Monthly Archives: May 2014

A Mixed Mob at Mount Sinai?

Mount SinaiWhen I think about Shavuot, the first image that pops into my head is a mob of Israelites gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, impatiently waiting to receive the Torah amidst shofar blasts, smoke, and lightning. This image inevitably triggers Merle Feld’s poignant poem, “We All Stood Together,” and Judith Plaskow’s iconic book, Standing Again at Sinai. Both of these feminist texts explore women’s absence from Jewish tradition and from the moment of revelation and explore the ways that Judaism can transform itself to become more inclusive. I am well aware that feminism and gender are essential lenses for my Jewish experience (after all, I do work at JOFA) but I was a bit surprised that my subconscious had designated Shavuot as a holiday of exclusion. The Torah tells us that women, along with men, were present at Mt. Sinai, and the Midrash, rabbinic commentary, teaches that all of the souls of future generations of Jews were present at Sinai. That seems relatively egalitarian. Upon further thought, I realized that Ruth, the protagonist of our Shavuot narrative, embodied the marginalization that I was sensing and that Shavuot is an appropriate time to engage with the topic of exclusion.

Ruth is a woman, a widow, a convert, a penniless immigrant, and a Moabite (a different, hated race forbidden from entering the Jewish people). She is an outsider in every sense of the word. And yet, she is at the center of our Shavuot story, and at the core of the narrative of the Jewish people, as the great-grandmother of King David.

On many holidays, we focus on the ways that Jews were excluded, marginalized, and victimized by other cultures. On Hanukkah, we were oppressed by the Greeks. On Passover, we were enslaved by the Egyptians. On Tisha B’Av, we were victimized by the Babylonians and the Romans. All of these holidays memorialize times when Jews were marginalized as a nation. Ruth is notable because she was marginalized by the Jewish people. She was an outsider in the Jewish community. Yes, Ruth was ultimately a “success story.” She converted to Judaism, married Boaz, a wealthy and prominent land owner in the community, and gave birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. She ultimately overcame these disadvantages and was accepted into our Jewish narrative as the great-grandmother of King David and the paradigm of chesed, loving kindness, and selflessness. However, we should not focus solely on the end of the story, to the exclusion of her other identity markers. The story of Ruth should remind us of the ways that the Jewish community is still segmented, and should serve as an opportunity for us to explore the way that our community treats other individuals within the Jewish community, those who are “Other” because of their gender, their race, their socioeconomic or religious background.

Belda Holding TorahOn Shavuot, we have the rare opportunity to sit with our communities and study texts into the wee hours of the night until daybreak. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an alternate reality with ebbing and flowing cycles of intensity—caffeine buzzes, catnaps, sugar rushes, crashes after the first few cups of coffee and pieces of cheesecake wear off. It can be a dreamy time, learning underneath the stars, finishing up that final chevrutah as the birds start chirping and the sun rises, eagerly anticipating receiving the Torah anew, and imagining what our ideal Jewish community should look like.

We have the opportunity to examine the big questions: What does it mean to receive the Torah? How does the Torah impact us all differently? How do we engage with the more difficult, exclusionary aspects of the Torah and halakhah? How can we build a more inclusive community? A more committed community? How can we create a community that would welcome and accept Ruth, a community that values and encourages the equal contributions of women to our ritual community? How will the Torah help us build the Jewish world that we are craving?

This Shavuot, let’s embrace the opportunity to discuss those big questions, and explore ways to build the more equitable Jewish community that we crave. We could start by inviting more women to teach classes and address the congregation from the bima, including mothers’ names in ketubot and aliyot, offering more childcare options during prayers and classes, or simply welcoming everyone with a warm smile, and the question, “How would you like to participate in our community?”

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Posted on May 29, 2014

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One Day or Two Days (part 2 of 2)

This is a continuation of Friday’s post. In part 1, Bracha explained the background for the question and here she concludes her analysis.

bracha jaffe picThis year, I embarked on my first halakhic investigation as a Yeshivat Maharat student, researching the question of whether visitors from Israel should observe one or two days of a holiday when traveling outside of Israel. As I explained in my previous post, the Chacham Tzvi rules that a resident of the diaspora who travels to Israel for a holiday should observe the holiday for one day only.

The next step in my journey was to research the Chacham Tzvi in the opposite direction – for a person traveling from Israel to the diaspora. Interestingly, he does not address this issue directly. So instead I turned to other poskim, halakhic decisors, and looked for responsa and rulings of authorities who follow the Chacham Tzvi’s ruling regarding visitors to Israel to see if and how they used this logic to address the question regarding visitors to the diaspora.

