Pack Lunch, Hear Shofar, Drive Carpool

shutterstock_188569355Every year at this time, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul into Tishrei, my mind vaguely registers that the shofar is blown daily at the end of Shacharit services. Up until now, that same part of my mind shrugged as I said to myself, “Oh well, I have four kids to diaper, dress, feed and get off to school, slapping together sandwiches, tying shoes, and zipping up backpacks. Write this off as one of the time-bound specials.” Between my children’s apple and honey projects, and eighth grade lulav and etrog sales, and my menu planning and rummaging around for non-leather shoes, it wasn’t as if Elul passed me by. But the call of the shofar belonged exclusively to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I always felt a little cheated when any of the festival days fell on Shabbat and we missed a day of shofar blasts.

This year the reminders came again — a d’var Torah here, an article there — including encouragement to learn to blow the shofar myself. Unless a woman works at a Jewish school and can participate in student services, chances are many women don’t hear the shofar blown before Rosh Hashanah. As a result, the do-it-yourself method has a certain appeal. Since Elul is a time to reassess, I did just that and realized that with changing circumstances, another option presented itself: go to synagogue.

It didn’t actually start with the shofar. My first thought was that this year I wanted to make more of an effort to mark Rosh Chodesh, so often glibly referred to as a “woman’s holiday,” and what better time to start than with Elul? I’ve never needed a second invitation to avoid laundry, but making an extra effort in my prayers seemed more challenging. With three children launched out of the house towards college and careers, I figured I could attend the early minyan and return home in time to greet my sleepy high school senior as she wafted down the stairs in search of breakfast. Attending synagogue a morning or two a month didn’t seem too onerous a commitment, and there was no one other than myself to call me to account if it didn’t work out.

SP Woman Blowing Shofar Small

Sherry Pollack practices blowing shofar at JOFA’s shofar blowing workshop in Randolph, NJ.

Once I heard the shofar, I knew I had an opportunity to approach the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, with additional layers of meaning. I decided to extend my synagogue attendance beyond Rosh Chodesh. The daily shofar blasts are not just the echoes of ancient sound, but an immediate presence within prayer, an overture that we are privileged to hear at a specific time for a specific purpose. They tie us to the Children of Israel awaiting Moses’s descent from the mountain and to Moses himself who fasted forty long days and nights in preparation for receiving the second set of Tablets. In the here and now, the sound of the shofar carries through the rest of my day and makes me evaluate even the most superficially trivial choices.

Because I had stayed at home in the mornings for so many years, I did not know what to expect in synagogue. Did other women think that synagogue was the place to hear the shofar? Was there a community on the women’s side in the morning that I had never heard about? Did it matter? I belong to a relatively large congregation, and so far there have been two of us on the women’s side. I open my prayer book as a member of the entire community and not exclusively of the women’s side. I would be naive to think some thirty pairs of eyes don’t notice that a woman who is not saying Kaddish has started showing up regularly, but I am perfectly comfortable here. After all, these are my friends and neighbors with whom I am praying, and we are all doing our best to prepare for the Days of Awe which lie ahead. Gender really isn’t an issue. Synagogue is the right place to be, listening to the shofar together feels like the right thing to do, and I only wish more of us, both men and women, seized the moment. And I will admit to a certain pleasure at seeing the uncertainty in my daughter’s eyes upon my return: What is Mom up to now?

For more resources about women hearing and blowing shofar, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide

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Posted on September 8, 2014

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Agreement vs. Acceptance

shutterstock_146993003As a Jewish woman raised in a Conservative home, a Reform synagogue, and who has been Modern Orthodox since the age of nineteen, I have been blessed with being exposed to the various streams of Judaism, all of which, I believe, can learn from one another. What prompted me to identify as Orthodox was the simple desire to be part of a community where the majority of the laity observed Judaism on a daily basis, where Judaism was a prism through which they made decisions, decided moral questions, and in general, lived their lives. The issue of women’s active participation in many things, particularly Jewish ritual, was always a sticking point for me, but I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and trusted that a way could be found.

