Esther, the Megillah, and Me

unnamed-1Ever since I was young, I have always felt a strong connection to Purim. For most girls at that age, the focus was dressing up as princesses and making lots of noise at appropriate moments during the Megillah reading, but for me there was something about the courage of our heroine Esther that made her stand out as a true role model. It was always refreshing to celebrate the actions of this extremely brave young woman, who I interpreted to be rather unassuming and from a regular background just like you or me.

As an Orthodox girl who attended a non-Jewish school throughout my education, I understood to some extent how it felt to be in the minority but, unlike Esther, I was able to be outwardly proud of my Jewish identity, and never once considered hiding it. I used it as an opportunity to educate my fellow students about a religion with which most of them had no previous experience.

My teenage self found special affinity with Esther over the fact that we were both vegetarians, something which I still am to this day. According to the Talmud, Esther was a vegetarian while she lived in the palace of King Ahasuerus, Vegetarianism would have allowed Esther to have avoided violating the kosher dietary laws while keeping her Jewish identity secret. Not necessarily my reasoning for abstaining from eating meat but, in my eyes, it was another factor that contributed to my personal understanding of Esther’s character and conduct.

When I moved to my community of Borehamwood and Elstree a few years ago and discovered that there was a women’s Megillah group, I was immediately drawn to it and felt I must try to be a part of it in some way. However, as much as I was extremely keen to learn to recite a part of the Megillah, this decision came with a great deal of fear and trepidation. Would my Hebrew be good enough to allow me to learn my section accurately? Would I be able to conquer the tune, reading Hebrew without vowels, and overcome my stage fright? And, perhaps bizarrely, would the other women in the group accept me with open arms? I remember turning up to the first meeting with a huge sense of intimidation and worry—was I really capable of this or was I aiming a bit too far out of my comfort zone?

shutterstock_51133021In contrast, what I discovered was a group of like-minded, supportive and dedicated women, all with their own reasons for wanting to read the Megillah, which made me realize that I actually hoped to gain more from this experience than I initially thought. Yes, there was the obvious challenge of tackling something new and becoming more involved in my community but also, when offered the chance to be a public voice in a festival that exists as a result of one woman having the strength to stand up for what she believed in, and when halakha permits all of this, how could I take a passive seat? It made me start thinking about my two-year-old daughter, the image of women in Judaism that I wanted to project, and the opportunities that I hoped would be available to her in the future.

The women’s Megillah reading in Borehamwood is such a special event in my calendar and, as a result, Purim holds more meaning for me than it ever has before. Listening to the clear and beautiful voices of all those women who strive to recite their portions without error and knowing the hard work that has gone into it, especially when we all have our own pressures from our family and professional lives, makes me very proud to be among them. It is a very emotional experience for many of us – the sense of achievement and camaraderie is hard to put into words. It is something that I hope I will continue to share with my daughter in the years to come. While not all of us are faced with obstacles as extreme as Esther’s, Purim allows us to reflect on the fact that each of us is capable of making a difference in this world in our own unique way.

Posted on March 2, 2015

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Birth Control – Emphasis on Control

shutterstock_212848924I can clearly remember where I was sitting, in the midst of my Bible class during my final semester at Stern College for Women. We were learning about Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers and the subsequent loss of water for the Jewish people. The well dried up. Why was that? The slew of commentators makes it clear that the Jewish people did not properly mourn Miriam’s death. They did not give the proper kavod, honor, to one of the greatest leaders of our nation.

One by one, students raised their hands to defend the Jewish people’s decision. “Well…Miriam was really behind the scenes.” “Well…she did not have a role like Moses and Aaron.” I kept hearing excuse after excuse. I looked at the clock and decided that I would wait ten minutes for someone to defend Miriam’s honor. I waited those ten slow painstaking minutes, and then I raised my hand. I questioned why medieval commentaries were more progressive and supportive of the role of women than my classmates in the twenty first century.

I could not help associating this experience with the recent public responses to Rabbi Moshe Kahn’s shiur, lecture, about the halakhic parameters of delaying procreation. I read Hannah Dreyfus’ take on the event published in the Jewish Week, and Blanche Haddad’s response printed in the Observer. I then listened to the shiur itself and would recommend reading his article “Halakhic Matters in Delaying Procreation” which was published in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School’s Meorot Journal.

