“You’re thinking of going to a conference on Orthodox Feminism? But that can’t exist. Besides, you don’t hate men or burn your bras!” I was getting this reaction a lot. Okay, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the implication. I am a feminist, and I’m Jewish but I myself was surprised when I came across those two words used together. I decided to attend the JOFA Conference in London, partly out of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that not all feminists were bra-burning man-haters.
The JOFA Conference was a fantastic experience. Speakers of all ages and backgrounds shared their stories, ideas, plans, and opinions with passion and enthusiasm. One of the best things about it was that the audience was actively engaged, taking advantage of the opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts after each speaker. The amount of planning and effort that had gone into organising the day was evident from the collection of speakers. Topics ranged from why it’s important we hear women’s voices, to women’s voices in lifecycle events to women’s voices in the community. The speeches were accessible, personal and interesting. I particularly admired the courage of the women who shared emotional and personal experiences in order to emphasize the need for Orthodox Feminism.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s speech was about men and women being equally created in the image of God and the covenantal approach for men and women. I remembered the Biblical story about how Eve, a woman, was only created second to Adam, a man, from his ribs. This seems to imply that women are second place creations and are dependent on the existence of men. I asked Rabbi Greenberg: How could this story show God’s intentions of gender equality when the message of this story seems to contradict this? Rabbi Greenberg explained that there are two versions of the story in Bereishit, the first one being that originally there was only one gender, only one being. This symbolises that God wanted every person created after to be equal in value, despite race, intelligence, ability, and of course gender. The second story, the “ribs” story, illustrates how this image of equality was broken when one human was separated from the other, and foreshadowed how this idea of equality would be broken, showing the need for us to work towards the original equality that God intended. I found that this linked to feminism because it is an ideology that advocates equality.
The main idea I took away from the conference was the uniqueness of Orthodox Feminism. Orthodox Feminism recognises that halakha is a dynamic process that adapts to the changing realities of the Jewish people. Living in the 21st century when gender equality is now accepted in the West, Orthodox feminists call for the halakhic interpretations to reflect this new reality.
I think I can speak on behalf of everyone that attended the conference when I thank JOFA for organising an amazing conference that left my head buzzing with new ideas and my eyes opened to challenges faced by Orthodox Feminists.
When I was young, I was drawn to the study of Torah as a way to get closer to God and as an answer to questions that arose in the formation of my identity as an observant Jew. Talmudic dialectics demanded of me not to leave my own intellectual integrity on the outskirts of my spiritual explorations. Talmud study also offered a source of enjoyment and an analytic challenge. But after several years of studying Talmud, I wanted more. All my best teachers had invested more than a decade of intensive study in these texts and it was clear to me that I was still at the threshold.
For me, the years at the Drisha Institute in New York were not the end goal but rather, the springboard for further learning—though clearly the years I had invested would already have equipped me with the necessary background to teach Oral Law in high schools and even to teach Talmud in a post high school midrasha, seminary. A similar educational and career trajectory typifies many of my colleagues at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership. They were also driven to further learning after completing the Matan Institute for Advanced Talmud, Nishmat’s program for Yoatzot Halakha, or Lindenbaum’s own training for Rabbinic Court Advocates—all of these frameworks enabling women to explore in depth various areas of Jewish tradition, ancient, medieval and modern.
In my opinion, just as in houses of prayer there must be windows—so too, houses of study, the beit midrash, must be an open space, and not just open towards heaven. As distinct from my academic study of Talmud, wherein I was required to track the various manuscripts of a text in musty basement libraries aided by microfiche technology—my training in applied Rabbinic rulings meant dealing with people and on behalf of people with an awareness of them as holy vessels. The voices from the outside that enter the beit midrash of halakhic learning are not viewed as intrusions into the turf of a silent library, nor are they an intellectual threat of anachronistic data suspect of disturbing the sterility of an historical context. Rather, they are perceived as an invitation to further conversation—to a connection between the texts and the street, between the Torah and the marketplace. It is in this connective window space where Torah achieves its greatest relevance and vibrancy.
