Our Prophets, Ourselves: Jonah, Judgment, and the Act of Repentance

Jonah and the WhaleIf one were to name sympathetic characters in the Bible, it is unlikely that the prophet Jonah would make the list. If ever there were a model for the flawed prophet, Jonah would be the prototype. He is callous, clueless, and closed off to the notion of shades of gray in the world. Indeed, it is easy to list Jonah’s faults. He runs away from God in direct opposition to God’s command; he laments the successful teshuvah, repentance, of the people of Nineveh and the fact that they are not destroyed; and he scolds God because he feels that he has been made to look like a fool. Jonah lives solely inside of himself, unable to consider the larger world as it exists outside of him. Because of this litany of unflattering characteristics, Jonah often arouses harsh judgment within us. We read his story, criticize him for his actions, and congratulate ourselves for not being like him.

In many ways, the message of the book of Jonah seems antithetical to that of Yom Kippur. After God saves the people of Nineveh because of their sincere repentance, Jonah says:

O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. (Jonah 4:2)

Rashi highlights Jonah’s despair at the people’s successful teshuvah, explaining that Jonah knew that God would forgive the people if they repented, and therefore feared that he would be seen as a false prophet in their eyes (Rashi on Jonah 4:2). Never before has God’s mercy and compassion been framed so negatively, as a reason to wish for death. Never before has the ability of an entire nation to do teshuvah successfully been framed as a cause for mourning! In light of this, Jonah’s story seems like a strange one for us to read on Yom Kippur, especially so close to Neilah, the closing prayer of the holiday. Why choose such a callous and unapologetic prophet? Why don’t we read the story of King David’s teshuvah after Uriah’s death, or Isaiah’s promise that redemption will follow repentance? What are we supposed to learn from the story of Jonah, where teshuvah and the salvation it brought were lamented?

In the final mishnah of Masekhet Sotah, following an extensive litany of ways in which the Jewish people had fallen away from mitzvot and thus lost their ability to commune with God, R. Pinhas ben Yair brings the following teaching:

Quickness leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to purity; purity leads to separation; separation leads to holiness; holiness leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to religious devotion; religious devotion leads to the Spirit of God. And the Spirit of God leads to the resuscitation of the dead, and the resuscitation of the dead leads to the coming of Elijah, may he be remembered for good, Amen. (Mishnah Sotah 9:15)

shutterstock_111239465On Yom Kippur, our experiences are often framed around the initial items on this list. As we fast and abstain from many of our usual daily activities, we strive to achieve kedushah, holiness. However, as R. Pinhas reminds us, these behaviors are not an end in themselves; rather, they are tools to move ourselves closer to humility and toward ruah haKodesh, the Spirit of God. By framing kedushah as a tool instead of as an end, the mishnah reminds us that we must confront our failures, instead of only lauding ourselves for our successes. We must acknowledge the uncomfortable ways in which Jonah reminds us of ourselves, and we must learn to forgive, rather than condemn him. Only in the moments when we have the humility to admit the uncomfortable reality of our own flaws—instead of focusing on condemning the failings of others— will we be able to hasten the redemption.

In the shul where I grew up, every year on Yom Kippur there would be a handout that listed an extra set of al hets to be said beyond those traditionally in mahzor. The idea was to help the congregation better connect with the liturgy by framing the litany of our sins in the context of our contemporary human experience. There is one that stays with me, and that I think of every year— Al het she’hatanu lifanekha, for the sin we have sinned against you by condemning traits in others that we excuse in ourselves.

The choice is within us to decide whether we will condemn or forgive; whether we will focus on others or do the hard work of truly looking at ourselves. As the Rambam reminds us in Hilkhot Teshuvah:

Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his. This is [the intent of] the Torah’s statement: “Behold, man has become unique as ourselves, knowing good and evil.” (Bereshit 3:22) The human species became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that person can, on his own initiative, with his knowledge and thought, know good and evil, and do what he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1)

Teshuvah is a complicated process, but the choice of how—of whether—to do it is only up to us. It is difficult to admit the sins we have committed against others, against ourselves, and against God. Consequently, it is sometimes our instinct to retreat into ourselves and focus on the sins of others. It is true that we are guilty of wrongdoing, we tell ourselves, but perhaps our wrongdoing pales in the face of the sins of those around us. We have stumbled, but it could always be worse—we could be like our neighbor or our colleague. Or, God forbid, we could even be flawed like Jonah. However, these flaws are what make Jonah a profoundly human prophet, one who is more like us than we would care to admit. This is why Jonah makes us uncomfortable, why we are so quick to dismiss and condemn him. His traits are too recognizable, too familiar to us. It is too easy to see Jonah in ourselves, so we push back against the idea that we would—that we could—ever be like him.

