Don’t be mad, but I am ordaining myself as a Hazzanista, which is like a cantor, barista, and fashionista rolled into one. I am your musical mixologist assembling liturgical outfits for all seasons and synthesizing musical traditions from across the Jewish world to create substantive and transformative prayer experiences.
I’m not starting a new religion; I’m just impatient and want to wear this cool hat like my Grandpa Frank. Hats aside, what I really want is an “authentic” Jewish woman’s voice, something that continues simultaneously to pursue and elude me in its ebb and flow.
But does “authentic” really mean anything?
In my experience, “authentic” means text and lineage that I can sink the teeth of my imagination into and taste every bit of its richness, malleability, and complexity. Is that too much to ask?
So even if it’s a little reckless, or plain old annoying to some people or institutions, I now bestow upon myself the title of “Hazzanista.”
So how did this all start? Great question! A few years ago after graduating college, losing my job, and getting dumped big time by my opera singer boyfriend (best thing he ever did for me), I enrolled in cantorial school. The first year in Israel consisted of studying at a halakhic, gender-egalitarian yeshiva. As the year progressed and I increased my content-based knowledge of Jewish law and prayer, I felt increasingly overwhelmed and shut out by the predominantly masculine verbal and visual vocabularies of traditional Judaism. I felt a gender imbalance even more in physically egalitarian spaces because there was no mechitza, physical barrier between men and women in a synagogue, in place to serve as a concrete manifestation of gender biases. Instead, it was a lattice screen of default Divine vocabulary.
And though modifying canonized Jewish prayers in an effort to include women seems more like giving a band-aid to someone who is having a heart attack, I cannot bring myself to wholly reject this archaic and gender imbalanced tradition. Like many people who grew up steeped in old school Jewish liturgy, I still manage to maintain a deep spiritual and emotional connection to its almost exclusively male voice. The poetry and music are like colorful beads that I get to string together in different combinations each time I sit down or stand up with them.
While in cantorial school, I started out trying to embody the music of the great Ashkenazi cantors— Koussevitsky, Rosenblatt, and Ganchoff. Enchanting, exciting, and deep music, yet singing it was like walking around in a pair of incredibly beautiful shoes that just didn’t fit my feet. I needed a musical space where my voice could walk in and make itself comfortable. Ultimately, I discovered niggunim and Middle Eastern music with its subtlety, inwardness, and expressiveness in contrast to the showmanship and—dare I say—phallic high notes of performative cantorial music. The feminine began to seep into the liturgy, not through the modification of God language, but in the way this music manifested and empowered my body and mind. I could finally sing without pretense, be softer rather than louder, and listen to the silence in between the notes, which is as vital to the music as the notes themselves.
In an era of instantaneous communication revealing worldly unrest to us at all hours of the day and night, this approach to music is more important than ever before. Surrounded by gadgets and screens, we are longing to connect to a stillness found in the brilliant darkness of the starry night and in many Middle Eastern and North African musical traditions. When the world’s problems seem unmanageably big, the noise too cacophonous, the pace too swift, we can always come back to this tender voice of silence reminding us we were all once in the womb, free from time.
Prayer is a gateway into that timelessness that rests at the nexus of our time bound transient lives. It is a transformative and creative act. It is an acknowledgement of the moment right before sound comes out of our mouths, an act of faith that sound will come, will make something beautiful, and might even make things different. It might not be the most comfortable or convenient place to be in, but it is dynamic, alive, and spiritually sustaining.
And this is what songs like “Hish Hish” suggest for me, its melody originating in an Arabic pop song sung by a woman named Siham Rifqi. It is not a “woman’s song,” but it indicates that Jewish liturgy is porous and wants to be stretched further. The Hebrew text implores the Holy One saying “Raise up your banner, filled with compassion,” and “stand by the poor.” That compassion is our insistence upon digging up the feminine in our liturgy, and that banner is an amalgam of women’s voices, teachings, and wisdom that we are raising up together in real time through music, art, discussion and UnConferences. So let’s keep going.
