From Secular Jew to Talmud Scholar Part II: Many Ways to Study Talmud

Maggie AntonClick here for part 1 of this series.

Rabbi Benay Lappe instructed us in the traditional method of Talmud study, employing a famous passage from tractate Bava Kamma dealing with laws of damages. We began by memorizing the Mishnah, and then moved on to the Gemara (this time in the original Aramaic text). We were expected to obtain an Aramaic dictionary, and prepare our translation prior to class without consulting an English version.

If I thought Talmud study was difficult before, this was nearly impossible. The Hebrew and English translations I’d used while studying tractate Berakhot had added punctuation, vowels, and enough additional words to make a sentence understandable. But the Talmud is written in an Aramaic shorthand where many of the words are missing and speakers are often called “he” rather than by their actual names. When we shared our translations in class, none of us had come up with the same one.

Thus the first thing I learned from Rabbi Lappe was how fluid the Talmud text was, how open to interpretation. I saw that if not for Rashi’s commentary, which cleared up much confusion, the Talmud truly would be a closed book. Eventually, I became familiar with common expressions the rabbis employed in their arguments, as well as the limited vocabulary used in discussing damages.

With translation no longer so onerous, I came to realize that the rabbis had done something revolutionary. They had taken the Torah verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24) and proved that it doesn’t mean actual physical retaliation by an injured party. Rather, the person responsible must pay monetary compensation. The Talmud demonstrated how the rabbis uprooted a problematic Torah text and gave it a new meaning that kept Torah relevant in their changed society.

The next year Rabbi Aaron Katz arrived at our synagogue. Personal problems had forced him to leave Israel, where he had over thirty years of Orthodox yeshiva experience, plus rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate. I was heavily involved in writing Rashi’s Daughters, and he graciously agreed to help me study sections of Talmud that dealt with women. He also insisted that I learn those passages most Talmud scholars knew. If my work was going to be taken seriously, I had to “walk the walk and talk the talk.”

During the seven years Rabbi Katz lived in Los Angeles, we studied Talmud together once a week, him using the Hebrew and Aramaic versions, and me the new Schottenstein English/Hebrew interlinear translation (a boon for American Talmud students). We delved into the Tosafot, medieval commentators—including Rashi’s grandsons—who disagreed with Rashi, and had terrific arguments over whose interpretation was correct. We chose our texts by subject, which meant we jumped from chapter to chapter, eventually criss-crossing the entire Talmud. I learned that Rashi, and even more so his grandson Rabbenu Tam, held quite “liberal” opinions when it came to Jewish laws concerning women.

I completed my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy shortly after Rabbi Katz obtained a position in Florida. I started researching my new series, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, by reading about the history of Jews in Babylonia, which relied almost completely on the Talmud. My publisher urged me to hire a research assistant. Just when I thought I’d never find anyone with the qualifications I needed, Henry showed up at Torah study class. He had just graduated with a bachelor’s in Jewish Studies, had several years of Talmud study in a Jerusalem yeshiva, and was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic.

We started working together, beginning with tractate Berakhot and continuing through each tractate in turn, finding passages of Talmud that mentioned Rav Hisda, his daughter, and the two rabbis who ultimately married her. It took over a year, and by then I realized sorcery was going to be an integral part of the new series. So we went through the entire Talmud again, tractate by tractate, searching for every mention of demons, magic, and enchantresses. We found far more than I expected, some stories were quite fantastic, but that will be the subject of another blog post. Our third trip through the Gemara focused on the people who populated the Talmud, their daily lives and their community.

I learned how this small group of beleaguered rabbis struggled to establish new Jewish practices after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. It took centuries, but the Talmud they created became the source of Jewish law and tradition for the last 1200 years. This was a story I had to tell. And, as a feminist, I was determined to write it from a woman’s perspective. That she turned out to be a learned, powerful enchantress made it even more compelling.

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Posted on June 19, 2014

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If Not Now, When? Making Up for Lost Time

Carolin StoneAs I flick through the pages of my pocket prayer book deliberating over which tunes to pick for Lecha Dodi at this week’s local Partnership Minyan, two thoughts distract me. Firstly: I sincerely hope the clatter of the Jubilee Line train at rush hour is drowning out my occasional involuntary audible humming. Secondly (and slightly more profoundly): is this how diligent bar-mitzvah boys use their commute to school to cram in practice in the run up to the big day?