Here came the big surprise! While rabbis such as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik[1], Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank agree with the Chacham Tzvi that everyone should observe one day in Israel, almost no one uses this logic in the opposite case[2]. If we were to follow the Chacham Tzvi’s logic, a visitor from Israel to the diaspora should observe two full days of the holiday, the custom of the place she is visiting. But the majority of rabbis do not rule this way.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank[3] explains beautifully why this is not the case.  He writes that nowadays, after the Jewish calendar was established, communities in the diaspora are no longer observing two days because of inherent doubt as to which is the correct date. The underlying reason for observing two days has changed from a rabbinic requirement to a communally obligatory minhag (practice); one that is incumbent on communities in order to respect memories and preserve customs over time. Our sages wanted to make sure that if there were ever a time in the future when doubt about the correct date led to a need to observe two days, communities in the diaspora would know what to do. Therefore, a visitor from Israel would not be required to observe two full days of the holiday as it is incumbent on the community but not on a passing visitor. I was pleased to see that this followed the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch as well.

Now the question remained as to how one defines a visitor? When does one become an integrated part of their new community? This, too, required research and I found a plethora of opinions. There are those who say that if the visitor owns a home in Israel, is absolutely planning on returning to Israel to live, and never entertained the thought of staying in the diaspora – that is enough to grant them “visitor’s status” when they are in the diaspora and they should therefore observe only one day when traveling outside of Israel.

One responsum explaining the categories of resident and visitor that resonated especially well with me was from Rav Eliezer Melamed[4]. He says that if an Israeli is going abroad for an undetermined amount of time of at least one year, that person immediately becomes part of the diaspora community (particularly if the person’s family comes along). However, if the Israeli is going for a specific purpose, then it depends on the amount of time she will be away. As Rav Melamed notes, most courses of study and shlichut, emissary work, range up to four years, so he suggests that anything longer than that period would constitute an identity shift from “visitor” to permanent “resident,” which would require observing two full days of the holiday.

Upon returning to answer this question for my own situation, I applied Rav Melamed’s criteria. I realized that although Yeshivat Maharat is a four-year program, I came to the U.S. a full year before it started, bringing my total stay up to five years. It felt odd, yet strangely correct to have a second seder and to observe eight days of Pesach this year while my children visiting from Israel observed only one day of the festival (and therefore a seven-day Pesach). My halakhic integrity had come home.

My halakhic journey has been empowering, exciting and enlightening. This is why I am on this path; this resonates with my soul and is fuel for my passion. With God’s help I look forward to many more journeys such as this one – for individuals and for sharing with the larger community as well.

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[1] Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka, p. 226

[2] The Baal HaTanya was the only one I found to rule that Israelis should observe two full days.

[3] Har Tzvi 3:78

[4] Pninei Halacha: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/2013/02/

Posted on May 25, 2014

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One Day or Two Days? (part 1 of 2)

bracha jaffe picI have lived in Israel for most of my life. Many mitzvot are only relevant in the land of Israel, but there is one question that only crossed my mind once I left my country. I had not contended with the issue of what to do when traveling abroad for a holiday. I knew that there were differing opinions but on the rare occasion when I did travel abroad, I followed a psak, halakhic ruling, to observe only one day of the holiday, while being careful not to do any melakha, prohibited activities, publicly in a Jewish community on the second day of the holiday.

However, this issue came to an abrupt head when I moved to the U.S. for a period of a few years to study at Yeshivat Maharat. During my first Sukkot in the U.S., I observed one day but felt an unsettling disquiet within. I was eventually able to put a name to it – I felt lacking in my halakhic integrity. As a future Maharat, it was time for me to do my own research and find out what was really going on behind the scenes of the halakha.

I had heard of a ruling requiring all Jews to observe one day while in Israel and two days when outside of Israel. This made sense to me as it matched the original customs observed within and without the land of Israel and seemed the best way to commemorate those customs.

Background

The lunar month is either 29 or 30 days long. During the time of the Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinic court), Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, was determined by eyewitnesses who actually saw the new moon. They would report to the Sanhedrin, which would then determine the date for Rosh Chodesh, and send out messengers to notify all the Jews living in Israel and in the diaspora of the appropriate date. These communities would then celebrate Sukkot and Pesach on the fifteenth of Tishrei and Nissan and subsequently count 49 days to Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan. The messengers always had enough time to reach the communities in Israel before the fifteenth of each month. However, the messengers would reach communities outside of Israel after the fifteenth of the month, which left them with a doubt as to the correct day to celebrate each holiday. They therefore observed two days of chag, just in case[1].

