish life and want to join it, just as I did. They should not encounter low salaries, organizations run mainly by men while women make up 90% of the other positions, and lack of parental leave.
My path into Judaism and the rabbinate may have been strange. But I fully believe that there are many paths someone can take. We need to keep those paths open and welcoming. We are all created in the image of God. It is time we treated each other that way.
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Paula Hyman