I can clearly remember where I was sitting, in the midst of my Bible class during my final semester at Stern College for Women. We were learning about Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers and the subsequent loss of water for the Jewish people. The well dried up. Why was that? The slew of commentators makes it clear that the Jewish people did not properly mourn Miriam’s death. They did not give the proper kavod, honor, to one of the greatest leaders of our nation.
One by one, students raised their hands to defend the Jewish people’s decision. “Well…Miriam was really behind the scenes.” “Well…she did not have a role like Moses and Aaron.” I kept hearing excuse after excuse. I looked at the clock and decided that I would wait ten minutes for someone to defend Miriam’s honor. I waited those ten slow painstaking minutes, and then I raised my hand. I questioned why medieval commentaries were more progressive and supportive of the role of women than my classmates in the twenty first century.
I could not help associating this experience with the recent public responses to Rabbi Moshe Kahn’s shiur, lecture, about the halakhic parameters of delaying procreation. I read Hannah Dreyfus’ take on the event published in the Jewish Week, and Blanche Haddad’s response printed in the Observer. I then listened to the shiur itself and would recommend reading his article “Halakhic Matters in Delaying Procreation” which was published in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School’s Meorot Journal.
In first reading the back and forth, I was frustrated. I felt like little had changed since my time on campus in 2003. It seemed that a number of the students were insistent that the fact that birth control is permitted by halakha is not related to feminism. Haddad stated that she is “not arguing that halakha and feminist ideals are inherently separate and can never be reconciled; to me, this is rarely the case. However, the two are not inherently linked in our case of postponing the mitzvah de’oraita [biblical obligation] of procreation; rather, there is space within halakha for a couple to make the decision to delay procreation due to a couple’s pressing concerns, and not a ‘feminist ideal of personal choice.’” Rabbi Kahn, empowered students to make their own decisions about family planning girded with the knowledge shared in his shiur and article.
When people, especially relatively young people, try to dissociate certain liberties, including birth control, from the feminist movement, I feel that there is often a lack of hakarat hatov, proper gratitude and recognition for those rabbis, lobbyists, feminists and other supporters who went to great lengths for all of us to have more choices. It wasn’t until 1972 that access to birth control was legalized for all Americans. I questioned this mindset—the absence of hakarat hatov– when I was a senior in college, and I initially felt that way in reading these articles about the shiur.
By last night, I had considered a new lens for viewing the sentiments of these students. Perhaps access to birth control, at least in the Modern Orthodox community, is a given at this point. At what point in time do we stop declaring that this is a fight to be won? When have we reached the moment when we are so far past the line in the sand, that what was once controversial a battle to be won has not only been won, but it is now accepted, normative, and no longer questioned.
One might argue that these students have moved beyond their predecessors’ outlooks and are not looking at the world with rose colored glasses, rather they are looking at the world with their realities, their truths.
While this may be applicable for example, in regard to the Civil Rights movement, in that many battles have been won, such as integrated seating on busses, I’m not sure that the same can be applied to women in Orthodox Judaism. It is not a given that a woman can sit wherever she chooses on a bus in Brooklyn or Israel. It is not a given that a woman will feel that she can make personal, financial, or life-changing decisions without the psak, decision, of a rabbi. It is not a given that women can serve as a synagogue president.
In some ways, I am gladdened that these students view choices, such as using birth control for family planning, as their rights and as normative, but it is important to understand the halakhic premise for these rights as well as detractors’ arguments as Rabbi Kahn aptly spoke to in his shiur. Access to, and halakhic permission to use birth control, is not a given for all Orthodox women.
I was moved by the women portrayed in the film Be Fruitful and Multiply who shared their stories of feeling overwhelmed by their perceived obligation to have well over a dozen children because they were not provided with the choice to control their reproductive system. Viewing this film and hearing first-hand accounts from women who have struggled with the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” might be a good follow up exercise to take place at Stern and in other communities. In today’s world, regardless of your own personal religious practice, your place of employment may have control over your body as well as was heatedly debated in regard to the Affordable Care Act and Hobby Lobby.