Two weeks ago, I joined thousands of families around Israel for a time-honored ritual: the Saturday night grand finale of a month-long youth group extravaganza.
For one month each year, youth groups seem to take over the country. My kids spend a full month with their peers being led by well-intentioned 16- year-olds. The Saturday night performances signal the end of a month-long youth group extravaganza where my kids were never home, or when they were home, they were covered in paint. It is a month celebrating being young, getting just a bit older and loving group activities (needless to say, not all kids love group activities – my 10-year-old spent the month reading the Percy Jackson series instead).
But the final weekend is a blowout. Saturday night has the time honored daglanut (group choreographed flag waving), dances and plays. It is a doozy. Parents everywhere charge their cameras and their phones to simultaneously take pictures of their beloved children while checking their mail for hours as they sit in auditoriums, pavilions or outdoor basketball courts watching hundreds of kids perform. Each age group has a co-ed play, a boys’ dance and a girls’ dance.
At least I think it was a girls’ dance. I can’t be sure. Because it happened in the dark.
Perhaps not exactly what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he sang, “Dancing in the Dark,” but this has become the default dance setting in this Orthodox setting. In order to be mindful both of halakhic guidelines and what I hope is a genuine attempt to empower our young women, someone somewhere thought the best way to allow girls to dance in front of an audience of both men and women was to get creative and turn off the lights. There were dances with glow sticks, dances with neon lights and ultraviolet lights. We saw a lot of glowing gloves and sticks and masks, just not a lot of our daughters.
When my daughter was four, she took ballet. She was quite adorable. At the end of the year, we sat through her final performance. As all those little pink fluffy girls danced their dance, curtsied and got off the stage, only one remained: my daughter. Completely unaware that her twenty friends had twirled off the stage, she stood there, in the spotlight. At some point, she snapped out of her reverie and raced off the stage.
I like the spotlight being on young women. I think there is value to finding ways to encourage and empower all women – young and old to be showcased, featured, and celebrated. I think that is why dance after dance in the dark left me feeling saddened and disappointed.
I need to contextualize my frustration by saying, my daughter could care less. She wasn’t upset in the least. The daglanut remains a co-ed march/dance done fully lit for everyone to see (maybe marching around waving flags to loud music isn’t considered dancing). It is only the girls’ dances that are affected. So she was proudly, giggly, visibly part of a fifty-person flag dance and an hour later I squinted trying to guess which glowing white mask was my daughter.
I recognize that this is someone’s idea of a solution, and I’m grown up enough (most of the time) to be able to articulate frustrations while not claiming to have all the answers. I get that in some Orthodox circles this is the best solution. I understand and begrudgingly respect that someone somewhere thought this would be the best solution creating a hybrid of visible and invisible young women. But in the big wide world we’re introducing our daughters to, I want more. I want her to be able to shine, in whichever way she chooses, without neon glow sticks. For me, I’m waiting for the next generation of young women to feel both empowered and visible.
Looking at the award-winning photograph “Chayla in Shul” I wonder:
What is Chayla thinking? Here she is. Alone in this cavernous space, standing stiff, her gaze focused somewhere in the distance. Her forearm rests delicately on the parapet, as though she ought not be touching it at all.
I can almost hear the photographer gently giving instructions. “Hold your prayer book in your left hand, and put your right arm there to support it.” Chayla narrows her eyes ever so slightly, questioning, “Here? On the wall? Are you sure?”
When the synagogue is full with worshippers, this is the wall that keeps the women from falling down to the space below, where Chayla’s brothers pray. It is the wall that holds the women in, signaling the spiritual distance that stands between them and Chayla’s father. He is the rabbi who leads the service down there.
This image has gotten a lot of press recently, as winner of the John Kobal New Work Award, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for portrait photography. The winning photographer, Laura Pannack will receive a cash prize, and her photo will be on display until February in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
Maya Benton, who wrote about the photograph for Tablet Magazine, learned that Pannack hopes the photo will convey a “positive perception of the Jewish people and of the community.” I have no doubt that it will. The image is beautiful, as is the poised eleven-year old Chayla, who is the subject. But for us insiders – who have grown up in a synagogue like the one shown here – the photo resonates in a very different way.
