This year on Purim, several minyanim in the U.S. and in Israel will be reading the Megillah with a twist. The congregations will recite aloud communally, not only the traditional sentences about Mordechai, but an additional sentence about Esther as well. If that doesn’t sound radical to you, you haven’t been around an Orthodox synagogue lately.
Carol Newman, JOFA’s past president, has long been amazed and frustrated at how women have been taken out of everything in Orthodox Judaism. When she talks about the absence of mothers’ names in ketubot, on gravestones, and during aliyot, she can get pretty “fahitzed” (go into a tizzy). But until this year, she couldn’t figure out how to put Esther back in the Book of Esther (waving fabric flags with Esther’s likeness on them when Esther’s name was mentioned didn’t really do it for her). Until she saw a source sheet identifying verses about Esther that are parallel to those we read aloud about Mordecai. And so a personal campaign was born.
After many passionate phone calls and email chains over the past few weeks, two partnership minyanim have decided to recite a verse about Esther aloud during their megillah reading this year. According to Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, “There is absolutely no halakhic problem for the congregation to pre-read a verse which will then be repeated by the megillah reader. Therefore all the verses about Esther can be read in that way.”
Darkhei Noam, a partnership minyan in New York, will repeat the verse introducing Esther, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordechai adopted her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:7).
Shira Hadasha, a partnership minyan in Jerusalem, will repeat the verse where Esther establishes Purim as a holiday for the Jewish people, “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (Esther 9:32).
You might think it would be easy to convince people to repeat these little sentences but most rabbis and most synagogues, no matter how well intentioned, are not comfortable with change even when, as in this case, there is good support for it.
After all, who wouldn’t want to viscerally celebrate with Esther when she finally takes matters into her own hands and musters up her courage to save her people? So, this year, we take one small step for womankind… Next Sukkot maybe Miriam will show up in the prayer for rain!
This Thursday (March 13) many Jews will fast from sunrise to sunset in commemoration of Esther’s fast before she approached the king, unbidden, to ask for compassion on her people. The Fast of Esther is one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. At the JOFA conference in December, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold presented a session called Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call? in which she contributed a much-needed woman’s voice to the conversation.
For centuries, halakhic questions around pregnant and nursing women fasting have been asked by women and answered by men. This session will explore the sources surrounding fasting from the female perspective. What does it mean to study these sources with a woman who is a halakhically knowledgeable member of the clergy who has actually experienced pregnancy and nursing? The answers may surprise you.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold recently joined Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment. Previously, she served for six years as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”) is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and was recognized as one of Chicago JUF ‘s “36 Under 36.” Rachel received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. She recently graduated as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three young daughters.
Session handout available here.
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Every year costumed women and children arrive from communities across the island, all aglow and abuzz with great anticipation. Purim with the MWTG is truly a happening here in Montreal. The Montreal Women’s Tefillah Group (MWTG) was founded in 1982 under the direction and leadership of Dr. Norma Baumel Joseph and our halakhic advisor, Rabbi Howard S. Joseph of Canada’s oldest congregation (1768), the Spanish and Portuguese. At the time our mandate was to provide a venue wherein women, citywide, could gather in prayer, complete with Torah service on Rosh Chodesh. Years later we were able to realize Norma’s goal of conducting our very own reading of Megillat Esther by and for women. I believe we may now claim to be another of the treasured fixtures on the Montreal Jewish scene.
Montreal is also home to the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get, a body created to advocate on behalf of the agunot in our midst. The Coalition deals with agunot, rabbis, and government. In 1990, the Coalition succeeded in having Bill 21.1 amended to the Canadian Divorce Act, which removed any barriers to religious remarriage.
The Coalition had held its first Vigil for Agunot on the evening before Ta’anit Esther. After another year with a small turnout, the vigil was moved to Purim day, just before Megillah reading. It was quite a success! As Purim is our most well-attended event of the year, averaging one hundred participants, it is our best opportunity to inform and update our community on this most shameful and deplorable status.
We have led workshops on agunot, held art displays, watched Israel’s Savta Bikorta videos followed by group discussion, and listened to a
very moving address and plea from a local agunah of six years now. Last year seven women scattered and seated throughout the chapel read brief, scripted accounts of local agunot. This action had quite an impact on attendees, as a voice was suddenly heard from one side of the room, followed by another from the opposite side and so on. These added activities have fostered much creativity in our community and I heartily suggest that other groups follow suit.
CHAG PURIM SAMEACH!
Click here to read more about International Agunah Day, which is on Ta’anit Esther (March 13, 2014).
