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 It was shocking to discover the differences between what I was told had happened and what historical documents bore witness to.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.
I can trace my choice not to go to rabbinical school to a particular moment in time. Rabbi Matthew Cutler was driving me home from a youth group retreat where I had been the song leader. As a senior in college, I was sharing my questions about my next steps– Should I become a Jewish educator or a rabbi? Rabbi Cutler asked, “Do you believe in God?” I feared the question. I felt incompetent to answer it, and I had never done any serious exploration of what I believed. At that moment, I decided to apply for a master’s degree in Jewish Education and pursue my commitment to the Jewish community, but retreat from the idea of becoming a rabbi.
During the first year of my master’s program in Jerusalem, I did a lot of reflecting on why I was so ambivalent about the rabbinate—even as I had a yearning to pray and study Torah, to create and support community, and to serve the Jewish people. I had grown up in an egalitarian, liberal Jewish community and was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Yet, I saw no one on the bimah who looked like me. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t be a rabbi. Intellectually, I knew I could, but my own sense of seeing myself on the pulpit was blocked by the lack of women role models before me. Obviously, you know the rest of the story—I became a rabbi—but what bridged the distance?
In that year of living in Israel—studying, reflecting and immersing myself in it all—I became aware that I had a deep sense of calling to be a rabbi. Though I had fears and reservations, I increasingly felt that I should walk right towards them, not run away from them. I came to realize that I could choose to become a rabbi in my own image. I decided I would become the kind of rabbi that felt consonant with who I was and what I believed God was asking me to be in the world.
Fast-forward two years: I was studying modern Jewish thought with Rabbi David Ellenson, and we read Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective by Dr. Judith Plaskow. All of a sudden, I had a much larger understanding of what had informed my ambivalence, even suspicion.
Although I was deeply engaged as a Jew, there was something about the patriarchal structure in the stories I studied that left me subconsciously marginalized. While I was so drawn into the Jewish tradition, its practices, and the Jewish communities I was blessed to be a part of, something was also telling me I didn’t belong. Standing Again at Sinai gave me language to articulate my desire for an embrace of “my Torah” as a woman: a breakdown of the power structure, different language, and metaphors to name God.
Twenty-five years later, an enormous amount has changed in Jewish life and the larger society around us. There is much to celebrate. Not only for the fuller inclusion of women into Jewish life, but also for the pathways towards an expression of Jewish life that, in many ways, were birthed through the Jewish feminist and at-large feminist movements. I am profoundly grateful to Rabbi Matthew Cutler, who asked me the right question at the right time that sent me on a path of discovery. I am also indebted to the Torah of Dr. Plaskow for giving me the language of critique, inspiration to open up new pathways in the search to live out my calling as a rabbi, and for the blessings of creativity and justice that emerged with her book, from which we all reap the benefits.
Rabbi Sol will be speaking at B’nai Jeshurun’s Meet Me at Sinai event this Sunday. It’s a full day of panel discussions, films, dance and more dedicated to the effects of Dr. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, a book that shook the foundations of Jewish expression with its candid discussion of Jewish feminist theology.
When LGBT Jews re-encounter their tradition on their own terms, they can experience spiritual risk, iconoclasm, and reimagined faith. One way to better understand and relate to this process is through the lens of biblical figures. Eshel, the national effort for LGBT inclusion in Orthodox families and communities, is introducing a series of monthly shiurim entitled, “The Real Modern Family: Biblical Characters in a Whole New Light,” which will explore nine biblical characters through this lens.
In order to give you a taste of this endeavor, I’d like to offer a short musing on a biblical character that plays a supporting role in the unfolding of the Abrahamic vision. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant is mentioned explicitly only once, in chapter 15 of Genesis.
Following a battle with kings to extricate his nephew Lot, Abram is promised great reward. The words “great reward” fall blankly upon Abram as he responds with subtle impatience. He reminds God that he is still childless and that his steward, Eliezer from Damascus, is his only possible heir.
Eliezer is introduced as a fall back, a foil to God’s delayed fulfillment of covenantal promises. God assures Abram that, this one, “ze” will not inherit him, but a child of his own body will. Eliezer is the first rejected heir. Later Ishmael will also be rejected. As the story unfolds, only a child of both Abraham and Sarah will fulfill the intended mission and give rise to the covenanted people.
