I didn’t mind the mechitzah at first. The wall—more frequently a short partition—separating men and women in ritual spaces was something to which I had grown accustomed in my long experience with traditional, Orthodox synagogues. Partnership minyanim were not a reality in my adolescent consciousness as I traversed the long road of a yeshiva day school student; but feelings of inequality, misogyny, and the limited opportunities for women to publically express their dedication to ritual Judaism grew increasingly prominent. Everything I did as a Jewish woman seemed to be in the context of a male experience, even within the walls of my all-girls high school. We learned Torah while the men learned Talmud, hailed male figures in Jewish history, dressed modestly to prevent men from succumbing to their basic instincts, and were shipped off to seminaries, whose names would feature prominently in conversations about our future shidduchim, marriage prospects. Halichos Bas Yisroel, a text filled with proverbial advice for young Jewish women, was to become the mainstay of our religious experience. And, because I had “lost” my copy, I wasn’t having it.
I remember the first time I received an aliyah. It was the summer of 2011. I was shocked when the female gabbai glanced my way as though I was a viable option for the position. When I heard my Hebrew name—Naomi bat Zev—being called, I murmured the most sincere shehechiyanu that I have ever said, gingerly approaching the scroll that I had been taught was off limits to me and my kind. This was a turning point for my religious practice, as I suddenly recalled a line from a famous Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And that something was me.
My distaste for exclusion from the action on the bima led me to partnership minyanim. Though most of these spaces still had me face to face with a mechitzah, I found so much comfort in the sound of a woman’s voice ringing through the pews of an Orthodox synagogue that the partition became less and less significant. I learned to chant from the Torah, properly singing the blessings and songs that I had tuned out for years when I was quarantined on the woman’s side. I needed to ensure that when I was called upon, I’d be ready. Women’s ritual expression electrified a room of worshippers who had grown tired of the silence of being an onlooker. In the past months and years, as partnership minyanim have become central to the media tug-of-war between the right and left factions of Orthodoxy, I balk at the notion that women are being kept from carving a meaningful space for themselves in some Orthodox synagogues. Sitting, as I often do on Saturday mornings, with my coffee and New Yorker, I can’t believe that rabbis would prefer that I be in the comfort of my apartment reading about Putin and Ukraine than leading pesukei de’zimrah (a portion of the prayer service that women are permitted to lead in partnership minyanim).
And yet, on most Shabbat mornings, I still find myself doing just that: waking up late and catching up on my reading. I realize, though I am loath to admit it, that partnership, and even fully egalitarian, minyanim just aren’t doing it for me. Though I will fight to the death for the right of these prayer spaces to exist, the actual experience of joining the tefillah has withered since that first aliyah I received on that Shabbat afternoon almost three years ago. I continue to want to be revved up by the feeling of my own voice in the Orthodox prayer space, but when I’m honest with myself, I need something more.
I found it completely by accident. When a colleague and friend approached me about a new synagogue starting in Washington Heights, his passion for creating an inclusive, alternative community drew me in almost immediately—even if it would mean giving up my Saturday morning coffee ritual. Beit Hamidrash Hagadol, a statuesque and historic synagogue that boasts being the oldest in Washington Heights, was the scene for this revival minyan, which we have loving taken to calling “the Beis.” As a motley crew geared up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the behemoth sanctuary of this synagogue, I found myself face to face with my old frenemy: the mechitzah. This time, however, I would not need to approach the bima for my voice to be heard.
Though women were not involved in leading the prayers at the Beis, a group of volunteers worked together to prepare explanations that they would share as an accompaniment to the Yom Kippur Avodah prayer service. Intermittently during prayer, a designated man or woman would interject his or her own kavanot, intentions, for people to ponder during a service that is seemingly endless and often monotonous. These words—spoken in English—provided inspiration, focus, and new perspectives on ancient texts for a community of individuals that ranged from secular to Orthodox. When I volunteered for this role, never having seen explanatory services done in this fashion, I had no idea how powerful and empowering it would be.
“During the next prayer, Aleinu, we bow our bodies so that they are prostrated fully on the ground,” I pronounced to the room of worshippers. The prayer leader’s voice floated behind my words as I grew louder, ensuring that both men and women could hear me from where I stood on the women’s side of the mechitzah. “Often, we find ourselves serving God with our hearts, connecting to God through deep emotions and spiritual experiences. Other times, we serve God with our minds, learning the laws and considering the existence of a Creator. Invariably, a hierarchy exists within us between the heart and the mind. Today, we have the opportunity to put our hearts and minds on the same level and serve God as a single being – with heart, mind, and body coming together in anticipation of welcoming His presence in our lives.”
As I bowed to the beautiful sound of the leader singing Aleinu, I didn’t feel out of place in the slightest. The curtain between the men and women disappeared as I took part in one of the most meaningful, innovative ritual experiences that I have had to date. Throughout the day, fellow worshippers thanked me for my contributions to their prayers. They really felt connected this year. And I did too.
Ritual inclusion for women is not merely about interpreting laws in a way that allows for women to occupy a place that is traditionally reserved for men. Rather, it’s about considering which experiences —both new and old—will be meaningful for both the men and women who come to synagogue to connect to God, eat the sponsored Kiddush food, and chat with friends. Full inclusion of women is allowing their physical presence, and their creativity, to enter into a traditionally male space.
