I did not have Simchat Torah this year. Bold statement, right? Some of you are probably thinking that I must not be observant, because how could a good Jewish girl miss such an important holiday? Well, I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with Simchat Torah. So if I start at the beginning, maybe you will come to understand my point.
When I was little, as in elementary school little, I loved Simchat Torah. I ran around the synagogue with my friends, danced with my dad, and got loads of candy. I had a blast, and looked forward to it each year. Then, I turned 12 and celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Now, I could no longer dance with the men in my synagogue and I was relegated to the balcony with the women. At the time, I was a bit nostalgic for the good old days, but I still enjoyed the holiday. You see, watching from the women’s balcony as the men danced below with the Torahs was all I knew. So I enjoyed the holiday and spent it chatting with my mom and friends. And my relationship with Simchat Torah proceeded like that until I graduated from high school and attended Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Israel.
Initially, when I saw women at Midreshet Lindenbaum dancing with the Torahs and leading hakafot, the processionals, I was overwhelmed by this newness. Where I grew up, women did not even kiss the Torah, let alone carry it and dance with it. But by the end of the holiday, I had become comfortable with this new concept. I had accepted that women could interact with the Torah in a religious and meaningful way. I realized that a world existed where I could celebrate Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Torah I lived by every day and studied my entire life, with the actual Torah. But what would happen on the next Simchat Torah, after I left Midreshet Lindenbaum and returned to the United States? You see, I was at a tipping point in my relationship with the holiday. At this point, I could still return to the women’s balcony and write off my seminary experience as a chavaya, a one-time experience. But instead, I went over the other edge.
I spent four years at the University of Maryland, College Park, where Simchat Torah became my favorite holiday. I danced around the Torah, I held the Torah, and I fell in love with the Torah. The ruach, the energy, the sheer excitement was so contagious. It was not only the men who danced their socks off, but the women too! Every year at the University of Maryland, I went to Simchat Torah services expecting to come home with aching feet and drenched in sweat. I was a member of a community where both women and men loved the Torah equally and displayed that affection publicly.
At our Simchat Torah celebration, there was something for everyone. There were women’s aliyot if that was your thing, and there was “Torah Dash,” where men and women gave thirty-second divrei Torah on every portion in the Torah while community members received their aliyot. There was even a Kallah Torah and Kallah Bereishit, honors given to women of the community, in addition to the traditional honors, Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit, given to men. Women were integral members of the Simchat Torah celebration in College Park, and I felt like my presence was meaningful and positively impacted the community.
Simchat Torah of my senior year was bittersweet. I had an amazing time, and had the honor of leading the community in two hakafot, together with my fellow graduating seniors and community leaders. But the dark cloud of impending doom loomed over me. I was depressed enough about leaving the University of Maryland Jewish community for many reasons, but I felt even more upset on this holiday. I wondered: Would I ever dance with a Torah again? Would I love the celebration of the holiday wherever I was in one year’s time? I suppressed these thoughts, not wanting my fears of the future to ruin what might possibly be my last chance at Simchat Torah happiness.
So what was my Simchat Torah like this year, my first year post-college? Well, it was not Simchat Torah.
It was like any old holiday. I went to synagogue, watched the men do things on the other side of the mechitzah, and socialized with the other women as we stood around with nothing to do. My husband later asked me if I heard them sing this song and that song, and if I had seen him carry a Torah. No, I did not hear the songs they sang, and no, I could not see who carried the Torah. As I watched the men dance with my Torah, I felt utterly invisible and extremely empty. I had been so far removed from the celebration, that I had no longer had any part in it. This time when I was relegated to the women’s section, I was not okay with it. I had tasted the forbidden fruit of equality and religious expression and I was not content being downgraded from a passionate participant to an irrelevant bystander.
Join us for the JOFA UnConference on November 23 will be exploring topics related to Ritual Innovation. More information at jofa.org/unconference2014
This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of my conversion to Judaism.
As for so many others, my process of entering into the Orthodox Jewish community was long and arduous. And sadly, like so many others, I became a victim of sexual assault while on the course of my journey. (I mention the assault only because I could not have written this article without reflecting upon that experience.)
My conversion was not a horror story. My attack was not perpetrated by anyone involved in the process. On the contrary, I hold those who assisted in my conversion in the very highest esteem. And to get it out of the way, I am not one of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged victims, though I both studied and worked with him, and painfully, even referred female converts to him.
My personal reflections on the man are beside the point for the moment. My concerns pertain to the integrity of the conversion system in toto: a system in which I have been a participant, a system through which I have guided others, and a system to which I commit my life’s work.
That system is broken.
With the RCA’s formation of a panel to review the current conversion process, we begin the necessary process of examining procedures that have helped numerous candidates, including myself, but failed too many men and women. As one who experienced the vulnerability of conversion, the helplessness of sexual violation, and the satisfaction of guiding others through their journeys to Judaism, I offer some thoughts on how we might want to frame this troubling case.
1) Sexual abuse, including voyeurism, is primarily about power and secondarily about sex.
Accusations of serial abuse during a mysterious initiation ritual make great fodder for news outlets. However, the less titillating, more ubiquitous, and truly urgent problem is the potential for abuses of power by religious courts who perform conversions.