In first reading the back and forth, I was frustrated. I felt like little had changed since my time on campus in 2003. It seemed that a number of the students were insistent that the fact that birth control is permitted by halakha is not related to feminism. Haddad stated that she is “not arguing that halakha and feminist ideals are inherently separate and can never be reconciled; to me, this is rarely the case. However, the two are not inherently linked in our case of postponing the mitzvah de’oraita [biblical obligation] of procreation; rather, there is space within halakha for a couple to make the decision to delay procreation due to a couple’s pressing concerns, and not a ‘feminist ideal of personal choice.’” Rabbi Kahn, empowered students to make their own decisions about family planning girded with the knowledge shared in his shiur and article.

When people, especially relatively young people, try to dissociate certain liberties, including birth control, from the feminist movement, I feel that there is often a lack of hakarat hatov, proper gratitude and recognition for those rabbis, lobbyists, feminists and other supporters who went to great lengths for all of us to have more choices. It wasn’t until 1972 that access to birth control was legalized for all Americans. I questioned this mindset—the absence of hakarat hatov– when I was a senior in college, and I initially felt that way in reading these articles about the shiur.

By last night, I had considered a new lens for viewing the sentiments of these students. Perhaps access to birth control, at least in the Modern Orthodox community, is a given at this point. At what point in time do we stop declaring that this is a fight to be won? When have we reached the moment when we are so far past the line in the sand, that what was once controversial a battle to be won has not only been won, but it is now accepted, normative, and no longer questioned.

One might argue that these students have moved beyond their predecessors’ outlooks and are not looking at the world with rose colored glasses, rather they are looking at the world with their realities, their truths.

While this may be applicable for example, in regard to the Civil Rights movement, in that many battles have been won, such as integrated seating on busses, I’m not sure that the same can be applied to women in Orthodox Judaism. It is not a given that a woman can sit wherever she chooses on a bus in Brooklyn or Israel. It is not a given that a woman will feel that she can make personal, financial, or life-changing decisions without the psak, decision, of a rabbi. It is not a given that women can serve as a synagogue president.

In some ways, I am gladdened that these students view choices, such as using birth control for family planning, as their rights and as normative, but it is important to understand the halakhic premise for these rights as well as detractors’ arguments as Rabbi Kahn aptly spoke to in his shiur. Access to, and halakhic permission to use birth control, is not a given for all Orthodox women.

shutterstock_135509750I was moved by the women portrayed in the film Be Fruitful and Multiply who shared their stories of feeling overwhelmed by their perceived obligation to have well over a dozen children because they were not provided with the choice to control their reproductive system. Viewing this film and hearing first-hand accounts from women who have struggled with the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” might be a good follow up exercise to take place at Stern and in other communities. In today’s world, regardless of your own personal religious practice, your place of employment may have control over your body as well as was heatedly debated in regard to the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby.

Stern College provides a place where women can engage in deep halakhic discourse, academic pursuits and flourish in a variety of resources outside of the classroom. I say this out of love and the utmost respect for my colleagues and soon to be colleagues. We are extremely privileged. Privileges can never be taken for granted. Much of what may seem permanent is not as stable as some of you may think. In order to hold our ground and continue to have personal choice as Orthodox women, we need to continue learning halakha, being aware of detractors and their rationale, and understanding and embodying gratitude. Without gratitude for those who we owe a debt for setting the stage that we can walk on today, those who currently support and empower us, I fear that there is much to be lost.

Posted on February 26, 2015

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Making Up for a Skipped Bat Mitzvah

Shari Kleiner and daughterLast month, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. In the months before her Bat Mitzvah we moved from the Boston-area Jewish community (where we had spent the past fourteen years) to Shepherd Park, Washington D.C and a day school my children had barely known existed.  Following our move, planning a Bat Mitzvah was exactly what we all did not have time or energy for. Before our move, my daughter and I had studied some Mishnah together and participated in the Matan Bat Mitzvah program, so I considered suggesting that we just throw her a small party, opting out of the difficult process of defining and negotiating a meaningful Bat Mitzvah ritual for her. No sooner had I formalized the idea, when I realized that that was exactly what had happened to me when I was her age. My parents had offered to throw me, the youngest child and the only girl, a party of no religious significance for my Bat Mitzvah, and only if I really wanted it. I recognized the cue and had opted out. I had felt that loss. For me, the loss was realizing that my Bat Mitzvah was not Jewishly significant and that it need not be celebrated.