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There are several things that happen when a stone is thrown into a lake. First, the stone pierces the top layer of the water creating a splash. Second, ripples undulate on the surface. Third, the stone plunges downward until it lands atop the lake’s floor. What is most visible is what occurs on the surface. We are less aware of the layers that the stone cuts under the water; of the muck it disturbs when it hits “rock bottom.” It is the alleged crime, perpetrated against unsuspecting women at Kesher Israel’s mikveh, which has unearthed fears of unchecked religious power.
If the allegations are true, the women who entered the bathroom of the mikveh—the regulars, converts, students—they represent that which is most directly and egregiously violated by the breach. Still, others are stabbed by the deception: the mikveh attendants, congregants, colleagues, family. Even less transparent, however, are the ripple effects that cascade down and out, disturbing unconscious layers of lived experiences.
Fast-forward to Friday night, just ten days after the news broke. I am sitting at Kabbalat Shabbat at the Modern Orthodox synagogue that I attend. I am the only woman there, until one trickles in, then another. I go into Friday night services as many do, with the intention of leaving the week behind and entering a space that extends beyond time. Mincha, led by one of the men in the community, shifts into the beautiful tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat. I close my eyes and sing along. All at once, as the leader begins singing Shiru L’Hashem, five men rush the bima, podium, with undaunted energy. Indeed, it is a beautiful sight: men singing blissfully in harmony together. Nonetheless, it is precisely at this moment, at a time when they likely feel the most connected, that I feel the least connected. In fact, I feel horribly disconnected. Marginalized. A feeling that I am not unused to; one that I have struggled with for the last twenty four years as my husband and I have chosen to raise our selves and our family in a Modern Orthodox community.
Overall, what I cherish about the community outweighs what I grapple with. Raising a family with a commitment to shomer Shabbat observance, particularly in the era of being plugged in 24/7, is a blessing in our life. But, this Shabbat, I feel sucker punched, overwhelmed with a heightened negative emotion that causes me to literally get up and walk out of services.
Was it the experience of watching the physical presence of a group of men– all of whom, by the way, I respect and count as friends—commandeer the space that triggered my reaction? Was it the fact that they and our Orthodox spiritual male leaders can’t possibly know what it is like to have the lived-experience as a woman in an Orthodox synagogue where there are so many things that we are not permitted to do, like join the men in their drum and dance circle, merely because of the fact that we are women? Was it the fact that the mechitza, something that I have mostly come to appreciate over the years, stood there that evening as a symbol of banishment? I’m incredulous: how is it that in the year 2014 I feel so deeply the pangs of second class citizenship?
Why tonight have I found myself having such an unusually strong reaction to observing the men at the bima? After all, this collective step-up to the amud happens with regularity at our synagogue, and, I often find my private way to cope with and move beyond the separation. Why was this week different? Because this week, the allegations were in the back of my mind. Because if true, the act of allegedly secretly videotaping women in the mikveh tramples on a deep public trust, a trust bestowed readily by congregants on their Orthodox rabbinic leaders. Any use of power to bastardize authority at the expense of those most vulnerable represents the deep and dirty muck at the bottom of the lake. Absolute power corrupts. Who is watching the gatekeepers of our halakhot, of our rituals?
Tears welled up in my heart as I instinctively raced out of the room and into the main sanctuary, which thankfully happened to be alight and utterly empty. Bursting into the space on the “men’s side,” I took a seat right behind the bima which stands in the center of the room. My friend, who had followed me out, sat with me and we talked. Two women talked, yet again, about our frustrations secondary to the fact that there are many things women are halakhically permitted to do, but that still aren’t permitted by the Orthodox rabbis. We talked about the lack of standardization of practice in Orthodox communities around the world. We agonized at the disconnect we felt between advances made in our secular lives and the great lag that appears to follow in the Orthodox world.
Our talking, however, did not leave me feeling better. I remained agitated. Affixed in our seats, quietly at first, my friend and I spontaneously began singing Mizmor L’David. I found myself rising up, standing squarely at the bima, she following in tow. We started in on a soulful Lecha Dodi, our voices rising synchronously and spontaneously in volume, in rhythm. We began to pound intuitively on the amud with increasing vigor; to circle the amud just as we have witnessed the men do week after week. We didn’t consciously come into the space to “take back the night,” but, that is what we did instinctively together. Creating a holy space through active participation, through action. In Orthodoxy, part of my “woman-self” comes into synagogue uplifted and comforted by the amazing women around me; but, another part of my “woman-self” is wholly and systematically muted.
If true, the rabbi’s alleged crime highlights a fundamental challenge for Modern Orthodoxy in the twenty first century. To be sure, there are practical problems that require immediate solutions. Women need additional protections to foster safety and trust and to optimize the sacred that must exist in the experience of mikveh. However, there are halakhic matters relevant to Modern Orthodox Judaism that require additional unpacking. There are deep and divisive issues which must be explored openly by the Orthodox community.
When JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, put on their first conference years ago, I remember hearing Blu Greenberg speak in the context of the agunah about the notion that: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” This purported act of total desecration of trust should serve as wake-up call to all those rabbis in positions of power. The time is now. The muck is calling out from the deep. Do the right thing. Express your rabbinic wills.
When LGBT Jews re-encounter their tradition on their own terms, they can experience spiritual risk, iconoclasm, and reimagined faith. One way to better understand and relate to this process is through the lens of biblical figures. Eshel, the national effort for LGBT inclusion in Orthodox families and communities, is introducing a series of monthly shiurim entitled, “The Real Modern Family: Biblical Characters in a Whole New Light,” which will explore nine biblical characters through this lens.
