Feminism has become a dirty word.
In discussions with students, this is what I hear: “Sure, I think women should get paid the same as men, but it’s not like I’m a feminist.” “Feminists want to make everyone the same, but everyone knows men can’t breastfeed.” “Feminists think women are better than men— that’s the problem.” These summations are offered with a blend of confidence, scorn, and ignorance, while the word at their center, “feminist,” is spoken with that special brand of dismissiveness that comes so naturally to adolescents.
As a high school teacher, I have the opportunity to discuss all sorts of “ism’s.” Ample opportunities arise for discussions that are ideological, political, cultural, theological, socio-political, socio-theologico-political—it all finds a moment in our discourse. And in my fifteen years of facilitating such discussions, my students have proven to possess a remarkable degree of tolerance to dissenting positions, and admirable openness to having their own points of view examined by their peers. By and large, the students I have taught are well able to leave their cynicism at the door of the classroom, and engage in healthy, self-reflective, and honest discussions. Their sensitivity time after time exceeds my own.
With one exception: feminism. Often, their negativity is shaped by the very legitimate and positive changes that have occurred in the last few decades. They chide me: “Mr. Fleischer, feminism was once really important, but there’s nothing left to fight for.” So we do the work. We take the time to list feminist concerns in detail, examining the world stage, the domestic sphere, even our own religious community. In checklist fashion, we get down to brass tacks: do women make the same as men for doing the same job? Are women treated with justice or even sensitivity in the legal and political arenas? Have our assumptions about family life shifted in response to contemporary notions of equality? And even as it becomes clear that at least some of them share many of the ideological concerns of the feminist movement, still they balk: “But that doesn’t make me a feminist.”
The issues are fine. But the word? That’s another matter.
Faced with this cognitive dissonance, I lose my teacherly perspective. Out the window go any ambitions of withholding my point of view. I find myself insisting, “Of course you’re a feminist!” while my students respond, “No, I’m not!” Part of me believes that as long as they’re thinking about the issues, the rhetoric is moot. Let them call themselves whatever they want. They still live lives of feminist empowerment, lives rich with the possibilities provided for them by the feminist movement. I chide myself: so what if they’re stuck on the word?
But there are, I think, serious values at stake in the language of feminism, values of particular concern to educators, values that turn on the very question of what we choose to call ourselves.
First of all, as a Modern Orthodox Jewish educator, I believe in the importance of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the sacrifices others have made on our behalf. Certainly, hakarat hatov is a key aspect of the relationship we build with God, as well as with our own history. Acknowledging past debts, like those we owe to generations of feminists, both women and men, has a religious component to it. The discomfort with the language of feminism that too often emerges in my community is not only historically myopic and shallow, but also insensitive. While many of us have tried to balance the changes generated by the feminist movement against the counterweight of our tradition, the lives we lead and the communities in which we pursue God’s will have yet been deeply informed by them. Allowing others to blithely dismiss the word “feminist” is an ethical and religious failure. The word matters because in using the word we engage in hakarat hatov. Simply put, it’s a mitzvah.
Secondly, like all movements, feminism is concerned with the limitations of the status quo and the need for change. The lifeblood of movements concerned with change is the language with which they describe themselves. More importantly, proponents of change are driven by passionate self-awareness; they declare themselves into being. They identify themselves and in doing so promote the change they are looking to effect. That is, in using the language of feminism we promote the cause.
As a teacher, I have a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I teach not only facts and figures but values. Ours is a mission driven profession, a tikkun olam profession. To leave my values at the door of my classroom is to betray its purpose. On the other hand, my students bring their own identifications, world views, and sensitivities to our class. Our classroom needs to be a place in which they can examine who they are and consider who they want to become. To offer my own point of view in too heavy-handed a fashion is also to betray the purpose of the classroom.
When it comes to my own feminism, it has been hard for me to find this balance. I want to push my students to examine their discomfort with feminism, but in order to do so they need to feel comfortable expressing their discomfort and confident that they will be allowed to find their own point of view. I want to direct their attention to the cognitive dissonance they experience in response to the word “feminist;” I want them to acknowledge their debt and to work toward change. But I also want them to feel safe enough to disagree with me, in part because I need to teach them what respectful disagreement looks like.
