This question has hounded me since childhood – both in the secular world where I grew up and in the Orthodox Jewish world where I chose to live as an adult. My relationship with Judaism, particularly as it relates to women, has always been like a love affair – with a soap-opera-worthy level of both exhilaration and heartbreak.
While I find much about living a Torah lifestyle that is meaningful and beautiful, I was always disturbed by the question: If this lifestyle is supposed to lead to spiritual fulfillment, why does so much of the tradition conflict with modern women’s sensibilities, realities, and aspirations? The discussion of women and Judaism is often presented as a tug-of-war between tradition, which supposedly represents the Torah ideal, and modernity, which supposedly deviates from it.
Wrestling with this question made me realize the importance of distinguishing between two meanings of the word “tradition.” One is “what we have always done.” The other is “what we should be doing.” To learn about the former, one needs to study unbiased, scholarly research. It was shocking to discover the differences between what I was told had happened and what historical documents bore witness to.
Invoking history to justify current practices implies that in the past all “good” women were satisfied with their traditionally defined roles. So what is wrong with women today that they are not? Yet memoirs show that this is just a necessary myth.
When women voiced their unhappiness, they were generally ostracized and labeled as being outside the tradition. When it was politically unfeasible to malign the woman, such as if she was the wife of one great rabbi and the daughter of another, her voice was simply censured. Consider how Reina Basya Berlin, wife of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (known as the Netziv), who lived in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, felt about women’s traditional role, as documented by her nephew, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, in his auto-biography Mekor Baruch:
This is how she would comport herself on the Sabbath: … There were always a variety of books before her: Tanach, Mishna, Ein Yaakov, … and many similar volumes… All her insight and attention, her senses and emotions, were focused on her books, and she never took her hands off them…
Frequently I heard her complaining…, emotionally defeated or bitter about the damage of the bitter lot and portion of women in this world . . . for they had been denied the ability to fulfill positive, time-bound commandments like tefillin and tzitzit, sukkah and lulav, and so many others. As she put it, ‘For them, 248 positive commandments, and for the poor, wretched, shameful women, only three.’ More than this, she was worried and pained over the disrespect and depreciation of women, embodied by the fact that they were prohibited from studying Torah.
Mekor Baruch was published in English as My Uncle the Netziv by ArtScroll Mesorah in 1988, without this entire chapter.
The unhappiness we see today regarding women’s traditional role is not new, and it doesn’t make them “bad.”
What about the second meaning of “tradition,” what we should be doing? Coming from an unapologetically Orthodox perspective, this question becomes “What does the Torah tell us we should be doing?” Can it be that the way women have traditionally been treated represents the Torah ideal? If so, too many things don’t make sense. Can enforcing women’s ignorance of Torah really be the best way to build a Torah-infused community? Is effecting a marriage in a way that makes it nearly impossible for a woman to leave against her husband’s will really the best way to build a harmonious and loving home? Over and over, logic seems suspended.
I eventually discovered deeply gratifying answers in various Kabbalistic teachings that portrayed men, women, and their respective roles in terms of a dynamic developmental process. This process proceeds from an immature state of hierarchy and repression to a mature state of equality and respect for human dignity. Therefore, changing Jewish practices to fully reflect women’s dignity is not an attack on our tradition, but rather a fulfillment of it. I later realized that these teachings were summarized in the Lecha Dodi prayer. It seemed like the perfect lens through which to explore this part of the Torah. Everywhere I looked- in every corner of history and in personal memoirs, these teachings were manifest. They apply not just to Jewish women, or even just to Jews, and it didn’t suddenly become relevant in modern times. I described these teachings in my book, Come My Beloved! Women and the Jewish Tradition We Thought We Knew. After years of study, I finally figured out how they apply to me: my angst was pre-ordained, meaningful, and the key to redemption.
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.