Stern College provides a place where women can engage in deep halakhic discourse, academic pursuits and flourish in a variety of resources outside of the classroom. I say this out of love and the utmost respect for my colleagues and soon to be colleagues. We are extremely privileged. Privileges can never be taken for granted. Much of what may seem permanent is not as stable as some of you may think. In order to hold our ground and continue to have personal choice as Orthodox women, we need to continue learning halakha, being aware of detractors and their rationale, and understanding and embodying gratitude. Without gratitude for those who we owe a debt for setting the stage that we can walk on today, those who currently support and empower us, I fear that there is much to be lost.
The first episode of “The Joy of Text” may make you blush. If it does, you’re likely its target audience. The podcast, which is sponsored by JOFA and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), includes a frank and lively discussion about the role of fantasy in sexual activities between Jewish spouses. Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, a renowned sex therapist and Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of YCT, dispel myths about Talmudic prohibitions on fantasy. They explain how fantasy, most often, is a helpful way to trigger arousal and strengthen sex lives.
The two explore the vast halakhic permissibility of fantasy, and, along with moderator Ramie Smith, talk about ways in which fantasy can bring husbands and wives closer together. Dr. Marcus contends almost all fantasy is healthy and cautions women not to edit their imaginations because they feel they have drifted into untoward or shameful territory. She points out that the very nature of fantasy is unreal and therefore it is almost impossible to commit a transgression in that realm. At the conclusion of the podcast, in response to listener questions, they discuss the role of props, including vibrators and Kama Sutra cards, in fulfillment of onah, the Talmudic commandment to sexually fulfill one’s wife.
The podcast also includes an interview with Michael Lesher, an attorney and writer, whose new book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities, looks at the tendency to hide abuse. Mr. Lesher says that, historically, victims of sexual abuse were discouraged from reporting the incidents and advocates discussing healthy sexuality with children to help them understand what is appropriate and when lines have been crossed.
In the second episode, released today, Dr. Marcus and Rabbi Linzer discuss whether Orthodox Jews who engage in premarital sex are permitted to use condoms to prevent STDs, and how parents should talk to their kids about mikveh.
Two weeks ago, I joined thousands of families around Israel for a time-honored ritual: the Saturday night grand finale of a month-long youth group extravaganza.
For one month each year, youth groups seem to take over the country. My kids spend a full month with their peers being led by well-intentioned 16- year-olds. The Saturday night performances signal the end of a month-long youth group extravaganza where my kids were never home, or when they were home, they were covered in paint. It is a month celebrating being young, getting just a bit older and loving group activities (needless to say, not all kids love group activities – my 10-year-old spent the month reading the Percy Jackson series instead).
But the final weekend is a blowout. Saturday night has the time honored daglanut (group choreographed flag waving), dances and plays. It is a doozy. Parents everywhere charge their cameras and their phones to simultaneously take pictures of their beloved children while checking their mail for hours as they sit in auditoriums, pavilions or outdoor basketball courts watching hundreds of kids perform. Each age group has a co-ed play, a boys’ dance and a girls’ dance.
At least I think it was a girls’ dance. I can’t be sure. Because it happened in the dark.
Perhaps not exactly what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he sang, “Dancing in the Dark,” but this has become the default dance setting in this Orthodox setting. In order to be mindful both of halakhic guidelines and what I hope is a genuine attempt to empower our young women, someone somewhere thought the best way to allow girls to dance in front of an audience of both men and women was to get creative and turn off the lights. There were dances with glow sticks, dances with neon lights and ultraviolet lights. We saw a lot of glowing gloves and sticks and masks, just not a lot of our daughters.
When my daughter was four, she took ballet. She was quite adorable. At the end of the year, we sat through her final performance. As all those little pink fluffy girls danced their dance, curtsied and got off the stage, only one remained: my daughter. Completely unaware that her twenty friends had twirled off the stage, she stood there, in the spotlight. At some point, she snapped out of her reverie and raced off the stage.
I like the spotlight being on young women. I think there is value to finding ways to encourage and empower all women – young and old to be showcased, featured, and celebrated. I think that is why dance after dance in the dark left me feeling saddened and disappointed.