In order to give you a taste of this endeavor, I’d like to offer a short musing on a biblical character that plays a supporting role in the unfolding of the Abrahamic vision. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant is mentioned explicitly only once, in chapter 15 of Genesis.
Following a battle with kings to extricate his nephew Lot, Abram is promised great reward. The words “great reward” fall blankly upon Abram as he responds with subtle impatience. He reminds God that he is still childless and that his steward, Eliezer from Damascus, is his only possible heir.
Eliezer is introduced as a fall back, a foil to God’s delayed fulfillment of covenantal promises. God assures Abram that, this one, “ze” will not inherit him, but a child of his own body will. Eliezer is the first rejected heir. Later Ishmael will also be rejected. As the story unfolds, only a child of both Abraham and Sarah will fulfill the intended mission and give rise to the covenanted people.
Abraham’s trusted servant appears later in the narrative at another junction of threatened continuity. After taking care of Sarah’s burial, Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath that Isaac will not marry a local Canaanite woman. He bids the servant to seek out a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kin. We should expect the chief servant to be Eliezer, but not once in Abraham’s extraction of the oath, the servant’s prayerful preparation or the detailed negotiations with Laban, is his name mentioned. He is “eved Avraham,” Abraham’s slave, or “ha’ish,” the man.
Both rabbinic and scholarly consensus suggests that the unnamed servant is indeed, Eliezer. If so, then the avoidance of his name may be pointed. He is the shaliah, messenger, par excellence. Instead of being Abraham’s heir, he is his double, effecting Abraham’s will. For the Rabbis, Eliezer not only acts to accomplish Abraham’s purposes, he extends Abraham’s moral vision as well.
We are told that Eliezer happened by Sodom and stayed the night. During his short visit he has two distinct encounters. The first is with an aggressor who strikes and wounds him. Eliezer goes before a judge who deems that he owes his attacker a fee for bloodletting. With wit and humor, Eliezer rebuts by striking the judge with a staff and calling upon the judge to employ the bloodletting fee that is now owed him, to cover his debt to the original attacker. Here, Eliezer is playing Abraham’s iconoclastic role. Like the son of Terah who smashes all the idols and puts the club in the hands of the largest idol, mocking his father’s beliefs, Eliezer humorously (and similarly aggressively) contends with Sodom’s corrupt justice.
Eliezer’s second encounter with Sodom offers a poignant portrayal of the clash of cultures. The Sages associated Sodom with an aggressive rejection of the duty to welcome and protect travelers. The wealthy Sodomites, fearing an inundation of needy foreigners, had abandoned hospitality for the stranger. The Rabbis employ the myth of Procrustes’ bed, renaming it, the bed of Sodom to comment on their own cultural conflict with Athens and Rome (BT Sanhedrin 109b).
Procrustes’ bed inverts the ethic of hospitality. Procrustes (meaning he who stretches) kept a house by the side of the road for passing strangers. He offered them a warm meal and a bed. Once the visitors laid upon it, Procrustes would cut off the legs of those too long or stretch those too short. Theseus, the hero of the Greek tale, turns the tables on Procrustes and fatally adjusts him to his own bed. In Sodom, the Rabbis tell us, they also had a bed upon which weary guests might rest. Eliezer is offered to rest in the Sodomite bed and declines. He explains that since his mother died he pledged not to have a pleasant night’s sleep on a comfortable bed.
The people of Sodom are not only frightened of human need; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that has both zoned out poverty and insured that only “our kind” of folk will be welcome.
Eliezer’s mourning for his mother saves him from being amputated or stretched. Mourning the dead is a particularly selfless expression of relationship and love. The people of Sodom treat all outside its walls as already dead and Eliezer treats the dead as still alive. Eliezer is saved from Sodom’s evil not by his sword or cunning, as is Theseus, but by his own loving beyond all boundaries or benefit.
According to the Sages, Eliezer is one of nine biblical characters who entered the Garden of Eden without dying (Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, Chapter 1). Perhaps Eliezer’s self-effacing service, his humility, and his love beyond the grave gave him an unusual pass, a seamless entrance into the next world.
This early expression of dedication to both the teacher and his covenantal ideals feels like a precursor to a conversion process that will wait generations to become formal. Eliezer is not related to Abraham by birth, but in the words of Isaiah, he is a faithful “foreign son” (Isaiah 56:6). Jewish continuity is primarily familial and reproductive, nonetheless, access to the God of Abraham and Sarah cannot be restricted. As Eliezer’s name suggests, God helps anyone who wishes to serve. Unlike Sodom, our tent is open to everyone, different as they may be, needy for respite, hungry for food, yearning for depth, or just eager for companionship.
Eshel extends a hearty welcome to any and all to join us for a Chanukat HaBayit at our new downtown office on November 20th at 6pm followed by the first session of “Real Modern Family” on Sarah Imenu: The Laughing Princess.
Visit www.eshelonline.org/beiscamp to learn more about the “Real Modern Family” series.
I did not have Simchat Torah this year. Bold statement, right? Some of you are probably thinking that I must not be observant, because how could a good Jewish girl miss such an important holiday? Well, I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with Simchat Torah. So if I start at the beginning, maybe you will come to understand my point.