So sometimes I bite my tongue, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I argue: “Look at the issues! Of course you’re a feminist!” And sometimes I leave the word unexamined. Like all dirty words, it has power even when misused. Like all dirty words, sometimes the more you draw attention to it, the dirtier it gets.
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The quintessential image of home, holiness, and Jewish motherhood is that of a woman blessing the Shabbat candles, performing a ritual we assume has existed since time immemorial. But this assumption is wrong. In fact, it was only nine hundred years ago that, after much debate, lighting the Shabbat lamp came to be defined as a mitzvah—one with its own unique blessing, one that Jewish women took upon themselves.
Because there is no such commandment in the Torah, most rabbis before 1000 CE maintained that lighting the Shabbat lamp was not a mitzvah; it was merely a task women did because they were home and men were in synagogue on Friday afternoon. It was important only because, unless she lit the lamp before sunset, her family would be forced to sit in the dark. And while the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) meticulously details what kinds of oil and wicks are best to keep the Shabbat lamp from going out, there is no mention of any special ritual for lighting it.
The great French scholar Rashi (1040-1105) took an opposing view. In his commentary on Tractate Shabbat (page 23b) he stated, “By observing the mitzvot of kindling a lamp on Shabbat and Hanukkah, one brings the light of Torah into the world.” Yet even if a community accepted that lighting the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, should a blessing accompany it? And if so, which one? There is no such blessing mentioned in the Talmud and halakha forbids any non-Talmudic blessings. Because of this, medieval Sephardic women lit their Shabbat lamps in silence.
However during the eleventh century, Ashkenazic women had greater religious status and autonomy than those in Sefarad, so much so that they began to fulfill those mitzvot that only men were obligated to perform, such as blowing shofar, and wearing tefillin and tzitzit. According to Machzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs collected by Rashi’s students, women took these commandments upon themselves and recited the blessings as well, in the same way that women today have taken on traditionally male mitzvot, instituted new rituals like Bat Mitzvah, and become rabbis and cantors.
Rashi clearly held that kindling the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, one that women, as well as men, were obligated to perform. Thus it seems logical that, if women made a blessing when they performed mitzvot from which they were exempt, surely they must recite a blessing if they perform a mitzvah for which they are obligated. Indeed, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, declared that lighting the Shabbat lamp required a blessing.
But creating a new blessing is prohibited, so what prayer should be said? The solution was to take the blessing for lighting the Hanukkah menorah, which was in the Talmud, and substitute “Shabbat” for “Hanukkah.” As astonishing as it may seem, the Hanukkah blessing is the original one, a thousand years older than the Shabbat blessing, its derivative.
We know of this new blessing because we have a responsum by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, describing the ritual her mother performed. She explained that in Rashi’s house, the woman first lit the Shabbat lamp and then recited the benediction, whose words are the same ones we say today. Rabbeinu Tam’s decision and his sister Hannah’s responsum were so authoritative that within a hundred years, even women in Sefarad were saying this blessing when they kindled Shabbat lights. Maimonides complained about it but admitted that he couldn’t prevent women from doing so.
Today, when women (and men) light Shabbat candles, they never imagine that the ritual doesn’t come from Sinai, that the blessing was once a source of controversy. And who knows? Maybe nine hundred years in the future Jews will assume that girls have always had a Bat Mitzvah, that women have always studied Talmud, and that there have always been female rabbis.
As I walked in the door from a long day at work, I started receiving calls and emails from friends about something that my husband Jason had posted on Facebook. …I had no idea what they were talking about.
I logged in to Facebook to see a picture of our Ketubah and the following written by Jason:
“Fifteen years ago, my bride-to-be and I were considering texts to use for our Ketubah, Jewish marriage contract. We selected a text co-authored by Rabbi Joel Schwab, and reproduced in Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding, because it married (ha ha!) the traditional text with modern commitments that emphasized the values of equality and partnership that Elissa and I both held dear. The text, as you will notice, is very long – because it adds to the millennia-old formulation without subtracting anything.
“But despite its length, there’s something missing. Our Ketubah does not include the Lieberman clause, a modern addition to the Ketubah that has been the standard for decades in the Conservative movement. The clause protects a woman from becoming an agunah, or “chained woman” – civilly divorced but unable to remarry because of her husband’s refusal to give her a get, divorce decree. Why don’t we have this clause? I recall not wanting to include it because civil courts were increasingly refusing to enforce it, citing church and state issues. Lis remembers it differently: I said I didn’t want it because we didn’t need it. Because I would never refuse to give her a get if we ever got divorced.