Once the Jewish calendar was set (sometime between 400 and 500 CE), our sages instructed these same communities outside of Israel to continue observing two days of the holiday. This was so that they would not forget customs[2] unique to observing two days of the holiday, lest we lose track of the established Jewish calendar or a foreign government not allow us to observe the holidays on the proper date.

One Day in Israel

Visitors to Israel have myriad options. Many halakhic decisors[3] opine that one should observe two days, based on Mishna Pesachim 4:1. This Mishna says that a visitor must observe the stringencies of the land from which she came as well as those of the land which she is visiting. According to this logic, visitors to Israel must observe two days in Israel because that is the custom of the communities from which they came. However, the Chacham Tzvi’s[4] brilliant read of the Mishna in Pesachim leads him to a different conclusion.

The Chacham Tzvi explains that this rule applies only when comparing “apples to apples.” In other words, when the circumstances are exactly the same in both places but the custom itself differs. However, the case of one vs. two days of the holiday is not simply a personal custom observed differently in Israel and in the diaspora; rather, because communities in Israel never had any doubt as to the correct day of the holiday, it was never relevant for them to observe two days. The custom of observing two days of the holiday is geographically linked only to the diaspora and therefore the Mishna’s imperative to keep both the local custom and your home community’s custom does not apply when visitors come to Israel for a holiday. The Chacham Tzvi posits that everyone should observe one day while in Israel. He even suggests that one who does observe two days in Israel risks violating bal tosif, the prohibition against adding commandments to the Torah.

Intuitively it seemed that this same logic of the Chacham Tzvi would be applied in the other direction. I was growing more and more sure that the correct ruling would be for me to observe two days outside of Israel – no simple task for an Israeli. But again I noticed an unsettled feeling as I continued to research the issue. It took some introspection and hard thinking before it came to me in a flash. Of course! It was difficult for me to give a ruling for myself as I would be directly affected by the decision. I needed to continue my research as if someone else had asked me this halakhic question.

Amazingly, this simple realization eased my tension immediately and I returned to my halakhic journey with renewed enthusiasm.

Click here to read Bracha’s conclusion.


[1] Beitza 4b: see Rashi who explains why two days were observed in the Diaspora as it was too far for the messengers to get there before the fifteenth of the month

[2] This includes issues such as saying shehchiyanu, preparing from one day to the next, different Torah readings, when to say yizkor and others. In some communities burial may take place on the second day.

[3] Shulchan Aruch HaRav 496:11, Mishna Brura 496:13, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:101, and others

[4] Rav Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi (1660–1718), Responsa 167

Posted on May 23, 2014

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Torah for One. Torah for All.

Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.

Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.

women and girls reading torah at a shulchan

Reading from the Torah scroll at the inauguration.
Pam Greenwood, far right.

The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.

In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!

I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?

TLP torah on table, BW photo

The Torah scroll that could be at your next simcha!

Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.

If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.

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Posted on May 20, 2014

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Facts from the Field

photo of carol newmanSome big issues for orthodox feminism have come up in the news lately. Did you see that women will soon be allowed to monitor kashrut in institutional kitchens in Israel? JOFA Board member Carol Newman wonders how new this actually is.

I wonder who the rabbis thought was in the kitchen all these years. I have been married for over fifty years and have made more meals than I could possibly count. I’ve cooked for my family, for extended family, for guests, and even for organizations that asked me to host events. No one ever came into my kitchen asking to see the mashgiach.

So what is this all about? My brother-in-law, Marcel Lindenbaum, says the rabbis are afraid of change and therefore what we are seeing in so many instances is a rabbinate that wants to keep things exactly as they are. I maintain that change has already happened. The rabbis simply fear change that has to do with empowering women in Judaism.

In her new book, “The Kind Mama,” Alicia Silverstone explains her refusal to give her son a brit milah. Her rationale suggests a lack of God’s omnipotence: “my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

picture of BeldaJOFA Board member Belda Lindenbaum responds with a popular midrash.