Thank God, a way has been found, with the advent of JOFA, women’s tefillah groups, partnership minyanim, and most important, women’s incredible strides in higher Torah learning, of which I have been privileged to take part. These practices, though halakhically permissible, have not been part of the Mesorah, or Jewish tradition, a term which includes Jewish law and customs. Historically, particularly in the Ashkenazic community, custom has been accorded the same status as law, and even today, one’s minhag, or custom, is tenaciously preserved. In general, I love tradition, hence my decision to become shomer Shabbat, Shabbat observant. However, I struggle with those aspects of the tradition that feel unjust. My personal relationship to God, which has given me great peace and heartfelt joy, becomes seriously marred if I have to believe it is God’s eternal will that women be barred from performing certain rituals not for any halakhic reason, but simply because Jews in the past felt it either unnecessary or uncomfortable to engage in such practices.

Judaism has never been immune from, or blind to, the world which surrounds it. I could give many historical examples, but the fundamental question facing the Orthodox community (and many religious communities in general), is this: Do we believe that certain values in secular culture, such as gender equality, are important and fundamental enough, reflect basic Jewish values of human rights and dignity enough, to do our best to incorporate them into our ancient tradition?

For some the answer is no, and though I don’t agree with this approach, I must accept the fact that others do very strongly. I can only imagine how I would feel if I had been raised in a fervently observant home that went back generations, and I personally know many women who are truly spiritually fulfilled by the role established by Mesorah. If I wish to be accepted by those in the Orthodox community who disagree with me, I must reciprocate and accept them too.

However, I also need to accept the fact that the status quo feels wrong to me, and I cannot agree with it, and I know others feel as I do. Is it advisable, then, to form yet another branch of Judaism, perhaps dubbed “Liberal” Orthodoxy, where it is a priority to integrate modern values, such as feminism, into a halakhic framework? Though I dislike fragmentation, I would support such a movement, since the alternative is alienating those like me who are devoted to Jewish law and tradition and yet feel that where it is halakhically permissible, women should be included as much as possible.

shutterstock_204409438There are Sephardic Jews, Hasidic Jews, Yeshivish Jews, Yemenite Jews–all within the rubric of Orthodoxy–why can’t the “Liberal Orthodox” community be part of this tapestry? Like the other subgroups of Orthodoxy, which differ widely on customs and even on approaches to determining halakha, Liberal Orthodoxy can, and should, be accepted as a legitimate part of the Orthodox community, rather than condemned as a threat to it.

Our Sages have famously interpreted Proverbs 3:18—Eitz hayyim hi lamachazikim bah, v’tom’cheha m’ushar–“It is a tree of life, to those who hold it fast, and all of its supporters are happy,” as referring to the Torah. Just as a tree with many branches is considered to be alive and well, the plethora of options within Orthodox Judaism is a sign of the vitality of Judaism, not the disintegration of it.

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Posted on September 2, 2014

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Jewish Women Deserve Better

SashaKeslerFive months ago, I wrote about my struggles as a newly married woman in adjusting to the observance of Taharat HaMishpacha, the laws of family purity. I felt isolated in my suffering and scared that my commitment to halakha would forever negatively impact my marriage. I had been taught that Taharat HaMishpacha keeps a marriage fresh and alive. Rabbi Meir attested to this in the Talmud, “Why did the Torah teach that a woman was in a period of niddah, menstrual impurity, for seven days?…So that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the chuppah, wedding canopy” (Niddah 31b). But observing the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha was not a honeymoon for my relationship, and I was searching for someone to tell me that I was not alone in my frustration. I needed community and solidarity.

I watched eagerly as the conversation about my article spread on social media. While some critiqued my frustration and argued that halakhic challenges are simply a part of Avodat Hashem, service of God, many women reached out to me to express their solidarity and sympathy with my challenges. It was clear that I was not alone and that women needed a space to discuss this mitzvah openly and honestly.

Since moving to New York City last fall, I have met many female, halakhic scholars–mentors that I did not have access to when I initially learned the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha on the West Coast. I began asking them about strategies to cope with the challenging aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha and how to guide a follow-up discussion that would move beyond frustration towards constructive action. While the women I spoke to offered solidarity and sympathy, no one had an answer. Most offered a few ideas and then concluded, “You just learn to deal with it.”

