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.
If you had told me five years ago that I would be making aliyah in the midst of a war to work on behalf of Israel’s only shelter for observant victims of domestic violence, I would have looked at you very funny.
At the time, I was living in Riverdale New York, the international capital of JOFA (or so it felt!), and was happily employed in the fancy and fast-paced world of management consulting. By day, I donned a business suit and visited clients in the CFO suite, by night, I edited my first documentary film and educational curriculum, Faces of Israel, and by weekend, I led youth programming at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
So, how did it happen?
Over the past decade, my family began to make aliyah. My older sister took the first leap in 2007. My little sister jumped onboard as soon as she possibly could in August 2013, and my parents (and family dog!) completed the migration in December 2013.
It was once my dream to make aliyah too. Judaism felt more alive and vibrant in Israel. The holidays were celebrated in an intense and exciting way that I had simply not experienced in America. The very idea of building the Jewish homeland and signing on to be part of the most ambitious project the Jewish community has undertaken in over two thousand years was enthralling. But time seemed to pass more and more quickly and my life in America started falling into place. I released my first film and took it on tour, I became a speaker for Israel Bonds, and I spent two years traveling to communities across North America doing Jewish outreach.
But Skype calls to my parents and sisters just weren’t enough. So I started planning extended visits to Israel in 2012 and, rather than spending days on the beach in Tel Aviv or checking out the endless stream of cafes on Emek Refaim, it was important to me to find a meaningful volunteer opportunity. This is how I discovered Bat Melech. (Or, technically, how my mother discovered Bat Melech!)
After one conversation with Noach Korman, the founder of Bat Melech, I had found my organization.
Bat Melech is the only kosher and Sabbath-observant shelter for victims of domestic violence in Israel, but more than a shelter, it is a home for Jewish women who have been disenfranchised and it is a place where they can begin rebuilding themselves and their families.
I have seen firsthand how women come to us broken and transform during their time at Bat Melech. If we could take a picture of a woman’s arrival and departure days, the stark contrast would be evident. For example, Rachel worked in Israeli academia as a professor. You would think that someone of her stature could never become a victim of domestic violence, but her self-confidence as a professional, a mother, and a human being was systematically shattered through repeated insults, harsh criticisms, and violence. When Rachel arrived, she thought herself neither worthy nor capable of taking care of her children and continuing her career. But after eight months of weekly therapy, counseling, and parental training sessions at Bat Melech, Rachel is back on her feet with custody of her children and is preparing her curriculum for the fall semester.
Many of our residents never had the chance to become the women they wanted to be. Most were denied the opportunity to work, to study, to parent in the manner they thought appropriate and to explore their own personal interests as adults. When they sought help, they were told that modesty, coping in silence, and working toward peace in the home trumped abuse. They didn’t believe they mattered. Bat Melech teaches them to advocate for their selves, be strong, and self-confident. And we’re doing this for over 1,500 women and children each year.
This past winter, I was brought onboard as Bat Melech’s director of North America and Overseas and the first English-speaker in our office! This clinched my decision to make aliyah. Though I was motivated to move to Israel to be near my family, it was the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of Jewish women – that clinched the deal.
I know that we have our work cut out for us, but every day strengthens my belief that the work we do is not just chesed (kindness), but tzedek (justice).
So, how did my first week as an Israeli feel? It’s a mixed bag. There’s the excitement of receiving my teudat zehut, Israeli identity card, and feeling like I truly belong here, and the giddiness of walking into my first day at Ulpan. There’s also the challenge of planning my wedding in Israel (my fiancé proposed on the last week of my pilot trip this Spring!), and the striking difference between customer service in Israel and in America. (Let’s just say that the customer is not always right in Israel.) I’m not quite sure that I feel like an Israeli just yet, but le’at le’at – one step at a time, with gratitude, with mindfulness, and with appreciation.
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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 past week, I listened to a Public Radio interview with Humaira Awais Shahid, a Muslim woman who is a Pakistani journalist and activist. I was amazed yet again by her reply when she was asked about the status of women in Islam. She said the problem was not the Koran, which respects the role of women, but rather the empowerment of the clergy who are fixated on the ankles and elbows of women, and whether there is a hair escaping their head covering. Sound familiar?
Whenever I hear these kind of comments, my first reaction is that MOFA (Muslim Orthodox Feminist Alliance) is just waiting to be established. Our reasoning is the same, our problems are alike, and our clergy definitely behave in a similar manner. More and more often, given the weakened nature of our rabbinic establishment in America, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is exerting increasing control over the lives of American women. As a direct result, the Chief Rabbinate continues to make Israeli society more secular, angry, and disgusted with the religious hegemony over their lives.