“The very fact that Lis and I remember this in different ways highlights the error of our ways. Without putting it in writing, who knows what was said? With no written agreement, Lis has no assurance of my good intentions, and no protection if those good intentions suddenly evaporate. Of course we love each other, and of course I would never refuse to give her a get. But if I believe this so fervently, I have nothing to lose by putting it in writing.
“That is why I was honored to take part in an event on Sunday June 29 that allowed us to rectify this nearly fifteen-year wrong. It was a Post-Nup Party! Elissa and I joined with many other couples in signing a post-nuptial agreement that ratifies our commitment to and respect for each other. In the event of a divorce, we agree to have our divorce adjudicated by a Beit Din, religious court, and to follow its rulings, including the delivery of a get. The agreement also imposes stiff financial penalties on me for every day following our civil divorce that I do not deliver a get. It is signed, notarized, and fully enforceable in civil court, and it gives tangible meaning to my good intentions.
“I am so privileged to be married to someone who, in her tireless work for JCADA, the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, has done so much to help all victims of domestic abuse – including those victimized by the abhorrent crime of trying to control your ex-wife’s behavior by refusing to grant her a get.
“If you are a Jewish couple and you don’t already have a strong pre- or post-nup (and even if your Ketubah has the Lieberman clause), I strongly encourage you to visit the Beit Din of America’s website to learn more about it, and hopefully sign your own post-nup! This should become the standard that is expected of all Jewish couples as a pre-condition for marriage.”
I have a husband on a new mission…he is planning the next post-nup party! Thank you Chani and Steve Laufer for hosting the event and for giving us the opportunity to sign a post-nup and empowering us to make a difference!
There were a couple of times when I said Kaddish in some unconventional or “unorthodox” circumstances, but they were quite meaningful to me, nevertheless. One of them was shortly after Shloshim, which is the first thirty days following the death of a loved one. Our family had the opportunity to spend a weekend at my husband’s sister’s beach house in New Jersey. There was no synagogue within walking distance. That Friday night I went up on their rooftop porch, as the sun was about to set. I had a most magnificent view of the horizon to my east, where the ocean met the sky, and to my west, where the glistening water of the bay met the sky. I prayed the Kabbalat Shabbat service with such kavanah, spiritual intention, and was so moved by that setting that I said the Kaddish aloud. There was no one to respond but, I felt such a strong connection to my mom at that moment. She’d grown up in a seashore town and just loved the ocean. Saying Kaddish for her there- just felt like the right thing to do in that moment.
Another nontraditional experience took place a couple of months after Mom died when I went out to Indianapolis, to visit my mom’s sole surviving sister. Aunt Lois had been unable to attend the funeral and the shiva, so I was grateful for the chance to visit with her and her family. And, I wanted so much to, just once, recite Kaddish with her. During my brief stay, they arranged for us to attend their Reconstructionist synagogue for a weekday Mincha/Ma’ariv service. It turned out that no one else showed up for minyan other than the five of us. I was the only one who was religiously observant in the group. They turned to me and said, “What shall we do now?” I said we could all pray the Mincha service together and then my aunt and I would recite Kaddish, even without the minyan. It was the one and only chance we had to do so, and I was determined to make it happen, even without a minyan. And, although, this was a highly irregular situation, it was comforting to say Kaddish with my aunt, with the other family members responding to our prayer.
It has been especially meaningful for me to be able to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at Netivot Shalom, my home synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland. On many occasions, my voice was the only one saying it. And yet, I felt that I was given the utmost of respect. Unfortunately, the same is not true for all women in all Orthodox synagogues. I can only speak for myself when I say that being a solo woman’s voice chanting this prayer amongst my congregation, gave me a feeling of empowerment and, at the same time, consolation. They enabled me, regardless, of who else was in the kehillah (congregation) at the time, to continue my healing process and my efforts of raising the soul of my beloved mother. I truly felt that each response of Amen, Brichu, blessed be He, and yehay shmay rabah mivorach, May His great name be blessed, acknowledged me in my grief and helped me in my mission to elevate my mother’s soul. Our ancient rabbis were very wise in how they constructed the Jewish mourning practices, recognizing the many psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of the mourner. My friends, these needs are universal to all people. Therefore, it only makes sense to welcome and embrace a female mourner, just as well as a male mourner. And Netivot Shalom does that so very well.