When I was little, as in elementary school little, I loved Simchat Torah. I ran around the synagogue with my friends, danced with my dad, and got loads of candy. I had a blast, and looked forward to it each year. Then, I turned 12 and celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Now, I could no longer dance with the men in my synagogue and I was relegated to the balcony with the women. At the time, I was a bit nostalgic for the good old days, but I still enjoyed the holiday. You see, watching from the women’s balcony as the men danced below with the Torahs was all I knew. So I enjoyed the holiday and spent it chatting with my mom and friends. And my relationship with Simchat Torah proceeded like that until I graduated from high school and attended Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Israel.
Initially, when I saw women at Midreshet Lindenbaum dancing with the Torahs and leading hakafot, the processionals, I was overwhelmed by this newness. Where I grew up, women did not even kiss the Torah, let alone carry it and dance with it. But by the end of the holiday, I had become comfortable with this new concept. I had accepted that women could interact with the Torah in a religious and meaningful way. I realized that a world existed where I could celebrate Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Torah I lived by every day and studied my entire life, with the actual Torah. But what would happen on the next Simchat Torah, after I left Midreshet Lindenbaum and returned to the United States? You see, I was at a tipping point in my relationship with the holiday. At this point, I could still return to the women’s balcony and write off my seminary experience as a chavaya, a one-time experience. But instead, I went over the other edge.
I spent four years at the University of Maryland, College Park, where Simchat Torah became my favorite holiday. I danced around the Torah, I held the Torah, and I fell in love with the Torah. The ruach, the energy, the sheer excitement was so contagious. It was not only the men who danced their socks off, but the women too! Every year at the University of Maryland, I went to Simchat Torah services expecting to come home with aching feet and drenched in sweat. I was a member of a community where both women and men loved the Torah equally and displayed that affection publicly.
At our Simchat Torah celebration, there was something for everyone. There were women’s aliyot if that was your thing, and there was “Torah Dash,” where men and women gave thirty-second divrei Torah on every portion in the Torah while community members received their aliyot. There was even a Kallah Torah and Kallah Bereishit, honors given to women of the community, in addition to the traditional honors, Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit, given to men. Women were integral members of the Simchat Torah celebration in College Park, and I felt like my presence was meaningful and positively impacted the community.
Simchat Torah of my senior year was bittersweet. I had an amazing time, and had the honor of leading the community in two hakafot, together with my fellow graduating seniors and community leaders. But the dark cloud of impending doom loomed over me. I was depressed enough about leaving the University of Maryland Jewish community for many reasons, but I felt even more upset on this holiday. I wondered: Would I ever dance with a Torah again? Would I love the celebration of the holiday wherever I was in one year’s time? I suppressed these thoughts, not wanting my fears of the future to ruin what might possibly be my last chance at Simchat Torah happiness.
So what was my Simchat Torah like this year, my first year post-college? Well, it was not Simchat Torah.
It was like any old holiday. I went to synagogue, watched the men do things on the other side of the mechitzah, and socialized with the other women as we stood around with nothing to do. My husband later asked me if I heard them sing this song and that song, and if I had seen him carry a Torah. No, I did not hear the songs they sang, and no, I could not see who carried the Torah. As I watched the men dance with my Torah, I felt utterly invisible and extremely empty. I had been so far removed from the celebration, that I had no longer had any part in it. This time when I was relegated to the women’s section, I was not okay with it. I had tasted the forbidden fruit of equality and religious expression and I was not content being downgraded from a passionate participant to an irrelevant bystander.
Join us for the JOFA UnConference on November 23 will be exploring topics related to Ritual Innovation. More information at jofa.org/unconference2014
This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of my conversion to Judaism.
As for so many others, my process of entering into the Orthodox Jewish community was long and arduous. And sadly, like so many others, I became a victim of sexual assault while on the course of my journey. (I mention the assault only because I could not have written this article without reflecting upon that experience.)
My conversion was not a horror story. My attack was not perpetrated by anyone involved in the process. On the contrary, I hold those who assisted in my conversion in the very highest esteem. And to get it out of the way, I am not one of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged victims, though I both studied and worked with him, and painfully, even referred female converts to him.
My personal reflections on the man are beside the point for the moment. My concerns pertain to the integrity of the conversion system in toto: a system in which I have been a participant, a system through which I have guided others, and a system to which I commit my life’s work.
That system is broken.
With the RCA’s formation of a panel to review the current conversion process, we begin the necessary process of examining procedures that have helped numerous candidates, including myself, but failed too many men and women. As one who experienced the vulnerability of conversion, the helplessness of sexual violation, and the satisfaction of guiding others through their journeys to Judaism, I offer some thoughts on how we might want to frame this troubling case.
1) Sexual abuse, including voyeurism, is primarily about power and secondarily about sex.
Accusations of serial abuse during a mysterious initiation ritual make great fodder for news outlets. However, the less titillating, more ubiquitous, and truly urgent problem is the potential for abuses of power by religious courts who perform conversions.
Firstly, If we see Freundel’s alleged voyeurism as a case of power abuse, rather than a case of sexual abuse, we may place it within a long standing pattern of behavior—bullying, threatening, intimidation and self-aggrandizement—some of which was legal, some (perhaps) illegal or unethical, but all of it troubling. In the future, we might be quicker to interrogate a clergy member’s relationship to power and control. We might better train our clergy and laity to identify and interrupt both sexual and non-sexual microagressions. Individuals who habitually cross the bounds of personal space and social propriety are not all sexual offenders, but we must be vigilant.
Secondly, describing Freundel’s alleged transgressions in primarily sexual terms renders the sinner too conveniently “other.” While few among us have been personally accused of sexual misconduct, an uncomfortably large number of us should ask, “What infractions have I committed in my use of power and influence?” and, “When have I turned a blind eye to the abusive behavior of others?” Framing this case as an abuse of power lets fall the barrier between the accused and the accusers, making uncomfortable self-reflection possible.