That answer was not satisfying. Getting married is enough of a new challenge: learning to live with someone, navigating a new sexual relationship, merging identities. Yet, at the same time we are introduced to a new set of mitzvot that impacts your body, sexuality, and emotional relationship. And if women ever choose to speak openly about these intimate challenges, the only support offered is that it will get easier. But we deserve better. No new bride should ever have to feel isolated and scared because of the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha. Our community needs to collectively strategize on ways to offer support to couples.

With this guiding principle, I facilitated a series of discussion groups, in collaboration with Immerse NYC, which brought together women in Washington Heights to share their experiences of observing Taharat HaMishpacha. These discussions provided space to both vent frustrations and clearly identify the challenges to address.

At one salon, a woman asked if my husband was home and when I responded no, she sighed in relief and pulled off her sheitl, wig. Women around the living room followed suit, pulling off sheitls, tichels, scarves, and hats, a collective shedding of our inhibitions. This was a safe space to open up and be in solidarity as women.

keep-calm-and-carry-on-218835During these discussions, members of the group openly discussed each person’s difficulties and offered suggestions to one another. As each woman shared, heads nodded around the room and women jumped in to respond. I found myself feeling more at ease with my challenges. There was a sense of solidarity in our commitment to this mitzvah and yet, an honest acknowledgement that while observing other mitzvot may be difficult at times, this mitzvah has a particularly sensitive impact as it affects one’s body, marriage, and sexual life. There is a lot of constructive power in a room full of women. While no one walked away with every problem solved, I noticed a lighter energy as women left. We were on the way towards a more positive relationship with this mitzvah.

Our community needs to consciously and consistently support these conversations. While I am fortunate to live in a vibrant, Jewish neighborhood, women all over this country do not have access to this support. My hope is that we can expand this experience beyond Manhattan so that every woman has a place to turn to and a network to support her as she begins this new mitzvah, or as her practice evolves throughout her life. Every marriage deserves to start with all the resources available for success. Talking about the non-halakhic aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha should be another part of the healthy marriage toolkit.

If you are interested in bringing this curriculum to your community, please contact Sasha Kesler at SashaDKesler@gmail.com.

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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The Shofar Is Calling; Will You Answer?

shutterstock_110739179Each shofar has a unique undulating shape and trumpeting sound. The sound may be low and haunting or bold and jarring. But whatever its call, the shofar awakens us from slumber and reminds us that the time for teshuva, repentance, has arrived.

During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar on a daily basis at the conclusion of the morning service. This custom is derived from the Midrash that Moses ascended Mount Sinai at the beginning of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, having broken the first set when he witnessed the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. While Moses was on the mountain, the Israelites blew the shofar on a daily basis to serve as a warning to the people to maintain their faith in God.

It is interesting to note that the Shulchan Aruch explicitly permits a woman to blow shofar for herself or for other women on Rosh Hashanah. But our rabbinic sources are silent on the issue of women blowing shofar during the month of Elul, leaving us to extrapolate for modern times. The Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and other halakhic authorities categorize blowing the shofar during Elul as a minhag, custom, rather than as an obligation. With these considerations in mind, a woman could blow shofar for herself or in the presence of other women during Elul to assist them in fulfilling the minhag. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, author of a forthcoming JOFA publication entitled, “A Cry from the Soul: Women and Hilkhot Shofar,” holds that a woman may indeed take on this role.*

Blowing a teki’ah (the long, solid blast) is not all that difficult. It takes some creative positioning of the mouth and hands, and some trial and error, but it can be mastered within a few minutes of effort. It is incredibly satisfying to put the shofar to your lips and produce a deafening blast. While the sound is energizing when it is merely heard, the call of the shofar is incredibly impactful when it draws from the energy deep within you.

Would you like to try it yourself?

shofar-blowout-logoThe Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Federation of Metrowest New Jersey, is hosting the Great Shofar Blowout on Sunday, September 21st in Whippany, NJ. In an attempt to break the Guinness World Record, 1500 participants will blow shofar in the same place at the same time! JOFA is co-sponsoring this historic event.

But before you can join in the Blowout, you may need to practice. JOFA will be hosting a workshop for women, men, and children who are interested in getting some practical experience; first-timers are welcome! The workshop will be enriched by a shiur, text-based class, which will review sources addressing the permissibility of women blowing shofar. I invite you to join me on Sunday, September 7 at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey, at 10 am, for this exciting event. Bring your personal shofar as you will want to learn the best technique for your instrument!