In stark contrast, my older son had studied with a local rabbi leading up to his Bar Mitzvah, learned to read Torah under his father’s tutelage, prepared and delivered divrei Torah, led the prayer service, and read Torah on the day of his Bar Mitzvah. He always expected to do those things; and we also expected them of him, and were so proud to fete him. I realized that my daughter, and all of our daughters, deserve the same high expectations and just as importantly, our admiration and celebration of their becoming members of our adult Jewish community. 

My daughter and I, after much discussion and with the help of the Rabbi, the Maharat and my husband, navigated among the diverse and well thought out Bat Mitzvah options available in our Shepherd Park community. We decided to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah during a women’s mincha service on Shabbat afternoon where my daughter led the service, read from the Torah, and delivered a d’var Torah. Her service followed the regular mincha service at synagogue which meant that both men and women were present at the service, although only women were invited to actively participate. This allowed all of my husband’s large, non-Orthodox, family to attend, something which was very important to both my daughter and my husband’s family. It was celebratory and beautiful in every way, not the least of which was her grace and competence. But in planning this celebration, we realized that it would not have felt complete if we did not also celebrate her becoming part of our regular community. So we decided to celebrate on Shabbat morning as well. 

I admit, when I was first asked if my daughter would deliver the d’var Torah in synagogue on Shabbat morning, I was ambivalent because there did not seem to be any meaningful space within the Shabbat morning service for her to mark the occasion of becoming a Bat Mitzvah.  I realized though that we celebrate each baby joining our community and each boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah as a community, with singing and sometimes dancing.  And so, on Shabbat morning, after the mi sheberach prayers, and before the Musaf service, my daughter stood and recited a special prayer that we had studied during the Matan mother-daughter Bat Mitzvah program. It marked her transition to becoming a full member of the community and asked God for guidance and help.  Afterwards, my husband and I blessed her and the congregation broke out in song and dance – with all the women near the front of that section dancing around her and celebrating her entrance into the congregation. After the conclusion of the morning service, she delivered a d’var Torah to her and our whole community.

As my husband said, when he spoke following the mincha service that my daughter led so beautifully, we hope that the skills our daughter developed in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah – leading prayers, preparing divrei Torah, studying and reading Torah – are skills she will continue to hone as part of her continued Jewish growth. But as importantly, I hope that she can internalize the joy she witnessed as her community celebrated the significance of her becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Our daughters deserve that much.

Posted on February 25, 2015

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What About the Women?

Marina GoodmanThis question has hounded me since childhood – both in the secular world where I grew up and in the Orthodox Jewish world where I chose to live as an adult. My relationship with Judaism, particularly as it relates to women, has always been like a love affair – with a soap-opera-worthy level of both exhilaration and heartbreak.

While I find much about living a Torah lifestyle that is meaningful and beautiful, I was always disturbed by the question: If this lifestyle is supposed to lead to spiritual fulfillment, why does so much of the tradition conflict with modern women’s sensibilities, realities, and aspirations?  The discussion of women and Judaism is often presented as a tug-of-war between tradition, which supposedly represents the Torah ideal, and modernity, which supposedly deviates from it.

Wrestling with this question made me realize the importance of distinguishing between two meanings of the word “tradition.” One is “what we have always done.” The other is “what we should be doing.” To learn about the former, one needs to study unbiased, scholarly research. It was shocking to discover the differences between what I was told had happened and what historical documents bore witness to.

Invoking history to justify current practices implies that in the past all “good” women were satisfied with their traditionally defined roles. So what is wrong with women today that they are not? Yet memoirs show that this is just a necessary myth.

When women voiced their unhappiness, they were generally ostracized and labeled as being outside the tradition. When it was politically unfeasible to malign the woman, such as if she was the wife of one great rabbi and the daughter of another, her voice was simply censured. Consider how Reina Basya Berlin, wife of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (known as the Netziv), who lived in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, felt about women’s traditional role, as documented by her nephew, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his auto-biography  Mekor Baruch:

This is how she would comport herself on the Sabbath: … There were always a variety of books before her: Tanach, Mishna, Ein Yaakov, … and many similar volumes… All her insight and attention, her senses and emotions, were focused on her books, and she never took her hands off them…

Frequently I heard her complaining…, emotionally defeated or bitter about the damage of the bitter lot and portion of women in this world . . . for they had been denied the ability to fulfill positive, time-bound commandments like tefillin and tzitzit, sukkah and lulav, and so many others. As she put it, ‘For them, 248 positive commandments, and for the poor, wretched, shameful women, only three.’ More than this, she was worried and pained over the disrespect and depreciation of women, embodied by the fact that they were prohibited from studying Torah.