Perhaps, then, we do not read about Jonah because he presents a great paradigm of teshuvah. Perhaps we read Jonah because our reactions to him can serve as a test of sorts to determine whether we have effectively internalized the lessons of the teshuvah that we claim to have done. Perhaps it is not only the story of Jonah itself that is important, but also whether we have developed the capacity to view him with compassion and understanding, rather than anger and judgment. As Israel Salanter said, “Most people worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.” May we find a way to worry about our own teshuvah, while viewing the sins of others through a lens of compassion. May we find a way to forgive Jonah for his sins and inability to value the teshuvah of others. Perhaps that is when we, too, will be forgiven.

Download a PDF of this article which can be printed for Yom Kippur reading offline.

This essay was dedicated by Audrey & Chaim Trachtman: In honor of our grandchildren, Leora, Eli, Elinor, and Aliza, who inspire us to keep working to create an Orthodox world in which they will each be able to live fulfilling religious lives. Thank you to their parents and teachers who help lead the way.

Posted on September 29, 2014

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Why I’m Skipping a Verse During My Morning Prayers

shutterstock_186637163I pray every day. Most days the early morning cerebral fog is pretty dense and my anxiety about being late for work crowds out thoughts about the Divine. But even then, in the midst of constantly adjusting my tallit, prayer shawl, and fiddling with the straps of the tefillin to make sure they are not digging too deeply into my skin, I sometimes find myself actually reading the words on the page with a concentrated mind.

Recently I have been thinking about one sentence that in recent years has been reinserted into Aleinu at the end of the prayer serviceshe’haim mishtschavim l’hevel v’rik u’mitpalelim l’el lo yoshea, that they bow down to something worthless and empty and pray to a god that cannot save (SMLVULLY). I remember being introduced to this sentence in late adolescence and thinking it was the coolest thing going. I was on the winning team and felt like a member of a secret club, privy to a powerful incantation that not everyone knew. I experienced the power of once again saying a sentence that had been removed from the prayer book because of fears of arousing the animosity of Christian censors. Finally, it felt like a vindication of the validity of Orthodoxy as a whole. Heady stuff for a teenager.

Fast forward more than a few decades. These days, when I am paying attention I find myself having more and more difficulty with this sentence. If I can stay alert and avoid the sing-song rhythm of the daily prayer ritual, I do not recite this line. With the passage of time and my own perception of what is happening in our world, I am more uncomfortable with this expression of Jewish supremacy and denigration of other religions. I value the ethical meaning created by a life lived in the shadow of the Divine and acknowledge the truth and value of conduct structured by adherence to the halakha. But genuine pluralism and respect for others motivates me to recognize other religious perspectives. Thinking we are superior to others because we believe our God is superior to theirs will not enhance our holiness. I worry that this is a recipe for mutual hatred. So as everyone quickly takes off their tefillin and the coexistmen and women rush out the door, I quietly skip this sentence.

So why am I coming clean now? Perhaps it is the time of the year for confessions. But I will not venture into that area. Instead I think my engagement with SMLVULLY may offer an insight into prayer. Jewish prayer is criticized for being fixed and formulaic. Scholars like Catherine Madsen, contributing editor to the inter-religious/interdisciplinary journal CrossCurrents and author of the book The Bones Reassemble, have demonstrated how effective liturgical language has been constructed to foster associative thinking and to make the routine seem new. The implications are that text is capable of almost limitless change. But we have heard that before and this exhortation may fall on deaf ears if one is not fully aware of the many literary associations being invoked in the language of prayer. So instead of looking at prayer as the disco globe that is always changing and revealing new light patterns, I think we can reinvigorate prayer by recognizing that we change.

The same words can have profoundly different meaning and impact at different times because we are not the same person reading the prayer each and every day. I loved reading Lord of the Flies during my first year of high school but I am glad I was not asked to read American Pastoral before I was forty five. Similarly, my response to SMLVULLY has changed. I don’t know if it is for better or for worse but I am glad that for that moment, as I come to the conclusion of the prayer service and consciously mull over that sentence, my prayer is meaningful and makes me think about something important. As we get ready to dig in for the onslaught of high intensity synagogue time in the coming weeks, I see the prayers inviting me back to read them again because they know I am not the same person I was last year.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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From Flute to Shofar, Finding Spirit in the Sound

IMG_7815I never could carry a tune but, at an early age, I discovered that I could make a soulful sound by blowing across a bottle top. Unfortunately, this set of talents did not equip me to read from the Torah or lead prayers in synagogue. While I learned to compose and deliver a dvar Torah, an active role as a spiritual leader via melody did not seem to be in the cards for me.