Obstacles to Study
At first, the obstacles to the study of halakha are technical: Aramaic, decoding acronyms and abbreviations, broad knowledge of Talmudic concepts and terms, reading between the lines in texts that take for granted numerous unstated assumptions, and texts that often express themselves in purposely cryptic or laconic language. Though the process of zooming in to minutiae in every clause and paragraph is wearying and painstaking, it allows us to subsequently zoom out to a glorious landscape wherein one can see the intricate fabric of halakhic discourse and the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate spheres of halakhic writing. After being exposed to this broad and systemic study of halakha, one also becomes aware of how artificial a confined study of the laws of Niddah, family purity, or any other “tunnel visioned” area of law can be. The narrow study of one area to the exclusion of a broader curriculum will not allow for a deep understanding of the factors, possibilities, and tools that are available to a posek, decisor of halakha.
I can’t point to a specific moment when this occurs, but there is a time when the challenges of halakhic study shift from the technical to the essential and the personal, and the student of halakha moves from a passive recipient to an active participant. In similar fashion to the way in which an artist or a parent moves from mere involvement to utter identification, so too, the seeker of Torah moves to a place where the Torah begins to demand responsibility on the part of her disciples. One asks relentless questions, the way one would allow one’s self to demand of a close relative: Why is there a ritual vacuum here? How could he say this? The difficulty is no longer textual; it is substantive. The tear is not a contradiction between two sources but rather a rip in the textured fabric of a cherished cloth that I myself have participated in weaving.
In thinking about Torah study, we speak in terms of revelation, and we use metaphors like “the hammer splitting a rock.” Basic assumptions are constantly getting shattered and rebuilt in a slow and reflective process not unlike labor contractions that lead to birth.
For me, this is the meaning of Torah becoming my own, of owning it—that remarkable process in which ownership leads to a sense of responsibility to respond to the ethical challenges of the time while remaining attentive to the doubts and questions of the generations of students who came before us—who endeavored to clarify the illusive Divine will.
Semicha for Women
As distinct from the written tests that often typify those of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for semicha, rabbinic ordination, our written tests do not just demand a retention and expulsion of the material. I am expected to have internalized the material and to add my own thinking; my study was supposed to be transformative. Even though the heads of the program say that the five years of study are required in order to make allowance for mothers who want to be at home when their children return from school, I think the five years are a necessary gestation period for the processes I’m describing. Even in the age of fast internet, there are some things that need to slow cook, to percolate.
I actually understand the concerns of rabbis like Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who are worried about the lack of a “nigun shel masoret,” music of tradition, in women’s Torah learning. But I also think this may be an advantage. As a woman, at least sociologically, I am an outsider to the discourse. But this is precisely what gives me empathy for and sensitivity toward the others who need to carve out a route of entry—like converts and the newly observant. There are also certain things that can only be perceived from the outside, or from the other side of the mechitza. Coming from the outside provides new perspective.
Just as the Chief Rabbinate refused to let a fourteen year old prodigy take the tests for the rabbinate because there is no substitute for life experience in training a rabbinic leader for the mediation between text and life, so too, there are areas of human experience that being a woman allows myself and my colleagues to experience differently. We bring a fuller spectrum of life experience into halakhic leadership. The fact that my colleagues also come from various academic and career backgrounds—ranging from social work to theatre to advocacy and mediation—only amplifies our potential contributions to halakhic discourse.
A friend recently shared her insight with me that the issue is not so much a glass ceiling as it is that of obstacles on the path and an unequal point of departure. The fact that the present Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not recognize our learning toward semicha and that of our musmachot, graduates, toward dayanut, impacts on our ability to serve communities and institutions in various capacities. The impediments are social and political rather than halakhic. The forward vision of Rabbi Riskin and of the Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership to train women for positions that don’t yet exist is a testimony to the power of dreams. The passion, commitment, and deep religiosity of the women and the inexorable forces of rapid social change promise to combine in furthering the realization of that dream.