These Muslim women have my sympathy as I hope we have theirs. As this despotism continues, more Israelis and Americans have come to believe that the role of a chief rabbi is unnecessary and outdated. We need religious freedom and systemic change in our halakhic system to create a fair and just Jewish life—not only for women, but for the entire Jewish community.
This is a continuation of Friday’s post. In part 1, Bracha explained the background for the question and here she concludes her analysis.
This year, I embarked on my first halakhic investigation as a Yeshivat Maharat student, researching the question of whether visitors from Israel should observe one or two days of a holiday when traveling outside of Israel. As I explained in my previous post, the Chacham Tzvi rules that a resident of the diaspora who travels to Israel for a holiday should observe the holiday for one day only.
The next step in my journey was to research the Chacham Tzvi in the opposite direction – for a person traveling from Israel to the diaspora. Interestingly, he does not address this issue directly. So instead I turned to other poskim, halakhic decisors, and looked for responsa and rulings of authorities who follow the Chacham Tzvi’s ruling regarding visitors to Israel to see if and how they used this logic to address the question regarding visitors to the diaspora.
Here came the big surprise! While rabbis such as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank agree with the Chacham Tzvi that everyone should observe one day in Israel, almost no one uses this logic in the opposite case. If we were to follow the Chacham Tzvi’s logic, a visitor from Israel to the diaspora should observe two full days of the holiday, the custom of the place she is visiting. But the majority of rabbis do not rule this way.
Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank explains beautifully why this is not the case. He writes that nowadays, after the Jewish calendar was established, communities in the diaspora are no longer observing two days because of inherent doubt as to which is the correct date. The underlying reason for observing two days has changed from a rabbinic requirement to a communally obligatory minhag (practice); one that is incumbent on communities in order to respect memories and preserve customs over time. Our sages wanted to make sure that if there were ever a time in the future when doubt about the correct date led to a need to observe two days, communities in the diaspora would know what to do. Therefore, a visitor from Israel would not be required to observe two full days of the holiday as it is incumbent on the community but not on a passing visitor. I was pleased to see that this followed the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch as well.
Now the question remained as to how one defines a visitor? When does one become an integrated part of their new community? This, too, required research and I found a plethora of opinions. There are those who say that if the visitor owns a home in Israel, is absolutely planning on returning to Israel to live, and never entertained the thought of staying in the diaspora – that is enough to grant them “visitor’s status” when they are in the diaspora and they should therefore observe only one day when traveling outside of Israel.
One responsum explaining the categories of resident and visitor that resonated especially well with me was from Rav Eliezer Melamed. He says that if an Israeli is going abroad for an undetermined amount of time of at least one year, that person immediately becomes part of the diaspora community (particularly if the person’s family comes along). However, if the Israeli is going for a specific purpose, then it depends on the amount of time she will be away. As Rav Melamed notes, most courses of study and shlichut, emissary work, range up to four years, so he suggests that anything longer than that period would constitute an identity shift from “visitor” to permanent “resident,” which would require observing two full days of the holiday.
Upon returning to answer this question for my own situation, I applied Rav Melamed’s criteria. I realized that although Yeshivat Maharat is a four-year program, I came to the U.S. a full year before it started, bringing my total stay up to five years. It felt odd, yet strangely correct to have a second seder and to observe eight days of Pesach this year while my children visiting from Israel observed only one day of the festival (and therefore a seven-day Pesach). My halakhic integrity had come home.
My halakhic journey has been empowering, exciting and enlightening. This is why I am on this path; this resonates with my soul and is fuel for my passion. With God’s help I look forward to many more journeys such as this one – for individuals and for sharing with the larger community as well.
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 Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka, p. 226
 The Baal HaTanya was the only one I found to rule that Israelis should observe two full days.
 Har Tzvi 3:78
 Pninei Halacha: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/2013/02/
I have lived in Israel for most of my life. Many mitzvot are only relevant in the land of Israel, but there is one question that only crossed my mind once I left my country. I had not contended with the issue of what to do when traveling abroad for a holiday. I knew that there were differing opinions but on the rare occasion when I did travel abroad, I followed a psak, halakhic ruling, to observe only one day of the holiday, while being careful not to do any melakha, prohibited activities, publicly in a Jewish community on the second day of the holiday.