Quite apart from the momentary humour involved in imagining my thirty-something self sharing the same experiences as a thirteen year old boy, the latter thought is, for me, imbued with both sadness and excitement. Sadness, or perhaps more accurately, regret, at lost opportunities—crucially, lost education. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder of quite how far the role of women in Modern Orthodoxy has progressed in the UK in the last few years. Here I was, preparing to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat Service in an Orthodox setting—my skills no longer only of use in the ‘grassroots’ minyanim where I will forever be indebted to those (of both genders) who shared their knowledge with me.

In addition to spurring activism, one of JOFA’s main achievements in the last year has been the visibility it has bestowed upon the whole debate on women’s participation in Modern Orthodoxy. Last year’s JOFA UK conference shifted the conversation from the fringes to the mainstream, and whilst there remain divisions and frustrations on all sides—especially regarding the pace of change —there is immense value in the dialogue itself. In particular, there is value in hearing the unexpected voices, for example, those women who actually feel uncomfortable in close proximity to a Torah, an inevitable consequence of their lifetimes’ physical separation from this sacred scroll.

So, to what should we aspire in the year to come? For me, top of the list is acceptance from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo—their understanding that this is not an exercise in pushing boundaries; rather, it is about tearing down unnecessary fences (and fences around fences). It is about Jewish women reclaiming our heritage – not for the sake of doing the same as men, but because living an enriching life of Torah should not be unduly limited or defined by gender.

After that small request, comes the tachlis, the practical steps—where appropriate, share your skill set with others! Many of us are part of a ‘lost generation’ of women, enthusiastic to learn, but deprived of education in our youth… One thing is for sure, male or female, it’s an exciting time to be a Modern Orthodox Jew!

Join hundreds of women and men this Sunday (22 June) at the Second Annual JOFA UK Conference. Click here to register.

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Posted on June 18, 2014

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Spiritual Nourishment at a Graduation?

2014 YM GraduationI know that attending the Yeshivat Maharat graduation is the “right thing to do” but it is easy to forget, until I am there, how incredibly important it is to my own spirituality and notions of what Orthodoxy can be. This past Sunday was Yeshivat Maharat’s second graduation and as Rabbi Avi Weiss noted, seconds are pretty big in the Torah, i.e. Noah, Yitzchak, etc. Seconds validate that firsts are not a flash in the pan.

Sunday was that kind of big day. There will soon be five practicing, Orthodox, female clergy who have been ordained by Yeshivat Maharat. They will be working in synagogues in Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Montreal and on the West Coast. This year’s incoming class of seven students is the largest class so far. What strikes me each time I see them is: how natural, warm, wholesome, and unmotivated by ego they are. It just seems so right.

For me, the highlight came when Rabbi Daniel Sperber, unable to contain himself, talked about the “generic criticism” that innovations in leadership and ritual in Orthodoxy have been getting. As he noted, the traditional role of halakha was to solve problems that arose. Halakha was never meant to be static or petrified as people now demand. Hence the root—halekh—to go, to move forward—makes that abundantly clear and yet is so distant from where we are today.

For those who weren’t at the graduation, I suggest that you watch it online—it should give you renewed hope in the vitality of Orthodoxy. For those who were there, and some who were not, I look forward to seeing you next year for the “Chazakah graduation,” the third graduation.

Mazal tov Maharats Rori and Victoria, Rabba Sara and team. May you go m’chayil l’chayil, from strength to strength! We need you!

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Posted on June 17, 2014

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What My Son Has Taught Me About Being a Feminist Dad

Aaron Steinberg AvatarSomething you hear a lot from feminist men is that it all started with the birth of a daughter. So powerful is this effect of a daughter on a father that a friend of mine recently told me of her elation at hearing that her synagogue rabbi had a new baby girl—this could only be good news for the women in his congregation!

But for me, that was not the case. I found myself dealing with issues of gender equality in Judaism years before I had kids, and even presented at the 2010 JOFA Conference—a couple of months before I would know what kind of baby was about to join our family. (That baby has grown to become a bright, beautiful, inquisitive little girl!). Having her in my life has definitely concretized some issues of feminism I had never dealt with before (“a girl in a blue stroller?”—“Make-up makeover sleepover!”), but it’s been relatively straightforward for my wife and I to navigate.