Firstly, If we see Freundel’s alleged voyeurism as a case of power abuse, rather than a case of sexual abuse, we may place it within a long standing pattern of behavior—bullying, threatening, intimidation and self-aggrandizement—some of which was legal, some (perhaps) illegal or unethical, but all of it troubling. In the future, we might be quicker to interrogate a clergy member’s relationship to power and control. We might better train our clergy and laity to identify and interrupt both sexual and non-sexual microagressions. Individuals who habitually cross the bounds of personal space and social propriety are not all sexual offenders, but we must be vigilant.
Secondly, describing Freundel’s alleged transgressions in primarily sexual terms renders the sinner too conveniently “other.” While few among us have been personally accused of sexual misconduct, an uncomfortably large number of us should ask, “What infractions have I committed in my use of power and influence?” and, “When have I turned a blind eye to the abusive behavior of others?” Framing this case as an abuse of power lets fall the barrier between the accused and the accusers, making uncomfortable self-reflection possible.
2) Employ the rhetoric of collective guilt cautiously.
Several articles have made varieties of the “we are all guilty” claim. I sympathize with the sentiment, but urge caution in employing the rhetoric of collective guilt. The last thing any victimized person needs to hear is, “we are all guilty.” For leaders and laity, parsing the issue of blame and responsibility is genuinely nerve-wracking and requires brutal honesty. If overused, the unqualified “we are all guilty” message becomes unhelpful background noise to this difficult meditation.
One of the most terrifying truisms about leadership is that you cannot have guilt in the absence of responsibility and you cannot have responsibility in the absence of power. We can argue about how and why disenfranchisement occurs, but those who are excluded from leadership cannot be blamed to the same extent as those who currently hold authoritative positions. It’s interesting to note how, in this case, the extremes of power and powerlessness in voyeurism correlate with the extremes of power and powerlessness in conversion. These extremes are the crux of the issue. The language we use to describe this case must accurately capture the topography of power. Mapping power dynamics is the first step towards analyzing existing policy and constructing something better in its place.
3) Giving women the “keys to the mikveh” is necessary but not sufficient.
One corollary to the axiom, “power is a prerequisite for guilt” is that putting any person—man or woman—in a position of power unlocks the potential for misuse of that power. It is naïve (and blindly heteronormative) to assume that involving women nullifies the risk of sex scandal or power abuse. Re-framing this incident more broadly will encourage us to seek solutions that go beyond sex and gender.
To be clear: women’s involvement—as permitted by Jewish law– is absolutely necessary. Having women present at the mikveh ceremony, having women formally educate female conversion candidates, or having them serve in the role of ombudspeople are all great suggestions. But, I have two concerns. First, unless women are involved in actually crafting policy, we are paying lip service to their inclusion.
Secondly, plugging women into a broken system won’t fix the system, and I speak here from painful experience. Over the past few years I had the opportunity to shepherd and mentor converts who were working with the Washington, D.C. beit din. Working with Rabbi Freundel, I served as a resource for candidates, teaching them, answering their questions, and facilitating their relationship with the beit din. Sadly, even my direct involvement was not enough to protect the alleged victims.
4) Threats of nullifying existing conversions must end.
A convert pays dearly every time her judges are judged. Why? Because trust—at least, a variety of trust—is elicited in light of shared norms and predicated upon the spoken or unspoken assumption that these norms will remain constant. Once these norms no longer exist, or once they are shown to have never existed, trust is shattered. As a conversion advocate, I chose to work with the RCA rather than with ad hoc batei din largely because I thought their Gerus Protocol and Standards offered the best chance for the candidates broad communal acceptance and minimized the chance that they would be asked to “re-convert.” There is nothing more painful than having to be dragged back underwater because the last time you stood naked in front of judges somehow wasn’t enough.
In my opinion, broad community consensus on matters of personal status serves the best interest of Orthodox converts. In conversions, religious courts act as proxy for the entire community. But when courts become points of contention, their halakhic function and meaning are undercut. I worry that this scandal will completely shatter the consensus built around the essentially helpful Gerus Protocols and Standards. If we are to re-build trust between conversion candidates and the rabbinate, we must find a way to build consensus without consolidating too much power in a small group of rabbinic authorities.
I mark the fifteenth anniversary of my first conversion as a student and teacher of Torah. I am married with two beautiful children. I live in a vibrant Orthodox community. In short, I couldn’t be happier. I have so much more to lose now than I did fifteen years ago. If my conversion were challenged today, I would lose—at least temporarily—my family, my tranquility, my marriage, my identity, and my trust in my community. We are obligated to do everything we can to ensure that no convert ever faces such crippling loss.
We are angry, and we should be. When Freundel was arrested on October 14th, I couldn’t stop watching the story unfold—I’d press refresh on my browser hourly. I’m not at all proud of it, but I felt a deep need to watch Freundel’s downfall from afar, perhaps as payback for the many acts of surreptitious watching he (allegedly) performed. Regardless of the legal outcome, the anger, hurt and distrust sewn by one man will linger…and linger…and linger. The pace of healing is not dictated by the news cycle. But we owe it to converts everywhere to attend to the broken system. It’s time.
I am supposed to go to the mikveh tomorrow night.