However, this issue came to an abrupt head when I moved to the U.S. for a period of a few years to study at Yeshivat Maharat. During my first Sukkot in the U.S., I observed one day but felt an unsettling disquiet within. I was eventually able to put a name to it – I felt lacking in my halakhic integrity. As a future Maharat, it was time for me to do my own research and find out what was really going on behind the scenes of the halakha.
I had heard of a ruling requiring all Jews to observe one day while in Israel and two days when outside of Israel. This made sense to me as it matched the original customs observed within and without the land of Israel and seemed the best way to commemorate those customs.
The lunar month is either 29 or 30 days long. During the time of the Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinic court), Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, was determined by eyewitnesses who actually saw the new moon. They would report to the Sanhedrin, which would then determine the date for Rosh Chodesh, and send out messengers to notify all the Jews living in Israel and in the diaspora of the appropriate date. These communities would then celebrate Sukkot and Pesach on the fifteenth of Tishrei and Nissan and subsequently count 49 days to Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan. The messengers always had enough time to reach the communities in Israel before the fifteenth of each month. However, the messengers would reach communities outside of Israel after the fifteenth of the month, which left them with a doubt as to the correct day to celebrate each holiday. They therefore observed two days of chag, just in case.
Once the Jewish calendar was set (sometime between 400 and 500 CE), our sages instructed these same communities outside of Israel to continue observing two days of the holiday. This was so that they would not forget customs unique to observing two days of the holiday, lest we lose track of the established Jewish calendar or a foreign government not allow us to observe the holidays on the proper date.
One Day in Israel
Visitors to Israel have myriad options. Many halakhic decisors opine that one should observe two days, based on Mishna Pesachim 4:1. This Mishna says that a visitor must observe the stringencies of the land from which she came as well as those of the land which she is visiting. According to this logic, visitors to Israel must observe two days in Israel because that is the custom of the communities from which they came. However, the Chacham Tzvi’s brilliant read of the Mishna in Pesachim leads him to a different conclusion.
The Chacham Tzvi explains that this rule applies only when comparing “apples to apples.” In other words, when the circumstances are exactly the same in both places but the custom itself differs. However, the case of one vs. two days of the holiday is not simply a personal custom observed differently in Israel and in the diaspora; rather, because communities in Israel never had any doubt as to the correct day of the holiday, it was never relevant for them to observe two days. The custom of observing two days of the holiday is geographically linked only to the diaspora and therefore the Mishna’s imperative to keep both the local custom and your home community’s custom does not apply when visitors come to Israel for a holiday. The Chacham Tzvi posits that everyone should observe one day while in Israel. He even suggests that one who does observe two days in Israel risks violating bal tosif, the prohibition against adding commandments to the Torah.
Intuitively it seemed that this same logic of the Chacham Tzvi would be applied in the other direction. I was growing more and more sure that the correct ruling would be for me to observe two days outside of Israel – no simple task for an Israeli. But again I noticed an unsettled feeling as I continued to research the issue. It took some introspection and hard thinking before it came to me in a flash. Of course! It was difficult for me to give a ruling for myself as I would be directly affected by the decision. I needed to continue my research as if someone else had asked me this halakhic question.
Amazingly, this simple realization eased my tension immediately and I returned to my halakhic journey with renewed enthusiasm.
 Beitza 4b: see Rashi who explains why two days were observed in the Diaspora as it was too far for the messengers to get there before the fifteenth of the month
 This includes issues such as saying shehchiyanu, preparing from one day to the next, different Torah readings, when to say yizkor and others. In some communities burial may take place on the second day.
 Shulchan Aruch HaRav 496:11, Mishna Brura 496:13, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:101, and others
 Rav Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi (1660–1718), Responsa 167
This post references various parts of the morning prayer services, or Shacharit. For an overview of the parts of that service, click here.
Yesterday I was walking along the park that lines the old railway tracks linking our Jerusalem home
and the twins’ gan (daycare) when I ran into a friend from the neighborhood. He was standing with
an older man who looked vaguely familiar. When my friend introduced us, the man said, “Oh, it’s the Tehillim lady.” When I looked back at him quizzically, he continued, “I hear you singing Tehillim every morning. You’re so devout!” It took me a few moments to realize what he was talking about, because as far as I know, I never chant Psalms. But then suddenly I understood.