For now, our job is fighting the efforts of outside forces to pigeon hole her into pink toys, or “girl activities,” or excessive focus on her external trappings. Her favorite game right now is batting practice, favorite movie is Frozen, and if it was up to her, she’d wear patent leather Shabbat shoes with a tye-died t-shirt and shorts to school. I think we’ve struck a nice balance. As she gets older I’m happy to say that we are part of a synagogue community where women and girls have the opportunity to read from the Torah, lead services and speak from the pulpit. The roadmap is there—we just have to follow it.

But since the birth of my son less than a year ago, I feel the need to be a feminist dad much more, and I’m not as clear on what I need to do. My wife and I are doing our best to ensure that both kids have every opportunity to learn and grow to be the best people they possibly can. We will work our hardest to give them both exactly what they need to grow as committed Jews, contributing members of society, and ultimately to become good parents themselves. But for my little guy there’s something more.

What are the jokes he’s going to hear on the school bus, in the cafeteria and at summer camp? What examples will be set by his teachers, rabbis and other male role models outside the home regarding their attitudes towards female peers? There’s no way to shield him from all instances of misogyny or bigotry, but I do hope we can instill in him core values that will cause him to recoil (or rebuff) upon exposure.

At only 10 months old, he has no clue the uphill battle we will wage together to help him avoid the pitfalls of objectification of girls and discrimination against women. As an Orthodox feminist dad, I will also have to guide him through the still very narrow path those before us have forged on the boundary between traditional Judaism and gender equality.

With my daughter I have the very tangible task of exposing her to as much Jewish practice and leadership experience as possible. But for my son, there’s this amorphous task of helping him realize the importance of others expressing their Jewish selves to the fullest. I’m not sure how to do that, and thankfully I have a strong partner to figure that out with.

This Father’s Day, as I’m enjoying a special cup of coffee and some hand-drawn cards, I will also be reminded that raising our kids is the most difficult and important job we will ever have. And I love it.

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Posted on June 13, 2014

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From Secular Jew to Talmud Scholar Part I: How I Came to Study Talmud

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Maggie AntonReaders often ask: How did a girl raised in a secular socialist family in Los Angeles come to be a Talmud scholar? A good question. But my background didn’t mean I lacked a Jewish education. I attended kindershul, run by Workman’s Circle, instead of religious school. I also learned a great deal about Judaism from books. For example: holidays, rituals, and the immigrant experience from All-of-a-Kind Family; the Holocaust and founding of the State of Israel from Exodus; Talmud and the yeshiva world from The Chosen. From this last book, it was apparent that only males studied Talmud.

Flash forward five years. My husband and I, newlyweds, had moved to Glendale, California, home to one small synagogue, which had just hired a new young rabbi. Seeing a Jewish community with many other young couples, we joined and started attending services as well as adult education classes.

Fifteen years later, I continued to study Torah in English, for my Hebrew skills had not improved much beyond being able to follow along in the prayer book. It was 1992. I heard about a new women’s Talmud class being taught by the feminist theologian Rachel Adler. She had started this class because, despite Southern California having the second-largest Jewish population in the world, there was no place where a woman could study Talmud. Whether one called it excluded, prevented, or prohibited—women didn’t study Talmud.

I confess that I signed up for this class for two reasons. 1. Rachel Adler had such a great reputation that I wanted to study with her no matter what the subject was. 2. I wanted to see why this Jewish text was forbidden to women. After all, as soon as something is banned, it immediately becomes more attractive.

The first class no sooner started than I knew I was way out of my depth. We met around Rachel’s dining table and nearly every other woman there was a Jewish professional, or studying to become one. We used the Steinsaltz Hebrew version of tractate Berakhot. I could barely keep my place, never mind reading aloud. Thankfully our discussions were in English. It took hours of agonizing preparation each week merely to keep my head above water. To my relief, our progress was sufficiently slow so that as time passed, I was better able to not only learn, but to participate.

I discovered that my forte was in rating the proof texts the Talmudic rabbis used to support their arguments. One would think that with the vast number of Torah passages available, the sages would have no trouble finding one to prove any position. Yet some were clearly better than others, and some were surprisingly lame. I learned that the first argument in a halakhic, or Jewish law, debate is a straw man, so obviously wrong that refuting it is easy. The second argument is only slightly better, and if the subject were simple, the third proof would be accepted. A complicated debate might have many more arguments, each supported by a proof text, until the matter is decided.