Mekor Baruch was published in English as My Uncle the Netziv  by ArtScroll Mesorah in 1988, without this entire chapter.

The unhappiness we see today regarding women’s traditional role is not new, and it doesn’t make them “bad.”

What about the second meaning of “tradition,” what we should be doing? Coming from an unapologetically Orthodox perspective, this question becomes “What does the Torah tell us we should be doing?” Can it be that the way women have traditionally been treated represents the Torah ideal? If so, too many things don’t make sense. Can enforcing women’s ignorance of Torah really be the best way to build a Torah-infused community? Is effecting a marriage in a way that makes it nearly impossible for a woman to leave against her husband’s will really the best way to build a harmonious and loving home? Over and over, logic seems suspended.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 10.27.38 AMI eventually discovered deeply gratifying answers in various Kabbalistic teachings  that portrayed men, women, and their respective roles in terms of a dynamic developmental process. This process proceeds from an immature state of hierarchy and repression to a mature state of equality and respect for human dignity.  Therefore, changing Jewish practices to fully reflect women’s dignity is not an attack on our tradition, but rather a fulfillment of it. I later realized that these teachings were summarized in the Lecha Dodi prayer. It seemed like the perfect lens through which to explore this part of the Torah. Everywhere I looked- in every corner of history and in personal memoirs, these teachings were manifest. They apply not just to Jewish women, or even just to Jews, and it didn’t suddenly become relevant in modern times. I described these teachings in my book, Come My Beloved! Women and the Jewish Tradition We Thought We Knew. After years of study, I finally figured out how they apply to me: my angst was pre-ordained, meaningful, and the key to redemption.

Posted on February 23, 2015

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Tears and Empowerment on Purim

Crying isn’t supposed to be part of Purim. Maybe it’s okay if you’re six and having a sugar-induced meltdown right when your parents tell you that, no, you can’t have another can of soda and fruit roll up for your seudah. But you’re not supposed to cry on Purim if you’re a grown woman and mother of children yourself.

62478_10151362867166848_345428059_nUnfortunately, that’s what happened to me one year right before our seudah, Purim day feast. We had decided to participate in a community seudah at synagogue, which would allow us  to enjoy the day without worrying about food preparation. And, super conveniently, there would be a Megillah reading right before sunset for those who would be attending  the meal.

So imagine my horror when I sat down to hear the Megillah, and a few moments later, the live music in the adjacent room started up, loud enough for us to hear the music clearly through the walls. And then, when the young Megillah reader started a fast and mumbled reading of the Megillah, I knew it was going to be a challenge to hear every word and fulfill my obligation of hearing the Megillah read on Purim day.

Just a few verses in, I realized that I had already missed a few words. The reading was too difficult to hear, and the music was too loud, and it was too late to find another reading. For the first time ever, I was forced to forfeit the mitzvah of hearing every word of the Megillah.

I was totally helpless. I don’t know how to read the Megillah. I couldn’t obtain a Megillah and fulfill the obligation of reading the Megillah out loud to myself. I felt powerless to do anything, and all that was left for me to do at that point was cry. So I did.

You can learn how to read megillah at JOFA.org/Project_Esther

You can learn how to read megillah at JOFA’s Project Esther Site

After calming down (it was Purim, after all!) and reflecting a bit, I thought about how great it would be if I learned how to leyn the Megillah myself. I’m part of a more conservative Orthodox community, and a women’s reading wouldn’t be acceptable. And, honestly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it anyway. I’ve studied the sources and know that it’s a halakhically valid progression that’s been made in some communities, but I prefer a more traditional environment.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn to leyn and do so privately, for myself. It would ensure that I’d alway be able to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah, and I could read it whenever I wanted to during the day. All of that would really enhance my joy on Purim.

I still haven’t made the time to learn how to leyn. It’s still on my “bucket list.” But it’s there. And I know that not too many years ago, it never would have occurred to me to put it there. But the knowledge that I can make that choice to add it to my bucket list always makes me smile.