Rosh Chodesh Elul is almost upon us. The shofar calls out to me with a voice that is strong and unwavering. It is a call that has been heeded by countless generations each year at this time. This year, I will do more than just listen to that call. I intend to feed it with my own strength, my own will and my own breath. I will infuse the shofar call with my own hopes and desires for a fresh start in the New Year, for a greater level of commitment to God, to my people and to my community.

* Note: The issue of women blowing shofar for a mixed congregation, however, is more complex and requires intensive study of the sources; a synopsis is beyond the scope of this posting.

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Posted on August 25, 2014

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An Open Letter to My Bais Yaakov Education

shutterstock_168751562To My Bais Yaakov Education,

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I made the jump from a coed, Modern Orthodox elementary school to a Bais Yaakov-type high school. In truth, I had no concept. However, I do not regret attending such a right-wing high school for a moment, and am proud to affiliate myself with you.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: there were points where, as a feminist, I really wasn’t sure if I could make it through. There were many lessons, speeches, and offhand comments about women in Judaism where I had to roll my eyes and remind myself not to take things so seriously. The hashkafa (philosophy) rabbi whose biggest blessing was “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah, but the gematria of tov is seventeenthe Sages say eighteen is an auspicious age to wed, but the numerical value of good is seventeen;” the (female) Nashim B’Tanach (Women in the Bible) teacher who taught us that women are the moon and men are the sun, so we are only reflections of the men in our lives; the halakha (Jewish law) rabbi who gave an impromptu lesson on why women shouldn’t enter the clergy…I could go on and on. It made my blood boil.

The undue emphasis on tzniut (modesty) was also difficult for me to swallow. I follow the rules of tzniut as you taught mecovering knees, elbows, collarbonebecause that’s how I feel comfortable. But considering the amount of mitzvot (commandments) that you did not care to emphasize, it bothered me that you put so much effort into exhorting us (a largely modestly-dressed bunch to begin with) to cover up.

So no, you were not without your negatives. But with the space of a year sans pleated skirts and collared shirts to reflect, I realize that I gained much more from you than I ever thought I would. I don’t think that I am a feminist despite my Bais Yaakov education, but because of it.

Although some might find it ironic, you provided me with many more learned female role models than my elementary school did. I certainly had my share of women teachers when I was younger, but they were not as respected as the rabbis, particularly those rabbis who taught the boys’ classes. During my four years in Bais Yaakov, the only male Judaic studies teachers I had taught halakha and hashkafa, so text-based classes were always woman-led. Consequently, there was never any doubt in my (or any other student’s) mind that women are capable of learning and mastering religious texts and any accompanying commentary.

Beyond the classroom, you definitely tried to promote the model of an educated, frum (observant) woman who can lead others and hold her own in a religious or secular arena. Principals were always female and Orthodox, as were guidance counselors and administrators. We were frequently addressed by women speakers, whether they were delivering words of Torah or lectures on genetic testing. For the biannual school production, we performed a musical about the life and legacy of Sarah Schenirer, the creator of Bais Yaakov and innovator of Jewish women’s education. Students were encouraged to take on leadership roles, from debate team captain to choir head to hesed (community service) committee coordinator.

So I don’t think that it would be fair to characterize you by “shemoneh esrei l’chuppah” and speeches on modesty. Yes, those were big parts of my high school career, and I don’t wish to ignore them, especially because I know that they dominated many other Bais Yaakov girls’ high school careers. But they do not define my experience in Bais Yaakov. No, I feel that my time in high school is better characterized by the all-girls environment, in which my friends and I were able to laugh with each other unselfconsciously. By the strong friendships I made, and keep to this day. By the high level of Judaic and secular learning I didn’t even realize I received until I got to college. By the strong women I learned from, both inside and outside the classroom.

So thank you, Bais Yaakov. For showing me that a woman can learn just as well as any man can, and that a frum woman can do whatever she sets her mind to. You never called yourself feminist, and I certainly did not think to apply the label to you while I was in high school. But now, in retrospect, I do believe that it would be the proper adjective to describe the education you gave me.

Sincerely,

A feminist Bais Yaakov graduate

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Posted on August 20, 2014

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The Other ‘F’ Word

f-wordFeminism has become a dirty word.