My capacity for making foghorn sounds with a bottle, did, however, translate into playing the flute in high school. Years later, I found that I could use the same embouchure to make sounds with a shofar. At first, I enjoyed picking up the shofar and blowing random blasts during the month of Elul. Then, when my community minyan Darkhei Noam opened auditions for female and male shofar sounders a few years ago, I decided to try out. I was given the honor of sounding the last set of kolot, blasts, after the Musaf service. I was invited to join the tradition of making a primordial sound from a ram’s horn that wakes up Jews from spiritual slumber, connects back to the Akeidah, the Sacrifice of Isaac, reminds us of the majesty and tragedy of Temple times, and evokes the sorrow of Sisera’s mother. Practicing tekiahs and shevarims took more effort than making arbitrary sounds, but yielded far more satisfaction. I learned how to think of my teruahs as three sets of triplets and prepare my breath for the tekiah gedolah. “Remember,” my coaches said, “If a Satan gets into your shofar and you can’t make a sound, just wait. Relax. You can’t force a shofar blast.”

My first year as a shofar sounder went off like a charm. The little children sat up on the stage to better see and hear the shofar. They looked at me with big, admiring eyes. I felt a special connection to the little girls on stage who seemed to sit up taller as my sounds came out strong and confident, lightly graced with a few humble quavers. My second year was a different story. A Satan found its way into my shofar. My first tekiah was more airy vibrato than anything else.  And then…nothing. I forced breath into my shofar but no sound emerged. I waited. The little children pulled back their heads in surprise. Sweat beaded on my forehead and dripped down my nose. I tried again and mustered up some puny notes. After limping through the end of the blasts, I slunk to my seat and sat down, bathed in humiliation. Friends came over to comfort me, and surprisingly, to congratulate me for my effort. The next year, when for unrelated reasons I attended a different service, women from Darkhei Noam stopped me after Rosh Hashanah, telling me that they missed my shofar blowing.

This year I look forward to lifting a shofar to my lips again, at a small country community in Connecticut. I hope my sounds are strong and stir the souls of the congregation, but I know that sounding shofar is not a performance, but a prayer.

For more on the halakhot of shofar blowing, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide

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Posted on September 17, 2014

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Aliyah – A Journey to Family, to Community and to Empowering Our Sisters in Israel

Amy OppenheimerIf you had told me five years ago that I would be making aliyah in the midst of a war to work on behalf of Israel’s only shelter for observant victims of domestic violence, I would have looked at you very funny.

At the time, I was living in Riverdale New York, the international capital of JOFA (or so it felt!), and was happily employed in the fancy and fast-paced world of management consulting. By day, I donned a business suit and visited clients in the CFO suite, by night, I edited my first documentary film and educational curriculum, Faces of Israel, and by weekend, I led youth programming at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

So, how did it happen?

Over the past decade, my family began to make aliyah. My older sister took the first leap in 2007. My little sister jumped onboard as soon as she possibly could in August 2013, and my parents (and family dog!) completed the migration  in December 2013.

It was once my dream to make aliyah too. Judaism felt more alive and vibrant in Israel. The holidays were celebrated in an intense and exciting way that I had simply not experienced in America. The very idea of building the Jewish homeland and signing on to be part of the most ambitious project the Jewish community has undertaken in over two thousand years was enthralling. But time seemed to pass more and more quickly and my life in America started falling into place. I released my first film and took it on tour, I became a speaker for Israel Bonds, and I spent two years traveling to communities across North America doing Jewish outreach.

But Skype calls to my parents and sisters just weren’t enough. So I started planning extended visits to Israel in 2012 and, rather than spending days on the beach in Tel Aviv or checking out the endless stream of cafes on Emek Refaim, it was important to me to find a meaningful volunteer opportunity. This is how I discovered Bat Melech. (Or, technically, how my mother discovered Bat Melech!)

After one conversation with Noach Korman, the founder of Bat Melech, I had found my organization.

Bat Melech is the only kosher and Sabbath-observant shelter for victims of domestic violence in Israel, but more than a shelter, it is a home for Jewish women who have been disenfranchised and it is a place where they can begin rebuilding themselves and their families.