2) Employ the rhetoric of collective guilt cautiously.
Several articles have made varieties of the “we are all guilty” claim. I sympathize with the sentiment, but urge caution in employing the rhetoric of collective guilt. The last thing any victimized person needs to hear is, “we are all guilty.” For leaders and laity, parsing the issue of blame and responsibility is genuinely nerve-wracking and requires brutal honesty. If overused, the unqualified “we are all guilty” message becomes unhelpful background noise to this difficult meditation.
One of the most terrifying truisms about leadership is that you cannot have guilt in the absence of responsibility and you cannot have responsibility in the absence of power. We can argue about how and why disenfranchisement occurs, but those who are excluded from leadership cannot be blamed to the same extent as those who currently hold authoritative positions. It’s interesting to note how, in this case, the extremes of power and powerlessness in voyeurism correlate with the extremes of power and powerlessness in conversion. These extremes are the crux of the issue. The language we use to describe this case must accurately capture the topography of power. Mapping power dynamics is the first step towards analyzing existing policy and constructing something better in its place.
3) Giving women the “keys to the mikveh” is necessary but not sufficient.
One corollary to the axiom, “power is a prerequisite for guilt” is that putting any person—man or woman—in a position of power unlocks the potential for misuse of that power. It is naïve (and blindly heteronormative) to assume that involving women nullifies the risk of sex scandal or power abuse. Re-framing this incident more broadly will encourage us to seek solutions that go beyond sex and gender.
To be clear: women’s involvement—as permitted by Jewish law– is absolutely necessary. Having women present at the mikveh ceremony, having women formally educate female conversion candidates, or having them serve in the role of ombudspeople are all great suggestions. But, I have two concerns. First, unless women are involved in actually crafting policy, we are paying lip service to their inclusion.
Secondly, plugging women into a broken system won’t fix the system, and I speak here from painful experience. Over the past few years I had the opportunity to shepherd and mentor converts who were working with the Washington, D.C. beit din. Working with Rabbi Freundel, I served as a resource for candidates, teaching them, answering their questions, and facilitating their relationship with the beit din. Sadly, even my direct involvement was not enough to protect the alleged victims.
4) Threats of nullifying existing conversions must end.
A convert pays dearly every time her judges are judged. Why? Because trust—at least, a variety of trust—is elicited in light of shared norms and predicated upon the spoken or unspoken assumption that these norms will remain constant. Once these norms no longer exist, or once they are shown to have never existed, trust is shattered. As a conversion advocate, I chose to work with the RCA rather than with ad hoc batei din largely because I thought their Gerus Protocol and Standards offered the best chance for the candidates broad communal acceptance and minimized the chance that they would be asked to “re-convert.” There is nothing more painful than having to be dragged back underwater because the last time you stood naked in front of judges somehow wasn’t enough.
In my opinion, broad community consensus on matters of personal status serves the best interest of Orthodox converts. In conversions, religious courts act as proxy for the entire community. But when courts become points of contention, their halakhic function and meaning are undercut. I worry that this scandal will completely shatter the consensus built around the essentially helpful Gerus Protocols and Standards. If we are to re-build trust between conversion candidates and the rabbinate, we must find a way to build consensus without consolidating too much power in a small group of rabbinic authorities.
I mark the fifteenth anniversary of my first conversion as a student and teacher of Torah. I am married with two beautiful children. I live in a vibrant Orthodox community. In short, I couldn’t be happier. I have so much more to lose now than I did fifteen years ago. If my conversion were challenged today, I would lose—at least temporarily—my family, my tranquility, my marriage, my identity, and my trust in my community. We are obligated to do everything we can to ensure that no convert ever faces such crippling loss.
We are angry, and we should be. When Freundel was arrested on October 14th, I couldn’t stop watching the story unfold—I’d press refresh on my browser hourly. I’m not at all proud of it, but I felt a deep need to watch Freundel’s downfall from afar, perhaps as payback for the many acts of surreptitious watching he (allegedly) performed. Regardless of the legal outcome, the anger, hurt and distrust sewn by one man will linger…and linger…and linger. The pace of healing is not dictated by the news cycle. But we owe it to converts everywhere to attend to the broken system. It’s time.
I am supposed to go to the mikveh tomorrow night.
The mikveh and I have never been friends; the first time I immersed, before my wedding, I noticed immediately afterwards that I had a tiny hangnail, which according to what I had recently been taught, might invalidate my immersion. Sitting outside in my car, I agonized for an hour, and then called our rabbi, who directed me to re-dunk and repeat my immersion.
Over the nearly twenty years of my marriage, my body has continued to fail to fit neatly into the laws of taharat hamishpacha, or family purity; imperfectly bleeding longer than the textbook five days, problematically spotting between cycles, which necessitated displays of the bloody stains to a rabbi’s knowing eyes for a ruling about my “pure” or “impure” status.I have carefully followed the laws of taharat hamishpacha, which dictate that a married couple must abstain from sexual contact during a woman’s menstrual period, and for the seven following “clean” days. Thereafter, the woman must immerse to become “pure” and sexually available. Spotting between cycles renders a woman’s status questionable, and requires a ruling from a rabbi to clarify her status. According to law and tradition, observing these laws would bring holiness to me, my husband, and our relationship.