In discussions with students, this is what I hear: “Sure, I think women should get paid the same as men, but it’s not like I’m a feminist.” “Feminists want to make everyone the same, but everyone knows men can’t breastfeed.” “Feminists think women are better than men that’s the problem.” These summations are offered with a blend of confidence, scorn, and ignorance, while the word at their center, “feminist,” is spoken with that special brand of dismissiveness that comes so naturally to adolescents.

As a high school teacher, I have the opportunity to discuss all sorts of “ism’s.” Ample opportunities arise for discussions that are ideological, political, cultural, theological, socio-political, socio-theologico-politicalit all finds a moment in our discourse. And in my fifteen years of facilitating such discussions, my students have proven to possess a remarkable degree of tolerance to dissenting positions, and admirable openness to having their own points of view examined by their peers. By and large, the students I have taught are well able to leave their cynicism at the door of the classroom, and engage in healthy, self-reflective, and honest discussions. Their sensitivity time after time exceeds my own.

With one exception: feminism. Often, their negativity is shaped by the very legitimate and positive changes that have occurred in the last few decades. They chide me: “Mr. Fleischer, feminism was once really important, but there’s nothing left to fight for.” So we do the work. We take the time to list feminist concerns in detail, examining the world stage, the domestic sphere, even our own religious community. In checklist fashion, we get down to brass tacks: do women make the same as men for doing the same job? Are women treated with justice or even sensitivity in the legal and political arenas? Have our assumptions about family life shifted in response to contemporary notions of equality? And even as it becomes clear that at least some of them share many of the ideological concerns of the feminist movement, still they balk: “But that doesn’t make me a feminist.”

The issues are fine. But the word? That’s another matter.

Faced with this cognitive dissonance, I lose my teacherly perspective. Out the window go any ambitions of withholding my point of view. I find myself insisting, “Of course you’re a feminist!” while my students respond, “No, I’m not!” Part of me believes that as long as they’re thinking about the issues, the rhetoric is moot. Let them call themselves whatever they want. They still live lives of feminist empowerment, lives rich with the possibilities provided for them by the feminist movement. I chide myself: so what if they’re stuck on the word?

But there are, I think, serious values at stake in the language of feminism, values of particular concern to educators, values that turn on the very question of what we choose to call ourselves.

First of all, as a Modern Orthodox Jewish educator, I believe in the importance of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the sacrifices others have made on our behalf. Certainly, hakarat hatov is a key aspect of the relationship we build with God, as well as with our own history. Acknowledging past debts, like those we owe to generations of feminists, both women and men, has a religious component to it. The discomfort with the language of feminism that too often emerges in my community is not only historically myopic and shallow, but also insensitive. While many of us have tried to balance the changes generated by the feminist movement against the counterweight of our tradition, the lives we lead and the communities in which we pursue God’s will have yet been deeply informed by them. Allowing others to blithely dismiss the word “feminist” is an ethical and religious failure. The word matters because in using the word we engage in hakarat hatov. Simply put, it’s a mitzvah.

Secondly, like all movements, feminism is concerned with the limitations of the status quo and the need for change. The lifeblood of movements concerned with change is the language with which they describe themselves. More importantly, proponents of change are driven by passionate self-awareness; they declare themselves into being. They identify themselves and in doing so promote the change they are looking to effect. That is, in using the language of feminism we promote the cause.

Simon FleischerAs a teacher, I have a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I teach not only facts and figures but values. Ours is a mission driven profession, a tikkun olam profession. To leave my values at the door of my classroom is to betray its purpose. On the other hand, my students bring their own identifications, world views, and sensitivities to our class. Our classroom needs to be a place in which they can examine who they are and consider who they want to become. To offer my own point of view in too heavy-handed a fashion is also to betray the purpose of the classroom.

When it comes to my own feminism, it has been hard for me to find this balance. I want to push my students to examine their discomfort with feminism, but in order to do so they need to feel comfortable expressing their discomfort and confident that they will be allowed to find their own point of view. I want to direct their attention to the cognitive dissonance they experience in response to the word “feminist;” I want them to acknowledge their debt and to work toward change. But I also want them to feel safe enough to disagree with me, in part because I need to teach them what respectful disagreement looks like.