I have seen firsthand how women come to us broken and transform during their time at Bat Melech. If we could take a picture of a woman’s arrival and departure days, the stark contrast would be evident. For example, Rachel worked in Israeli academia as a professor. You would think that someone of her stature could never become a victim of domestic violence, but her self-confidence as a professional, a mother, and a human being was systematically shattered through repeated insults, harsh criticisms, and violence. When Rachel arrived, she thought herself neither worthy nor capable of taking care of her children and continuing her career. But after eight months of weekly therapy, counseling, and parental training sessions at Bat Melech, Rachel is back on her feet with custody of her children and is preparing her curriculum for the fall semester.

BM_Logo_transMany of our residents never had the chance to become the women they wanted to be. Most were denied the opportunity to work, to study, to parent in the manner they thought appropriate and to explore their own personal interests as adults. When they sought help, they were told that modesty, coping in silence, and working toward peace in the home trumped abuse. They didn’t believe they mattered. Bat Melech teaches them to advocate for their selves, be strong, and self-confident. And we’re doing this for over 1,500 women and children each year.

This past winter, I was brought onboard as Bat Melech’s director of North America and Overseas and the first English-speaker in our office! This clinched my decision to make aliyah. Though I was motivated to move to Israel to be near my family, it was the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of Jewish women – that clinched the deal.

I know that we have our work cut out for us, but every day strengthens my belief that the work we do is not just chesed (kindness), but tzedek (justice).

So, how did my first week as an Israeli feel? It’s a mixed bag. There’s the excitement of receiving my teudat zehut, Israeli identity card, and feeling like I truly belong here, and the giddiness of walking into my first day at Ulpan. There’s also the challenge of planning my wedding in Israel (my fiancé proposed on the last week of my pilot trip this Spring!), and the striking difference between customer service in Israel and in America. (Let’s just say that the customer is not always right in Israel.) I’m not quite sure that I feel like an Israeli just yet, but le’at le’at – one step at a time, with gratitude, with mindfulness, and with appreciation.

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Posted on September 15, 2014

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Researching Jewish History through a Woman’s Eyes

It’s strange but true that being a woman made me uniquely positioned to write my historical novels. Growing up a secular Jew, I doubt I would have been inclined to study Talmud if I were a man. But knowing the yeshiva world was still pretty much closed to women in 1992, I jumped at an opportunity to study this forbidden text in a women’s Talmud class. There, I became so intrigued by the legend that Rashi’s daughters were learned back in what many consider the Dark Ages that I decided to find out if it was true. As I researched the legend, I discovered a mistake in a Jewish encyclopedia that only a woman would notice, and this discovery set me on the course to write my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy.

RachelcovershadowBefore I could determine if Rashi’s daughters were really learned, I needed to know who they were. Rashi himself never mentions his daughters, but all his biographies agreed that they were Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel. They also agreed that Rashi, aka Solomon ben Isaac, was born in 1040 C.E., died in 1105 C.E., and that his oldest grandson Isaac, son of Joheved and her husband Meir, was born in 1076 C.E.

Here’s when I came across something odd in an old Jewish Encyclopedia. In the section on Rashi, it stated that Joheved’s four sons were Isaac (named after Rashi’s father), Samuel (named after Meir’s father), Jacob (known as Rabbenu Tam), and Solomon – born after Rashi’s death and named for his grandfather.

As I pondered this, I began to suspect that something was wrong. For if this were true, it would mean that Joheved had children born thirty years apart (the first in 1076 and the last after 1105)! Now I’d done enough genealogy during the “Roots” craze of the 1980s to know that in the days before modern medicine, this was highly unlikely. Men might sire children over a thirty-year period or longer, but not women.

Determined to get to the bottom of this, I consulted every piece of information on Rashi, his daughters, and his illustrious grandsons that I could find. All this research not only turned up evidence that the daughters were indeed learned, but also proved I was correct to question that encyclopedia entry. I learned that Joheved and Meir’s youngest son was actually Jacob, born in 1100, not Solomon as the encyclopedia had posited. I also saw that it was common at this time for Jewish children, both in Ashkenaz and Sepharad, to be named after a living grandparent. I eventually came to the conclusion that the man who’d written that encyclopedia biography had apparently taken the modern Ashkenazi tradition of not naming a child like this and transposed it to the eleventh century where it didn’t belong. Clearly he never considered how old Joheved would have been when baby Solomon was born, or if he did, it didn’t make him skeptical.

Buoyed with the astonishing knowledge that an encyclopedia could be wrong, I decided to use everything else I’d learned to write about Rashi’s daughters myself and set the record straight.