One of my mom’s favorite Hebrew songs was Oseh Shalom. Sometimes when I say those words at the conclusion of Kaddish, I can faintly hear her voice singing them as well.
So, I’d like to conclude with those very same words. A request for peace from HaKadosh Baruch Hu:
Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleynu, v’al kol Yisroel, v’imru amen.
May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel, and say: Amen.
“To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a’ la carte.”
A recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic Monthly outlines the argument for reparations to be paid to African Americans for the injustices of slavery, and the subsequent economic disadvantage and discrimination they have suffered for more than a century. As convincing as Coates’ is regarding the systemic injustice meted through the Jim Crow period, and the way decades old housing discrimination continues to hold back blacks even today, there is one question that nags: “why should I be paying for reparations on something I had nothing to do with?”
I didn’t enslave anyone, nor has anyone I know. While my family actually does have ties in the US dating back to the mid-1800s, I have no reason to think they were involved in slavery. On my wife’s side, her father immigrated from Germany as a child in the 1950’s, and her mother’s family fled Russia in the early 1900s. What culpability could we possibly have in the enslavement of Africans from 1619-1865?
Coates answers with this:
A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.
If we are Americans, and we benefit from being American, want to remain American and might even be proud to be American, we need to own the whole thing. We can’t take the Constitution without slavery; we can’t have 21st century Manhattan without 19th century Mississippi.
And this is exactly what we reenact every year on Tisha B’Av. We sit on the floor, eat ashes and weep. We read Lamentations with its horrific descriptions of the siege of Jerusalem and the city’s ultimate destruction. Wanton hatred destroyed one Temple, and lasciviousness destroyed the other. We do this every year, but what did I have to do with the Temple being destroyed? Those weren’t my sins. I can’t even relate to the concept of there being a functioning Temple, and now I’m expected to feel remorseful and seek atonement for its destruction? I wasn’t there! Can’t I just have a Passover Seder, read Megillat Esther and dance on Simchat Torah without having this random day of mourning in the middle of the summer?
This idea of complete ownership over our heritage isn’t only relevant when considering problematic historical events. The same applies to our relationship to the modern State of Israel. As someone who loves Israel and prays for her future, there are some things I just want nothing to do with, and I think that’s true for everyone. Whatever your politics, there are things you love about Israel and things you hate about it. Whether it’s Haredim serving in the IDF, bombs falling in Gaza, misogyny in the workplace, income inequality or a myriad of other issues—there is something about Israel that makes you upset. There is something about Israel you wish you could disown. We all have an obligation to work on changing these things, but we don’t have the luxury of pretending that the Israel we love and support doesn’t include them. We can’t have the hike through Ein Gedi without grappling with the armored bus to Ariel. We can’t have the yeshivas in Jerusalem and the cafes in Tel Aviv while trying to ignore the conditions in Ramla or the deportations of Ethiopian refugees.
Orthodox Feminists are often asked (from both the left and the right) why we remain Orthodox. If we are so troubled by certain interpretations and applications of halakha, why not just jump ship? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to keep the parts we like and drop the parts we don’t? The answer is obvious. This is our heritage, and this is our history. We understand that as members of this kehillah, community, we can’t ignore the problems. We will remain committed to the halakhic process, while working to fix it, because it is ours—for better or worse.
Tisha b’Av is the time to reflect on the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, but not just for the sake of self pity. It is our opportunity to understand how we went down a path towards destruction, and to identify the tikkunim, improvements, we can implement in our own lives to avoid the same fate in the future.
I still have not gotten situated to the long Shabbats of the summer. For sixteen summers, I was immersed in the beauty that is Camp Stone. At camp I looked at my watch not in anticipation of when Shabbat would end, but rather to see how many precious minutes of this beautiful time still remained. Camp was an environment in which I felt empowered as I thrived as a person; a Jew and a woman. It was a place where, at the age of thirteen, I could be entrusted with the welfare of my plugah, my fire pit work crew, at the machaneh chutz, the two night camping trip. By fifteen, I was carrying a canoe, without assistance, for over a mile on a week-long canoe trip. It was the place where, at the age of nineteen, I cared for campers as if they were my own. Despite my numerous positive experiences, I clearly remember serving as the Sganit Rosh Moshava, second-in-command at camp if you will, and leading an educational activity.