So sometimes I bite my tongue, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I argue: “Look at the issues! Of course you’re a feminist!” And sometimes I leave the word unexamined. Like all dirty words, it has power even when misused. Like all dirty words, sometimes the more you draw attention to it, the dirtier it gets.

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Posted on August 18, 2014

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Blessing the Shabbat Lights – A “Modern” Jewish Ritual

Candle LightingThe quintessential image of home, holiness, and Jewish motherhood is that of a woman blessing the Shabbat candles, performing a ritual we assume has existed since time immemorial. But this assumption is wrong. In fact, it was only nine hundred years ago that, after much debate, lighting the Shabbat lamp came to be defined as a mitzvah—one with its own unique blessing, one that Jewish women took upon themselves.

Because there is no such commandment in the Torah, most rabbis before 1000 CE maintained that lighting the Shabbat lamp was not a mitzvah; it was merely a task women did because they were home and men were in synagogue on Friday afternoon. It was important only because, unless she lit the lamp before sunset, her family would be forced to sit in the dark. And while the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) meticulously details what kinds of oil and wicks are best to keep the Shabbat lamp from going out, there is no mention of any special ritual for lighting it.

The great French scholar Rashi (1040-1105) took an opposing view. In his commentary on Tractate Shabbat (page 23b) he stated, “By observing the mitzvot of kindling a lamp on Shabbat and Hanukkah, one brings the light of Torah into the world.” Yet even if a community accepted that lighting the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, should a blessing accompany it?  And if so, which one? There is no such blessing mentioned in the Talmud and halakha forbids any non-Talmudic blessings. Because of this, medieval Sephardic women lit their Shabbat lamps in silence.

However during the eleventh century, Ashkenazic women had greater religious status and autonomy than those in Sefarad, so much so that they began to fulfill those mitzvot that only men were obligated to perform, such as blowing shofar, and wearing tefillin and tzitzit. According to Machzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs collected by Rashi’s students, women took these commandments upon themselves and recited the blessings as well, in the same way that women today have taken on traditionally male mitzvot, instituted new rituals like Bat Mitzvah, and become rabbis and cantors.

Rashi clearly held that kindling the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, one that women, as well as men, were obligated to perform. Thus it seems logical that, if women made a blessing when they performed mitzvot from which they were exempt, surely they must recite a blessing if they perform a mitzvah for which they are obligated. Indeed, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, declared that lighting the Shabbat lamp required a blessing.

But creating a new blessing is prohibited, so what prayer should be said? The solution was to take the blessing for lighting the Hanukkah menorah, which was in the Talmud, and substitute “Shabbat” for “Hanukkah.” As astonishing as it may seem, the Hanukkah blessing is the original one, a thousand years older than the Shabbat blessing, its derivative.

We know of this new blessing because we have a responsum by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, describing the ritual her mother performed. She explained that in Rashi’s house, the woman first lit the Shabbat lamp and then recited the benediction, whose words are the same ones we say today. Rabbeinu Tam’s decision and his sister Hannah’s responsum were so authoritative that within a hundred years, even women in Sefarad were saying this blessing when they kindled Shabbat lights. Maimonides complained about it but admitted that he couldn’t prevent women from doing so.

Today, when women (and men) light Shabbat candles, they never imagine that the ritual doesn’t come from Sinai, that the blessing was once a source of controversy. And who knows? Maybe nine hundred years in the future Jews will assume that girls have always had a Bat Mitzvah, that women have always studied Talmud, and that there have always been female rabbis.

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Posted on August 13, 2014

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Signing a Post-Nup: A Love Story

J&L KetubahAs I walked in the door from a long day at work, I started receiving calls and emails from friends about something that my husband Jason had posted on Facebook. …I had no idea what they were talking about.

I logged in to Facebook to see a picture of our Ketubah and the following written by Jason:

“Fifteen years ago, my bride-to-be and I were considering texts to use for our Ketubah, Jewish marriage contract. We selected a text co-authored by Rabbi Joel Schwab, and reproduced in Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding, because it married (ha ha!) the traditional text with modern commitments that emphasized the values of equality and partnership that Elissa and I both held dear. The text, as you will notice, is very long – because it adds to the millennia-old formulation without subtracting anything.