I believe that we were not born “perfect” for a reason, sometimes difficult to understand. I do believe that there are instances, and this is one of them, where we are asked to complete the work of “perfecting.” It began with Adam naming the animals and culminates in the act of procreation where men and women create new life. Bread, a staple of life, is given to us in the form of wheat, but it is humans who harvest, grind, knead, and bake the wheat flour to make the bread. We are partners and perfectors in the act of creation.

Sounds like there’s more than one way to be a “kind mama.”

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Posted on May 15, 2014

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Confronting Mikveh with Honesty

sad woman sitting alone, b&wThere have been numerous conversations recently about mikveh, tzniut, niddah, and sexual relationships within the Orthodox community. They have spanned the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about time that we’re having these conversations, because these are really important and central issues that have an enormous impact on our lives. And when issues of personal status, ritual, and belief systems are hard to talk about, they tend to get swept under the rug or ignored. And when people feel ambivalent about halakha, they often feel a terrible sense of shame.

Two years ago, Mayyim Hayyim asked me to write a blog about sex and the mikveh. Now might be a good time to revisit the issue of when halakha becomes a smoke screen to hide sexual problems. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.

Continue reading “When the Mikveh Feels Overwhelming” at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building.

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Posted on May 13, 2014

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A Young Woman’s Passion for Feminism

statue of libertyHer name can be found in most American history books, and her accomplishments are part of every U.S. history curriculum. This recognition is not undeserved, as she revived interest in feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique and facilitated change in women’s roles by establishing the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although most high school students treat Betty Friedan as another name to memorize for a history test, she is so much more than a removed figure in a textbook for me. She is the reason that I am a feminist.

My middle school history teacher developed my interest in First Wave Feminism, encouraging me to write papers for class and National History Day (NHD) about the suffrage movement. I loved learning about these long-ago crusaders for women’s equality, people who battled for rights I took for granted. My interest in the history of feminist activism led me to learn about Second Wave Feminism on my own during the summer before ninth grade. While researching this era, I read most of the major feminist classics, all of which really resonated with me. I identified most with 1960s and 70s feminism largely because the issues relevant then, from LGBT rights to equal pay, are still pertinent today.

However, it was not until I read The Feminine Mystique that I had my “feminist click moment.” I was shocked by the blatant sexism that society had condoned and the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards women, all in such a recent time period. Friedan’s exposé was so powerful that it rallied me to action and made me want to battle for women’s rights. It was official: I became a feminist.

Ever since reading The Feminine Mystique, I have gotten involved in numerous feminist activities. I am particularly proud of my work with Star of Davida, the Orthodox Jewish feminist blog where I have posted biweekly articles on women’s issues since summer 2010. As someone who enjoys writing and believes strongly in feminism, blogging has allowed me to combine these passions and engage with both of them on a deeper level. It has also compelled me to follow other bloggers and read their thoughts on the issues, which has broadened my horizons, introduced me to new ideas, and given me the opportunity to examine my own opinions in order to change them or reaffirm them.

statue of justiceBetty Friedan influenced my current actions as well as my future aspirations: I hope to pursue gender studies in college and become a labor lawyer specializing in women’s issues. These goals were solidified when I attended the 2012 NOW conference as part of the NOW Young Feminist Task Force, an exclusive group that unites young feminists and gives them a greater voice. Hearing motivating speeches and meeting dedicated feminists showed me that this is what I want to do with my life. Although I never met Friedan, who died in 2006, I know that she would be proud to have inspired me to carry on the torch of feminism.

This was Talia’s college admissions essay for Harvard University, where she is now finishing her first year. If you discussed your Orthodox feminism in your college application, or in an essay for high school, college, or graduate school, tell us about it! Send your essay to thetorch@jofa.org.

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Posted on May 8, 2014

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Take Back the Night (and the Day)

men in conference roomRushing into a conference midway through a speech, I scanned the room for a seat then stopped, startled. Had I entered the Gentlemen’s Gallery of an Orthodox synagogue? But this wasn’t a synagogue – it was a colloquium on derivatives at an Ivy League university! Why was I the lone woman?

I sat down. My mind wandered from derivatives back to another era. It was my first year at Sydney University in Australia and upon entering my maiden Economics tutorial I was confronted with a boys’ football huddle in formation. Prying apart the interlaced arms to make a place for myself, I asked the female tutor, “Where are our money-minded sisters?”

“You’ll get used to it,” the tutor comforted me. But she was wrong. I entered university as women were flooding the disciplines and quickly taking up half the medical and law schools and I usually had plenty of female company in class. Those football physiques provided no advantage in competing for academic awards, which in my year were swept up by women.