The mikveh and I have never been friends; the first time I immersed, before my wedding, I noticed immediately afterwards that I had a tiny hangnail, which according to what I had recently been taught, might invalidate my immersion. Sitting outside in my car, I agonized for an hour, and then called our rabbi, who directed me to re-dunk and repeat my immersion.
Over the nearly twenty years of my marriage, my body has continued to fail to fit neatly into the laws of taharat hamishpacha, or family purity; imperfectly bleeding longer than the textbook five days, problematically spotting between cycles, which necessitated displays of the bloody stains to a rabbi’s knowing eyes for a ruling about my “pure” or “impure” status.I have carefully followed the laws of taharat hamishpacha, which dictate that a married couple must abstain from sexual contact during a woman’s menstrual period, and for the seven following “clean” days. Thereafter, the woman must immerse to become “pure” and sexually available. Spotting between cycles renders a woman’s status questionable, and requires a ruling from a rabbi to clarify her status. According to law and tradition, observing these laws would bring holiness to me, my husband, and our relationship.
As my period lasts a minimum of seven or eight days, and I frequently spot during the seven “clean” days, and throughout the remainder of my cycle, my husband and I must abstain from physical and sexual contact for over two weeks each month. I nearly couldn’t become pregnant with our second child because I repeatedly ovulated before immersion, when sexual intercourse was forbidden. Frequently, mid-cycle spotting prevents us from being intimate.
My supportive, patient husband and I have been fortunate to consult with wise and sympathetic rabbis, who have instructed us to rely on many leniencies, without which we would never have been able to be intimate or to conceive. Nonetheless, I have been told more times than I can count that I needed to see a doctor to evaluate if something was “wrong” with me. Instead of the rabbis accepting my explanation that my body’s behavior was simply “my normal,” they repeatedly advised me that I should endure yet another internal medical exam.
Directed. Instructed. Told. Advised. Endure.
I am over forty. I expect that over the next decade, my cycle will become – if it is possible – even more irregular, and my struggles with taharat hamishpacha will increase before menopause blessedly releases me from my required monthly observance of these laws. The angst I felt over that first tiny hangnail was nothing compared to the exhausting, anxiety-provoking, recurring uncertainty I have experienced upon seeing blood – yet again – on my panty liner. Having to decide, over, and over, and over again “Am I pure? Am I impure? Can we have sex? If we don’t have sex, will my marriage be harmed? If we do have sex, will it be a sin? Should I consult our rabbi again? Should I not?” Every time, no matter what choice I make, I feel guilty, and uncertain, and wrong – impure both physically and spiritually.
Last week’s allegations about Rabbi Barry Freundel brought my anguish and fears about taharat hamishpacha to the fore. The idea that a powerful, authoritative man with decision-making power was watching a disempowered, rule-following woman while she was naked and vulnerable in the mikveh—struck forcefully to the very core of my feelings about my faithful adherence to these laws. As I read the initial news report, a cold descended over me and I began to shake. Throughout my entire marriage, I have felt that there was a metaphorical hidden camera in my bathroom, my bedroom, my body, my soul. I have trembled, trying always to do the indeterminate and elusive right thing, feeling watched by the rabbis who wrote the laws of taharat hamishpacha; by my rabbi, who inspected the stains on my underwear and judged my status; by my fearful, rule-following inner child, yearning to please, terrified of making a mistake; and by God. Now, in black and white, glowing on my iPhone screen, was a report of a rabbi filming a woman doing exactly what she was directed to do, following to the letter the instructions and advice she was given, all in the name of achieving holiness. And yet, despite her faithful obedience, her holiness was stolen from her by the very one who instructed her in its achievement.
For nearly twenty years, rabbis and doctors have probed and prodded, inserted themselves between me and my husband, between me and God, and perhaps worst of all—between me and myself. All these years, I may not have sinned. But achieved holiness? There, I believe, we all have failed.
I am supposed to go to the mikveh tomorrow night.
Vashti is a heroine of the Purim story because she chose not to expose her naked body to the Court despite the King’s requests. Unfortunately, she is put to death because of this. Esther, on the other hand, wins the King’s favor, survives and saves the entire Jewish people! The Purim story seems relevant to an analysis of the Washington D.C. mikvah case and to support the idea that the mikvah should stay open for women to immerse during the day.
When my husband Jeffrey and I first heard about the arrest two weeks ago, we immediately started following the news, recognized the hidden camera device from the mikveh, and decided to go to the Washington D.C. courthouse to report our story to the prosecutors and witness the court proceedings. After we volunteered to speak to the media, our video and story appeared on television and in print. This brought us more fame than ever before. But, according to our local Orthodox rabbi, speaking to the media was not the right thing to do.
Because we publicly spoke out against Rabbi Freundel, and supported the allegations against him, we have been made to feel unwelcome in our Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi specifically told us not to speak about the allegations against Freundel, which he considered to be lashon hara. On Simchat Torah, the synagogue’s founder came over to me and silenced a discussion I was having with my husband, Jeffrey, and the rabbi of a retirement home about the violation. An October 20 statement by the Vaad Hakashrus of Greater Washington illustrates the hostility we feel directed at us. The statement essentially sides with the accused by invalidating testimony made by only one witness. However, my testimony was in addition to six other witnesses documented anonymously by the court. Despite the Vaad’s claim to reach out to potential victims, we have not heard one word of support or assistance from our affiliated synagogue’s rabbi who worked closely with Rabbi Freundel on halakhic matters.