But not all arguments were resolved in one rabbi’s favor. Sometimes the debate ended with “teiku,” [let it stand], where each sage maintained his position. In other words, they were both right and Jews could legally follow either one. To my amazement, and delight, I saw that Jewish Law in the Talmud encompassed a diversity of opinions.

Talmud became my passion. Every Wednesday night for five years I sat with other dedicated Jewish women as we worked our way through tractate Berakhot. Here I learned the origin of the Judaism we practice today—synagogues, rabbis, observing holidays, our liturgy—things not even mentioned in the Torah where Jewish rituals primarily involve priests, sacrifices, and the Holy Temple.

The class ended when we completed that first tractate. Bereft, it took me some time to accept that my Talmud studies were over. We moved to a new synagogue, and on Rosh Hashana they introduced a woman rabbi who loved Talmud and wanted to teach it to us. My journey, apparently, had only just begun.

Click here for Part two of Maggie’s journey from secular Jew to Talmud scholar.

Posted on June 12, 2014

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Not Quite Fifty Years Behind America

1319184766462_1319184766462_rTen years ago on Simchat Torah, three American friends and I walked from synagogue to synagogue in our North West London neighborhood, looking for a place where women were doing more than standing on the sides chatting while the men danced. We didn’t find one.

“The UK Jewish community is about fifty years behind America,” my friend remarked, shaking her head. Both of us had grown up attending American Orthodox Jewish day schools where women’s learning, prayer, Rosh Chodesh Torah readings and Purim megillah readings were quite normal.

At the time, these types of opportunities were not only unavailable to most British women, they were not even on the agenda. Now however, that is no longer the case. The conversation in London over the last several years has changed dramatically. Women are asking for greater participation in both communal and home life, and demanding opportunities for learning and observance that didn’t previously exist.

From this small corner of London, what has happened in the last few years is no less than a revolution. Women’s issues have gone from the back burner to a main topic of discussion and debate at Shabbat tables and lectures. They are reported on regularly in the Jewish weekly newspapers, and discussed on Facebook groups dedicated to Modern Orthodoxy and Jewish feminism.

JOFA UK along with Women in Jewish Leadership and the United Synagogues’ Women’s Executive are just a few of the trailblazing organisations and committees that have started over the past few years. With this organised support behind them, British Jewish women have found new courage to ask for greater ritual participation within Jewish law, whether it be in prayer, learning or leadership roles.

Thanks in part to JOFA UK, over the past year, we have seen more women’s megillah readings in London than ever before. A growing number of women are volunteering for communal posts that are newly open to them. Women are asking their children’s schools to be more conscious of representing female historical leaders. New classes and opportunities for women to study sprout up regularly. And these are just a handful of the recent developments. It is indeed an exciting time to be an Orthodox Jewish woman in the UK.

JOFA UKHow we can build on the achievements of the last year and invite more women to add their voices to Torah study and ritual? JOFA’s second annual UK conference will be one place to discuss those issues. The conference will feature the founders of Orthodox Feminism, Blu Greenberg and her husband Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg. Blu Greenberg will discuss why it’s important to hear women’s voices, and whether speaking up can change expectations. Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg will present on the conflict within Orthodoxy over feminism. He will address how the role of women reflects a struggle, shared by men and women, to find a halakhic language to achieve a universal respect for the image of God.

Whilst the changing face of women’s roles in Judaism is happening too slowly for some and too quickly for others, that it’s happening in the UK can’t be disputed. What will the next ten years bring? Only we can answer that question.

Join us at the second annual JOFA UK Conference on Sunday, June 22 in London! Learn more and register for the conference here.

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Posted on June 10, 2014

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Love Thy Breast

Breast Cancer Awareness RibbonEvery year, when the days grow short and chilly, I make my annual breast pilgrimage to New York. For a few hours I am lotioned, prodded, kneaded, and photographed by surgeons, mammographers, oncologists, and gynecologists, and spend much time between procedures waiting in dark rooms. Some of my medicos make light of our yearly encounters with jokes and banter, but my breasts are precious burdens and I prefer to keep the conversation businesslike as they lay exposed before us.