Overall, I found my job that summer to be invigorating. I was working with staff and campers, creating programming, solving problems and building relationships. There was one moment, however, that I will never forget. That young blonde haired girl, soon to enter sixth grade, mentioned that a woman could not be a Rosh Moshava, a head of camp. Although her statement was irrelevant to the educational conversation about prayer, her words lit a fire in me. She may not have even been born during the years that Ellie Schreiber and Estee Eisenberg had enthusiastically taken on the role. Truth be told, in nearly forty years of camp, only two women, in comparison with upwards of fifteen men, held the title of “Rosh Mosh.” A couple of years later, then serving as a woman Rosh Moshava, I winked at the camper, now entering eighth grade, as her bus pulled into camp.
This camper’s words made it clear to me that I had an opportunity to show her that camp is a place without glass ceilings. That it truly was a coincidence that the role of Rosh Moshava had been held by men in in the 2000s. Since 2008, two more women have stepped up to the plate as Rosh Moshava at Camp Stone. My serving as Rosh Moshava was only a piece of the puzzle.
Those in the camping world often describe camps with utopian language. Camps are set in remote locations allowing distance from the ‘negative’ influences from general society. While camp is an opportunity to negate gender stereotypes, it is also a place where stereotypes can be strongly reinforced. For example, while a healthy body image can be difficult to maintain with television, the fashion world, magazines and other media, camps can choose to allow such magazines into camp or they can create a culture where conversation about one’s weight is taboo. Camps, and the general community, need to take this powerful responsibility in. Camps can serve as catalysts for change.
I encourage camps to push further, past the obvious goals of ridding our youth of sexism. Camps can be the place to reinforce or reinvent norms and rituals of the Orthodox Jewish community. Camp is a place where girls sweat, get covered in mud, can let their hair and guard down and be anything but ladylike. Research has demonstrated this truth since the early twentieth century. What is special about camp is that the unique setting makes a woman saying kiddush on Friday night, for example, normative or mainstream within the Orthodox camp community. Why is that the case? Because camp administrators create a culture and what they say goes. I appreciated the way that Yaakov Fleischmann, former Rosh Moshava, put it while addressing camp staff. He explained that it does not matter if you fit in, what you are like at home, or what is popular outside of camp. Inside of camp, he enthusiastically expressed, “You define ‘cool.’” The camp administration trains camp staff in understanding camp values in such a way that staff can transfer those values to campers. It does not matter what is ‘cool’ back home, inside of camp, it is a whole new game. What may be considered questionable or controversial at a synagogue is the standard in camp.
What makes camp critical in effecting long term change, is when campers and staff bring their camp experiences to their home communities and question the status quo. Camp is a place where gender equity, gender balance, and inclusion of women in ritual have the most potent impact. The beauty of camps, in contrast with other settings, is that school and synagogue politics do not factor into decisions. When potential areas of improvement are identified, action can be taken expeditiously. Camp decisions are based on chinuch, on the welfare of the campers, resulting in an environment that is willing to listen and adapt to best meet the needs of our daughters, our future.
For nearly the past eleven months, I’ve been attending synagogue quite regularly, in order to say Kaddish for my late mother, Leah Zelda bat Yaakov Zeev Halayvi v’Rivka.
I once attended a presentation by Ari Goldman who spoke about his memoir, Living a Year of Kaddish, in which he describes some of the people he met and the experiences he had, throughout his year of mourning for his father. I was profoundly moved by the presentation and promptly read his book. I began to think of what it might be like for me to record some of my Kaddish experiences when my time comes. I had already decided that, while I hoped it wouldn’t happen until her 120th birthday, I would take it upon myself to say Kaddish for my mom.
When my dad died, nineteen years ago, we had three young children, I was working full time and, in the community where I lived, women just didn’t say Kaddish. Although my mother never asked me to recite Kaddish for her, it was something I wanted to do for me and for her. I viewed it as an opportunity to grow in my spirituality. You know, the recitation of Kaddish benefits both the soul of the departed loved one, as well as the mourner. After someone has died he or she can no longer get credit for performing mitzvot in this world; but those who survive them can perform mitzvot for the elevation of their soul.