On July 27, the 29th of Tammuz, I will observe the 909th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known as Rashi. Normally, an author has no deadline to finish her first novel, but I was determined to get Volume One of Rashi’s Daughters out in July 2005, to take advantage of all the hoopla I expected would commemorate Rashi’s 900th yahrtzeit. As it turned out, I was the only hoopla, but who knows if my historical trilogy about Rashi’s daughters would ever have been published without that impetus?
While Rashi is justifiably celebrated for his Bible and Talmud commentaries, few Jews know that it was under his authority and that of his Ashkenazi colleagues that Jewish women in medieval France enjoyed power over their own lives that their Sephardic sisters in the so-called “golden age” of Spain could only imagine. These were the days when Jews enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance trade, many traveling as far as the Levant. Jewish merchants became welcome visitors to French estates, buying the estates’ surfeit produce and selling them imported goods. By necessity, Jewish wives assumed the responsibilities of running the home and managing the family business while their husbands were away.
Even before Rashi was born, Jewish women were already the beneficiaries of edicts by Rabbeinu Gershom, which gave them previously unheard-of power in marriage. These prohibited a man from both taking a second wife and divorcing his wife without her consent. In addition, a woman was allowed to initiate divorce and receive a get, even against her husband’s will, and Jewish merchants were expected to give their wives a conditional get when they left on a journey in order to protect them from becoming agunot (chained wife).
Marriage was not the only arena in which the Ashkenaz Jewish woman asserted herself. Many sought to increase their ritual participation by fulfilling those ritual obligations which, according to the Mishnah, women were not obligated to perform—mitzvot aseh she-hazeman grama, the “time-bound positive commandments.” Obvious examples include blowing and hearing the shofar (at Rosh Hashanah), and taking the lulav and dwelling in the sukkah (at Sukkot). Others, perhaps less obvious, are reciting the Shema (said in the morning and at night) and wearing tefillin or tzitzit (worn in the daytime).
In Sephardic lands, these ritual exemptions became outright prohibitions, but the women in Rashi’s community not only insisted on performing these mitzvot from which they were exempt, they wanted to say the blessings for them as well. Rashi’s teacher, Rabbi Isaac haLevi, taught that “We do not stop women from saying the blessing over lulav and sukkah … since she performs the mitzvah, she cannot do so without the blessing.” It is interesting that they use the phrase “we do not stop women” rather than “women are permitted.” This suggests that the women took these mitzvot upon themselves and insisted on reciting the blessing as well.
There was yet another area affecting women in which Rashi argued against society’s restrictions. When it came to limitations on a woman while she was niddah (menstruating), Rashi made it clear these proscriptions applied only between husband and wife. In a time when superstitions about menstruation abounded (a scholar was forbidden to greet a niddah because the utterances of her mouth were unclean; a man shouldn’t walk behind a niddah since even the dust beneath her feet caused impurity; an untimely death resulted from walking between two menstruating women), a responsum of Rashi declared that, “Dishes which the niddah touches are clean, even for her husband. For people today are already impure from graves, houses of dead people, and corpses, and we will not be purified until the days of the Messiah. Therefore it is permitted to touch and use whatever the niddah touches.” He continues, “Niddah prohibitions are only to prevent sin between her and her husband; impurity does not pertain here.” Thus, while many of his Sephardic contemporaries were forbidding a niddah to even enter the synagogue, in Troyes, France the niddah “attends services as usual, prays as usual, and if she is accustomed to study words of Torah, she studies as usual.”
Finally—women studying Torah. Rashi, whose own daughters learned Talmud and Torah, was among many rabbis who obligated a man to teach his daughter those texts concerning the mitzvot, for “otherwise how can she observe them properly.” Sadly this golden age for medieval Ashkenaz women was short-lived. When the Black Death swept Europe, people held witches responsible, which tainted all learned and presumptuous women. It would take five hundred years before Jewish women would again reach the heights they attained in Rashi’s time, and in the case of initiating divorce, we are still waiting.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend these recent books:
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe by Elisheva Baumgarten