“But despite its length, there’s something missing. Our Ketubah does not include the Lieberman clause, a modern addition to the Ketubah that has been the standard for decades in the Conservative movement. The clause protects a woman from becoming an agunah, or “chained woman” – civilly divorced but unable to remarry because of her husband’s refusal to give her a get, divorce decree. Why don’t we have this clause? I recall not wanting to include it because civil courts were increasingly refusing to enforce it, citing church and state issues. Lis remembers it differently: I said I didn’t want it because we didn’t need it. Because I would never refuse to give her a get if we ever got divorced.

“The very fact that Lis and I remember this in different ways highlights the error of our ways. Without putting it in writing, who knows what was said? With no written agreement, Lis has no assurance of my good intentions, and no protection if those good intentions suddenly evaporate. Of course we love each other, and of course I would never refuse to give her a get. But if I believe this so fervently, I have nothing to lose by putting it in writing.

“That is why I was honored to take part in an event on Sunday June 29 that allowed us to rectify this nearly fifteen-year wrong. It was a Post-Nup Party! Elissa and I joined with many other couples in signing a post-nuptial agreement that ratifies our commitment to and respect for each other. In the event of a divorce, we agree to have our divorce adjudicated by a Beit Din, religious court, and to follow its rulings, including the delivery of a get. The agreement also imposes stiff financial penalties on me for every day following our civil divorce that I do not deliver a get. It is signed, notarized, and fully enforceable in civil court, and it gives tangible meaning to my good intentions.

J&L Wedding“I am so privileged to be married to someone who, in her tireless work for JCADA, the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, has done so much to help all victims of domestic abuse – including those victimized by the abhorrent crime of trying to control your ex-wife’s behavior by refusing to grant her a get.

“If you are a Jewish couple and you don’t already have a strong pre- or post-nup (and even if your Ketubah has the Lieberman clause), I strongly encourage you to visit the Beit Din of America’s website to learn more about it, and hopefully sign your own post-nup! This should become the standard that is expected of all Jewish couples as a pre-condition for marriage.”

I have a husband on a new mission…he is planning the next post-nup party! Thank you Chani and Steve Laufer for hosting the event and for giving us the opportunity to sign a post-nup and empowering us to make a difference!

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Posted on August 11, 2014

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Reciting Kaddish in Unconventional and Unorthodox Circumstances

IMG_0463There were a couple of times when I said Kaddish in some unconventional or “unorthodox” circumstances, but they were quite meaningful to me, nevertheless. One of them was shortly after Shloshim, which is the first thirty days following the death of a loved one. Our family had the opportunity to spend a weekend at my husband’s sister’s beach house in New Jersey. There was no synagogue within walking distance. That Friday night I went up on their rooftop porch, as the sun was about to set. I had a most magnificent view of the horizon to my east, where the ocean met the sky, and to my west, where the glistening water of the bay met the sky. I prayed the Kabbalat Shabbat service with such kavanah, spiritual intention, and was so moved by that setting that I said the Kaddish aloud. There was no one to respond but, I felt such a strong connection to my mom at that moment. She’d grown up in a seashore town and just loved the ocean. Saying Kaddish for her there- just felt like the right thing to do in that moment.

Another nontraditional experience took place a couple of months after Mom died when I went out to Indianapolis, to visit my mom’s sole surviving sister. Aunt Lois had been unable to attend the funeral and the shiva, so I was grateful for the chance to visit with her and her family.  And, I wanted so much to, just once, recite Kaddish with her. During my brief stay, they arranged for us to attend their Reconstructionist synagogue for a weekday Mincha/Ma’ariv service. It turned out that no one else showed up for minyan other than the five of us. I was the only one who was religiously observant in the group. They turned to me and said, “What shall we do now?” I said we could all pray the Mincha service together and then my aunt and I would recite Kaddish, even without the minyan.  It was the one and only chance we had to do so, and I was determined to make it happen, even without a minyan. And, although, this was a highly irregular situation, it was comforting to say Kaddish with my aunt, with the other family members responding to our prayer.