The Kaddish prayer is one in which we affirm our belief and connection to God. Especially when someone is in mourning, it can be a comfort to remind oneself that Hashem is with them, even during this challenging time. Also, by having a structured daily time to think about my mom and reflect on the loss, it helped me in processing this journey. I am the kind of person who best deals with my emotions by confronting them and expressing them, rather than suppressing them. Saying Kaddish enabled me, on a daily basis, to connect with the new type of presence Mom has in my life. Often when I’d be saying Kaddish, I’d visualize one of my favorite photos of her. She’s standing on the beach, wearing a broad smile. Now, I’ll let you in on a secret. Earlier in the year, when I’d visualize that photo, it would be straight ahead of me, in my mind’s eye. As the months have gone by, that image has risen further up. To me, this is a sign that her soul is experiencing that elevation that I spoke of earlier. I sure hope so.
When my week of shiva ended, I had a conversation with Laura Frank, a knowledgeable friend, about some of the practices around women saying Kaddish. She said that many women who choose to say Kaddish, usually do so just once a day. Laura also pointed out that, if I attended synagogue for Mincha and Ma’ariv services, it would technically count as two days. For example, attending on a Wednesday, Mincha would be part of Wednesday’s prayers while Ma’ariv would be part of Thursday’s prayers. Now, my beloved mom was a smart shopper and always taught me to look for bargains. So, two for the price of one was a deal I couldn’t pass up. I’d also arranged with the rabbi from Mom’s synagogue in Miami to have someone in their minyan recite Kaddish daily for her. That way, I felt, there was always a backup for me, if or when I wasn’t able to get to synagogue.
When you’re not used to attending synagogue on a daily basis, there are many things to adjust to. Did you know that the pace of the daily services is a lot faster than on Shabbat morning? And most of the prayers are not said aloud or in unison? I had to find my comfort zone with which prayers I would say in their entirety and which I would skip, simply because I just couldn’t keep up, and yet I wanted to have a meaningful prayer experience. It was also quite an educational journey…. to go to synagogue daily for a year, and to become more aware of the variations in our prayers during this annual cycle. It was interesting to have to adjust my daily and weekly schedule according to the time of the setting of the sun, which, as you know, varies throughout the year. It’s pretty cool to have that element of nature govern the schedule of your busy day.
It’s amazing to look back and realize the very many things I learned in the course of my year of reciting Kaddish.
This post was adapted from a d’var torah Mindy delivered at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Baltimore, MD on May 31, 2014, just prior to the conclusion of the Kaddish year for her departed mother. Part two will be published next week.
On July 27, the 29th of Tammuz, I will observe the 909th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known as Rashi. Normally, an author has no deadline to finish her first novel, but I was determined to get Volume One of Rashi’s Daughters out in July 2005, to take advantage of all the hoopla I expected would commemorate Rashi’s 900th yahrtzeit. As it turned out, I was the only hoopla, but who knows if my historical trilogy about Rashi’s daughters would ever have been published without that impetus?
While Rashi is justifiably celebrated for his Bible and Talmud commentaries, few Jews know that it was under his authority and that of his Ashkenazi colleagues that Jewish women in medieval France enjoyed power over their own lives that their Sephardic sisters in the so-called “golden age” of Spain could only imagine. These were the days when Jews enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance trade, many traveling as far as the Levant. Jewish merchants became welcome visitors to French estates, buying the estates’ surfeit produce and selling them imported goods. By necessity, Jewish wives assumed the responsibilities of running the home and managing the family business while their husbands were away.
Even before Rashi was born, Jewish women were already the beneficiaries of edicts by Rabbeinu Gershom, which gave them previously unheard-of power in marriage. These prohibited a man from both taking a second wife and divorcing his wife without her consent. In addition, a woman was allowed to initiate divorce and receive a get, even against her husband’s will, and Jewish merchants were expected to give their wives a conditional get when they left on a journey in order to protect them from becoming agunot (chained wife).
Marriage was not the only arena in which the Ashkenaz Jewish woman asserted herself. Many sought to increase their ritual participation by fulfilling those ritual obligations which, according to the Mishnah, women were not obligated to perform—mitzvot aseh she-hazeman grama, the “time-bound positive commandments.” Obvious examples include blowing and hearing the shofar (at Rosh Hashanah), and taking the lulav and dwelling in the sukkah (at Sukkot). Others, perhaps less obvious, are reciting the Shema (said in the morning and at night) and wearing tefillin or tzitzit (worn in the daytime).