This article was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon. It has been translated and reprinted with the author’s permission.
This is the second post in a two-part series of blog posts written by high school students. We encourage you to engage in constructive conversation with the authors around these posts. Read the first post here.
Each morning, my first destination is my living room. I take out my siddur and tefillin (unless it’s Shabbat, of course) and I pray the Shacharit service as my family bustles around. As I finish, I swap out my tefillin and siddur for a gemara to study. My day continues on, and between my chavrutas—studying with friends—and teaching at Hebrew school, my Jewish practices are hardly put aside. Meals are symbolized in both start and finish with blessings, and the chunks of the day are split up by my recitation of Mincha and Ma’ariv.
Somehow, because of these practices, I am “not Orthodox.”
The fact is: I am Orthodox.
Yet, I’m living in a paradox. When I say I want to daven (pray) more, I’m considered less religious. I take on more practices, suddenly, I’m less religious. I want a leadership role in my community’s prayer, I’m less worthy of actually being in my community. This attempt to purify the Orthodox community from people who practice differently—or rather, different people who practice—isn’t going to work. When we do this, we’re simply shutting doors on people who are committed to and in love with Judaism. Pushing me out won’t fix the problems, won’t stop the questions; it will merely slow down the process of change.
The problem is that the Orthodox community no longer defines itself as a group of people who are committed to Judaism. Rather, it is a group of people who are committed to a particular version of Judaism—a gendered Judaism. I believe it is time for a new paradigm of commitment to mitzvot, and a new paradigm for Orthodox Judaism.
Mitzvot are Mitzvot
Gender is not prescriptive of the ways that a person connects to religion. There is no such thing as male spirituality or female spirituality. Some women want to lay tefillin while some men don’t; some women want to be religious leaders while some men don’t. As an Orthodox community, we can either push away the women deeply committed to mitzvot on account of gender roles, or push away the gender roles on account of a deep commitment to mitzvot. I recommend the latter.
Mitzvot are mitzvot, and people who keep them are observant Jews. Do I believe that everyone (who takes on halakhic obligation) is equally obligated in tefillin regardless of their gender identity? Yes. But we shouldn’t try to build a community based on forcing people to perform mitzvot out of obligation; we should build a community of people who perform mitzvot out of commitment—out of acceptance of obligation. Of the male peers I know that pray every day, an absurdly low percentage care about it—yet they do it because they are told they must. Forcing all boys to keep mitzvot and coercing all girls not to generally results in resentment on both ends.
But somehow, that’s what it has come to. We’ve decided it’s better—for the sake of tradition—to build our foundations on boys who wish they didn’t have to go to minyan and girls who wished someone would ask them to. If, instead, we didn’t ask anyone to come to minyan, and merely counted on having enough interested members of our community commit to be there, I believe we would not only be able to maintain a minyan but it would be a happier one than ours is now.
Bringing In, Not Pushing Away
For those of you who are thinking, “But we have communities that are egalitarian and halakhic, why does Orthodoxy need to budge?” I have a simple question. What would happen if halakhic egalitarian communities started calling themselves Orthodox? If they simply pointed out that they are observant in every way that observance matters to us—merely disregarding gender and gender roles—and they are therefore still Orthodox, we would be a larger Orthodox community. If every time someone interprets halakha—not disregarding, but understanding it in a new light—we bring in rather than push away, the vibrancy of the Orthodox community can remain strong.