Posted on February 19, 2015

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A Daughter’s Response to “Mincha in the Midwest”

This past Simchat Torah, my mother began planning her synagogue’s first women’s mincha, afternoon service. She was inspired by the joy of the Simchat Torah women’s reading, and wanted to extend it to a regular Shabbat. So she worked with some young women in the community to make it happen, and brought women who might never have prayed or connected as a community to a mincha service.

Hannah-WengerShe recently wrote, in The Torch, that she needs to effect change because of us, her daughters, my sisters and me. It is true that we “struggle fiercely with the dissonance between our place in the religious sphere and our ability to lead in the outside world.” Outside of the Jewish community, we have power. Power to shape the discourse around us, to assume leadership, to practice the rituals of our professions and of our communities of common values without anyone questioning whether our very engagement undermines our belongingness. Outside of the Jewish community, I can use every talent in my arsenal to make this world a better place–voice, humor, and compassion are welcome–whereas the Jewish community polices them under the titles of “modesty,” “tradition,” and “careful halakhic process.”

But Ima, it’s not “hard for me to hang onto my Judaism.” I was brought up by a role model who showed me its beauty and worth in every action; to leave is unthinkable. The struggle lies in making Judaism, which was not written for me, as much of a conduit for contribution and action as the rest of my life—to live it, not simply to be it. To live it, like you do.

Ima, it is women like you, not me, who will change Judaism. It is women like you, women who are joyous with their lot and excited to find they can do something more, who will bring Orthodox Judaism slowly but surely into the twentieth century (their great-granddaughters may bring it into the twenty-first). I, for whom a gag reflex is triggered when a well-meaning man tells me, “of course women can do that,” can no longer abide being in the same room as a discussion about whether women can or cannot celebrate some aspect of their religion in public. It’s my religion—how dare they imagine that they have control over it?

And the thing is, I grew up without bitterness. It took two years of midrasha, seminary, three years in college, and a lot of investigation into the halakhic process, to bring me to the polite distance I keep from the Jewish community today. My withdrawal from community means, to me, that I can have no say, no power, in how it develops. Seven years before this, I was leading the first women’s mincha services at my university, giving shiurim, classes, and fighting for women’s active role in the community. Now, nearly a decade later, I am tired of the constant internal struggle and cognitive dissonance. Like so many of my more perceptive and high-powered female friends, I have withdrawn to pursue leadership in other fields.

But it’s a withdrawal that has allowed me to keep my joy in Judaism. To celebrate it personally, through tefillah and learning and observing kashrut and Shabbat, through my private conversations with God and considerations of how to act and what to say. Eventually, I will find a community driven by the same impulses that drive me, and then I will again begin to contribute and be part of a community. Until then, I will enjoy the brief simple delight of reading Torah on Simchat Torah in my mother’s synagogue, quietly celebrate my religion on my own terms, in my own private space, and repeat over and over the lines of the Shabbat service, which, in my mind, represent the religious feminist’s creed:

Tayn chelkaynu b’Toratecha v’taher leebaynu l’avdecha b’emet.

Give us a portion of Your Torah and purify our hearts to do Your work with integrity.

Posted on February 17, 2015

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Mincha in the Midwest

rsz_img_20150130_160401134This past Shabbat as I walked to synagogue for mincha, afternoon services, I was thinking about how I would introduce our first ever complete women’s tefillah, prayer group. With the strong and thoughtful support of our rabbi, our synagogue hosts a women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah, women’s megillah reading on Purim day, and hoshanot for women on Sukkot. However, we have never prayed together through a full prayer service. This year, we chose to add a women’s tefillah service for Shabbat mincha to our women’s programming, in order to create an opportunity for many women to actively participate in the service, without putting too much stress on our inexperienced Torah readers. In addition, we do not want to separate ourselves from the congregation and since few women typically show up in our synagogue for mincha, a women’s tefillah service would not affect the community negatively.

The prayer service was beautiful. Three teenagers delivered short divrei Torah between aliyot.  Women read Torah, led prayers, and served as gabbaiot for the first time. One of our Torah readers had a baby in a front carrier, and a little girl holding her hand. The sound of women’s voices lifted in song, especially the voices of the young girls who led Anim Zmirot at the end (we added it in, why not?), was different and joyful. One of my friends, who attended just because she is my friend and not because she was particularly interested, spoke about how spiritually uplifted she felt. Another spoke of the impact of seeing all these women walking to synagogue for mincha, so different from the usual all-male parade.

What was accomplished by a single women’s tefillah service?