As my period lasts a minimum of seven or eight days, and I frequently spot during the seven “clean” days, and throughout the remainder of my cycle, my husband and I must abstain from physical and sexual contact for over two weeks each month. I nearly couldn’t become pregnant with our second child because I repeatedly ovulated before immersion, when sexual intercourse was forbidden. Frequently, mid-cycle spotting prevents us from being intimate.
My supportive, patient husband and I have been fortunate to consult with wise and sympathetic rabbis, who have instructed us to rely on many leniencies, without which we would never have been able to be intimate or to conceive. Nonetheless, I have been told more times than I can count that I needed to see a doctor to evaluate if something was “wrong” with me. Instead of the rabbis accepting my explanation that my body’s behavior was simply “my normal,” they repeatedly advised me that I should endure yet another internal medical exam.
Directed. Instructed. Told. Advised. Endure.
I am over forty. I expect that over the next decade, my cycle will become – if it is possible – even more irregular, and my struggles with taharat hamishpacha will increase before menopause blessedly releases me from my required monthly observance of these laws. The angst I felt over that first tiny hangnail was nothing compared to the exhausting, anxiety-provoking, recurring uncertainty I have experienced upon seeing blood – yet again – on my panty liner. Having to decide, over, and over, and over again “Am I pure? Am I impure? Can we have sex? If we don’t have sex, will my marriage be harmed? If we do have sex, will it be a sin? Should I consult our rabbi again? Should I not?” Every time, no matter what choice I make, I feel guilty, and uncertain, and wrong – impure both physically and spiritually.
Last week’s allegations about Rabbi Barry Freundel brought my anguish and fears about taharat hamishpacha to the fore. The idea that a powerful, authoritative man with decision-making power was watching a disempowered, rule-following woman while she was naked and vulnerable in the mikveh—struck forcefully to the very core of my feelings about my faithful adherence to these laws. As I read the initial news report, a cold descended over me and I began to shake. Throughout my entire marriage, I have felt that there was a metaphorical hidden camera in my bathroom, my bedroom, my body, my soul. I have trembled, trying always to do the indeterminate and elusive right thing, feeling watched by the rabbis who wrote the laws of taharat hamishpacha; by my rabbi, who inspected the stains on my underwear and judged my status; by my fearful, rule-following inner child, yearning to please, terrified of making a mistake; and by God. Now, in black and white, glowing on my iPhone screen, was a report of a rabbi filming a woman doing exactly what she was directed to do, following to the letter the instructions and advice she was given, all in the name of achieving holiness. And yet, despite her faithful obedience, her holiness was stolen from her by the very one who instructed her in its achievement.
For nearly twenty years, rabbis and doctors have probed and prodded, inserted themselves between me and my husband, between me and God, and perhaps worst of all—between me and myself. All these years, I may not have sinned. But achieved holiness? There, I believe, we all have failed.
I am supposed to go to the mikveh tomorrow night.
Vashti is a heroine of the Purim story because she chose not to expose her naked body to the Court despite the King’s requests. Unfortunately, she is put to death because of this. Esther, on the other hand, wins the King’s favor, survives and saves the entire Jewish people! The Purim story seems relevant to an analysis of the Washington D.C. mikvah case and to support the idea that the mikvah should stay open for women to immerse during the day.
When my husband Jeffrey and I first heard about the arrest two weeks ago, we immediately started following the news, recognized the hidden camera device from the mikveh, and decided to go to the Washington D.C. courthouse to report our story to the prosecutors and witness the court proceedings. After we volunteered to speak to the media, our video and story appeared on television and in print. This brought us more fame than ever before. But, according to our local Orthodox rabbi, speaking to the media was not the right thing to do.
Because we publicly spoke out against Rabbi Freundel, and supported the allegations against him, we have been made to feel unwelcome in our Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi specifically told us not to speak about the allegations against Freundel, which he considered to be lashon hara. On Simchat Torah, the synagogue’s founder came over to me and silenced a discussion I was having with my husband, Jeffrey, and the rabbi of a retirement home about the violation. An October 20 statement by the Vaad Hakashrus of Greater Washington illustrates the hostility we feel directed at us. The statement essentially sides with the accused by invalidating testimony made by only one witness. However, my testimony was in addition to six other witnesses documented anonymously by the court. Despite the Vaad’s claim to reach out to potential victims, we have not heard one word of support or assistance from our affiliated synagogue’s rabbi who worked closely with Rabbi Freundel on halakhic matters.
How could we be quiet when leaders of the community seemed to side with a criminal? As the mikvah’s hidden camera likened us to a blindfolded Vashti, our rabbi preferred to be blind and deaf and to ignore our story. We had to leave the hostile environment. In contrast, the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue right next door delivered a supportive message on Shabbat Bereshit.
On Simchat Torah, we are supposed to dance and celebrate with the Torah. But, the Orthodox synagogue added salt to our wounds. No one tried to console us, we were told repeatedly to keep quiet and to try to enjoy the holiday and watch men dance with the Torah. But, ignorance is not bliss. Ignoring this most high-profile case, a hillul hashem, reinforced a problem within the community. Voluntary blindness or brushing warning signs under the rug may be why such a violation could have happened in the first place. The truth is black and white.
The Torah tells us to be God-like, taking guidance from the thirteen Divine attributes. God is all-seeing, but is not a voyeur. God is perfect. May we all learn to make good decisions by acting in God-like ways.