It would be simpler for me to stop calling myself Orthodox because it would mean I could do what I want. I could have an easy pass to interpret halakha any way I want. To anyone who argues with me I would simply say “I’m not one of you.” But I am. I’m an involved, committed, interested Jew and that’s about as you, Orthodoxy, as I can get. Even though it would be easier to take myself out—away from a place that judges and resents me—I don’t. If I let Orthodoxy’s inertia win, then in ten years, when my sister struggles with the same feelings of religious pride and fear of abandonment, I will have done her no good. I will have opened a door that closes right behind me as soon as I walk out through it. I have told her that she must either blend in or bow out, but she cannot be a red flower in a field of white. There is no value for the Orthodox to keep pushing away those who care about it—so I’m going to take the fact that I don’t budge easily and use it to keep having hard conversations. I’m going to keep bringing up difficult subjects, and I’m going to keep looking for answers. And every time I am pushed aside, my questions ignored or my answers rejected, I will still be just as much of an Orthodox Jew. It’s not just about affiliation, it’s about community. I am halakhically egalitarian and communally Orthodox—that needs to be a legitimate option.
I’m not going to stop praying. I’m not going to stop observing halakha. I’m not going to stop having pride in my religion. The question is whether or not you’re going to support me.
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This is the first post in a two-part series of blog posts written by high school students. We encourage you to engage in constructive conversation with the authors around these posts. Read the second post here.
Apparently I’m right-wing now. Conservative, closed-minded, and a traditionalist. This is all very new to me given my highly liberal politics, feminist identification, reverence for human rights and idealism. You may be wondering what changed. Well, nothing really. You see, as I understand it, there’s a new movement forming between Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism. This is evidenced through the rise of partnership minyanim, the Maharat movement and the very existence of organizations like JOFA, Mechon Hadar, Drisha, Women of the Wall, etc. However, there is a vital distinction that very few people are making: the difference between Orthodox feminism and halakhic egalitarianism.
The best way I can describe this difference is that Orthodox feminists see partnership minyanim as a good solution to women’s ritual exclusion, rather than a stepping-stone to full egalitarianism. Orthodox feminists might not wear tefillin themselves, but they support the right of all women to wear it if they choose. Now pause. You may be offended, outraged, hurt or confused.
Here’s the thing: I will never believe that I am obligated to wear tefillin, or attend morning minyan, or wear tzitzit. However, I do want people to admit that women are still permitted to do these things and to make space for those who wish to do so. I will never try to eradicate all gendered aspects of Judaism. I simply want people of all gender identities to be recognized and respected in our history and communities. I will not stop identifying as Orthodox, rather I will balance my desire for inclusion and respect with my adherence and loyalty to tradition.
I have had the privilege of basically never encountering explicit anti-women, misogynist religious Jews (though I have encountered many harmful implicit messages and offensive statements). Frum (traditionally observant) life has always seemed positive and rich to me; something of which I wanted to be a part. Perhaps that is why I am far less bitter or hurt than some of my sisters. While these women need to be heard, respected, and involved, I do not think that their pain should be the primary focus of Orthodox feminism.
Now pause again. I promise I’m not a super-privileged victim blamer. Rather, I am someone who feels misrepresented. I view gender problems in Orthodoxy slightly differently than some in the JOFA community. First of all, I think we must be more conscious of the fact that women who follow normative halakha can absolutely feel fulfilled, respected and empowered. This fact does not invalidate the feelings of those of us who pursue egalitarianism, but rather emphasizes 1) that every woman is different and has the right to choose her lifestyle, even if it’s non-liberal (a fundamentally feminist value) and 2) that Judaism does have richness (even in areas that may feel restricting). The Torah is not broken, Jewish communities are.