In Sephardic lands, these ritual exemptions became outright prohibitions, but the women in Rashi’s community not only insisted on performing these mitzvot from which they were exempt, they wanted to say the blessings for them as well. Rashi’s teacher, Rabbi Isaac haLevi, taught that “We do not stop women from saying the blessing over lulav and sukkah … since she performs the mitzvah, she cannot do so without the blessing.” It is interesting that they use the phrase “we do not stop women” rather than “women are permitted.” This suggests that the women took these mitzvot upon themselves and insisted on reciting the blessing as well.
There was yet another area affecting women in which Rashi argued against society’s restrictions. When it came to limitations on a woman while she was niddah (menstruating), Rashi made it clear these proscriptions applied only between husband and wife. In a time when superstitions about menstruation abounded (a scholar was forbidden to greet a niddah because the utterances of her mouth were unclean; a man shouldn’t walk behind a niddah since even the dust beneath her feet caused impurity; an untimely death resulted from walking between two menstruating women), a responsum of Rashi declared that, “Dishes which the niddah touches are clean, even for her husband. For people today are already impure from graves, houses of dead people, and corpses, and we will not be purified until the days of the Messiah. Therefore it is permitted to touch and use whatever the niddah touches.” He continues, “Niddah prohibitions are only to prevent sin between her and her husband; impurity does not pertain here.” Thus, while many of his Sephardic contemporaries were forbidding a niddah to even enter the synagogue, in Troyes, France the niddah “attends services as usual, prays as usual, and if she is accustomed to study words of Torah, she studies as usual.”
Finally—women studying Torah. Rashi, whose own daughters learned Talmud and Torah, was among many rabbis who obligated a man to teach his daughter those texts concerning the mitzvot, for “otherwise how can she observe them properly.” Sadly this golden age for medieval Ashkenaz women was short-lived. When the Black Death swept Europe, people held witches responsible, which tainted all learned and presumptuous women. It would take five hundred years before Jewish women would again reach the heights they attained in Rashi’s time, and in the case of initiating divorce, we are still waiting.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend these recent books:
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe by Elisheva Baumgarten
It was mid-August and the air conditioning was broken in the café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Across from me sat a woman I was about to interview. Her hairline, concealed by a dark brown wig, emanated sweat. Every so often she would raise her arm and, using the long-sleeve of her blue shirt, wipe the perspiration away.
I apologized for the heat and pulled at my slightly-too-short skirt so that it covered my knees. She should feel comfortable, I thought, knowing that I, too, was a modest Jewish woman suffering through the humidity.
But this was not entirely true. I am not an Orthodox woman who adheres to the modesty laws—not in the strictest sense. I was there to talk to her, and, over the course of the summer, I would speak with twenty-one other Orthodox men and women, about their understanding of the morning blessing “she lo asani isha,” Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman. My hope was to uncover how Jews from different branches of Orthodoxy grapple with—or ignore—the implications of sexual hierarchy established by this blessing.
I was masked by my role as a detached academic, researching my senior thesis topic. More honestly, it was a personal project laden with frustration, pain and a longing to find my place within the Jewish tradition that I love.
Why do I want to be a part of a religion that values this blessing? The question has plagued me for the last few years as I find myself yearning more and more for traditional Jewish ritual and community.
I was not raised Jewish. My mother is a practicing Unitarian Universalist and my father is a non-practicing Jew. While our family celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, we never went to a Shabbat service or spoke the words of Hebrew prayer. Until I was fourteen, I attended a Unitarian church in Manhattan every Sunday. I participated in the youth group, Christmas pageant, and children’s choir. I identified both as a Unitarian Universalist and as a Jew. But at the start of high school, a major shift occurred.
I began to wonder if my Unitarian practice was the right fit. I convinced my father to join me for our first Kabbalat Shabbat service at a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. The awe I experienced that evening changed my life. It was like returning to something I had not known and yet understood somewhere in the recesses of my body. The Hebrew sounds were foreign, the music was mysterious, and I felt simultaneously at home and like an outsider. I fell in love that night, and I became determined to immerse myself in Judaism and to work towards feeling like an insider.
Since that evening I have struggled to learn about my Jewish tradition. I studied for two years to become a bat mitzvah at the age of sixteen, majored in Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, spent a year in Israel studying at Hebrew University, and, most recently, went to the mikvah for an official conversion and a re-commitment to Judaism and my practice.