There’s a serious side to Purim costumes and masquerades: Who do we want to be? Who do we want our children to be? With these questions in mind we’ve assembled some of our choices for costumes and other Purim fun. Hope you enjoy!
Purim is the perfect holiday to encourage girls to dress up as (and grow up to be) something other than a princess. Why not an engineer? Get them started early with this Goldie Blox game.
Girls might get so excited by creating and building, that they’ll want to dress up in a construction worker costume! It’s definitely a nice break from all the fairy princesses.
Send your friends some delicious treats this holiday with a “Mini Megillah” Purim box, with all the necessities for a Purim celebration. (Use code AFPUR14 for 10% off orders over $50, before 3/16.)
But Purim’s not just costumes and games! Learn to leyn (chant) Megillat Esther by using JOFA’s Megillah leyning app. And find out where women’s and mixed Megillah readings are happening around the globe with the Project Esther Megillah Reading Directory!
P.S.: Check out Goldie Block’s awesome video for more inspiration.
Purim for Jews is a public riot, but in our family we celebrate Purim quietly. My brother Daniel can’t hear and our parents bought him a beautiful megillah so he could read it to himself. I volunteer to listen to his perfect tuneless reading, thrilled to skip the chaos in shul.
I try to stay home from work on Purim, but one year I was the lead lawyer in a litigation, and I had to be at our Manhattan offices by 9:00am on Purim morning. We brainstormed and decided my brother could read the megillah on the road between our Brooklyn home and my Manhattan office.
I dressed for work, davened, and watched for Daniel to come from shul. He arrived, we jumped into a black limousine, and Daniel unfurled the scroll to begin the story of Esther.
I get dizzy in cars, but not that morning. Holding the megillah in my hands, I thought only of black ink on white parchment. We meandered through the narrow streets of Sheepshead Bay through Ahasuerus’s party, and as he called for his wife Vashti to dance before him, we spun into Ocean Parkway, jugular of Flatbush, Babylon of the Diaspora. The road was clear, and we sailed through the execution of Vashti, the search for her successor, and Esther’s coronation. At a red light, Mordecai’s denunciation of the murderous stewards was recorded in the king’s archives.
Ocean Parkway merged with the Belt Parkway when Haman appeared, grinding his teeth over Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. Traffic is always heavy there because many roads join, and perennial construction puts several lanes out of use. We were grateful for the time. Haman cooked up his evil plot, chose the day to annihilate the Jews, and made his case to the king. We moved at a snail’s pace, Mordecai tore his clothes, and Esther ordered her people to fast three days.
At the end of the Belt Parkway we had to make a choice: to enter Manhattan from the bridge or through the tunnel. The bridge is free but takes forever; the tunnel is fast and smooth and quiet, but dark. The driver turned to ask, and Daniel and I looked at each other. Would we make it in time if we took the bridge? Would we be able to continue in the dark?
We handed over the tunnel fee and entered a darkness strobing with orange lights. Our queen weighed her options and was convinced that Haman’s decree of death would condemn her too. Approaching Ahasuerus uninvited would be less dangerous than sitting still. Daniel kept his face close to the parchment through the pulsing light; we were feasting at Esther’s first party. By the time we reached daylight, Haman had built the gallows for Mordecai and the king was disturbed in his sleep.
Out of the tunnel, the limo made a parabolic turn toward the West Side Highway. The route is clogged with traffic lights but has a majestic view of New Jersey and the waterfront. As we lurched along the highway, the king was reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty in the matter of the treasonous stewards. Dressed in royal robes, Mordecai was led through the streets of Shushan by the man who had authored a death warrant against him and his people. Haman’s wife knew her mate was doomed. We passed the museum-battleship Intrepid, anchored at the pier on 46th Street.
My office was between 45th and 46th Streets on Sixth Avenue. To get there from the West Side Highway, we had to drive through Hell’s Kitchen, filled with elegant restaurants and catchy awnings. The drive is at walking pace when all the lights are against you, but once we turned onto 46th Street my stomach unknotted: the final stretch.
Passing Manhattanites brunching outside in early Spring, we launched into Esther’s second party, with the risky revelation she made to Ahasuerus of the decree against the Jews and her inclusion in it. The king was inflamed; Haman & Sons were hanged. We reached Times Square. The assault on the senses is extreme, with flashing lights, gigantic images of naked humans, steam floating from a hot cocoa ad, whole movies running atop buildings. We sped through the multimedia into the block that housed my office. Almost done.
Esther and Mordecai reversed Haman’s decree, and the Jews were given the green light to murder their murderous neighbors. A feast was declared for all generations, friends gave gifts to friends, and Mordecai wrote the story we held in our hands. Our driver found a spot outside my building for the brief last chapter. The king levied a tax, and Mordecai became the prime minister, spokesman for the peace of his people.