How could we be quiet when leaders of the community seemed to side with a criminal? As the mikvah’s hidden camera likened us to a blindfolded Vashti, our rabbi preferred to be blind and deaf and to ignore our story. We had to leave the hostile environment. In contrast, the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue right next door delivered a supportive message on Shabbat Bereshit.
On Simchat Torah, we are supposed to dance and celebrate with the Torah. But, the Orthodox synagogue added salt to our wounds. No one tried to console us, we were told repeatedly to keep quiet and to try to enjoy the holiday and watch men dance with the Torah. But, ignorance is not bliss. Ignoring this most high-profile case, a hillul hashem, reinforced a problem within the community. Voluntary blindness or brushing warning signs under the rug may be why such a violation could have happened in the first place. The truth is black and white.
The Torah tells us to be God-like, taking guidance from the thirteen Divine attributes. God is all-seeing, but is not a voyeur. God is perfect. May we all learn to make good decisions by acting in God-like ways.
Changing leadership structures and setting up rabbinic oversight committees may remedy the problems of abuse of power, but there should also be changes to the mikvah itself. Typically, Orthodox mikvahs are only open to women at night, ostensibly to preserve the women’s privacy. In light of the recent mikvah violations, women’s privacy cannot be guaranteed in the morning or in the night, so only opening a mikvah at night to protect a woman’s privacy is ridiculous. Daytime hours may better protect women by encouraging them to speak up when something is not right. Daytime hours could remove the stumbling block from the blind.
The Orthodox mikvah is a protected, private place for women and converts. Only a woman’s husband needs to know when she immerses, converts rarely reveal that they converted, and it is halakhically permitted to lie in order to safeguard the privacy of one’s immersion in a mikvah. Encouraging women and converts to hide the powerful experience of immersing in a mikvah and distracting them with the additions of a spa-like atmosphere further encourages them to ignore supposedly minor details such as who else is at the mikvah, who is in charge of the mikvah, and whether there is any impropriety at the mikvah. Now more than ever, we must adapt the culture of secrecy and retreat surrounding the Orthodox mikvah. The mikvah can be a great place to reach higher emotional and spiritual levels, and the evening-only secretive spa-like atmosphere is unnecessary. Simplifying the mikvah and changing the opening hours to be more flexible are just steps in the direction of removing the stigma surrounding the mikvah.
In the Purim story, God is the elephant in the room. This Simchat Torah, the mikvah case was the elephant in the room. While Vashti lost her life and may have made the wrong choice by refusing to do the King’s bidding, both she and Esther acted out of free will. We can choose which mikvah to go to, but also whether to go to any mikvah at all.
Women need to speak up about mikvah, especially since it is one of the three mitzvot directly commanded of women. Women should not be embarrassed or silenced about using the mikvah. It is time to shed light on the mikvah, bring it out of the dark, and open the mikvah during daytime hours.
In my mind, the definitive tale of sisterhood was not the conventionally chosen classic, Little Women, but rather the All-of-a-Kind Family series. To eight-year-old me, those books were perfection: I read them like they were scripture. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie (and Charlie, born later and the only boy) probably shaped my vision of what family and sisterhood should be. True, they were a poor immigrant family at the turn of the 20th century living in the Lower East Side and I was a not poor, not immigrant child, not living at the turn of the 20th century, living in Toronto, but subtlety was never my strong point.
Those sisters did it right. They went to the library, they bought penny candy, and they had Shabbat dinner. Sure, Henny was a troublemaker and Sarah even lost a library book once, but even in their delinquency I loved them.
All this goes to explain that somewhere, deep inside of me, I always thought I’d be a mother of girls. I blame Sydney Taylor and her glorious books. I thought I’d be a mother of daughters. They’d love each other and fight with each other and braid each other’s hair. Instead, I had one daughter (off to a great start, I thought) and then four boys.
My daughter was born five weeks early. We didn’t have time (or foresight) to pick out a name and, perhaps more significantly, figure out how to celebrate her birth with a Simchat Bat ceremony. It turns out that when you grew up as a Modern Orthodox Feminist (all words that are so charged with multiple meanings that I could easily be persuaded to align myself with none of them as well as all of them) and you have a girl, it becomes a pretty big deal. At least, it became a really big deal to me. Add all of that anxiety of how to properly welcome a girl into a society which has no organized ritual in place for girl-welcoming, to sleepless nights and crazy hormones and you have… me and my very patient, very thoughtful husband sitting up at 3 am the night before our daughter’s Simchat Bat collecting prayers, wishes and quotes on how to raise a daughter which we turned into centerpieces on each table. Think Dr. Seuss meets Rashi.
At the ceremony, I stumbled through some Dvar Torah welcoming our baby and expounded on the need to create a way to embrace daughters. I probably talked for too long and maybe got a bit preachy, but we served really good cake so I think people were kind enough to let it slide.