Changing leadership structures and setting up rabbinic oversight committees may remedy the problems of abuse of power, but there should also be changes to the mikvah itself. Typically, Orthodox mikvahs are only open to women at night, ostensibly to preserve the women’s privacy. In light of the recent mikvah violations, women’s privacy cannot be guaranteed in the morning or in the night, so only opening a mikvah at night to protect a woman’s privacy is ridiculous. Daytime hours may better protect women by encouraging them to speak up when something is not right. Daytime hours could remove the stumbling block from the blind.
The Orthodox mikvah is a protected, private place for women and converts. Only a woman’s husband needs to know when she immerses, converts rarely reveal that they converted, and it is halakhically permitted to lie in order to safeguard the privacy of one’s immersion in a mikvah. Encouraging women and converts to hide the powerful experience of immersing in a mikvah and distracting them with the additions of a spa-like atmosphere further encourages them to ignore supposedly minor details such as who else is at the mikvah, who is in charge of the mikvah, and whether there is any impropriety at the mikvah. Now more than ever, we must adapt the culture of secrecy and retreat surrounding the Orthodox mikvah. The mikvah can be a great place to reach higher emotional and spiritual levels, and the evening-only secretive spa-like atmosphere is unnecessary. Simplifying the mikvah and changing the opening hours to be more flexible are just steps in the direction of removing the stigma surrounding the mikvah.
In the Purim story, God is the elephant in the room. This Simchat Torah, the mikvah case was the elephant in the room. While Vashti lost her life and may have made the wrong choice by refusing to do the King’s bidding, both she and Esther acted out of free will. We can choose which mikvah to go to, but also whether to go to any mikvah at all.
Women need to speak up about mikvah, especially since it is one of the three mitzvot directly commanded of women. Women should not be embarrassed or silenced about using the mikvah. It is time to shed light on the mikvah, bring it out of the dark, and open the mikvah during daytime hours.
In my mind, the definitive tale of sisterhood was not the conventionally chosen classic, Little Women, but rather the All-of-a-Kind Family series. To eight-year-old me, those books were perfection: I read them like they were scripture. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie (and Charlie, born later and the only boy) probably shaped my vision of what family and sisterhood should be. True, they were a poor immigrant family at the turn of the 20th century living in the Lower East Side and I was a not poor, not immigrant child, not living at the turn of the 20th century, living in Toronto, but subtlety was never my strong point.
Those sisters did it right. They went to the library, they bought penny candy, and they had Shabbat dinner. Sure, Henny was a troublemaker and Sarah even lost a library book once, but even in their delinquency I loved them.
All this goes to explain that somewhere, deep inside of me, I always thought I’d be a mother of girls. I blame Sydney Taylor and her glorious books. I thought I’d be a mother of daughters. They’d love each other and fight with each other and braid each other’s hair. Instead, I had one daughter (off to a great start, I thought) and then four boys.
My daughter was born five weeks early. We didn’t have time (or foresight) to pick out a name and, perhaps more significantly, figure out how to celebrate her birth with a Simchat Bat ceremony. It turns out that when you grew up as a Modern Orthodox Feminist (all words that are so charged with multiple meanings that I could easily be persuaded to align myself with none of them as well as all of them) and you have a girl, it becomes a pretty big deal. At least, it became a really big deal to me. Add all of that anxiety of how to properly welcome a girl into a society which has no organized ritual in place for girl-welcoming, to sleepless nights and crazy hormones and you have… me and my very patient, very thoughtful husband sitting up at 3 am the night before our daughter’s Simchat Bat collecting prayers, wishes and quotes on how to raise a daughter which we turned into centerpieces on each table. Think Dr. Seuss meets Rashi.
At the ceremony, I stumbled through some Dvar Torah welcoming our baby and expounded on the need to create a way to embrace daughters. I probably talked for too long and maybe got a bit preachy, but we served really good cake so I think people were kind enough to let it slide.
I love/hate the murkiness of raising a daughter in this world. I get it right sometimes and I get it so very wrong some times (like yesterday, I got it wrong yesterday). At what age does she attend a women’s megillah reading with me? Is it okay for me to separate her from her friends in synagogue so that she joins me and my agenda? If she isn’t comfortable with my version of Simchat Torah, do I tread lightly or turn it into a teachable moment? And all of that angst is okay.
What would Sydney say? She has become a de facto guru of mine. I look to her for wisdom. And I read my daughter All-of-a-Kind Family as soon as she could understand the words.
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When we received our JOFA sukkah poster last week, I excitedly showed my daughters, ages five and ten, the poster of women leaders. They looked it over and the following conversation ensued:
Child: “Do you think Uncle ____ and Aunt ___ would want to hang it in their sukkah?” (We are city dwellers who don’t have our own sukkah.)
Me: “Sure, why not?”
Child, a bit sheepishly: “Well, Mommy, I don’t want to be mean, but the women are a little ugly, don’t you think? Couldn’t they have made them prettier?”
Me: “I don’t think the point was whether they were pretty or not.”
Child: “I am not saying Nechama Leibowitz looked like a rock star in real life, but I’m sure she was prettier as a young woman.”
Me: “Do you think that we’d be having the same conversation about the Baba Sali or Rav Moshe Feinstein? Are they especially handsome?”
Child: [Rolls eyes] “I knew you were going to say that, but I still think they could be prettier.”
And so I thought about it—should the artists have attempted to “airbrush” Nechama Leibowitz?
Why do pictures of older male rabbis look distinguished to most viewers, but pictures of an older Nechama Leibowitz remind us of an elderly grandmother?