It began years ago, when my gynecologist Dr. Rossi was doing her rounds of checks of the female parts of me. She delivered my last baby, and although I have since moved to Maryland, I have kept her as my doctor; she has magic hands and I don’t relish the idea of looking for new ones. Dr. Rossi informed me she had found a suspicious lump in my breast, and that I would have to see experts as soon as possible.

In shock, I had to inform my family and boss in Maryland, find somewhere to stay for an uncertain amount of time, as well as someone to whom I could blurt out my fears. New York is not an easy place to find a shoulder to cry on. People are intent on billing hours and making delta profits. Conversations with frightened friends are not chargeable and have no delta.

For days I was on the phone making appointments and walking the city to meet them.  All the while I comforted myself that not one woman in my family had ever had breast trouble, and that this was probably—hopefully—probably—hopefully, just a scare. I had read too much not to know, however, that the overwhelming majority of breast cancers are not genetic, and family history was of no moment once a malignancy was discovered. I did find a friend who lent me her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but was living in her Toronto pied-a-terre that week, and she was also my chief counsel. She had seen me through my journey from adolescent loose in New York through sober adulthood, and assured me of—what? Not exactly that everything would be okay, but that everything was as okay as it could be right now. I was doing what I could do.

These breasts of mine, they are family heirlooms. They hang large and low, irrespective of the size of the woman who inherits them. Even when I was thin as Kate Moss, I wore a C-cup bra; and when a normal weight, I’m somewhere between a triple D and a G cup.  My mother once talked about a breast reduction, but my father grimaced, and that was that. I figured, these are the breasts I was given and I’m going to keep them, which means that I spend a lot of time looking for bras that fit or wearing ill-fitting garments.

My distress making my nonstandard body approximate the Western ideal, I dismissed as foolish vanity; I reasoned that my breasts were genetic burdens, just like flat feet, to be borne like a good girl, with bowed head. These thoughts took a turn when I became pregnant. I hail from a family of legendary breast-feeders. My grandmother was born weighing two pounds, and since she and her twin sister could not suck her mother dripped breast milk into their mouths until they learned to feed on their own. That milk, and their mother’s persistence, nursed them into childhood in an era before incubators or feeding tubes.

Every day of my pregnancy I creamed up my nipples with my grandmother’s ointment, readying my breasts for their destiny. The moment my daughter was given to me, she latched right on – and did not come off. Day and night she pulled on me, in the subway, while giving a class, in the bathroom, anywhere. She nursed through my second pregnancy, and a year into my son’s life. Never did my breasts complain, nor crack, become infected, or hurt. They are triathlon athletes, Olympian performers.

I am thinking of that first time when I lay ready for inspection in the surgeon’s rooms, waiting for the man who would proclaim me well or in need of fixing. I was so nervous, so sorry for these devoted beasts hanging at my side. “Well, you are large,” he opens the conversation, as he checks for lumps. “And you have such a small frame to support them. Don’t you get backaches?” I am offended; with the thousands of mammary glands he examines a year, why must he make snide remarks about mine?

The surgeon finds nothing awry. He says that the fibers that make up the breast are like noodles that start lumping together with time and gravity and (in my case) heavy usage. A poetic metaphor. But nevertheless, I am immensely relieved. The mammographer and oncologist also find me free of disease, and I can return home unscathed. They caution that with “complex” breasts like mine, it is advisable to make annual rounds of the specialists. I wonder what it might be like to have simple breasts—something like having a simple mind?

My annual breast pilgrimage to New York has now become an opportunity for a private trip together—me and my breasts. At the end of the visit I often feel beaten up and spend too much time in waiting rooms, but otherwise I can wander round the shops, eat in restaurants, treat myself a bit. And feel thankful for the complexity of my mammary glands.

After my son stopped nursing a decade and a half ago, he asked me why my breasts did not just go away. If he had no use for them, he wanted to know why they continued to exist. I could not answer him; it would have been such a relief to have dropped down a size. But now I believe that they remain as a kind of memorial to the selflessness of the woman’s body, the eternal font of life.

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Posted on June 8, 2014

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Is there a MOFA (Muslim Orthodox Feminist Alliance)?