Maggie AntonThe expertise I acquired from researching Rashi’s family enabled me to delve into the Talmud for information about Rav Hisda, his daughter and her two husbands, plus the rest of the fourth-century Babylonian rabbinic community, in order to write my latest books, Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter and Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud and Sorcery.

The Talmud, also known as the Oral Torah, wasn’t written down until hundreds of years after it was compiled. Birth and death dates of Talmudic rabbis were calculated by medieval scholars even later, so after what happened with Joheved’s son Solomon, I was prepared to challenge anything dubious. Indeed, my suspicions that some of these dates might be wrong were confirmed when I tried to sort out Rav Hisda’s family. In particular, I ran into trouble determining when his daughter, my heroine, was born.

All of Rav Hisda’s biographies, including the most recent edition of Encyclopedia Judaica, hold that Hisda was born in 217 C.E. and died in 309 C.E. The Talmud states quite clearly that he married at age sixteen, but because young men rarely married older women and most girls wed shortly after reaching puberty, I figured his wife would have been born around 219 C.E. This woman, his only wife, gave Hisda nine children who lived to adulthood and was still married to him well into her sixties.

These same sources give the birth year for his son-in-law Rava, my heroine’s second husband, as approximately 275 C.E. Do you see the difficulty? Even if my heroine was Hisda’s youngest child, she could not have been born later than 265 C.E. For a man to marry a woman ten years his senior is unusual enough, but to further complicate things, we know from another section of Talmud that Hisda’s daughter was a young girl at the time that Rava was her father’s student, so she must have been younger than her future husband.

How did I resolve this contradiction, one only a woman would question?

I did what the Gemara does when it cannot explain a contradiction between two Mishnas any other way: it revises one Mishna’s text so they both make sense. I felt more comfortable giving precedence to information found in the Talmud itself than relying on guestimates from five hundred years later. So in my book, I wrote that Rav Hisda was born in 230 C.E., his daughter in 275 C.E., and Rava in 270 C.E. Problem solved.

But I didn’t rest there. When I learned in 2005 that a new edition of Encyclopedia Judaica was in the works, I contacted one of their editors who was familiar with my work to ensure that their Rashi article would not perpetuate this error. I also became a Wikipedia editor, where I monitor their articles on the historical figures in my novels for accuracy. It’s important that women’s scholarship isn’t seen as limited to researching historical novels, or worse, overlooked entirely.

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Posted on September 10, 2014

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Pack Lunch, Hear Shofar, Drive Carpool

shutterstock_188569355Every year at this time, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul into Tishrei, my mind vaguely registers that the shofar is blown daily at the end of Shacharit services. Up until now, that same part of my mind shrugged as I said to myself, “Oh well, I have four kids to diaper, dress, feed and get off to school, slapping together sandwiches, tying shoes, and zipping up backpacks. Write this off as one of the time-bound specials.” Between my children’s apple and honey projects, and eighth grade lulav and etrog sales, and my menu planning and rummaging around for non-leather shoes, it wasn’t as if Elul passed me by. But the call of the shofar belonged exclusively to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I always felt a little cheated when any of the festival days fell on Shabbat and we missed a day of shofar blasts.

This year the reminders came again — a d’var Torah here, an article there — including encouragement to learn to blow the shofar myself. Unless a woman works at a Jewish school and can participate in student services, chances are many women don’t hear the shofar blown before Rosh Hashanah. As a result, the do-it-yourself method has a certain appeal. Since Elul is a time to reassess, I did just that and realized that with changing circumstances, another option presented itself: go to synagogue.

It didn’t actually start with the shofar. My first thought was that this year I wanted to make more of an effort to mark Rosh Chodesh, so often glibly referred to as a “woman’s holiday,” and what better time to start than with Elul? I’ve never needed a second invitation to avoid laundry, but making an extra effort in my prayers seemed more challenging. With three children launched out of the house towards college and careers, I figured I could attend the early minyan and return home in time to greet my sleepy high school senior as she wafted down the stairs in search of breakfast. Attending synagogue a morning or two a month didn’t seem too onerous a commitment, and there was no one other than myself to call me to account if it didn’t work out.

SP Woman Blowing Shofar Small

Sherry Pollack practices blowing shofar at JOFA’s shofar blowing workshop in Randolph, NJ.