Every weekday morning, as I push the girls’ stroller on our way to gan, I “daven” aloud with them. I am putting the word “daven” in quotes because it’s a far cry from serious prayer. I do not have a siddur (prayer book) with me, and I do not recite the full morning service, nor do I stand and sit at the appropriate points, since I am pushing a stroller all the while. Rather, I sing my favorite melodies from the opening psalms of Psukei Dezimra as we walk: I recite Mah Tovu as we walk down the hill to Derekh Hevron, then I chant Ashrei as we cross the busy highway, and I belt out a few Hallelujahs as we make our way through the parking lot towards the park. Many of these prayers are indeed psalms, which explains that older man’s misperception. By the time we get to their gan, I am usually up to the blessings before the Shema. But at that point I stop to take out the girls from their strollers, deposit them in their high chairs, and bend over to kiss them goodbye on the tops of their heads.
I did not realize until now that anyone overheard my morning davening, and I’m a little embarrassed by it all. After all, the proper way to daven is in synagogue with a minyan, while holding a siddur and bending and bowing at the appropriate moments. And yet my approach to prayer is not without precedent; in the third mishnah of Berakhot (10b) we are told of a famous debate between Beit Hillel and Shammai (two schools of thought) about how to recite the Shema. Shammai says that at night one should recite the Shema while lying down, and in the morning one should recite it while standing, to fulfill the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel, who is more lax, says that any position is acceptable, in fulfillment of the verse, “When you go along your way.” That is, Beit Shammai would never approve of the way I daven on the walk to gan, but Beit Hillel would have no problem with my ambulatory prayer.
My husband, too, has a hard time finding time to daven during our rushed and busy mornings, so he has come up with his own creative solution. He puts our two-year-old Matan in his chair with breakfast in front of him, and then brings his siddur and tefillin to the table, where he davens while standing next to Matan. Our son loves singing along, though he knows that he is not allowed to touch the “feeleen” boxes until he finishes eating and washes his hands, after he and Abba have sung Adon Olam together. And Daniel is grateful for the opportunity to daven, even though he looks forward to the day when he can return to minyan and not have to worry about picking cheerios off the floor in between Psukei Dezimra and the Shacharit prayers that follow.
When I think about where we are in our prayer lives, I am reminded of the first mishnah of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (30b), which teaches that one should not begin praying except with koved rosh, a phrase that literally means “heavy-headedness” and connotes tremendous reverence and respect. The mishnah goes on to state that the early pious ones used to wait an hour before praying in order to get into the proper frame of mind for speaking with God. Neither Daniel nor I are able to pray with any degree of koved rosh at this point in our lives. If we feel heaviness of head it is not from our tremendous powers of concentration, but rather from major sleep deprivation caused by our three children under the age of two and a half. Nonetheless, I like to think of our prayer these days as analogous to that preparatory hour of the early pious ones. It is not really prayer, but a preparation for the rest of our prayer lives, when hopefully we will be able to focus better.
The Talmud, in discussing the mishnah about the early pious ones, relates that the Biblical source for the laws of prayer is actually the prayer of Chana, who wept in Shiloh for God to grant her a child, and then offered a beautiful and poetic prayer of thanksgiving after Shmuel was born. And so the rabbis derive the laws of how to pray from a parent. As Chana herself surely knew, praying as a parent is not easy, particularly not in the early morning hours when you are drunk with exhaustion and can hardly see straight. Even so, when I set off to gan with the autumn wind blowing through my hair and my two gorgeous daughters sitting side-by-side in the stroller before me, I feel so full of gratitude that I cannot help but pray.
Ruth‘s schedule opened up at the last minute, so there was not a whole lot of time for us to prepare for her and, I’m assuming, for her to prepare for us.
And that’s partially why I loved her presentation so much. It focused less on the government and communal concerns and more on the day-to-day reality of being a woman in a man’s world. She talked about growing up in a traditional home where she was expected to help clear the table and do the dishes while her brothers were not. She talked about the one-woman letter-writing crusade she mounted to get the toiletry kits in business class flights geared towards women as well as men. She talked about a Knesset that still has a significantly higher percentage of members using the men’s rest room than the ladies’ room.
And perhaps most movingly she spoke about raising her children to have strong Jewish values in a secular world. And she described her surprise and delight when she realized that her daughter had absorbed the message of a Jewish life. So many of us in the room put a great deal of energy and time into affecting the communal agenda. And then, on some level, we worry about whether those same messages are heard at home and whether we have instilled in our kids the values we hold dearest.
It was touching and inspiring to hear this strong, confident, brilliant woman voice her own insecurities about the issues we all face. And it showed once again that no matter how different our worlds may look from the outside, in Israel and in the US, from the inside they may be pretty similar.