But the deeper I have traveled into the body of Jewish text and ritual and the more I crave a rigorous faith, the more I run into the wall of what it means to be a woman inside a traditional community. I am constantly battling the side of me that wants to be enveloped in an Orthodox community and the side of me that is accustomed to, and believes in, contemporary norms of gender equality.
I set out to spend two years researching and wrestling with the blessing “she lo asani isha.” I looked to the blessing as the site of a struggle between tradition and modernity. I believed that through engaging with this blessing, I could resolve a tension within myself and a tension that I imagined many other men and women feel.
Each time I sat across from my interviewees I hoped that they would provide me with an answer. I saw them as guides—individuals filled with wisdom and spirituality who might share my sentiments. Did they wrestle with the blessing too? Could they give me a persuasive answer about why it is said and why it is important to say? How did they bridge the divide between tradition and change? Their words had the potential to counsel and revive my spirituality.
What I learned through the process of my research was that there was no resolution to be found—no answer that would quiet my battles and the tension that many of my Orthodox interviewees experienced. What I found were a variety of rationalizations that often seemed to evade the insulting nature of the blessing. Nearly everyone I interviewed applied multiple explanations even if one line of logic contradicted another.
This tangle of answers, combined with my own daily struggle with the words “she lo asani isha,” has enabled me to become more comfortable with my religiosity and with spiritual tension. At the start of my interviews I was uncomfortable critiquing women’s roles within Jewish tradition and within many forms of Orthodoxy. I was uncomfortable because I felt the weight of being an outsider. How could I critique what I did not know—a world that I was not raised in? I did not feel that I had the right.
Immersing myself in the interpretations, both historical and contemporary, that surround “she lo asani isha,” I began to feel more at home with critique. I could listen, contest and judge from a place of greater knowledge and understanding. While I am without a resolution, and while I am still deeply troubled by this blessing, I am more at ease in my Jewish body. I can embrace my critiques of Judaism because I am battling with my faith, my Jewish tradition and my Jewish forbearers from a place of immense love.
“You’re thinking of going to a conference on Orthodox Feminism? But that can’t exist. Besides, you don’t hate men or burn your bras!” I was getting this reaction a lot. Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the implication. I am a feminist, and I’m Jewish but I myself was surprised when I came across those two words used together. I decided to attend the JOFA Conference in London, partly out of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that not all feminists were bra-burning man-haters.
The JOFA Conference was a fantastic experience. Speakers of all ages and backgrounds shared their stories, ideas, plans, and opinions with passion and enthusiasm. One of the best things about it was that the audience was actively engaged, taking advantage of the opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts after each speaker. The amount of planning and effort that had gone into organising the day was evident from the collection of speakers. Topics ranged from why it’s important we hear women’s voices, to women’s voices in lifecycle events to women’s voices in the community. The speeches were accessible, personal and interesting. I particularly admired the courage of the women who shared emotional and personal experiences in order to emphasize the need for Orthodox Feminism.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s speech was about men and women being equally created in the image of God and the covenantal approach for men and women. I remembered the Biblical story about how Eve, a woman, was only created second to Adam, a man, from his ribs. This seems to imply that women are second place creations and are dependent on the existence of men. I asked Rabbi Greenberg: How could this story show God’s intentions of gender equality when the message of this story seems to contradict this? Rabbi Greenberg explained that there are two versions of the story in Bereishit, the first one being that originally there was only one gender, only one being. This symbolises that God wanted every person created after to be equal in value, despite race, intelligence, ability, and of course gender. The second story, the “ribs” story, illustrates how this image of equality was broken when one human was separated from the other, and foreshadowed how this idea of equality would be broken, showing the need for us to work towards the original equality that God intended. I found that this linked to feminism because it is an ideology that advocates equality.
The main idea I took away from the conference was the uniqueness of Orthodox Feminism. Orthodox Feminism recognises that halakha is a dynamic process that adapts to the changing realities of the Jewish people. Living in the 21st century when gender equality is now accepted in the West, Orthodox feminists call for the halakhic interpretations to reflect this new reality.
I think I can speak on behalf of everyone that attended the conference when I thank JOFA for organising an amazing conference that left my head buzzing with new ideas and my eyes opened to challenges faced by Orthodox Feminists.