Once I heard the shofar, I knew I had an opportunity to approach the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, with additional layers of meaning. I decided to extend my synagogue attendance beyond Rosh Chodesh. The daily shofar blasts are not just the echoes of ancient sound, but an immediate presence within prayer, an overture that we are privileged to hear at a specific time for a specific purpose. They tie us to the Children of Israel awaiting Moses’s descent from the mountain and to Moses himself who fasted forty long days and nights in preparation for receiving the second set of Tablets. In the here and now, the sound of the shofar carries through the rest of my day and makes me evaluate even the most superficially trivial choices.

Because I had stayed at home in the mornings for so many years, I did not know what to expect in synagogue. Did other women think that synagogue was the place to hear the shofar? Was there a community on the women’s side in the morning that I had never heard about? Did it matter? I belong to a relatively large congregation, and so far there have been two of us on the women’s side. I open my prayer book as a member of the entire community and not exclusively of the women’s side. I would be naive to think some thirty pairs of eyes don’t notice that a woman who is not saying Kaddish has started showing up regularly, but I am perfectly comfortable here. After all, these are my friends and neighbors with whom I am praying, and we are all doing our best to prepare for the Days of Awe which lie ahead. Gender really isn’t an issue. Synagogue is the right place to be, listening to the shofar together feels like the right thing to do, and I only wish more of us, both men and women, seized the moment. And I will admit to a certain pleasure at seeing the uncertainty in my daughter’s eyes upon my return: What is Mom up to now?

For more resources about women hearing and blowing shofar, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide

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Posted on September 8, 2014

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Agreement vs. Acceptance

shutterstock_146993003As a Jewish woman raised in a Conservative home, a Reform synagogue, and who has been Modern Orthodox since the age of nineteen, I have been blessed with being exposed to the various streams of Judaism, all of which, I believe, can learn from one another. What prompted me to identify as Orthodox was the simple desire to be part of a community where the majority of the laity observed Judaism on a daily basis, where Judaism was a prism through which they made decisions, decided moral questions, and in general, lived their lives. The issue of women’s active participation in many things, particularly Jewish ritual, was always a sticking point for me, but I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and trusted that a way could be found.

Thank God, a way has been found, with the advent of JOFA, women’s tefillah groups, partnership minyanim, and most important, women’s incredible strides in higher Torah learning, of which I have been privileged to take part. These practices, though halakhically permissible, have not been part of the Mesorah, or Jewish tradition, a term which includes Jewish law and customs. Historically, particularly in the Ashkenazic community, custom has been accorded the same status as law, and even today, one’s minhag, or custom, is tenaciously preserved. In general, I love tradition, hence my decision to become shomer Shabbat, Shabbat observant. However, I struggle with those aspects of the tradition that feel unjust. My personal relationship to God, which has given me great peace and heartfelt joy, becomes seriously marred if I have to believe it is God’s eternal will that women be barred from performing certain rituals not for any halakhic reason, but simply because Jews in the past felt it either unnecessary or uncomfortable to engage in such practices.

Judaism has never been immune from, or blind to, the world which surrounds it. I could give many historical examples, but the fundamental question facing the Orthodox community (and many religious communities in general), is this: Do we believe that certain values in secular culture, such as gender equality, are important and fundamental enough, reflect basic Jewish values of human rights and dignity enough, to do our best to incorporate them into our ancient tradition?

For some the answer is no, and though I don’t agree with this approach, I must accept the fact that others do very strongly. I can only imagine how I would feel if I had been raised in a fervently observant home that went back generations, and I personally know many women who are truly spiritually fulfilled by the role established by Mesorah. If I wish to be accepted by those in the Orthodox community who disagree with me, I must reciprocate and accept them too.

However, I also need to accept the fact that the status quo feels wrong to me, and I cannot agree with it, and I know others feel as I do. Is it advisable, then, to form yet another branch of Judaism, perhaps dubbed “Liberal” Orthodoxy, where it is a priority to integrate modern values, such as feminism, into a halakhic framework? Though I dislike fragmentation, I would support such a movement, since the alternative is alienating those like me who are devoted to Jewish law and tradition and yet feel that where it is halakhically permissible, women should be included as much as possible.

shutterstock_204409438There are Sephardic Jews, Hasidic Jews, Yeshivish Jews, Yemenite Jews–all within the rubric of Orthodoxy–why can’t the “Liberal Orthodox” community be part of this tapestry? Like the other subgroups of Orthodoxy, which differ widely on customs and even on approaches to determining halakha, Liberal Orthodoxy can, and should, be accepted as a legitimate part of the Orthodox community, rather than condemned as a threat to it.