I’m also a bit different from the mainstream halakhic feminist discourse in how and where I place the blame of exclusion. Yes, I have felt ritually excluded and ignored. I wonder, though, how much of this may be my own issue to work out, or truly an institutional injustice. Judaism’s richness lies in its history and tradition, and throwing that away or altering it to our fancy may not really be legitimate halakhic practice and could even be cheapening the power behind the rituals. That being said, put a Miriam’s cup on your seder table, let a woman say the mishaberach for Israeli soldiers or hold a women’s Megillah reading. I’m not saying that women who are unhappy in Orthodoxy are creating something out of nothing (I’ve certainly felt unhappy with Orthodoxy at times in my life), but I am saying not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
I believe that halakhic activism cannot be the same as secular activism. Jewish culture and law is based on exegesis and commentary. If you do not have the proper sources and psak (halakhic decisions), your argument simply cannot hold water. There are red lines in normative halakha, and we must fit our feminism into our Judaism and not the other way around. Let us not lie to ourselves and our children and pretend that everything is halakhically perfect when we are stretching concepts (even if for the admittedly noble cause of uniting Jews). I still want there to be rabbis who think that the concept of female ordination is absolutely against halakha. Not because I am a masochist, but because I am intellectually honest. I fully support female clergy members (and aspire to possibly be one). However, if we do not know our sources, we cannot properly apply them to our lives. This goes both for those who say women could never be rabbis and those who say that women are obligated in tefillin. We don’t need one uniform hashkafa (halakhic outlook), we need intellectual honesty.
I know that people feel real suffering and want change. I do not intend to blame them or make them feel guilty. I also do not mean to say that halakhic egalitarianism is wrong or illegitimate; in fact, this movement creates a vital space for many people. However, I am not sure it is Orthodox, and am frustrated with the blending of what I see as parallel but distinct agendas.
I am trying to convey that Orthodox Judaism and feminism are both inextricable parts of my being, and therefore, they should strengthen rather than dilute one another. I know I am privileged. As a straight, feminine woman who wants a family, the normative role of a frum woman is not an insurmountable leap. But, I also know that Judaism is the best thing in my life and I will protect it fiercely from unwarranted harm and slander. Jewish communities are far, far from perfect, but let us act together, conscious of our differences, into the future. Here’s to intellectual honesty and ahavat yisrael.
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What can happen when we take mikvah out of the realm of the hidden, and bring it into a space where we can engage in an open, honest, safe dialogue? What can exist when we are able to share our feelings around mikvah, and the laws and rituals that surround it, without the fear of being judged or stigmatized? What is created when we can ask questions about subjects that are usually deemed too personal or too embarrassing to discuss with others?
In my experience, the product is a space like no other. A space in which men and women can feel supported and affirmed, while making themselves open and vulnerable, and, as a result, re-explore and re-evaluate their mikvah practices—and, by extension, potentially their niddah (the laws relating to sex and menstruation) practices, sexual practices, and intimate relationships.
This past December, I had the incredible privilege to lead a session at the 8th International JOFA Conference with Sarah Mulhern which sought to answer the questions listed above. The session, entitled “No More Whispers,” used anonymous polling technology to allow the participants to respond to questions via text message and watch the answers appear instantaneously on the screen. This technology allowed a large group of people to participate in a single discussion while also respecting the sensitive nature of the subject. To quote Sarah: “Just because I won’t tell you when I am going to the mikvah or who I see there doesn’t mean I cannot tell you about my experiences and feelings around it.”
By the end of the session, it was apparent to those of us in the room that the power of the space, and the desire for the discussion, extended far beyond those of us participating in that particular discussion. Using the anonymous polling software, we asked everyone if they were comfortable having their (anonymous) responses shared with the broader public, and the answer was a unanimous yes.
More so than any commentary I can overlay, some excerpts from the discussion speak for themselves:
“The mikveh lady is small, with terrible posture and is wearing a snood. She has seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies. Her job is to get them all this mitzvah, and while she’s at it, to hold all the secrets of our bodies. She’s maybe the most powerful woman in this neighborhood.”
What burning topic/question related to mikvah have you never felt comfortable discussing publicly?
We will be continuing this conversation via webinar on Wednesday night, July 9th at 8 pm EDT. To join us, register for MikvahChat: An Open, Honest, Anonymous, Online Conversation About Mikvah, Niddah, and Sex.