Shahid_Humaira_Awais_credit_Saadia_AnwarThis past week, I listened to a Public Radio interview with Humaira Awais Shahid, a Muslim woman who is a Pakistani journalist and activist. I was amazed yet again by her reply when she was asked about the status of women in Islam. She said the problem was not the Koran, which respects the role of women, but rather the empowerment of the clergy who are fixated on the ankles and elbows of women, and whether there is a hair escaping their head covering. Sound familiar?

Whenever I hear these kind of comments, my first reaction is that MOFA (Muslim Orthodox Feminist Alliance) is just waiting to be established. Our reasoning is the same, our problems are alike, and our clergy definitely behave in a similar manner. More and more often, given the weakened nature of our rabbinic establishment in America, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is exerting increasing control over the lives of American women. As a direct result, the Chief Rabbinate continues to make Israeli society more secular, angry, and disgusted with the religious hegemony over their lives.

These Muslim women have my sympathy as I hope we have theirs. As this despotism continues, more Israelis and Americans have come to believe that the role of a chief rabbi is unnecessary and outdated. We need religious freedom and systemic change in our halakhic system to create a fair and just Jewish life—not only for women, but for the entire Jewish community.

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Posted on June 6, 2014

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A Mixed Mob at Mount Sinai?

Mount SinaiWhen I think about Shavuot, the first image that pops into my head is a mob of Israelites gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, impatiently waiting to receive the Torah amidst shofar blasts, smoke, and lightning. This image inevitably triggers Merle Feld’s poignant poem, “We All Stood Together,” and Judith Plaskow’s iconic book, Standing Again at Sinai. Both of these feminist texts explore women’s absence from Jewish tradition and from the moment of revelation and explore the ways that Judaism can transform itself to become more inclusive. I am well aware that feminism and gender are essential lenses for my Jewish experience (after all, I do work at JOFA) but I was a bit surprised that my subconscious had designated Shavuot as a holiday of exclusion. The Torah tells us that women, along with men, were present at Mt. Sinai, and the Midrash, rabbinic commentary, teaches that all of the souls of future generations of Jews were present at Sinai. That seems relatively egalitarian. Upon further thought, I realized that Ruth, the protagonist of our Shavuot narrative, embodied the marginalization that I was sensing and that Shavuot is an appropriate time to engage with the topic of exclusion.

Ruth is a woman, a widow, a convert, a penniless immigrant, and a Moabite (a different, hated race forbidden from entering the Jewish people). She is an outsider in every sense of the word. And yet, she is at the center of our Shavuot story, and at the core of the narrative of the Jewish people, as the great-grandmother of King David.

On many holidays, we focus on the ways that Jews were excluded, marginalized, and victimized by other cultures. On Hanukkah, we were oppressed by the Greeks. On Passover, we were enslaved by the Egyptians. On Tisha B’Av, we were victimized by the Babylonians and the Romans. All of these holidays memorialize times when Jews were marginalized as a nation. Ruth is notable because she was marginalized by the Jewish people. She was an outsider in the Jewish community. Yes, Ruth was ultimately a “success story.” She converted to Judaism, married Boaz, a wealthy and prominent land owner in the community, and gave birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. She ultimately overcame these disadvantages and was accepted into our Jewish narrative as the great-grandmother of King David and the paradigm of chesed, loving kindness, and selflessness. However, we should not focus solely on the end of the story, to the exclusion of her other identity markers. The story of Ruth should remind us of the ways that the Jewish community is still segmented, and should serve as an opportunity for us to explore the way that our community treats other individuals within the Jewish community, those who are “Other” because of their gender, their race, their socioeconomic or religious background.

Belda Holding TorahOn Shavuot, we have the rare opportunity to sit with our communities and study texts into the wee hours of the night until daybreak. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an alternate reality with ebbing and flowing cycles of intensity—caffeine buzzes, catnaps, sugar rushes, crashes after the first few cups of coffee and pieces of cheesecake wear off. It can be a dreamy time, learning underneath the stars, finishing up that final chevrutah as the birds start chirping and the sun rises, eagerly anticipating receiving the Torah anew, and imagining what our ideal Jewish community should look like.

We have the opportunity to examine the big questions: What does it mean to receive the Torah? How does the Torah impact us all differently? How do we engage with the more difficult, exclusionary aspects of the Torah and halakhah? How can we build a more inclusive community? A more committed community? How can we create a community that would welcome and accept Ruth, a community that values and encourages the equal contributions of women to our ritual community? How will the Torah help us build the Jewish world that we are craving?