Our Sages have famously interpreted Proverbs 3:18—Eitz hayyim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar–“It is a tree of life, to those who hold it fast, and all of its supporters are happy,” as referring to the Torah. Just as a tree with many branches is considered to be alive and well, the plethora of options within Orthodox Judaism is a sign of the vitality of Judaism, not the disintegration of it.

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Posted on September 2, 2014

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Jewish Women Deserve Better

SashaKeslerFive months ago, I wrote about my struggles as a newly married woman in adjusting to the observance of Taharat HaMishpacha, the laws of family purity. I felt isolated in my suffering and scared that my commitment to halakha would forever negatively impact my marriage. I had been taught that Taharat HaMishpacha keeps a marriage fresh and alive. Rabbi Meir attested to this in the Talmud, “Why did the Torah teach that a woman was in a period of niddah, menstrual impurity, for seven days?…So that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the chuppah, wedding canopy” (Niddah 31b). But observing the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha was not a honeymoon for my relationship, and I was searching for someone to tell me that I was not alone in my frustration. I needed community and solidarity.

I watched eagerly as the conversation about my article spread on social media. While some critiqued my frustration and argued that halakhic challenges are simply a part of Avodat Hashem, service of God, many women reached out to me to express their solidarity and sympathy with my challenges. It was clear that I was not alone and that women needed a space to discuss this mitzvah openly and honestly.

Since moving to New York City last fall, I have met many female, halakhic scholars–mentors that I did not have access to when I initially learned the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha on the West Coast. I began asking them about strategies to cope with the challenging aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha and how to guide a follow-up discussion that would move beyond frustration towards constructive action. While the women I spoke to offered solidarity and sympathy, no one had an answer. Most offered a few ideas and then concluded, “You just learn to deal with it.”

That answer was not satisfying. Getting married is enough of a new challenge: learning to live with someone, navigating a new sexual relationship, merging identities. Yet, at the same time we are introduced to a new set of mitzvot that impacts your body, sexuality, and emotional relationship. And if women ever choose to speak openly about these intimate challenges, the only support offered is that it will get easier. But we deserve better. No new bride should ever have to feel isolated and scared because of the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha. Our community needs to collectively strategize on ways to offer support to couples.

With this guiding principle, I facilitated a series of discussion groups, in collaboration with Immerse NYC, which brought together women in Washington Heights to share their experiences of observing Taharat HaMishpacha. These discussions provided space to both vent frustrations and clearly identify the challenges to address.

At one salon, a woman asked if my husband was home and when I responded no, she sighed in relief and pulled off her sheitl, wig. Women around the living room followed suit, pulling off sheitls, tichels, scarves, and hats, a collective shedding of our inhibitions. This was a safe space to open up and be in solidarity as women.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-218835During these discussions, members of the group openly discussed each person’s difficulties and offered suggestions to one another. As each woman shared, heads nodded around the room and women jumped in to respond. I found myself feeling more at ease with my challenges. There was a sense of solidarity in our commitment to this mitzvah and yet, an honest acknowledgement that while observing other mitzvot may be difficult at times, this mitzvah has a particularly sensitive impact as it affects one’s body, marriage, and sexual life. There is a lot of constructive power in a room full of women. While no one walked away with every problem solved, I noticed a lighter energy as women left. We were on the way towards a more positive relationship with this mitzvah.

Our community needs to consciously and consistently support these conversations. While I am fortunate to live in a vibrant, Jewish neighborhood, women all over this country do not have access to this support. My hope is that we can expand this experience beyond Manhattan so that every woman has a place to turn to and a network to support her as she begins this new mitzvah, or as her practice evolves throughout her life. Every marriage deserves to start with all the resources available for success. Talking about the non-halakhic aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha should be another part of the healthy marriage toolkit.

If you are interested in bringing this curriculum to your community, please contact Sasha Kesler at SashaDKesler@gmail.com.

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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The Shofar Is Calling; Will You Answer?

shutterstock_110739179Each shofar has a unique undulating shape and trumpeting sound. The sound may be low and haunting or bold and jarring. But whatever its call, the shofar awakens us from slumber and reminds us that the time for teshuva, repentance, has arrived.

During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar on a daily basis at the conclusion of the morning service. This custom is derived from the Midrash that Moses ascended Mount Sinai at the beginning of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, having broken the first set when he witnessed the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. While Moses was on the mountain, the Israelites blew the shofar on a daily basis to serve as a warning to the people to maintain their faith in God.