Today, responsibility for the tax policy of the United States of America rests with my team. It is the highest honor to be invited to join and log the grueling hours expected of us. Work has a sacred quality: the more you do, the holier you are. Leaving before 7pm is like sneaking out of synagogue midway through the sermon. Extracurriculars such as family or aiding the poor are commendable in small doses; but the core of an American’s identity and the bulk of her or his time must be devoted to paid labor.

kids and computer

Photo copyright Lydia Polimeni

Kim and I are the only women on the team with young children. Whenever we catch a moment to chat, Kim dwells on how deficient she feels. “I only come in three days a week, and I just can’t give it my all,” she moans. “If I’m battling the mess at home, I’m thinking about the pile on my desk; and when I sit behind the pile, I’m imagining the volcano smoldering at home.” She laments that she cannot throw herself into the job with enough gusto to command respect from our colleagues.

Kim is wrong. She is a Harvard Law graduate with elite law firm experience and we all vie for the excellent judgment she rations out to our office. But because suffering servitude is the sanctified life, an employee who gives obeisance to a god other than work feels dismissed to the B League.

At a recent staff meeting, our boss announced that superstar Eva will not be returning to work after maternity leave. “Poor thing, she couldn’t bear to leave her baby,” the boss said. Kim and I made eyes. Neither she nor I could bear to leave our babies either, but it happens I am a single mom and she is married to a man who toils for the poor and underrepresented. This means that we must work for the rich and overrepresented. Eva’s husband is so fabulously busy at his place of business that he didn’t make it quite in time for the birth of his first child.

So Eva defects to the other side and Kim and I walk into rooms full of men like Eva’s husband.

But why did I feel so awkward at the conference on derivatives? How exalted was my position there, a peer amongst the most august thinkers in my field! Because I’m a lawmaker, all were deferential to me and there was only one dirty joke the whole day! Altogether, I was welcomed into the boys’ club.

On Shabbat morning, I skipped the conference and attended Orthodox services with my brother, where an opaque curtain separates men and women. Surrounded by flowing skirts, I was anonymous, blessedly shut out from the men. This community of women is my community; here I am invisible. And when I go out to play in the working world, the world of men, I must leave behind the fields of flowing skirts and the dividing screen. Even in games I practice every day, the rules remain unnatural, unfamiliar. Even when invited to join the A League, I remain an outlier.

As Shabbat was ending, my brother and I joined the campus gathering of “Take Back the Night,” an international movement to end violence against women. As the speeches began, my brother pointed out the simultaneous translation into American Sign Language. For him, a hearing-impaired social worker battling for those discarded into the Z League, this was a profound symbol of inclusion.

As we walked through the darkening streets and the ASL signs were lost, I mused, “How many and varied are the hierarchies of man and how glorious must be the view from the top.”

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Posted on May 5, 2014

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Let’s Spread Some GOOD News

Dr. Monique Katz, a member of JOFA’s Board of Directors, once shared a d’var Torah that has stuck with me for many years since.

praise vs condemn signsShe pointed out that we spend most of our time trying to initiate changes in our Orthodox community where we see injustice to women vis-à-vis the agunah issue, leadership roles in synagogues and on boards of Jewish institutions, and women’s participation in Jewish rituals. Human nature causes people to dwell on the bad things that happen rather than the good, so our news is just like the newspaperswhen something good happens, we forget to include it in our report. But, Nicky said, when a rabbi makes a change that has a positive effect on women, we must remember to practice hakarat ha’tov—recognizing the good.

I was recently reminded of Nicky’s charge shortly before Passover when I was at Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue for my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. To my great surprise, a woman carried the Torah scroll through the women’s section. It was very moving to watch women kiss the Torah—some for the very first time, and to see their reactions. Once the Torah had been put away, Rabbi Lookstein announced that the woman who had carried the Torah was the vice president of the synagogue and had petitioned him to permit the women to bring this ritual, and kavod (honor), to the women’s section.

I saw Rabbi Lookstein that evening and made a point of going over to him and thanking him for making this change. He told me I was the only one to offer him praise, though he had received numerous negative comments from others.

I think it would make a huge difference if we all remembered to give thanks where and when it is due.

Thank you, Nicky.

We encourage you to give public recognition for good that has been done in your community. Please share your stories here, on JOFA’s Facebook page, or submit a blog entry to thetorch@jofa.org. Most importantly, be sure to thank the change-maker directly. 

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Posted on May 2, 2014

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