I was sitting in synagogue beside a beautiful, ornate, wood carved mechitzah when I saw something I had never noticed before. The Gabbai, while checking if the congregation was done praying the Shemonah Esrei and if the leader should continue with the prayers, looked over to my side of the mechitzah. It was only then, as a senior in college, that I realized what I had been missing—a prayer community that acknowledges and values women’s presence.
I have never really been interested in women’s prayer groups as I feel that communal prayer is about community and mine includes all people, men and women. While I won’t argue with their validity, I also have never been a proponent of egalitarian style minyanim, prayer communities, as I am very okay with the fact that I, with a nursing baby and no eruv have a different halakhic requirement for praying with a minyan, quorum, than men do. But, I am also not okay with the fact that I am often all alone in the women’s section for the first hour and a half of synagogue services on Shabbat morning and for all of synagogue services on Shabbat afternoon.
My family normally attends a small Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn where my husband is the rabbi. On two occasions this year, we have gone away for Shabbat. When we arrived in synagogue on Shabbat morning, the first thing my daughter asked was, “why is there no one on our side?” and then she ran to the men’s side to be with Daddy.
Orthodox Judaism, you are failing me as a mother! I have never felt like a lesser member in an Orthodox synagogue than at that moment.
How was what I did in synagogue any different than what my husband was doing? Or for that matter, what most of the men were doing? When it comes down to numbers, only about 3-8 men are up on the bima, podium, leading or visibly participating in the service for those three hours on Shabbat morning. It was not until that college Gabbai turned to check that the women were done with Shemonah Esrei that I realized that I want the synagogues in my daughter’s future to make a much more conscious effort to make her feel like an important member of the community. In our small synagogue there is no noticeable difference between the two sides of the mechitzah (as I said, we’re a small synagogue to begin with), but in all too many Orthodox synagogues the women’s section is lacking in numbers of attendees, as well as space.
My daughter was born on Tisha B’Av, which excited me because it means that she could have a truly purposeful Bat Mitzvah. Instead of reading a speech in synagogue written by her grandfather, like I did (and even that was pretty progressive), she has a variety of meaningful options. She can learn to read the Book of Eicha, Lamentations. She can make a siyum (celebrate the completion) on Eicha or on select selichot. Those projects have lasting purpose. They are transferrable skills. She could reuse her skills and read Eicha every year on Tisha B’Av.
Recently, my synagogue began a women’s megillah reading program. As I prepared to read Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, on Passover, and the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, I thought about making sure that my daughter was up in the main synagogue while I read so that she could see her mommy doing “something important” in synagogue. I then realized that the point of all this is to normalize women’s participation. She should be able to miss my megillah reading sometimes, just like she sometimes misses her daddy’s Torah reading. Women’s participation shouldn’t be special, it should be normal. She should think, “Mommy and Daddy both go to synagogue and sometimes Daddy leads prayers and Mommy can read me a book, but then sometimes Mommy is busy praying and Daddy can get me water.” If my megillah reading is special, then it is not common place.
Sadly, the “normal” in today’s Orthodox synagogue is an empty or half empty women’s section until two hours into the service. As a larger community, we need to look deeper and question why this has happened and then instill policies that can ameliorate this problem.
Is the problem child care? Then let’s start children’s groups at the same time as services, or let’s be more accepting of children’s noise. Let us even go so far as to create a dark, quiet space for babies to nap.
Is the problem a lack of opportunities for women to get involved? Then let’s invite and encourage women to read the prayers for the government and for the State of Israel. Let’s pass the Torah around the entire synagogue. Let’s have two Hoshanah circles during Sukkot—one for women and one for men. Everyone should be able to dance with and celebrate the Torah!
The question that needs to be asked is: How do we make sure that everyone is valued the same whether they are male or female? How can we create Orthodox synagogues that value our daughters as important members of the community?
Gabbais should always know to check the women’s side to make sure that they are ready for the next section of prayers, and there should always be a packed house looking back.
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For millennia, it has been taken for granted that the place for Jewish women was in the home and in the kitchen. And of all the public arenas that women were discouraged from entering, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was on the top of the list. Many Jewish women never even had the opportunity to engage with a page of Talmud.