Like Chayla, I was once an 11-year old girl who prayed in a synagogue with a balcony. On the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, I would soon be banished from my warm seat in front of the holy ark, near my father and brother. Up above, far from the Torah, I would find a spot next to the other women. They would trickle in late to synagogue, after they finished preparing for their Shabbat guests. Catching up with friends, they would chatter while I tried to concentrate on my prayers, longing to be part of the experience unfolding in the “real” synagogue down below.
Later, as a young woman in college and graduate school, I also sat in a balcony in synagogue. In those days, I was looking for love. As I watched the young men below, I abandoned my prayers. They swayed with closed eyes, connecting to the Divine, while I, up there so far away from holiness, could not help but look down and feel empty.
Now, as the mother of three daughters, I still sometimes find myself in the balcony. I love my Orthodox synagogue; the community that it houses, its warm, traditional Shabbat space. But when the few seats in the women’s section downstairs fill up, and I head to the second floor, I am reminded of how far away we women are from the experience of communal prayer.
I hold my daughter next to me. At 10, she is just a year shy of Chayla’s age. I wonder what she thinks about what we are doing up here, and why we are so far away from her father down below. What message are we sending her about prayer and community and her place among the Jewish people?
Maya Benton believes this portrait is a successful one because its subject “evinces an air of confident composure and studious equanimity, as though she knows exactly who she is.” That is not what I see. I find it so successful because of the way it captures Chayla’s complex experience (and that of so many others). It captures the effort that is exerted to maintain equanimity in a place where you so clearly do not belong. And the confusion that comes from loving your religion, your people, your traditions, your God, but knowing – so deeply – that there is no comfortable spot for you in the synagogue space. So you stand alone, looking into the distance with a disconnected gaze, wondering: If I leave here, then where shall I go?
I’m a runner, a three-time marathoner. Whenever someone asks when I took up running, I say I started 12 years ago. But the truth is that the first time I really ran was for a rabbi: I was 14 and he wanted cigarettes. He was my eighth grade teacher, a towering man, with a full beard, a long black coat and a black hat. He summoned me to his desk, handed me a wad of money, and told me he wanted a pack of Benson and Hedges. And so I became a runner. I ran my teenage guts out, to the store and back, breathlessly handing him his cigarettes and change – all with the rabbi’s stamp of approval.
Today, I am a member of a closed Facebook group for Jewish (mainly observant) female athletes. Most of the postings share victories, milestones and inspirational moments. Members typically offer or ask for the usual advice about running. And then, one member, we’ll call her Sarah, posed the following query:
Anyone have issues with frumkeit [religious observance] and athleticism? For years I didn’t run or do working out [sic] at all because I learned that it was a tznius [modesty] issue, that women shouldn’t run in front of men, and I couldn’t afford a gym. Now I am trying to get in shape and I’m being lax on the no running in front of men rule that I learned, but I am keeping the spirit of it and only running when it’s dark, so I’m not in full view of everyone. Anyone else hold similarly, and had to find a compromise they’re comfortable with?
Questions loomed in my mind: Shouldn’t frumkeit and maintaining one’s health be synonymous? Isn’t athleticism an integral part of overall well-being? Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to exercise? And of course, I was reminded of the time I was given rabbinic approval (minus the actual supervision) to run.
When asked to explain, Sarah added, “It’s for the same reason we don’t dance in front of men- because of jiggling body parts.”
Jiggling. Body. Parts.
In her Facebook comments, Sarah insists a refusal to ask a rabbi for guidance, all the while asserting her desire to be fit and healthy. She shares that she has struck a compromise and runs in the dark so no one sees her. That effort to find a happy middle ground has to be commended as well.
But she never questions the initial premise that women shouldn’t exercise when there’s a chance men will see them and still worries that she is in the wrong.