I rewound the scroll back to the days of Vashti, ready for next year. Our driver turned and grasped my brother’s hands between his.
“Purim sameah!” he said. “I am Jewish also, from Persia. We sing a different megillah tune. Thank you so much, I am so happy you sang it for me too.”
I stepped out, smoothed my skirt, and adjusted my thoughts. Ready for business.
Yeshiva University’s recent decision to withhold semicha (rabbinic ordination) from one of its about-to-graduate rabbis because of his participation in a Partnership Minyan should be of serious concern to the broader Modern Orthodox community. I know there are many of us who have essentially “written off” YU. We feel like they have lost touch with the ideals of what Modern Orthodoxy was created to embody. And I get that. And often I just shrug my shoulders when the institution does something I don’t admire and go along on my merry way.
In this case, I really don’t think we should because the underlying message they are sending is of significant rule-changing. And that’s just scary.
Here’s the deal:
– YU needs to be more transparent and can’t change the rules retroactively. If they have standards they want to hold rabbis to, (and let’s face it, every semicha granting institution has a right to its standards) they should make those clear before a student signs up for four years of study. If they aren’t clever enough to foresee the issues that may arise later, that’s really their problem. They just can’t start changing the rules whenever they want to or all the rabbis out there with semicha are in trouble.
– They are essentially changing the meaning of semicha. The last time I looked, “Yoreh, Yoreh” on the semicha document meant that a rabbi could rule on things he thought he understood. It didn’t mean that he merely acts as a conduit, channeling the vision and opinion of his Rebbe. That is a new, and frankly, a scary course for Modern Orthodoxy, one that separated it from the Chareidi institutions. Yes, we assume properly trained rabbis will know their limits and go to more knowledgeable ones when necessary but we want to benefit from the blessing of smart, thoughtful, rabbis who may take a new and more nuanced approach.
– YU is closing ranks and including only a chosen few in the new definition of “poskim” (halakhic decisors). Why do THEY get to decide who the poskim are? Where did that come from? If I want to count Rabbi Daniel Sperber as my posek who are they to tell me otherwise? But the new message from YU is “here are the final arbiters.” No real dialogue is acceptable.
I think this whole event portends an ever-more concerning approach by YU, and I, for one, hope there is some backtracking on the issue.
We have much to lift our spirits and much to concern us in the attention paid to young women laying tefillin at outstanding high schools in the New York area. Our spirits rejoice because so many people, both men and women, are passionately engaged in the service of God. Everyone from school principals to principled women wants to do what is best for klal Israel (the Jewish people). In this age of so many competing demands, we are neither ritually lazy nor spiritually complacent, and that is good.
The tefillin conversation is a single piece of a larger conversation about the place of women in the public ritual life of the Orthodox community. Several options exist for women who want to lay tefillin. They can do so privately with devoted consistency and halakhic authorization or they can choose to pray in non-Orthodox spaces. Personal prayer is not the issue. We are also not talking about whether women should be synagogue presidents, day school principals, halakhic (legal) authorities, or students of Talmud sitting side by side with men in a study hall. Conflating every possible form of a woman’s participation in public life puts too great a burden on tefillin.
I am not the only Orthodox woman to have heard the following sort of comments from Jews and non-Jews alike: “You’re Orthodox? I don’t see how a woman nowadays can stand it. You are a second-class citizen, right? Aren’t you stuck behind a wall in the synagogue? You don’t get to DO anything! It’s all about the men.” And the questions that from our daughters are especially tough: “Why are we segregated, with no tallit and no tefillin? Isn’t my prayer as important as my brother’s? I leyn just as well, if not better. Why do we go to a women’s tefillah group when there is no such thing as ‘separate but equal?’ What about these equal rights you keep going on and on about?”
Not only are we physically separated in prayer spaces, but are we also textually excluded from meaningful prayer? What do we do with the verses in the Shema that refer to tzitzit and tefillin and the stage directions in the siddur (prayer book) which instruct a man to kiss his tzitzit? Are gender differences so essential to public prayer? Isn’t it about time we made ourselves seen and heard everywhere? Shouldn’t we be able to expand our possibilities for experience? Don’t we rationalize a deep-seated problem by declaring that men and women espouse different roles and that a textual heritage dominated by men belongs to all of us?
Well no, we don’t.