While that reality has changed for most modern Jewish women, we owe a great debt to those pioneers who cleared the way for thousands of Jewish women to engage in high level Torah and Talmud study.
To celebrate a few of these women, JOFA has teamed up with six young Jewish women artists to create a poster featuring six such educational leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. These posters are available now through a Kickstarter campaign ending July 14.
Meet the scholars:
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Nechama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, educated in Berlin, and moved to Palestine in 1930. She taught at many schools including Tel Aviv University, where she was appointed a full professor. In 1942, she began distributing stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah portion, They reached a vast audience and were eventually translated and published. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Education. Though her thoughtful, literary approach to the Bible revolutionized Torah study, she humbly insisted, “I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” Her tombstone is inscribed, “Nechama Leibowitz: teacher.”
After graduating high school in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold established the first American night school to teach English and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. After moving to New York, she became an editor for the Jewish Publication Society. At the age of 49, her first trip to Palestine sealed her life’s mission: the health, education, and welfare of the Yishuv. In 1912 she founded Hadassah, which became the largest and most powerful Zionist organization in America, and which now boasts 330,000 members worldwide. Starting in 1933, Szold also ran Youth Aliyah, which helped save 30,000 children from Nazi death camps.
Rachel “Ray” Frank was born in San Francisco to Polish immigrant parents at a time when Jewish communities were just beginning to emerge in the West. She taught bible studies and Jewish history in California, where she quickly garnered a large following. She rose to prominence after delivering a series of sermons in Washington for the High Holidays and was soon dubbed “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and later, “the Golden Girl Rabbi of the West.” Although she had no rabbinic aspirations, Ray Frank’s presence in the pulpit made space in the collective imagination for public female religious leadership.
Farha “Flora” Sassoon was born in Bombay to a family of influential tradesmen from Baghdad known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” By the age of seventeen, she knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French, German and had a thorough knowledge of Jewish texts. She wrote on Rashi, lectured on religious education, read publicly from the Torah, and her expertise in Sephardic doctrine and practice was unparalleled. According to historian Cecil Roth, she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.”
Born in Poland, Beilka “Bessie” Gotsfeld immigrated to New York with her family in 1905. In 1925, she founded the precursor of AMIT, an organization connecting religious women to the cause of Zionism and expanding educational and vocational opportunities for religious women in Israel. Gotsfeld became the Palestine representative of the organization, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. She worked to establish three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that provided Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, and new immigrants educational programs and resources.
Born in Krakow to poor Hassidic parents, Sarah Schenirer left school after she turned thirteen and became a seamstress. After World War I broke out, she started to teach Jewish studies to a group of girls. This blossomed into 300 schools now known as the “Beis Yaakov” network, and by the time of her death approximately 35,000 girls were learning at Beis Yaakov schools. In her will, she wrote: “My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.”
I’ve been pushing off writing this post all week. I’ve been hoping that the boys would return home, that the girls would return home, that all children around could go to sleep at night safe and sound, surrounded by people who love and care for them. But alas they are not.
On Tuesday, a colleague and I had the privilege to represent JOFA at a Bring Back Our Boys rally to demand the release of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach — three teenage students (one of whom is American) who were abducted on their way home from school two weeks ago. Three teens who could have easily been my cousins or my friends. It was a moving event filled with touching speeches, heartfelt songs, tears and prayers. But the situation feels hopeless. What can we do to help? What can we possibly do to bring them home? I’ve called the White House to ask what is being done, I’ve written to the New York Times to demand greater coverage, but how much sway can we really hope to have over the actions of terrorists and people committed to hatred and violence?
And the same is true with the 219 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram (and even more kidnapped this week). How can we possibly expect a terrorist group that lives in the woods, and in the jungle, to return these girls home? Where is the army supposed to look for them? Who can put pressure on this group? Who can possibly convince them to free these girls?