I love/hate the murkiness of raising a daughter in this world. I get it right sometimes and I get it so very wrong some times (like yesterday, I got it wrong yesterday). At what age does she attend a women’s megillah reading with me? Is it okay for me to separate her from her friends in synagogue so that she joins me and my agenda? If she isn’t comfortable with my version of Simchat Torah, do I tread lightly or turn it into a teachable moment? And all of that angst is okay.
What would Sydney say? She has become a de facto guru of mine. I look to her for wisdom. And I read my daughter All-of-a-Kind Family as soon as she could understand the words.
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When we received our JOFA sukkah poster last week, I excitedly showed my daughters, ages five and ten, the poster of women leaders. They looked it over and the following conversation ensued:
Child: “Do you think Uncle ____ and Aunt ___ would want to hang it in their sukkah?” (We are city dwellers who don’t have our own sukkah.)
Me: “Sure, why not?”
Child, a bit sheepishly: “Well, Mommy, I don’t want to be mean, but the women are a little ugly, don’t you think? Couldn’t they have made them prettier?”
Me: “I don’t think the point was whether they were pretty or not.”
Child: “I am not saying Nechama Leibowitz looked like a rock star in real life, but I’m sure she was prettier as a young woman.”
Me: “Do you think that we’d be having the same conversation about the Baba Sali or Rav Moshe Feinstein? Are they especially handsome?”
Child: [Rolls eyes] “I knew you were going to say that, but I still think they could be prettier.”
And so I thought about it—should the artists have attempted to “airbrush” Nechama Leibowitz?
Why do pictures of older male rabbis look distinguished to most viewers, but pictures of an older Nechama Leibowitz remind us of an elderly grandmother?
This summer the New York Times ran an article about camps that ban “body talk”—among them the Jewish farm camp Eden Village. The article noted that at Eden Village “on Friday afternoon, when the campers, girls and boys from 8 to 17, are dressed in white and especially polished for the Sabbath, they refrain from complimenting one another’s appearances. Rather, they say, ‘Your soul shines’ or ‘I feel so happy to be around you’ or ‘Your smile lights up the world,’ … Signs posted on the mirrors in the bathroom read, ‘Don’t check your appearance, check your soul.’”
While I could see the virtues of checking your soul, rather than your appearance, if I am to be honest with myself, I can’t actually imagine parenting (or living) this way. I do tell my kids they look beautiful, and when they remember to brush their hair, I comment on it. I like hearing compliments on my appearance and I want my daughters to hear those compliments too and compliment others, while not being overly focused on their appearance. This, of course, is a very tough balancing act, made all the more difficult if one has a child who loves fashion and notices everyone’s clothes (as is the case for my five year old).
One of the great virtues of JOFA commissioning this project is that it allows all of us to see women scholars represented on the walls of our sukkot and schools. While there’s certainly some part of me that wishes that my girls didn’t ask “why aren’t they prettier,” I am glad that this sparked the question for them. There is no doubt that children raised as part of a society that thrives on airbrushing will expect conventional beauty from women leaders and scholars, but I hope that we as parents and educators can begin conversations with them that will begin to chip away at some of these notions.
Growing up as the daughter of two teachers, my parents encouraged me to read every kind of book that I was interested in. As a middle schooler I socialized with Charles Dickens, curled up with Jane Austen, ate snacks with the Bronte sisters, decided that I hated every stuffy Victorian who took 150 pages to start a plot, and moved on to their dark Russian cousins, the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys (125 pages to start a plot). One author was off-limits in my house, and his books I had to keep hidden. I kept his books behind the other books on my shelves, binding face-down. This author was Chaim Potok. I actually had no idea why there was a Chaim Potok ban in my house until I started reading his books, and then the CPB (Chaim Potok Ban) made a lot of sense to me. Potok claimed that one could not be Orthodox, or more accurately, one could not fulfill himself creatively and be Orthodox at the same time. And when faced with this decision, one should choose creative fulfillment. Potok made this point in My Name is Asher Lev, Davida’s Harp, and pretty much every other book he had written.
I don’t blame my parents for this ban at all. Every parent has something, I’m sure, that they want to protect their children from. I want to protect my children from Sholom Auslander, author of Foreskin’s Lament, in which he blames his apostasy on the “theological abuse” he suffered as a child at the hands of Orthodox parents and teachers. I pray every day that they should never read one of his books. I know that they will be exposed to anti-religious ideas out there in the real world, but by God, if they are exposed to all those ideas through the tortured, cynical eyes of Sholom Auslander, I will do serious penance. My children will make their own decisions as they get older about what kinds of Jews they want to be, but I don’t want them to arrive at that decision through rage and through pain.
I think my parents were right in trying to protect me from the most devastating reality of being an Orthodox Jew: There are simply some people who cannot be both an Orthodox Jew and creatively fulfill themselves. This may not be devastating to you, but it was to me, and my 1994-future-Broadway-star/pianist self.
Every day I go through mind tricks to calm myself down when I worry that I am not fulfilled creatively. I yell at myself in my brain. I remind myself of my healthy children, my healthy husband, my healthy body (bli ayin hara). I remind myself that my life is wonderful. I have friends that laugh with me, and at me (and both are good things). I remind myself that there is a lot of instability in the world, and a lot of uncertainty and pain, and my children are more fortunate than most other children to have been sheltered from this uncertainty and pain. I remind myself that creative fulfillment is a luxury.