Abraham’s trusted servant appears later in the narrative at another junction of threatened continuity. After taking care of Sarah’s burial, Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath that Isaac will not marry a local Canaanite woman. He bids the servant to seek out a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kin. We should expect the chief servant to be Eliezer, but not once in Abraham’s extraction of the oath, the servant’s prayerful preparation or the detailed negotiations with Laban, is his name mentioned. He is “eved Avraham,” Abraham’s slave, or “ha’ish,” the man.
Both rabbinic and scholarly consensus suggests that the unnamed servant is indeed, Eliezer. If so, then the avoidance of his name may be pointed. He is the shaliah, messenger, par excellence. Instead of being Abraham’s heir, he is his double, effecting Abraham’s will. For the Rabbis, Eliezer not only acts to accomplish Abraham’s purposes, he extends Abraham’s moral vision as well.
We are told that Eliezer happened by Sodom and stayed the night. During his short visit he has two distinct encounters. The first is with an aggressor who strikes and wounds him. Eliezer goes before a judge who deems that he owes his attacker a fee for bloodletting. With wit and humor, Eliezer rebuts by striking the judge with a staff and calling upon the judge to employ the bloodletting fee that is now owed him, to cover his debt to the original attacker. Here, Eliezer is playing Abraham’s iconoclastic role. Like the son of Terah who smashes all the idols and puts the club in the hands of the largest idol, mocking his father’s beliefs, Eliezer humorously (and similarly aggressively) contends with Sodom’s corrupt justice.
Eliezer’s second encounter with Sodom offers a poignant portrayal of the clash of cultures. The Sages associated Sodom with an aggressive rejection of the duty to welcome and protect travelers. The wealthy Sodomites, fearing an inundation of needy foreigners, had abandoned hospitality for the stranger. The Rabbis employ the myth of Procrustes’ bed, renaming it, the bed of Sodom to comment on their own cultural conflict with Athens and Rome (BT Sanhedrin 109b).
Procrustes’ bed inverts the ethic of hospitality. Procrustes (meaning he who stretches) kept a house by the side of the road for passing strangers. He offered them a warm meal and a bed. Once the visitors laid upon it, Procrustes would cut off the legs of those too long or stretch those too short. Theseus, the hero of the Greek tale, turns the tables on Procrustes and fatally adjusts him to his own bed. In Sodom, the Rabbis tell us, they also had a bed upon which weary guests might rest. Eliezer is offered to rest in the Sodomite bed and declines. He explains that since his mother died he pledged not to have a pleasant night’s sleep on a comfortable bed.
The people of Sodom are not only frightened of human need; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that has both zoned out poverty and insured that only “our kind” of folk will be welcome.
Eliezer’s mourning for his mother saves him from being amputated or stretched. Mourning the dead is a particularly selfless expression of relationship and love. The people of Sodom treat all outside its walls as already dead and Eliezer treats the dead as still alive. Eliezer is saved from Sodom’s evil not by his sword or cunning, as is Theseus, but by his own loving beyond all boundaries or benefit.
According to the Sages, Eliezer is one of nine biblical characters who entered the Garden of Eden without dying (Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, Chapter 1). Perhaps Eliezer’s self-effacing service, his humility, and his love beyond the grave gave him an unusual pass, a seamless entrance into the next world.
This early expression of dedication to both the teacher and his covenantal ideals feels like a precursor to a conversion process that will wait generations to become formal. Eliezer is not related to Abraham by birth, but in the words of Isaiah, he is a faithful “foreign son” (Isaiah 56:6). Jewish continuity is primarily familial and reproductive, nonetheless, access to the God of Abraham and Sarah cannot be restricted. As Eliezer’s name suggests, God helps anyone who wishes to serve. Unlike Sodom, our tent is open to everyone, different as they may be, needy for respite, hungry for food, yearning for depth, or just eager for companionship.
Eshel extends a hearty welcome to any and all to join us for a Chanukat HaBayit at our new downtown office on November 20th at 6pm followed by the first session of “Real Modern Family” on Sarah Imenu: The Laughing Princess.
Visit www.eshelonline.org/beiscamp to learn more about the “Real Modern Family” series.
On Keshet, an anonymous group of parents reflects on their difficult journeys accepting their children—and the challenges their communities pose.
“We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.” Continue reading here>>