But what has made me despair the most this week is a story making headlines about young immigrants who have illegally entered the United States alone. Over 50,000 children have dared to cross the border on their own, or with smugglers, in the hopes of finding better lives. These children are being housed in barracks and given the barest of necessities in preparation for deportation. Apparently there’s not enough room in this country and there’s not enough room in our hearts to accept these children and provide them with warm homes, accommodations and the chance to begin a new life.
I don’t know what I can do to bring back our boys or bring back our girls, but maybe I can help these kids who have literally shown up unannounced asking for help. I can advocate on behalf of these children who are alone, and cold and homesick within our own borders. I know who to appeal to on their behalf — their names are Schumer, and Gillibrand, and Obama. The policy for dealing with these children should be dictated by compassion, not xenophobia.
Maybe through the zechut (merit) of our efforts on behalf of children to whom we have no tribal connection, but towards whom we have the most fundamental human responsibility, we will live to see miracles performed in Israel and Nigeria. Maybe by emulating the behavior that we expect from the rest of the world — compassion and safe passage for all children — we can appeal to God with even greater legitimacy to bring back those children to whom we feel the closest.
Hamalach hagoel oti mikol ra y’varech et han’arim.
May the angel who has delivered me from all harm bless these children.
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A new issue of the JOFA Journal will soon be in our subscribers’ mailboxes; its theme is Orthodox women in the performing arts and sports. The headline we’ve given it is “Raising our Voices”—because many of the articles deal with the topic of kol isha, a woman’s singing voice heard in public. But I think a better title might be “The Dance.” The difference is not about artistic genre, but concept. Let me explain.
A rabbi I highly respect once told me that halakha—Jewish law—is like a dance between the rabbis and the Jewish people. The rabbis are the leading partner, putting their arms around the people and guiding them this way and that. But if they are out of rhythm with the people, if both are not moving in the same direction, then the dance will fail and the dancers will be frustrated with each other.
Within this issue of the journal, one can see the dance in motion around the issue of kol isha. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, in a d’var Torah on Vayishlah, recalls Rashi’s question about the whereabouts of Dina, Jacob’s daughter, when Jacob was about to cross the river and confront his brother Esau. The Midrash tells us that Jacob had put Dina in a box to protect her, so that Esau would not lay eyes on her. However, Rashi tells us, because she had been inappropriately locked up, Dina became a yatzanit someone who “goes out,” and she fell into the hands of Shechem—to far worse consequences. Rabbi Herzfeld sees this story as instructive for the issue of kol isha, in which over-stringency has had the effect of drowning out the voices of women and girls in every context and thereby squelching their spirituality. He calls for a more nuanced view that takes into consideration the content of the singing, not just the gender of the singer.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s understanding of kol isha is presented in tandem with the voices of women who wish to pursue careers in singing and struggle with the notion of kol isha. They run the spectrum from the Hasidic women’s rock band Bulletproof Stockings, who only play for all-female audiences, to Neshama Carlebach, who, after years of conflict, has concluded that kol isha “is an antiquated, misogynistic concept that has no place in our modern society.” Neshama believes that she is following her father Shlomo Carlebach‘s conviction in stating that, for her, singing is “a holy calling.”
We also hear the voice of the young woman, Ofir ben Shitrit, who placed second in the Israeli talent competition, “The Voice,” and was consequently suspended from her religious school. We meet the Glaser sisters, who sing together both on stage and around the Shabbat table. We hear singer Rebecca Teplow proclaim, “It cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to encourage hearing the inner voice of the soul’s yearning.” For each of these musical women, kol isha is no theoretical question, but is central to how they will live their lives and pursue their chosen paths.
There are few places in the Orthodox world where halakhic issues are discussed from the perspectives both of the rabbis and of the people for whom these decisions are critical. The JOFA Journal is a forum in which the voices of women struggling with, and living joyously with, halakha can be heard. It is a place where “the dance” that is the process of halakha can take place.
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.