Those who abide by halakha accept that there are times when women’s voices are silenced or when women are relegated to the other side of the mechitza. Even so, many of us have seen first-hand women’s great creativity in balancing halakhic concerns of modesty and participating in a number of physical activities – including singing, dancing, and exercising. Women will swim during “women’s only” hours or will go to “women’s only” gyms. If they choose to swim in a public venue, in an effort not to expose their skin, they will wear modest “bathing suits” (shirts, skirts and leggings made of water repellent fabric). When running, they may opt to wear long-sleeve shirt and skirt attire, all-the-while covering their hair (if they are married). And while these athletes may not look like the norm, they are doing their best to walk a tight-rope, striking a balance between halakha and health, an effort that should be applauded. There are countless other women of different faith traditions who make similar efforts to accommodate their own religious requirements.
As a runner myself, I love that Sarah wants to run. I want her to feel that same sense of accomplishment as I do when I finish a race or hit a new personal record. If need be, I want Sarah to push back at the rabbis and teachers who tell her women should not run. I want her to challenge them to allow her to exercise her freedom – and to be free to exercise. As someone familiar with the halakha, I want Sarah to remind them that our tradition commands us to keep our bodies healthy because refu’at ha-nefesh and refu’at ha-guf, healing of the spirit and of the body, shouldn’t wait until either is completely broken down – and running has the capacity to heal both the body and the spirit at once. I want to encourage women to take care of themselves and to encourage other women to do the same.
With great fanfare, David Zvi Kalman and Joshua Schwartz announced their production of a new, “egalitarian and queer-inclusive” bencher, Seder Oneg Shabbos. A bencher is a booklet containing the grace after meals and other prayers and songs said at the table and is often given out at weddings as a souvenir. As someone with a dining room drawer full of well-used egalitarian benchers, some decades old, some from my wedding 18 years ago, I initially wondered what the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos was, besides its incredibly beautiful typesetting and illustrations. Seder Oneg Shabbos was preceded by a wide variety of benchers that have come out in the past twenty five years that use egalitarian language in English and Hebrew and are in other ways sensitive to gender inequalities: Nashir Unevarech (Reconstructionist, 1992), Mizmor Shir (unofficial Conservative, 1993), Anim Zemirot (Independent, 1999), Mikdash M’At (Reform, 2005), Yedid Nefesh (Independent, 2009) and L’chu N’ran’nah (Havurah, 2010).
What makes Seder Oneg Shabbos egalitarian? It has gender-neutral God language in English, optional insertions of our female ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the male (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). But so do all the other egalitarian benchers that preceded it. Traditional benchers include Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, the traditional song from Proverbs sung weekly by husbands to their wives praising their housekeeping duties. Most egalitarian benchers either excluded it or included a parallel song Ashrei Ish, Praised is the Man (Psalm 112), to be sung to men. Eshet Chayil was omitted or partnered with Ashrei Ish, because associating women primarily with housework or having women be the focus of public ritual only once a week was not in keeping with the modern roles envisioned by the creators of the egalitarian benchers. Seder Oneg Shabbos includes Eshet Chayil, and purposefully illustrates it with an image of a woman in battle, but this is not as strong as statement as omitting it or making a parallel version for men.
Seder Oneg Shabbos also includes wording that is suitable for same-sex couples in the invitation to prayer used at weddings, which is really new, but not as comprehensive in terms of LGBT inclusions as innovations that have come out of Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue that recently issued its own prayer book. For example, it is unlikely they would have included a hymn for female spouses but not male ones. Beyond that queer-friendly insertion, however, the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is not its egalitarianism.
The innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is its desired audience. Seder Oneg Shabbos, according to its authors, is intended to be used in Modern Orthodox communities as well as non-Orthodox ones. Kalman and Schwartz color-coded the inclusionary language so those who want to use only the traditional Orthodox text can just skip over anything colorful. While the simple presence of inclusionary language will probably mean that the vast majority of traditional Orthodox communities will not use or buy this bencher, its release is a real milestone. It means the authors think that there are enough Modern Orthodox Jews who will make this a viable bencher.