  • The mitzvah of praying mincha was observed by women, most of whom would not have prayed on their own.
  • Women’s tefillah became a little more accepted in our community.
  • We were able to honor our synagogue president with an Aliyah LaTorah.
  • Women had the opportunity to lead a prayer service.
  • Girls realized that they could participate, not just spectate.
  • Women connected together as a community.
  • Women, who rarely, if ever, arrive on time for shacharit on Shabbat, were present throughout the service.

A single event does not change a community. Nor will its modesty sway those who think that we are radicals.  But I have found that, over time, the response to a women’s service shifts from “No way,” to “It’s okay for you, but it’s not my thing,” to “Maybe I’ll come,” to attending a women’s tefillah, to accepting an aliyah, to “Can I read next time?”

My three young adult daughters, although committed to a halakhic life, struggle fiercely with the dissonance between their place in the religious sphere and their ability to lead in the outside world. It is painful for me to see how hard it is for them to hang on to the Judaism that forms such a huge framework for their lives. I think if I allowed myself to feel as they do, I would break. I am awed by the strength of their commitment to a Judaism that makes them feel less valued and more like second class citizens. And so I must effect change, incrementally slow as it may be, so I can have hope for a religion that will give all of us a portion in God’s Torah.

Posted on February 11, 2015

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New Podcast Discusses the Intersection of Sex and Halakha

jot_logoThe first episode of “The Joy of Text” may make you blush. If it does, you’re likely its target audience. The podcast, which is sponsored by JOFA and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), includes a frank and lively discussion about the role of fantasy in sexual activities between Jewish spouses.  Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, a renowned sex therapist and Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of YCT, dispel myths about Talmudic prohibitions on fantasy. They explain how fantasy, most often, is a helpful way to trigger arousal and strengthen sex lives.

The two explore the vast halakhic permissibility of fantasy, and, along with moderator Ramie Smith, talk about ways in which fantasy can bring husbands and wives closer together. Dr. Marcus contends almost all fantasy is healthy and cautions women not to edit their imaginations because they feel they have drifted into untoward or shameful territory. She points out that the very nature of fantasy is unreal and therefore it is almost impossible to commit a transgression in that realm.  At the conclusion of the podcast, in response to listener questions, they discuss the role of props, including vibrators and Kama Sutra cards, in fulfillment of onah, the Talmudic commandment to sexually fulfill one’s wife.

The podcast also includes an interview with Michael Lesher, an attorney and writer, whose new book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities, looks at the tendency to hide abuse. Mr. Lesher says that, historically, victims of sexual abuse were discouraged from reporting the incidents and advocates discussing healthy sexuality with children to help them understand what is appropriate and when lines have been crossed.

In the second episode, released today, Dr. Marcus and Rabbi Linzer discuss whether Orthodox Jews who engage in premarital sex are permitted to use condoms to prevent STDs, and how parents should talk to their kids about mikveh.

Visit the Joy of Text’s website for more information and to listen to the podcast on your computer. You can also download the podcast for free from the iTunes store.

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Posted on February 9, 2015

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Towards a More Inclusive Judaism: Bridging the Distance

Felicia1edit2-225x300I can trace my choice not to go to rabbinical school to a particular moment in time. Rabbi Matthew Cutler was driving me home from a youth group retreat where I had been the song leader. As a senior in college, I was sharing my questions about my next steps– Should I become a Jewish educator or a rabbi? Rabbi Cutler asked, “Do you believe in God?” I feared the question. I felt incompetent to answer it, and I had never done any serious exploration of what I believed. At that moment, I decided to apply for a master’s degree in Jewish Education and pursue my commitment to the Jewish community, but retreat from the idea of becoming a rabbi.

During the first year of my master’s program in Jerusalem, I did a lot of reflecting on why I was so ambivalent about the rabbinate—even as I had a yearning to pray and study Torah, to create and support community, and to serve the Jewish people. I had grown up in an egalitarian, liberal Jewish community and was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Yet, I saw no one on the bimah who looked like me. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t be a rabbi. Intellectually, I knew I could, but my own sense of seeing myself on the pulpit was blocked by the lack of women role models before me. Obviously, you know the rest of the story—I became a rabbi—but what bridged the distance?

In that year of living in Israel—studying, reflecting and immersing myself in it all—I became aware that I had a deep sense of calling to be a rabbi. Though I had fears and reservations, I increasingly felt that I should walk right towards them, not run away from them. I came to realize that I could choose to become a rabbi in my own image. I decided I would become the kind of rabbi that felt consonant with who I was and what I believed God was asking me to be in the world.