All Jewish experience belongs to all of us as does all Jewish text. We are obligated to inhabit our tradition with respect even as we question it. It takes courage, intelligence, and infinite love to commit ourselves to the complicated relations of men and women and of women and God, relations which become stronger and more profound through the embrace of the multiplicity of our obligations. To be made in God’s image is to confront the One and the Infinitely Many. By adopting uniformity of practice and homogenous responsibilities, we risk eliminating the wonder of difference. Look at family photographs of a brit (circumcision) or a wedding: everyone engaged in a mitzvah in a variety of ways, all precious and all necessary. Isn’t that what women who want to lay tefillin in public are saying: that they have a right to participate in a mitzvah in a deeply personal way? But what effect does that have on the unity of the community? No one proposes to force women to wear tefillin, but isn’t that being naive about the nature of community? Isn’t there an implicit message that “real women wear tefillin?” How does it affect the nature of public, communal prayer to have tefillin not be optional for men but always optional for women? And no – those are not rhetorical apologies for the status quo. They are questions.
Judaism is a religion not of rights, but of obligations. Born into the covenant or choosing it as an adult, a Jew lives a life of obligation to God and man. As a citizen of the United States, I claim my right to religious freedom, but in Judaism I have the obligation to follow halakhah, not the right to self-defined religious expression. We misinterpret and constrict our religious life when we reduce it to a civil rights movement in pursuit of individual liberties. “Separate but equal” is a cruel absurdity for a citizen, but not for a believer. We have no intrinsic right to pray as we please, just as we have no right to eat, honor Shabbat, or conduct business as we please. That is not to say that the definition and fulfillment of our obligations does not undergo continuous renewal. And of course spiritual life is meaningless without individual devotion. Remarkable women chose to lay tefillin throughout Jewish history. One of our questions must be whether they are models for communal behavior or whether their unique circumstances serve a different purpose.
Wrapped in the tallit of solitude on the women’s side of synagogue at 5 am on Shavuot or raised aloft by my congregation’s collective intensity during Neilah, wrestling alone with God about the pain built into His creation or dancing with His words on Simchat Torah, my community around me – I constantly question what it means to pound on the gates of heaven as a Jew and a woman.
Accept for a moment the obligation to pray without tefillin. That is one rocky path, eased by no tangible assistance – only the overwhelming magnitude of word, intellect and heart in the presence of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
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Two summers ago I was having a relaxed conversation with Judy Heicklen, the president of JOFA. She mentioned to me that JOFA decided to upgrade its old Megillat Esther CD to a user-friendly, interactive smartphone app. I particularly liked that they wanted to use a single voice for all the chapters and that it would be built as a tool for learning how to leyn.
“Of course,” she said, “we’ll need someone whose voice is easy to follow and who will be precise and consistent in her recordings.”
“Yup, I agree.”
Then the kicker: “So we thought of asking you.”
I was blown away. Me? JOFA was asking me to record the whole Megillah? Wow!
I learned to leyn over ten years ago. Previously, in my secular, hi-tech world I found moments of spirituality in Shabbat and chagim (holidays), and in taking an active role in my synagogue, going to shiurim (classes), and giving divrei Torah. But when I learned how to leyn, it filled empty spaces in my soul.
After months of practicing every night and loving the involvement in something so intensely Jewish, the leyning course ended. But I didn’t want to step away from this spiritual experience!
I had heard stories about Esther Farber A”H who taught many, many girls to read for their Bat Mitzvah. Her sons Steven and Seth told me they couldn’t remember a Shabbat without a girl coming to practice her leyning. Stories about Esther shone a light on the path I wanted to take: sharing my passion by teaching others.
In an incredible twist of events, my first student was Esther’s granddaughter Eliana. Sadly, Esther passed away only a few months before Eliana’s Bat Mitzvah. They had been studying together in the pre-Skype era through video-conferencing and they hadn’t quite finished. When Eliana heard my story, she chose to finish her learning with me. Although I had never met Esther, it somehow felt like she was giving me her blessing by passing the baton on to me.
Slowly I became identified as a “go-to” woman for issues connected with leyning, davening (praying) and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. I felt my involvement deepen and broaden: I ran a weekly Torah leyning class for women at my dining room table. I learned the trop for megillot Ruth, Eicha (Lamentations), and Esther. One exhilarating Purim I read Esther in front of five hundred women and girls! I thought that I had reached my personal pinnacle, and yet, to my delight, there was even more waiting just around the corner.
So here was Judy’s offer and my heart was beating fast as I considered it. Did I have time to record the whole thing? No! Could I possibly turn it down? No way! God gives each of us special gifts. It is our responsibility to use these gifts to give back to the world and make it a better place.