The initial reaction of some liberal Jews to the announcement of an Orthodox-friendly egalitarian bencher, was anger that all their efforts beforehand to create egalitarian and queer-friendly benchers which made this bencher possible went unacknowledged. The authors mention they include “a number of common egalitarian insertions.” Those insertions became common through the work of liberal Jews and that debt is not really acknowledged. It is true that what is done by liberal Jews and seen as heretical by one generation of American Orthodoxy, becomes commonplace for their Orthodox grandchildren (like hosting Bat Mitzvahs and baby namings for girls in synagogues). But for observant liberal Jews to focus on that frustration is missing a real and significant opportunity.
The focus should not be on the different paths taken to arrive at this place but instead we should rejoice in the fact, exemplified by the optimistic release of this bencher, that there are many modern Jews from various backgrounds seeking egalitarianism, inclusion, modern liturgy and rich, text-based observance.
All those who use egalitarian benchers, from the earlier liberal ones to this new Orthodox-friendly one, need to see how similar they are as Jews, get together, have an intense philosophical discussion over a meal, and bench together out of the same bencher. Ki va moed. The time has come.
I hope we can all agree that the tragedy of the Freundel case is the harm that was done to the women who came to him to supervise their conversions. There are important secondary consequences of this episode including undermining faith in rabbis and a general cynicism about Orthodox practice. But the primary issue we must grapple with now is how to prevent this from happening again in the future. If this is done right, reestablishing trust in the Orthodox establishment will follow as a matter of course.
When problems occur in my everyday life, I often rely on my experience as a doctor in the search for solutions. How should one respond when mistakes happen? Errors of commission and omission occur all too often in medical practice. In the past, they were considered an unfortunate but unavoidable cost of doing business of making people better. But over the past two decades, with increasing attention to quality of care, there is a growing unwillingness to accept medical error and poor clinical outcomes as an inevitable part of patient care. Root cause analyses are routinely implemented after a bad outcome in an attempt to identify the conditions in the health care delivery system that led to the problem. This, in turn, can lead to the implementation of procedures to prevent errors from happening again and ensuring patient safety.
The looming health problem that dominates the news is the Ebola outbreak. After the first case was diagnosed in Dallas, there was widespread recognition that the hospitals and doctors were unprepared. Mistakes were made on the local and national level and patients and health professionals were harmed as a result. However, physicians and public health officials worked hard to devise better strategies to treat patients, identify exposed individuals at risk of developing Ebola, and draft improved procedures to protect patients, health care providers, and the public. This project is far from over and it is unclear whether the Ebola outbreak will be successfully contained. But as far as I can tell, no one has questioned whether a multi-disciplinary approach with multiple layers of oversight involving doctors, researchers, ethicists, public health officials and others is required to treat patients, reduce population exposure, develop new therapies, define the role of clinical trials, and determine the best utilization of resources. There may not always be harmony but everyone recognizes the need for all stakeholders to be involved in this corrective process if mistakes are to be avoided.
Back to Rabbi Freundel. Women in Washington, D.C. may have been inexcusably victimized. It is impossible to say whether this is a unique event. There is no doubt that the vast majority of rabbis conduct themselves with grace and dignity and serve their communities with devotion, compassion, and impeccable ethics. But sometimes rabbis fail and their congregants are hurt and it is everyone’s mandate to minimize the likelihood of this happening. Just as there is oversight and monitoring of doctors and health professionals to ensure that they provide the best medical care for the most people, congregants have the right to know that there are systems in place to ensure that when they go to their rabbi for guidance, they will get the spiritual help they need and not be damaged in the interaction. Again, we can learn from medicine where abuses by investigators involved in clinical research have been addressed by forming oversight committees with broad membership including representatives from the medical community, the lay public, nurses, social workers, bioethicists and lawyers. Similarly, the oversight of Jewish clergy is likely to be most effective and responsive to the needs of rabbi and congregants if all parties are invited to play a role — men and women, single people and married couples, young and old. None of the communal stakeholders should absent themselves from this process.