I remind myself that I create art when I teach. And when I write. I remind myself that the very act of conducting my life within a controlled, halakhic environment – that is art.
Five or six years ago, I participated in a small conference of Orthodox educators run by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper in Boston. After a panel presentation, a female attendee at the conference raised her hand and began to lament all the difficulties of her life, and how hard it is that she will never be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a rabbi. I nodded in empathy but supplemented her comments with a statement about how I will never fulfill myself musically – and that I was coming to terms with that.
I never wanted to be a rabbi. I wanted to be Gwen Stefani.
All I said was that I was coming to terms with it, not that I already had. I have entered into a Chaim Potok book, but I’ve chosen the other path — Orthodox Judaism. I will not be a singer, or a pianist (too many gigs on Friday nights and Saturdays). I have chosen a halakhic path. If I had to do it again, I would make the same choice. But I don’t want my daughters to have to make this choice. I want (and here my cursor stays for 45 seconds – what do I want?)
I want my children to express their Judaism in a way that completely and totally creatively fulfills them.
I know some readers of this blog will point out to me that many Orthodox women sing or perform in front of men, but I am not looking for halakhic loopholes or possibilities. I’m waiting until they become mainstream. I know, I know, when there is a rabbinic will there is a halakhic way – but I don’t want to fashion my Judaism according to my will. Self-control is a form of artistic expression. Or so I tell myself.
So for now, here I am, in Potok’s book. I’ve also decided to let my children read actual Chaim Potok books and hope that my own personal choices stand as a (sometimes painful) alternative. But the benefits and the beauty of living as an Orthodox Jewish woman outweigh the fulfillment that I have skipped out on. Maybe. And who knows, one day I might even let Sholom Auslander’s books into my house.
Not anytime soon, though.
My youngest daughter will turn nine in just a few weeks, but I have already begun to actively arrange for her Bat Mitzvah. No, I have not bought her a fancy dress, shoes, and matching hair accessories. I have not put together a guest list of friends and relatives. And no, I have not actually looked at the calendar and chosen a date. So how could I possibly be preparing for her Bat Mitzvah?
In my hometown, the local Orthodox synagogues offer no opportunities for women to engage in ritual leadership. However, for the past few years, a warm and inviting women’s Kabbalat Shabbat/Ma’ariv Friday evening service has been held on a monthly basis in individual homes. Though my daughter is not always excited about going (especially if the weather is nasty or if she is caught up in a good book), I bring her along nonetheless. It is true that she does not yet know all of the tunes. And sometimes, she can only tolerate sitting through the first two psalms, “Yedid Nefesh” and “Lechu Neranena,” before she needs to take a break, returning mid-service for “Lecha Dodi.” But she is there, and the entrancing tunes of erev Shabbat are slowly filtering into her head.
Oftentimes, the prayer leader is a post-Bat Mitzvah teenager. It’s important that my daughter be present to see a young role model in action, to hear a high-pitched (and sometimes wavering) voice, and to witness a girl standing at the amud, podium. And each time we attend, I can see that my daughter participates more and more, that she is able to follow along, that her body sways with the chanting of each psalm, and that the unfamiliar is becoming familiar.
All too often, I hear the following refrain from mothers of sixth graders in my community: “I would really like my daughter to do something meaningful for her Bat Mitzvah—maybe lead at a women’s tefillah service—but she’s too nervous about it and it’s just not her thing.” My plea to each of those mothers is that you make it “her thing.” Start early and go often! Drag your third, fourth or fifth grader along to a women’s celebration this coming Simchat Torah! Remember: Your daughter won’t want to read from the Torah scroll if she’s never touched it, danced with it or peered inside. Or, shlep her to a women’s Megillah reading on Purim. And convince your friends to do the same, so that your daughter will have a cohort of peers to support her as she advances into new territory.
A boy may not begin to practice his Torah reading until the year before his Bar Mitzvah date. But he has been preparing for the event for years beforehand by being present in synagogue where he can absorb the rhythms, music and traditional words of the prayers, and be exposed to the routines of the service. Why should the expectations be different for a Bat Mitzvah girl? With the New Year, I urge you to make a commitment to your daughter and give her a head start!
“Are you going to fast on Yom Kippur?” “Are you going to try not to eat until chatzot, midday?” These were the questions my friends and I were discussing around the age of 10 and 11. We had never considered that there would be a period of time in our future when we would have to ask those questions again. As an 11-year-old, I proudly shared that I fasted before I was obligated. It wasn’t until over a decade later that I would begin grappling with these questions again.
Although the questions remain the same, the circumstances and process for coming to an answer has changed. As a child, I did not ask a rabbi what I should be doing. I knew the general custom and practice amongst my peers, and made my own decision accordingly. I did not feel an ounce of guilt if I broke my fast early. Ironically, the process looks very different for adult women who are either pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive.
As Yom Kippur is rapidly approaching, a number of articles and posts on this topic have arisen. Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, who has spoken on this issue in the past, recently published “Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Yom Kippur-Reflections” on Morethodoxy.