This summer the New York Times ran an article about camps that ban “body talk”—among them the Jewish farm camp Eden Village. The article noted that at Eden Village “on Friday afternoon, when the campers, girls and boys from 8 to 17, are dressed in white and especially polished for the Sabbath, they refrain from complimenting one another’s appearances. Rather, they say, ‘Your soul shines’ or ‘I feel so happy to be around you’ or ‘Your smile lights up the world,’ … Signs posted on the mirrors in the bathroom read, ‘Don’t check your appearance, check your soul.’”
While I could see the virtues of checking your soul, rather than your appearance, if I am to be honest with myself, I can’t actually imagine parenting (or living) this way. I do tell my kids they look beautiful, and when they remember to brush their hair, I comment on it. I like hearing compliments on my appearance and I want my daughters to hear those compliments too and compliment others, while not being overly focused on their appearance. This, of course, is a very tough balancing act, made all the more difficult if one has a child who loves fashion and notices everyone’s clothes (as is the case for my five year old).
One of the great virtues of JOFA commissioning this project is that it allows all of us to see women scholars represented on the walls of our sukkot and schools. While there’s certainly some part of me that wishes that my girls didn’t ask “why aren’t they prettier,” I am glad that this sparked the question for them. There is no doubt that children raised as part of a society that thrives on airbrushing will expect conventional beauty from women leaders and scholars, but I hope that we as parents and educators can begin conversations with them that will begin to chip away at some of these notions.
Growing up as the daughter of two teachers, my parents encouraged me to read every kind of book that I was interested in. As a middle schooler I socialized with Charles Dickens, curled up with Jane Austen, ate snacks with the Bronte sisters, decided that I hated every stuffy Victorian who took 150 pages to start a plot, and moved on to their dark Russian cousins, the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys (125 pages to start a plot). One author was off-limits in my house, and his books I had to keep hidden. I kept his books behind the other books on my shelves, binding face-down. This author was Chaim Potok. I actually had no idea why there was a Chaim Potok ban in my house until I started reading his books, and then the CPB (Chaim Potok Ban) made a lot of sense to me. Potok claimed that one could not be Orthodox, or more accurately, one could not fulfill himself creatively and be Orthodox at the same time. And when faced with this decision, one should choose creative fulfillment. Potok made this point in My Name is Asher Lev, Davida’s Harp, and pretty much every other book he had written.
I don’t blame my parents for this ban at all. Every parent has something, I’m sure, that they want to protect their children from. I want to protect my children from Sholom Auslander, author of Foreskin’s Lament, in which he blames his apostasy on the “theological abuse” he suffered as a child at the hands of Orthodox parents and teachers. I pray every day that they should never read one of his books. I know that they will be exposed to anti-religious ideas out there in the real world, but by God, if they are exposed to all those ideas through the tortured, cynical eyes of Sholom Auslander, I will do serious penance. My children will make their own decisions as they get older about what kinds of Jews they want to be, but I don’t want them to arrive at that decision through rage and through pain.
I think my parents were right in trying to protect me from the most devastating reality of being an Orthodox Jew: There are simply some people who cannot be both an Orthodox Jew and creatively fulfill themselves. This may not be devastating to you, but it was to me, and my 1994-future-Broadway-star/pianist self.
Every day I go through mind tricks to calm myself down when I worry that I am not fulfilled creatively. I yell at myself in my brain. I remind myself of my healthy children, my healthy husband, my healthy body (bli ayin hara). I remind myself that my life is wonderful. I have friends that laugh with me, and at me (and both are good things). I remind myself that there is a lot of instability in the world, and a lot of uncertainty and pain, and my children are more fortunate than most other children to have been sheltered from this uncertainty and pain. I remind myself that creative fulfillment is a luxury.
I remind myself that I create art when I teach. And when I write. I remind myself that the very act of conducting my life within a controlled, halakhic environment – that is art.
Five or six years ago, I participated in a small conference of Orthodox educators run by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper in Boston. After a panel presentation, a female attendee at the conference raised her hand and began to lament all the difficulties of her life, and how hard it is that she will never be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a rabbi. I nodded in empathy but supplemented her comments with a statement about how I will never fulfill myself musically – and that I was coming to terms with that.
I never wanted to be a rabbi. I wanted to be Gwen Stefani.
All I said was that I was coming to terms with it, not that I already had. I have entered into a Chaim Potok book, but I’ve chosen the other path — Orthodox Judaism. I will not be a singer, or a pianist (too many gigs on Friday nights and Saturdays). I have chosen a halakhic path. If I had to do it again, I would make the same choice. But I don’t want my daughters to have to make this choice. I want (and here my cursor stays for 45 seconds – what do I want?)
I want my children to express their Judaism in a way that completely and totally creatively fulfills them.
I know some readers of this blog will point out to me that many Orthodox women sing or perform in front of men, but I am not looking for halakhic loopholes or possibilities. I’m waiting until they become mainstream. I know, I know, when there is a rabbinic will there is a halakhic way – but I don’t want to fashion my Judaism according to my will. Self-control is a form of artistic expression. Or so I tell myself.
So for now, here I am, in Potok’s book. I’ve also decided to let my children read actual Chaim Potok books and hope that my own personal choices stand as a (sometimes painful) alternative. But the benefits and the beauty of living as an Orthodox Jewish woman outweigh the fulfillment that I have skipped out on. Maybe. And who knows, one day I might even let Sholom Auslander’s books into my house.
Not anytime soon, though.