51fzVP1BOqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Fast-forward two years: I was studying modern Jewish thought with Rabbi David Ellenson, and we read Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective by Dr. Judith Plaskow. All of a sudden, I had a much larger understanding of what had informed my ambivalence, even suspicion.

Although I was deeply engaged as a Jew, there was something about the patriarchal structure in the stories I studied that left me subconsciously marginalized. While I was so drawn into the Jewish tradition, its practices, and the Jewish communities I was blessed to be a part of, something was also telling me I didn’t belong. Standing Again at Sinai gave me language to articulate my desire for an embrace of “my Torah” as a woman: a breakdown of the power structure, different language, and metaphors to name God.

Twenty-five years later, an enormous amount has changed in Jewish life and the larger society around us. There is much to celebrate. Not only for the fuller inclusion of women into Jewish life, but also for the pathways towards an expression of Jewish life that, in many ways, were birthed through the Jewish feminist and at-large feminist movements. I am profoundly grateful to Rabbi Matthew Cutler, who asked me the right question at the right time that sent me on a path of discovery. I am also indebted to the Torah of Dr. Plaskow for giving me the language of critique, inspiration to open up new pathways in the search to live out my calling as a rabbi, and for the blessings of creativity and justice that emerged with her book, from which we all reap the benefits.

Rabbi Sol will be speaking at B’nai Jeshurun’s Meet Me at Sinai event this Sunday. It’s a full day of panel discussions, films, dance and more dedicated to the effects of Dr. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, a book that shook the foundations of Jewish expression with its candid discussion of Jewish feminist theology. 

Posted on February 6, 2015

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

JOFA Campus Leaders Shabbaton: A Weekend of Solidarity

DSC_0148_smallThe experience of being a self-identifying Orthodox Feminist Jewish woman on a college campus can be simultaneously empowering and alienating. On one hand, the college experience tends to be conducive to self-expression and experimentation, and challenging existing norms—a common conversation in Orthodox Feminist circles–seems like a perfect activity for college campuses. On the other hand, there are still many roadblocks which can prevent these initiatives within the college setting. For example, other Orthodox individuals might question your validity within the movement, while secular social action advocates might exclude you due to your religious affiliation. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish groups on campus might not be willing to undergo the process of engaging with the halakha (Jewish law) in order to find ways to empower women on campus within the confines of halakha. At times, feminist work within the Orthodox setting can prove a lonely and tiring experience.

This past weekend’s Campus Leaders Shabbaton provided an invaluable opportunity for individuals across college campuses who face these successes and struggles on a regular basis to come together in order to learn, discuss challenges, and brainstorm solutions to these issues. College students from over seventeen campuses, including Barnard College, NYU, Brandeis University, Stony Brook University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University, the University of Bristol, Temple University, and Yeshiva University all came together, united by our identities as Orthodox Feminists and our determination to grow throughout the weekend through listening, talking and learning. The event was graciously hosted by the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox synagogue colloquially known as ‘The Bayit’ which has been at the forefront of halakhically empowering women for many years, ultimately leading to the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz as a female Modern Orthodox halakhic leader in 2009. The shabbaton programming included a panel on navigating synagogue politics, which was open to the synagogue community at large, followed by a closed discussion for college participants; a session discussing the halakhic implications of partnership minyans; discussions with prominent Orthodox feminists about how to engage others in Orthodox feminism; and open brainstorming sessions to discuss ideas and programming pertaining to the topic.

DSC_0110_smallFor myself and the other participants, the weekend posed an invaluable opportunity to meet, and engage meaningfully with, others who are passionate about Orthodox Feminism. In our home communities, we may not be understood and heard, but at the JOFA shabbaton we were given a chance to not only speak about the issues in a supportive environment, but to also brainstorm solutions to these issues in formal and informal settings. On Sunday, we role-played discussions with individuals in our communities who were wary of feminist influence within Orthodox Judaism, and also discussed which tactics were either successful or unsuccessful in instituting positive change to empower women. Over and above the issues, however, was the sense of camaraderie which prevailed throughout the weekend. A group of individuals, both men and women, had been brought together by JOFA in order to empower a group which consists of half the Jewish people, and it truly created a kehilla kedosha—a holy community—when brought together as a whole.

Posted on February 4, 2015

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