It has been especially meaningful for me to be able to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at Netivot Shalom, my home synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland. On many occasions, my voice was the only one saying it. And yet, I felt that I was given the utmost of respect. Unfortunately, the same is not true for all women in all Orthodox synagogues. I can only speak for myself when I say that being a solo woman’s voice chanting this prayer amongst my congregation, gave me a feeling of empowerment and, at the same time, consolation. They enabled me, regardless, of who else was in the kehillah (congregation) at the time, to continue my healing process and my efforts of raising the soul of my beloved mother. I truly felt that each response of Amen, Brichu, blessed be He, and yehay shmay rabah mivorach, May His great name be blessed, acknowledged me in my grief and helped me in my mission to elevate my mother’s soul. Our ancient rabbis were very wise in how they constructed the Jewish mourning practices, recognizing the many psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of the mourner. My friends, these needs are universal to all people. Therefore, it only makes sense to welcome and embrace a female mourner, just as well as a male mourner. And Netivot Shalom does that so very well.

One of my mom’s favorite Hebrew songs was Oseh Shalom. Sometimes when I say those words at the conclusion of Kaddish, I can faintly hear her voice singing them as well.

So, I’d like to conclude with those very same words. A request for peace from HaKadosh Baruch Hu:

Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, aleynu, v’al kol Yisroel, v’imru amen.

May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel, and say: Amen. 

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Posted on August 7, 2014

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Owning Our Heritage: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a’ la carte.”

0302.1807_Slave-adA recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic Monthly outlines the argument for reparations to be paid to African Americans for the injustices of slavery, and the subsequent economic disadvantage and discrimination they have suffered for more than a century. As convincing as Coates’ is regarding the systemic injustice meted through the Jim Crow period, and the way decades old housing discrimination continues to hold back blacks even today, there is one question that nags: “why should I be paying for reparations on something I had nothing to do with?”

I didn’t enslave anyone, nor has anyone I know. While my family actually does have ties in the US dating back to the mid-1800s, I have no reason to think they were involved in slavery. On my wife’s side, her father immigrated from Germany as a child in the 1950’s, and her mother’s family fled Russia in the early 1900s. What culpability could we possibly have in the enslavement of Africans from 1619-1865?

Coates answers with this:

A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

If we are Americans, and we benefit from being American, want to remain American and might even be proud to be American, we need to own the whole thing. We can’t take the Constitution without slavery; we can’t have 21st century Manhattan without 19th century Mississippi.

And this is exactly what we reenact every year on Tisha B’Av. We sit on the floor, eat ashes and weep. We read Lamentations with its horrific descriptions of the siege of Jerusalem and the city’s ultimate destruction. Wanton hatred destroyed one Temple, and lasciviousness destroyed the other. We do this every year, but what did I have to do with the Temple being destroyed? Those weren’t my sins. I can’t even relate to the concept of there being a functioning Temple, and now I’m expected to feel remorseful and seek atonement for its destruction? I wasn’t there! Can’t I just have a Passover Seder, read Megillat Esther and dance on Simchat Torah without having this random day of mourning in the middle of the summer?

.This idea of complete ownership over our heritage isn’t only relevant when considering problematic historical events. The same applies to our relationship to the modern State of Israel. As someone who loves Israel and prays for her future, there are some things I just want nothing to do with, and I think that’s true for everyone. Whatever your politics, there are things you love about Israel and things you hate about it. Whether it’s Haredim serving in the IDF, bombs falling in Gaza, misogyny in the workplace, income inequality or a myriad of other issues—there is something about Israel that makes you upset. There is something about Israel you wish you could disown. We all have an obligation to work on changing these things, but we don’t have the luxury of pretending that the Israel we love and support doesn’t include them. We can’t have the hike through Ein Gedi without grappling with the armored bus to Ariel. We can’t have the yeshivas in Jerusalem and the cafes in Tel Aviv while trying to ignore the conditions in Ramla or the deportations of Ethiopian refugees.

Orthodox Feminists are often asked (from both the left and the right) why we remain Orthodox. If we are so troubled by certain interpretations and applications of halakha, why not just jump ship? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to keep the parts we like and drop the parts we don’t? The answer is obvious. This is our heritage, and this is our history. We understand that as members of this kehillah, community, we can’t ignore the problems. We will remain committed to the halakhic process, while working to fix it, because it is ours—for better or worse.

Tisha b’Av is the time to reflect on the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, but not just for the sake of self pity. It is our opportunity to understand how we went down a path towards destruction, and to identify the tikkunim, improvements, we can implement in our own lives to avoid the same fate in the future.

Posted on August 4, 2014

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

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