Rabbinic oversight is not a referendum on the halakhic practice because that will be something that individuals and communities will decide together with their local rabbi. To claim that oversight will water down halakha or open the door to people who have no role to play, and to withdraw from this process entirely creates a smokescreen behind which abuse of power will continue to occur. This is not a question of gender or solely a matter of sexual abuse. It is a straightforward communal responsibility to ensure that people who approach rabbis for spiritual and professional help are not the senseless victims of harm that could have been prevented.
Rabbis, like doctors, are vested with authority by their congregants. Both are assumed to act in the best interests of those they serve and most rabbis and doctors do. But unfortunately some practitioners fall short. As a consequence, doctors are required to have their credentials reviewed, they must undergo periodic reassessment of their capabilities, and have their actions scrutinized by oversight committees. It is time for similar procedures to be implemented for rabbis. This is not a threat to their autonomy or an attack on their credibility. It is merely a recognition of the profound power they have on the lives of their congregants and their communities– mostly for the good but sometimes, and sadly, for bad.
In third grade, most learning stopped while we prepared for our class play. It was quite the production. We each stood up and recited a Rashi we had learned by heart (the equivalent I suppose of a pep rally in our fairly ultra-Orthodox school) and then we performed our little hearts out. The story: the age-old classic of Joseph and his brothers. Since we were an all-girls school and the parts were mostly male, we were forced to get creative. Yet the most coveted role of all was that of Serach, Jacob’s granddaughter. It wasn’t a major part but Serach, the only female character in our play, was modest and sang to Joseph—two very important and enviable skills in our world.
My school had strong views. We were taught to be modest, taught to be good girls. The role of follower was lauded. You followed the rules without questioning them. The best girls were the ones who followed. They were the ones who got to play Serach in our class play. The leaders found themselves hearing about how we should be behaving more like them.
In elementary school, we skipped the first eleven chapters of the book of Bereishit and just stepped on to the story train with Abraham. The thought being that the first part of the book of Bereishit would be lost on us youngsters, or that the Torah truly begins with our first patriarch. Be that as it may, we began chanting the stories of the Torah with Abraham.
And Abraham taught us the art of following. Meaning God said, go, and Abraham did. Perhaps what is significant for us today is to understand the motivation behind following. What inspires us to listen to others and follow their lead? At times we follow because we love, we have faith, we have trust, we are committed, we are scared, we are lonely, we are vulnerable. There is a whole range of human emotion that leads us to a place where we agree to follow.
The Torah is full of followers. And they are noble and praise-worthy. The roles of leader and follower are not mutually exclusive—you can be both. Abraham follows God and then goes on to start a great nation. Moses rejects the role of leadership only to later be called the greatest leader we have seen. Deborah leads as a prophet but then follows Barak on to the battlefield. It is a complicated role—to lead. Know what else is complicated? To follow. Following requires the right balance of buying into an ideology and not questioning that ideology too much. If we took a true look at what we follow blindly, we may not like what we see.
I have been both a leader and a follower. I think we pick the moments when we lead and the moments when we follow. Society gives us cues when it is appropriate to shine and when it is appropriate to step out of the limelight. But society gets it wrong from time to time. Specifically, my society gets it wrong. Not always, but often enough that it may be time to question the culture we find ourselves in.
We all create our own societies. Like building blocks, we pick and choose what goes into it— friends, family, community, religion are all part of mine. And, to be fair, each of those elements has failed me from time to time. But I don’t walk away. I question, I reassess, and I make changes to the world I am committed to.
Over the last few weeks, so many people have spoken about religious institutions, oversight and female involvement—and that is all appropriately meaningful. But I am certain that as individuals we need to re-evaluate the moments when we are leading and the moments when we are following. Women’s leadership roles, much like the role of Serach’s in my third grade play, need to be coveted. More of us need to be standing on the stage. We find ourselves, once again, at a pivotal point, in the intersection of scandal and halakha. Let us take this moment to lead.
I was never a contender to play Serach. I wasn’t a renegade leader in elementary school. I just didn’t follow the way they wanted me to. I probably still don’t.
I didn’t mind the mechitza 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 mechitza, 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 mechitza. 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 mechitza. “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.