I turned my study into a mini-recording studio, lining the walls with cardboard and packing material to absorb the echo. I upgraded my microphone and created a makeshift stand on a tissue box – just the right height and distance from my mouth. The app required countless hours of recording, listening, re-recording. My gentle yet exacting editors taught me to be extremely consistent and did not allow for any sloppiness in the pronunciation or the tune. My husband said that he heard more Megillat Esther during those months than he ever wanted to hear in his entire life!
The app is truly an all-in-one guide. Its interface is so easy to follow that I continue to use it myself when I practice (think: follow the bouncing ball). It’s also great when listening to the Megillah – just make sure the voice is turned off! I was delighted to find JOFA hadn’t stopped there. There are extra articles on the app about Halakha, tips on how to organize a reading, and more.
Recording the app required a lot of time and hard work. Yet the memory of all that melted away when men and women excitedly told me how they learned to leyn the Megillah using only the app! How amazing for me to go from teaching one-on-one to touching the souls of so many. Countless people have said to me: “I’ve been listening to your voice for the last two months. This app enabled me to realize my dream to read the Megillah on Purim.”
This past December I was honored to lead an introductory leyning workshop at the international JOFA conference. Leyning In has been an extraordinary journey of passion and connection with my Jewish roots and my soul. I invite you to come along with me.
I have been hiding from the audience my entire life. I am not sure if this is because I have performance anxiety or that kol b’isha erva (a woman’s voice is nakedness) has presented an obstacle. Is it both? Has my anxiety been influenced by my fear that I am not being a “good girl” when I sing in public?
After many years of “hiding” from public performance, I’m stepping onto the stage. Just thinking about it sets my heart racing. Although I am still anxious because my education defined the Jewish woman in a certain way, I have come to the conclusion that it cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to help people hear their soul’s yearning for spiritual greatness. I now need to tap into my inner strength and model for my children, my students, and future generations what I believe.
I come to this concert with a singular idea: Orthodox women singing in public are an endangered species. Our people, theoretically guided by the maxim, “every Jew is responsible for all other Jews,” don’t even realize the importance of this species to the spiritual biosystem or even that it is in such danger.
Judaism teaches us to release ourselves to faith and connect to God through mitzvot. Through mitzvot, we realize that each of us is a living Sefer Torah, part of an infinite God. Everything emanates from our faith in God and our Jewish community. Much of this is accomplished by women, the core of Jewish families.
Women are creators of life, physical developers of the next generation. Jewish women also define spirituality in the home. We are Jewish because our mothers successfully connected their children to God.
“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman “then song is the pen of the soul.” While God’s words of Torah flow down to our minds and actions, joyous song carries our souls upward to connect with the Almighty. Jewish women are connecting their children with words of Torah, but many are not tapping into the spiritual core of ecstatic singing that Rabbi Zalman spoke of.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, “Kol Ishah” states that many rabbis including, Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi David Bigman, agree that women may sing publicly. Many in our community have not adopted this view and run the risk of destroying our spiritual community if women are treated like Dinah and locked in a box. Rabbi Herzfeld writes: “If we deny the girls of our community the ability to express themselves through song, we run the very real risk of allowing them to be serenaded by an alternative influence.” Consider Neshama Carlebach’s recent announcement that she is “making aliyah to the Reform Movement.”
Rabbi Herzfeld further points out that by not allowing women to sing, the Orthodox community is teaching men that girls “are such erotic creatures that it is impossible to have an encounter with them that is not erotic…We are in fact reinforcing the notion that our spiritual personality cannot rise above our physical nature.”
After reading Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, my interest was sparked and I did some research. It seems that the word erva comes from the root ayin-raish-hey which means to uncover, bare oneself. The idea of revelation in this root seems to be more innocent than the Gemara’s later definition of erva as unchasteness or lewdness.
Right now I choose to understand the idea of a woman’s voice as revelatory – innocent and chaste – and my songs as pronouncing the Jewish truth of holiness that is a part of our lives.
The following experience describes how redemptive music can be:
Two years ago I was wheeled into emergency surgery on Yom Kippur. Still awake, the nurse asked if she could play my CD that I had given the surgeon. I had not heard my CD in years and did not sing or listen to my music the entire time I was sick. (Often, we drift from the things we need most in our lives.) Lying on the steel table, I nodded, closed my eyes, and heard Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing), while the anesthesiologist told me to count back from 20. This was my prayer on Yom Kippur.
To listen to Rebecca’s music and for information about her March 9th concert in Tenafly, go to rebeccateplow.com. All proceeds will benefit JOFA.
On Keshet, an anonymous group of parents reflects on their difficult journeys accepting their children—and the challenges their communities pose.
“We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.” Continue reading here>>