I need to contextualize my frustration by saying, my daughter could care less. She wasn’t upset in the least. The daglanut remains a co-ed march/dance done fully lit for everyone to see (maybe marching around waving flags to loud music isn’t considered dancing). It is only the girls’ dances that are affected. So she was proudly, giggly, visibly part of a fifty-person flag dance and an hour later I squinted trying to guess which glowing white mask was my daughter.
I recognize that this is someone’s idea of a solution, and I’m grown up enough (most of the time) to be able to articulate frustrations while not claiming to have all the answers. I get that in some Orthodox circles this is the best solution. I understand and begrudgingly respect that someone somewhere thought this would be the best solution creating a hybrid of visible and invisible young women. But in the big wide world we’re introducing our daughters to, I want more. I want her to be able to shine, in whichever way she chooses, without neon glow sticks. For me, I’m waiting for the next generation of young women to feel both empowered and visible.
I’m a runner, a three-time marathoner. Whenever someone asks when I took up running, I say I started 12 years ago. But the truth is that the first time I really ran was for a rabbi: I was 14 and he wanted cigarettes. He was my eighth grade teacher, a towering man, with a full beard, a long black coat and a black hat. He summoned me to his desk, handed me a wad of money, and told me he wanted a pack of Benson and Hedges. And so I became a runner. I ran my teenage guts out, to the store and back, breathlessly handing him his cigarettes and change – all with the rabbi’s stamp of approval.
Today, I am a member of a closed Facebook group for Jewish (mainly observant) female athletes. Most of the postings share victories, milestones and inspirational moments. Members typically offer or ask for the usual advice about running. And then, one member, we’ll call her Sarah, posed the following query:
Anyone have issues with frumkeit [religious observance] and athleticism? For years I didn’t run or do working out [sic] at all because I learned that it was a tznius [modesty] issue, that women shouldn’t run in front of men, and I couldn’t afford a gym. Now I am trying to get in shape and I’m being lax on the no running in front of men rule that I learned, but I am keeping the spirit of it and only running when it’s dark, so I’m not in full view of everyone. Anyone else hold similarly, and had to find a compromise they’re comfortable with?
Questions loomed in my mind: Shouldn’t frumkeit and maintaining one’s health be synonymous? Isn’t athleticism an integral part of overall well-being? Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to exercise? And of course, I was reminded of the time I was given rabbinic approval (minus the actual supervision) to run.
When asked to explain, Sarah added, “It’s for the same reason we don’t dance in front of men- because of jiggling body parts.”
Jiggling. Body. Parts.
In her Facebook comments, Sarah insists a refusal to ask a rabbi for guidance, all the while asserting her desire to be fit and healthy. She shares that she has struck a compromise and runs in the dark so no one sees her. That effort to find a happy middle ground has to be commended as well.
But she never questions the initial premise that women shouldn’t exercise when there’s a chance men will see them and still worries that she is in the wrong.
Those who abide by halakha accept that there are times when women’s voices are silenced or when women are relegated to the other side of the mechitza. Even so, many of us have seen first-hand women’s great creativity in balancing halakhic concerns of modesty and participating in a number of physical activities – including singing, dancing, and exercising. Women will swim during “women’s only” hours or will go to “women’s only” gyms. If they choose to swim in a public venue, in an effort not to expose their skin, they will wear modest “bathing suits” (shirts, skirts and leggings made of water repellent fabric). When running, they may opt to wear long-sleeve shirt and skirt attire, all-the-while covering their hair (if they are married). And while these athletes may not look like the norm, they are doing their best to walk a tight-rope, striking a balance between halakha and health, an effort that should be applauded. There are countless other women of different faith traditions who make similar efforts to accommodate their own religious requirements.
As a runner myself, I love that Sarah wants to run. I want her to feel that same sense of accomplishment as I do when I finish a race or hit a new personal record. If need be, I want Sarah to push back at the rabbis and teachers who tell her women should not run. I want her to challenge them to allow her to exercise her freedom – and to be free to exercise. As someone familiar with the halakha, I want Sarah to remind them that our tradition commands us to keep our bodies healthy because refu’at ha-nefesh and refu’at ha-guf, healing of the spirit and of the body, shouldn’t wait until either is completely broken down – and running has the capacity to heal both the body and the spirit at once. I want to encourage women to take care of themselves and to encourage other women to do the same.