This piece followed her shiur, “Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call?”, disseminated by JOFA this past Tisha B’Av. Her shiur spurred a great discussion on my personal Facebook wall. Women shared stories of reluctantly fasting, nervous of the effect that it would have on their unborn children or their nursing supply. I recall one woman in particular giving an hourly update of the wails of her nursing child. She had decided that since her child was almost one year old, and eating supplementary food, that she would fast. For whatever reason, her child was refusing solid food on that particular day. The mother had made her decision before the fast, and despite the change in circumstances, would not revisit her decision. It was painful to read her account on that day.
We all make our own decisions of what to eat when pregnant, how to exercise, what to exclude from our diets, whether or not to nurse, etc. Fasting while pregnant or nursing seems to be a decision unlike others. This is one area with which many observant women, throughout the spectrum of the Orthodox community, grapple and are left feeling uneasy no matter the outcome. Guilt is always the result. Women feel guilty for “breaking the fast early” or for not properly nourishing their children. Even if breaking the fast entails eating according to defined shiurim (a halakhic measurement of food permissible according to biblical law) once an hour, the guilt remains. If one chooses to fast for the duration, the guilt remains.
One cannot ignore the spike in pregnant women being admitted to the hospital during and following Yom Kippur. While it may be “okay” to fast while nursing, it can, and has, lowered or diminished milk supply for many women, including a number of women that I know.
A good friend of mine was eagerly following the Facebook discussions born from Maharat Kohl Finegold’s shiur. She had already been nursing her then nine-month-old, and decided to fast on Tisha B’Av. She knew that she wanted to wean him in the coming months, and figured that it would seem inauthentic to eat on Tisha B’Av with that in mind. She was uncomfortable because she felt as if she was trying to rationalize why she should not have to fast without any strong support for this decision. This led to her coming to a stringent decision to completely abstain from water and food throughout the fast day. While she had been nursing her child three to four times a day, her child refused to nurse from the tenth of Av and on. She is not positive why it ended, but, most likely, it was because her milk supply had diminished. Anecdotally, my friend’s story is far from unique.
As children, we were confident in our decisions whether or not to fast, because we were not halakhically obligated. As noted in the articles cited below, there are both halakhic and health factors that mothers should take into consideration. Just as mothers research strollers, baby gear and the like, we should put effort into researching and coming to a decision on whether or not to fast. Mothers asking this question should read the articles mentioned below and think about this decision in advance of the fast day. Making the decision at the last minute contributes to a sense of uneasiness and urgency.
While I am not a medical or halakhic authority, below are a number of items to consider and questions to ask your trusted physician and halakhic authority:
- How far along are you in your pregnancy?
- Is your pregnancy high risk?
- See your doctor or midwife before the fast to ensure that your baby’s prenatal vitals are in good shape.
- Ask your doctor if there is anything else that they think you should know. Are there any risks involved in fasting? Any relevant studies?
- What risks are involved for the child of a nursing mother? For a pregnant mother?
- How old is the child that you are nursing? Does this affect your decision?
- If you need to drink/eat any amount during the fast, what should you drink/eat? (I would suggest a protein drink or the like.) Where should you drink/eat?
- What halakhic options are available to you on general fast days? How do things differ on Yom Kippur?
- While you have a “game plan,” what should be your action plan if your situation changes during Yom Kippur? Will you eat or drink? Will you decide to stay home? What are options or issues that may be a consideration?
Some suggestions to make the fast easier:
- Prepare by drinking extra water the day before the fast.
- If possible, make sure that you will have extra help for your children and any other responsibilities that would put extra strain on you during the fast day.
It is time for us to recognize that our bodies and our children are holy vessels. The same way that we make decisions about where and how to pray, what minhag, custom, to follow, and how to observe halakha, we need to take ownership over this decision.
It has pained me to read and hear the words of women sharing their level of pain or discomfort, or the cries of their nursing children who are hungry. Women who ask rabbis whether they should fast are sometimes told to fast until they become sick or until it would affect their milk supply. Most women, most people, cannot answer that.
The halakhic process is best lived out when we are in dialogue with modern medicine, attuned to our own health needs and have access to well trained, compassionate, and knowledgeable poskim and poskot, halakhic decisors. There is an ever expanding network of Maharats, Rabbis, Yoatzot Halakha and other klei kodesh, spiritual leaders, who welcome a genuine and mutual conversation on these important and sensitive subjects. When we, as women and mothers, are empowered in this conversation the entire halakhic process benefits.
‘Does Fasting Put Pregnant Women at Risk?’
BabyCentre on Fasting in Pregnancy
Doctors: Fasting during all but last weeks of pregnancy increases risks
Effect of a 24+ hour fast on breast milk composition
Fasting on Yom Kippur During Pregnancy by Hannah Katsman
Impact of maternal fasting during Ramadan on growth parameters of exclusively breastfed infants Journal of Fasting and Health. 2013;1(2):66-69
Teshuva from Rav Nachum Rabinovitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Maaleh Adumim
If one were to name sympathetic characters in the Bible, it is unlikely that the prophet Jonah would make the list. If ever there were a model for the flawed prophet, Jonah would be the prototype. He is callous, clueless, and closed off to the notion of shades of gray in the world. Indeed, it is easy to list Jonah’s faults. He runs away from God in direct opposition to God’s command; he laments the successful teshuvah, repentance, of the people of Nineveh and the fact that they are not destroyed; and he scolds God because he feels that he has been made to look like a fool. Jonah lives solely inside of himself, unable to consider the larger world as it exists outside of him. Because of this litany of unflattering characteristics, Jonah often arouses harsh judgment within us. We read his story, criticize him for his actions, and congratulate ourselves for not being like him.
