People talk a lot about societal changes over time, how perspectives and norms evolve – for instance, the idea that centuries ago, the sole accepted role for women was to birth and raise children. While there is truth to this sense of history, it is not the whole picture.
I was amazed recently to come across a commentary, or midrash, that addresses the core of today’s “mommy wars” – and that reflects a perspective as balanced and “progressive” as any I have heard expressed in modern times.
In chapter 4 of the Book of Judges, Deborah—unique in her position as a female prophet and judge—and the soldier Barak engage in battle against a Canaanite army, which is led by a general named Sisera. As the Jews gain the upper hand, Sisera flees and is given refuge – so he believes – by Yael, the wife of a Canaanite ally. After instructing Yael to stand guard, Sisera falls asleep – at which point, Yael picks up a handy tent peg and drives it into his skull, thereby securing the Jewish victory over this enemy.
Deborah’s song of victory in the ensuing chapter includes high praise of Yael: “Blessed above women shall Yael be, the wife of Heber the Kenite, above women in the tent shall she be blessed.” (Judges 5:24)
Who are these “women in the tent,” above whom Yael shall be blessed? And why is she blessed above them?
For some, the association of “women” and “tent” might conjure thoughts of a well-known midrash about Sarah’s modesty (see Rashi on Genesis 18:9). However, Bereishit Rabbah 48:15 provides a different interpretation – one that carries (other) surprising implications.
This midrash cites two similar perspectives on the identity and significance of the “women in tents:” Rabbi Eleazar suggests “women in the tent” refers to the women of the generation that wandered in the desert, where they lived in tents; Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman says the “women in the tent” are the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. The two sages agree, however, about the underlying meaning of Deborah’s praise of Yael:
“They [women in tents] gave birth and maintained the world (“קיימו את העולם”) – and what would it have benefited them? For without [Yael], [the Jewish people] would have been lost [at the hands of Sisera]!”
From their tents, these women contributed to the Jewish people by birthing children necessary to perpetuate the [Jewish] “world.” Without the matriarchs’ children, there would have been no Jewish people; and without the children born in Egypt and in the desert, there would have been no growth for the fledgling nation.
However, without Yael’s attack on Sisera, the women’s contributions could have been for naught, as Sisera might have ultimately destroyed the Jewish people.
The message in this midrash is both surprising and obvious.
The battles in today’s “mommy wars” tend towards two opposite extremes. One side maintains that previous generations held a one-dimensional view of a woman’s place and role, and that it is our job as enlightened modern women to overturn that perspective, going out into the world and serving in active leadership roles, with or without having children along the way. Or, declares the other side, the women’s movement went too far, and it is our job as postmodern women to return to our biological roots and focus on our maternal roles, where we will find the greatest personal fulfillment and make the greatest contribution to the world.
This midrash demonstrates that the rabbis of old weren’t as one-dimensional in their perspectives on women as either side of this argument– and neither should we be.
The passage does reflect an underlying assumption of the value of bringing children into the world: women who choose to focus on putting their bodies to the task of perpetuating humanity are indeed “maintaining the world.”
However, that is not the only role that can – or should – be served by women. Because what would become of those children without individuals who take initiative in other areas of life? Perhaps one might argue that the world COULD be saved by men alone– but the examples of Deborah and Yael, and of other women in the Bible, demonstrate that there is no reason for it to be so. Some situations require a woman to step out of the home and respond to a different kind of calling, because women as well as men might have the necessary skills and drive to make that sort of contribution.
Mommy warriors, take heart: These ancient, progressive rabbis think you’re all right.
Inspired by the ubiquitous Venmo ads on the NYC Subway, comedian and former yeshiva student Eitan Levine came up with these:
Lucas’s take on Genesis:
Lucas loves Jewish feminist literature, too!
Don’t know the Feminist Ryan Gosling? Give yourself some cultural education and a few good laughs.
And of course, we couldn’t help ourselves:
I am a person who puts on, or “lays,” tefillin (phylacteries). I happen to be female. While my gender, to my mind, does not affect the nature of my performance of this mitzvah, it inevitably adds a layer of complexity to others’ perception of it. I constantly smack up against the tremendous double standard that is applied to women who perform mitzvot that are seen as “male,” both in my day-to-day life and in the communal discourse.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times of Israel about high school girls who lay tefillin. The piece was, on the whole, interesting and balanced. In this article, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates the two most flawed and problematic ideas surrounding the concept of women and tefillin and most other “men’s” mitzvot. He questions the “seriousness” and motivation of the women who take on these mitzvot.
“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin,” Rabbi Boteach says, “the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’” In all my years as a halakhically observant Jew, it is only when it comes to women wearing tefillin and tzitzit (fringes) that “seriousness” is made a qualification for the performance of a mitzvah. Is a person who does not often make the blessings on food told not to bother praying mincha, the afternoon service? Is a person interrogated about how much Talmud they learn each day before they are encouraged to give to tzedakah (charity)? Since when does one have to meet a certain standard of observance, or “seriousness,” before one is given “permission” to perform mitzvot?