It is interesting to note that the Shulchan Aruch explicitly permits a woman to blow shofar for herself or for other women on Rosh Hashanah. But our rabbinic sources are silent on the issue of women blowing shofar during the month of Elul, leaving us to extrapolate for modern times. The Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and other halakhic authorities categorize blowing the shofar during Elul as a minhag, custom, rather than as an obligation. With these considerations in mind, a woman could blow shofar for herself or in the presence of other women during Elul to assist them in fulfilling the minhag. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, author of a forthcoming JOFA publication entitled, “A Cry from the Soul: Women and Hilkhot Shofar,” holds that a woman may indeed take on this role.*

Blowing a teki’ah (the long, solid blast) is not all that difficult. It takes some creative positioning of the mouth and hands, and some trial and error, but it can be mastered within a few minutes of effort. It is incredibly satisfying to put the shofar to your lips and produce a deafening blast. While the sound is energizing when it is merely heard, the call of the shofar is incredibly impactful when it draws from the energy deep within you.

Would you like to try it yourself?

shofar-blowout-logoThe Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Federation of Metrowest New Jersey, is hosting the Great Shofar Blowout on Sunday, September 21st in Whippany, NJ. In an attempt to break the Guinness World Record, 1500 participants will blow shofar in the same place at the same time! JOFA is co-sponsoring this historic event.

But before you can join in the Blowout, you may need to practice. JOFA will be hosting a workshop for women, men, and children who are interested in getting some practical experience; first-timers are welcome! The workshop will be enriched by a shiur, text-based class, which will review sources addressing the permissibility of women blowing shofar. I invite you to join me on Sunday, September 7 at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey, at 10 am, for this exciting event. Bring your personal shofar as you will want to learn the best technique for your instrument!

Rosh Chodesh Elul is almost upon us. The shofar calls out to me with a voice that is strong and unwavering. It is a call that has been heeded by countless generations each year at this time. This year, I will do more than just listen to that call. I intend to feed it with my own strength, my own will and my own breath. I will infuse the shofar call with my own hopes and desires for a fresh start in the New Year, for a greater level of commitment to God, to my people and to my community.

* Note: The issue of women blowing shofar for a mixed congregation, however, is more complex and requires intensive study of the sources; a synopsis is beyond the scope of this posting.

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Posted on August 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

An Open Letter to My Bais Yaakov Education

shutterstock_168751562To My Bais Yaakov Education,

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I made the jump from a coed, Modern Orthodox elementary school to a Bais Yaakov-type high school. In truth, I had no concept. However, I do not regret attending such a right-wing high school for a moment, and am proud to affiliate myself with you.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there were points where, as a feminist, I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through. There were many lessons, speeches, and offhand comments about women in Judaism where I had to roll my eyes and remind myself not to take things so seriously. The hashkafa (philosophy) rabbi whose biggest blessing was “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah, but the gematria of tov is seventeenthe Sages say eighteen is an auspicious age to wed, but the numerical value of good is seventeen;” the (female) Nashim B’Tanach (Women in the Bible) teacher who taught us that women are the moon and men are the sun, so we are only reflections of the men in our lives; the halakha (Jewish law) rabbi who gave an impromptu lesson on why women shouldn’t enter the clergy…I could go on and on. It made my blood boil.

The undue emphasis on tzniut (modesty) was also difficult for me to swallow. I follow the rules of tzniut as you taught mecovering knees, elbows, collarbonebecause that’s how I feel comfortable. But considering the amount of mitzvot (commandments) that you did not care to emphasize, it bothered me that you put so much effort into exhorting us (a largely modestly-dressed bunch to begin with) to cover up.

So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it.

Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes. During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha and hashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary.

Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated, frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing. For the biannual school production, we performed a musical about the life and legacy of Sarah Schenirer, the creator of Bais Yaakov and innovator of Jewish women’s education. Students were encouraged to take on leadership roles, from debate team captain to choir head to hesed (community service) committee coordinator.

So I don’t think that it would be fair to characterize you by “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah” and speeches on modesty. Yes, those were big parts of my high school career, and I don’t wish to ignore them, especially because I know that they dominated many other Bais Yaakov girls’ high school careers. But they do not define my experience in Bais Yaakov. No, I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.

So thank you, Bais Yaakov. For showing me that a woman can learn just as well as any man can, and that a frum woman can do whatever she sets her mind to. You never called yourself feminist, and I certainly did not think to apply the label to you while I was in high school. But now, in retrospect, I do believe that it would be the proper adjective to describe the education you gave me.

Sincerely,

A feminist Bais Yaakov graduate

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Posted on August 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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