This Shavuot, let’s embrace the opportunity to discuss those big questions, and explore ways to build the more equitable Jewish community that we crave. We could start by inviting more women to teach classes and address the congregation from the bima, including mothers’ names in ketubot and aliyot, offering more childcare options during prayers and classes, or simply welcoming everyone with a warm smile, and the question, “How would you like to participate in our community?”

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Posted on May 29, 2014

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One Day or Two Days (part 2 of 2)

This is a continuation of Friday’s post. In part 1, Bracha explained the background for the question and here she concludes her analysis.

bracha jaffe picThis year, I embarked on my first halakhic investigation as a Yeshivat Maharat student, researching the question of whether visitors from Israel should observe one or two days of a holiday when traveling outside of Israel. As I explained in my previous post, the Chacham Tzvi rules that a resident of the diaspora who travels to Israel for a holiday should observe the holiday for one day only.

The next step in my journey was to research the Chacham Tzvi in the opposite direction – for a person traveling from Israel to the diaspora. Interestingly, he does not address this issue directly. So instead I turned to other poskim, halakhic decisors, and looked for responsa and rulings of authorities who follow the Chacham Tzvi’s ruling regarding visitors to Israel to see if and how they used this logic to address the question regarding visitors to the diaspora.

Here came the big surprise! While rabbis such as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik[1], Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank agree with the Chacham Tzvi that everyone should observe one day in Israel, almost no one uses this logic in the opposite case[2]. If we were to follow the Chacham Tzvi’s logic, a visitor from Israel to the diaspora should observe two full days of the holiday, the custom of the place she is visiting. But the majority of rabbis do not rule this way.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank[3] explains beautifully why this is not the case.  He writes that nowadays, after the Jewish calendar was established, communities in the diaspora are no longer observing two days because of inherent doubt as to which is the correct date. The underlying reason for observing two days has changed from a rabbinic requirement to a communally obligatory minhag (practice); one that is incumbent on communities in order to respect memories and preserve customs over time. Our sages wanted to make sure that if there were ever a time in the future when doubt about the correct date led to a need to observe two days, communities in the diaspora would know what to do. Therefore, a visitor from Israel would not be required to observe two full days of the holiday as it is incumbent on the community but not on a passing visitor. I was pleased to see that this followed the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch as well.

Now the question remained as to how one defines a visitor? When does one become an integrated part of their new community? This, too, required research and I found a plethora of opinions. There are those who say that if the visitor owns a home in Israel, is absolutely planning on returning to Israel to live, and never entertained the thought of staying in the diaspora – that is enough to grant them “visitor’s status” when they are in the diaspora and they should therefore observe only one day when traveling outside of Israel.

One responsum explaining the categories of resident and visitor that resonated especially well with me was from Rav Eliezer Melamed[4]. He says that if an Israeli is going abroad for an undetermined amount of time of at least one year, that person immediately becomes part of the diaspora community (particularly if the person’s family comes along). However, if the Israeli is going for a specific purpose, then it depends on the amount of time she will be away. As Rav Melamed notes, most courses of study and shlichut, emissary work, range up to four years, so he suggests that anything longer than that period would constitute an identity shift from “visitor” to permanent “resident,” which would require observing two full days of the holiday.

Upon returning to answer this question for my own situation, I applied Rav Melamed’s criteria. I realized that although Yeshivat Maharat is a four-year program, I came to the U.S. a full year before it started, bringing my total stay up to five years. It felt odd, yet strangely correct to have a second seder and to observe eight days of Pesach this year while my children visiting from Israel observed only one day of the festival (and therefore a seven-day Pesach). My halakhic integrity had come home.

My halakhic journey has been empowering, exciting and enlightening. This is why I am on this path; this resonates with my soul and is fuel for my passion. With God’s help I look forward to many more journeys such as this one – for individuals and for sharing with the larger community as well.

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[1] Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka, p. 226

[2] The Baal HaTanya was the only one I found to rule that Israelis should observe two full days.

[3] Har Tzvi 3:78

[4] Pninei Halacha: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/2013/02/

Posted on May 25, 2014

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