This issue of “seriousness” takes another form as well. I have often heard and read that it’s all well and good for “serious” women to lay tefillin, provided they do so every day. As a person who considers herself to have a binding halakhic obligation to lay tefillin, I can testify that I sometimes mess up. As a teenager who likes to sleep in, this is a difficult mitzvah for me to do, as I know it is for many of my peers. Despite my commitment to halakha and mitzvot, there have been Sundays when I have slept through my alarm and rushed out to teach Hebrew school without laying tefillin. I make mistakes; then I make a commitment to do better next time. But my “right” to lay tefillin is not contingent on my consistency. Do Chabad shluchim (ambassadors) only offer tefillin to men who don them daily? No. Mitzvot are mitzvot, and I do not need to prove my right to lay tefillin any more than my equally sleepy male friends do.
The second women-and-tefillin trope Rabbi Boteach employs is to question women’s motivation. “Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it…If it’s to demonstrate [women] can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture.” Setting aside Rabbi Boteach’s ludicrous slippery-slope fallacy (women performing more mitzvot will lead to assimilation?), I will simply say to this: enough. I, and all other women, do not need to prove our motivation to you. We are seeking equality because it will bring us closer to God.
The dichotomy between religious and political motivations is a false one. Our demand to perform mitzvot to which we have been denied access is inherently political in a community where certain mitzvot, like tefillin, are indicators of power and masculinity. However, that does not make the mitzvah any less about God. Women’s performance of these mitzvot will enhance the Jewish community as a whole. By democratizing access to ritual practice, we can redefine “men’s mitzvot” simply as “mitzvot,” and thus change their function from an indicator of who’s a member of the “club” to an expression of commitment to God and Torah. By laying tefillin, I make a political statement about the moral and halakhic correctness of feminist innovation, evolution, and influence. This statement is a reflection of deep religious and moral convictions, and I am proud to make it.
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Anyone who knows me even a bit also knows that I thrive on social contact and interacting with people. However, during my year of mourning (avelut) for my father, I shied away from social situations. My guideline was: turn down the volume of my social life while turning up the volume of my family life. This gave me time and space to mourn and cherish my memories of my father while pondering my own role as a mother to my four children.
As I neared the end of this long year, a close friend gave me a valuable gift. About a month before the end she said: “Bracha, it’s time to start preparing yourself to step back into life.” Jewish law sets up a designated mourning period of a year for the loss of a parent. When this year comes to a close, we do not extend it as we are instructed by the Torah: “bal tosif” (do not add). When it is time – it is time.
My friend’s wise words made me mindful of this transition and allowed me time to think about how it would feel to socialize again and jump back in to life when the time came. It felt odd and a bit artificial at the beginning, but I was ready and prepared to shed my cloak of silence.
I shared this story with my Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Jeff Fox, and he pointed out that while the halakha helps enormously to transition into mourning, there are no set laws or customs to transition out of mourning. Indeed, without my friend’s counsel, it would have been much more jarring and difficult for me.
What Reb Jeff said made me realize the function of two beautiful customs created by women for women. These customs “bookend” the year of avelut, and help shape the transitions into and out of saying kaddish.
Ushering In: A woman from my community in Raanana, Israel sadly passed away from cancer after a valiant struggle. Among her children, she left triplet daughters. I went to their synagogue on the Shabbat during shiva to give comfort to both her husband and to Judi, the daughter who lives nearby. As I accompanied Judi upstairs to the women’s section after Kabbalat Shabbat (when the mourners enter the synagogue) she shared with me that the triplets had decided to take on saying kaddish together. Each sister chose a specific service: shacharit, mincha or arvit (morning, afternoon, or evening) to say kaddish each day for the entire year. I was moved to tears and hugged her in silent empathy.
As we walked into synagogue, I was surprised to see my friend Talia sitting and waiting as she doesn’t usually pray in that synagogue. She rose to greet the new mourner. That’s when it clicked – and fresh tears arose in my eyes- Talia had just finished her own year of saying kaddish for her father. She was there to accompany the new mourner at her first appearance in synagogue saying kaddish. Talia showed Judi when and where to say kaddish and she hugged Judi when tears slipped down Judi’s face. I could see how comforting it was for Judi to have Talia’s support as she ventured into this new space.
Escorting Out: My friends Sharon, Talia and others have marked the end of their year of avelut in a unique and special way. Each of them hosted a se’uda shlishit on the Shabbat following their last kaddish of the year. Only women with some connection to saying kaddish were invited. This included women who said kaddish three times a day, once a day, only on Shabbat and only on the yahrtzeit. There were also women who had attending minyan specifically to answer amen to other people saying kaddish.
At each gathering, there was a powerful feeling within this circle of Jewish women. We felt a strong link with each other – both through our personal loss and through our choice to step forward and give honor in our bereavement. There were palpable layers of warmth, understanding and comfort as we helped escort the avela (mourner) and (I felt) the neshama of the deceased as well. This tradition has been passed along — from woman to woman — marking the transition from actively saying kaddish to fading back into the general circle of congregants who answer amen.
The short conversation with Reb Jeff shed a new perspective for me on these and other recently created traditions. I believe that these customs have a much larger role to play in our spiritual lives. They help us celebrate life-cycle events, move through transitions and achieve closure after difficult ordeals.
I see empty spaces just waiting for us to fill. Let’s do it!
Check out A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish to explore the halakhic sources surrounding women and kaddish.