In many ways, the message of the book of Jonah seems antithetical to that of Yom Kippur. After God saves the people of Nineveh because of their sincere repentance, Jonah says:
O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. (Jonah 4:2)
Rashi highlights Jonah’s despair at the people’s successful teshuvah, explaining that Jonah knew that God would forgive the people if they repented, and therefore feared that he would be seen as a false prophet in their eyes (Rashi on Jonah 4:2). Never before has God’s mercy and compassion been framed so negatively, as a reason to wish for death. Never before has the ability of an entire nation to do teshuvah successfully been framed as a cause for mourning! In light of this, Jonah’s story seems like a strange one for us to read on Yom Kippur, especially so close to Neilah, the closing prayer of the holiday. Why choose such a callous and unapologetic prophet? Why don’t we read the story of King David’s teshuvah after Uriah’s death, or Isaiah’s promise that redemption will follow repentance? What are we supposed to learn from the story of Jonah, where teshuvah and the salvation it brought were lamented?
In the final mishnah of Masekhet Sotah, following an extensive litany of ways in which the Jewish people had fallen away from mitzvot and thus lost their ability to commune with God, R. Pinhas ben Yair brings the following teaching:
Quickness leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to purity; purity leads to separation; separation leads to holiness; holiness leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to religious devotion; religious devotion leads to the Spirit of God. And the Spirit of God leads to the resuscitation of the dead, and the resuscitation of the dead leads to the coming of Elijah, may he be remembered for good, Amen. (Mishnah Sotah 9:15)
On Yom Kippur, our experiences are often framed around the initial items on this list. As we fast and abstain from many of our usual daily activities, we strive to achieve kedushah, holiness. However, as R. Pinhas reminds us, these behaviors are not an end in themselves; rather, they are tools to move ourselves closer to humility and toward ruah haKodesh, the Spirit of God. By framing kedushah as a tool instead of as an end, the mishnah reminds us that we must confront our failures, instead of only lauding ourselves for our successes. We must acknowledge the uncomfortable ways in which Jonah reminds us of ourselves, and we must learn to forgive, rather than condemn him. Only in the moments when we have the humility to admit the uncomfortable reality of our own flaws—instead of focusing on condemning the failings of others— will we be able to hasten the redemption.
In the shul where I grew up, every year on Yom Kippur there would be a handout that listed an extra set of al hets to be said beyond those traditionally in mahzor. The idea was to help the congregation better connect with the liturgy by framing the litany of our sins in the context of our contemporary human experience. There is one that stays with me, and that I think of every year— Al het she’hatanu lifanekha, for the sin we have sinned against you by condemning traits in others that we excuse in ourselves.
The choice is within us to decide whether we will condemn or forgive; whether we will focus on others or do the hard work of truly looking at ourselves. As the Rambam reminds us in Hilkhot Teshuvah:
Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his. This is [the intent of] the Torah’s statement: “Behold, man has become unique as ourselves, knowing good and evil.” (Bereshit 3:22) The human species became singular in the world with no other species resembling it in the following quality: that person can, on his own initiative, with his knowledge and thought, know good and evil, and do what he desires. There is no one who can prevent him from doing good or bad. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1)
Teshuvah is a complicated process, but the choice of how—of whether—to do it is only up to us. It is difficult to admit the sins we have committed against others, against ourselves, and against God. Consequently, it is sometimes our instinct to retreat into ourselves and focus on the sins of others. It is true that we are guilty of wrongdoing, we tell ourselves, but perhaps our wrongdoing pales in the face of the sins of those around us. We have stumbled, but it could always be worse—we could be like our neighbor or our colleague. Or, God forbid, we could even be flawed like Jonah. However, these flaws are what make Jonah a profoundly human prophet, one who is more like us than we would care to admit. This is why Jonah makes us uncomfortable, why we are so quick to dismiss and condemn him. His traits are too recognizable, too familiar to us. It is too easy to see Jonah in ourselves, so we push back against the idea that we would—that we could—ever be like him.
Perhaps, then, we do not read about Jonah because he presents a great paradigm of teshuvah. Perhaps we read Jonah because our reactions to him can serve as a test of sorts to determine whether we have effectively internalized the lessons of the teshuvah that we claim to have done. Perhaps it is not only the story of Jonah itself that is important, but also whether we have developed the capacity to view him with compassion and understanding, rather than anger and judgment. As Israel Salanter said, “Most people worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.” May we find a way to worry about our own teshuvah, while viewing the sins of others through a lens of compassion. May we find a way to forgive Jonah for his sins and inability to value the teshuvah of others. Perhaps that is when we, too, will be forgiven.
This essay was dedicated by Audrey & Chaim Trachtman: In honor of our grandchildren, Leora, Eli, Elinor, and Aliza, who inspire us to keep working to create an Orthodox world in which they will each be able to live fulfilling religious lives. Thank you to their parents and teachers who help lead the way.