I have two issues with the title of this blog post. For one thing, I should not have to ask permission from anyone for the right to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. Second, Rabbi? Shouldn’t a woman be the supervisor of a women’s mikveh? If I have a question regarding the mikveh, why should I have to turn to a man to plead my case?
There is a deeper issue here. Why should I have to plead my case at all? It is ridiculous that I need permission to immerse alone. Yet, this is how it is many mikvaot: without permission, the attendant will not allow me into the mikveh waters. Immersion in the ritual bath is an important mitzvah for me. But that’s precisely what it is: a mitzvah for me. This mitzvah is not for the rabbi, or the mikveh attendant. If I would like to immerse on my own, I should be able to, without questions, or strange facial expressions in response.
Even more baffling is where these rules come from. In certain communities, women are not allowed to immerse alone without the rabbi’s permission, but in other places in Israel, women are allowed to immerse on their own, no questions asked. How does that work? Who decides where and when women can be trusted on their own and when they cannot?
This entire question of immersing alone exacerbates for me what is already a challenging practice. For nearly 11 years, I have disliked going to the mikveh — in fact, I have dreaded it. Sometimes, the attendant has made it worse, such as once when the attendant asked me to dunk over twenty times, constantly changing positions. Or when I was told that I have to remove makeup from under my eyes when I was just tired. Or just the visceral experience of being watched as I walk in and out of the water. No matter how many times I am told that the attendants are not “really” looking at us, I cannot get past a profound discomfort. Even when mikveh attendants are nice, I don’t want them in the room with me when I immerse. I am just not comfortable having another person in the room with me when I am undressed.
The entire day of the immersion I am worried about who the mikveh attendant will be. Will she ask me questions? Will she insist on having me use bleach to remove stains from my nails? Will she insist that I still have make-up on? Will I have to cut my nails shorter? Will she look at me when I walk up and down the stairs, or will she only watch me once I am in the water?
Yes, the mikveh attendants are mostly nice. But even when they are “nice”, the experience is still incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling for me. All I am asking for is for the right to perform this mitzvah on my own, as I wish, without being watched as I am naked and vulnerable and having a private moment. This is my mitzvah and nobody else’s, and yet I have not been allowed to own it.
This changed when I discovered a mikveh where women are allowed to immerse alone. I found it on Facebook in a group called Advot, which is a round-table of women trying to make changes in mikveh practices in Israel. When someone in the group posted photos of the mikveh in her town. I replied that I would be happy to go to that mikveh if I could immerse alone. That night, I took a three hour drive for the experience of being able to immerse alone, to make the ritual and the body experience mine and only mine.
The desire to immerse without being observed by an attendant should be respected in the mikveh. Women should have the right to make that decision for ourselves, without having to beg a rabbi or anyone else.
I will be joining a conference organized by Advot on November 13 in Israel on the subject of women’s experiences of mikveh, so that we can speak about what needs to change. Let’s all talk about. It’s the only way to make the change.
The upcoming 8th International JOFA Conference will be highlighting new approaches to mikveh, with Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern. Join us at John Jay College, December 7-8, for this memorable and important event. For more information go to http://jofa2013.sched.org
Avishalom Westreich and Pinhas Shifman, religious Israeli legal scholars of marriage and divorce law who presented compelling proposals at JOFA’s Agunah Summit in June, have published a new paper on the issue in which they argue for the adoption of civil marriage and divorce in Israel. The purpose, they argue, is to alleviate all the unnecessary suffering in Israel around issues of marriage and divorce, including that of the thousands of agunot stuck in unwanted marriages. In their paper they write:
“We propose adopting a uniform civil framework for marriage and divorce. Such a civil framework model would require advance registration and fulfillment of the necessary preconditions for marriage, thus constituting an all-inclusive, normative civil system that would handle all matters of marriage and divorce in Israel. In light of the significant weight and importance of religion in Israeli society, this model would grant full legitimacy to a wide variety of religious and non-religious marriage ceremonies, as well as a variety of divorce ceremonies and procedures. However, for purposes of state recognition, there would be just one civil law. those who wish to do so, especially if they were originally married in a religious fashion, would then be able to choose whether or not to continue litigating their marriage and divorce disputes in the religious courts, provided that these courts remain committed to the fundamental principles of civil property law, and to equal implementation of the right to divorce.”
To read the rest of the paper, click here
And don’t forget: Solutions for the agunah problem will be presented at the upcoming JOFA conference. Register today!