Growing up as the daughter of two teachers, my parents encouraged me to read every kind of book that I was interested in. As a middle schooler I socialized with Charles Dickens, curled up with Jane Austen, ate snacks with the Bronte sisters, decided that I hated every stuffy Victorian who took 150 pages to start a plot, and moved on to their dark Russian cousins, the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys (125 pages to start a plot). One author was off-limits in my house, and his books I had to keep hidden. I kept his books behind the other books on my shelves, binding face-down. This author was Chaim Potok. I actually had no idea why there was a Chaim Potok ban in my house until I started reading his books, and then the CPB (Chaim Potok Ban) made a lot of sense to me. Potok claimed that one could not be Orthodox, or more accurately, one could not fulfill himself creatively and be Orthodox at the same time. And when faced with this decision, one should choose creative fulfillment. Potok made this point in My Name is Asher Lev, Davida’s Harp, and pretty much every other book he had written.
I don’t blame my parents for this ban at all. Every parent has something, I’m sure, that they want to protect their children from. I want to protect my children from Sholom Auslander, author of Foreskin’s Lament, in which he blames his apostasy on the “theological abuse” he suffered as a child at the hands of Orthodox parents and teachers. I pray every day that they should never read one of his books. I know that they will be exposed to anti-religious ideas out there in the real world, but by God, if they are exposed to all those ideas through the tortured, cynical eyes of Sholom Auslander, I will do serious penance. My children will make their own decisions as they get older about what kinds of Jews they want to be, but I don’t want them to arrive at that decision through rage and through pain.
I think my parents were right in trying to protect me from the most devastating reality of being an Orthodox Jew: There are simply some people who cannot be both an Orthodox Jew and creatively fulfill themselves. This may not be devastating to you, but it was to me, and my 1994-future-Broadway-star/pianist self.
Every day I go through mind tricks to calm myself down when I worry that I am not fulfilled creatively. I yell at myself in my brain. I remind myself of my healthy children, my healthy husband, my healthy body (bli ayin hara). I remind myself that my life is wonderful. I have friends that laugh with me, and at me (and both are good things). I remind myself that there is a lot of instability in the world, and a lot of uncertainty and pain, and my children are more fortunate than most other children to have been sheltered from this uncertainty and pain. I remind myself that creative fulfillment is a luxury.
I remind myself that I create art when I teach. And when I write. I remind myself that the very act of conducting my life within a controlled, halakhic environment – that is art.
Five or six years ago, I participated in a small conference of Orthodox educators run by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper in Boston. After a panel presentation, a female attendee at the conference raised her hand and began to lament all the difficulties of her life, and how hard it is that she will never be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a rabbi. I nodded in empathy but supplemented her comments with a statement about how I will never fulfill myself musically – and that I was coming to terms with that.
I never wanted to be a rabbi. I wanted to be Gwen Stefani.
All I said was that I was coming to terms with it, not that I already had. I have entered into a Chaim Potok book, but I’ve chosen the other path — Orthodox Judaism. I will not be a singer, or a pianist (too many gigs on Friday nights and Saturdays). I have chosen a halakhic path. If I had to do it again, I would make the same choice. But I don’t want my daughters to have to make this choice. I want (and here my cursor stays for 45 seconds – what do I want?)
I want my children to express their Judaism in a way that completely and totally creatively fulfills them.
I know some readers of this blog will point out to me that many Orthodox women sing or perform in front of men, but I am not looking for halakhic loopholes or possibilities. I’m waiting until they become mainstream. I know, I know, when there is a rabbinic will there is a halakhic way – but I don’t want to fashion my Judaism according to my will. Self-control is a form of artistic expression. Or so I tell myself.
So for now, here I am, in Potok’s book. I’ve also decided to let my children read actual Chaim Potok books and hope that my own personal choices stand as a (sometimes painful) alternative. But the benefits and the beauty of living as an Orthodox Jewish woman outweigh the fulfillment that I have skipped out on. Maybe. And who knows, one day I might even let Sholom Auslander’s books into my house.
Not anytime soon, though.
Five 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.
During 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.
Each 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?
The 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.
The 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.
“To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism a’ la carte.”
A 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.
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.