Tag Archives: Israel

No Choice But to Dance

Believe me, I wish I did, but I have no choice but to dance.
It chose me.

safe_imageIt is amazing how many fellow dancers throughout my career have expressed and mirrored these sentiments to me. The grueling path of the dancer is not an easy one. There is no security, little pay, little work and even less work that is satisfying or dignifying. It is a wiring of the soul to crave expression through the honest, direct, and ultimately vulnerable body. Anyone who has fallen in love with dance knows of the heart breaks that come just as frequently as the overwhelming love. To truly dance is the highest gift and does not come without its challenges.

Now imagine how many more challenges are piled on for someone from a religious Jewish community. All communities differ in their applied practices of halakha, yet the main statutes are strong:

  • No touching the opposite gender. Forget dancing with men in a company, forget partner work.
  • Observing Shabbat, holidays, and fast days. Forget weekend performances…good luck going to an audition and saying you won’t be available for performances on Friday nights and Saturday
  • Modest dress. Bye bye leotards!
  • Keeping kosher. Good luck keeping kosher during company group meals on your tour to Bangkok.
  • Modest actions, which means not performing for men who may succumb to objectifying you as sexual fantasy. So there goes half your audience and any competitive performance in any serious theater.

Add to this, all of the social realities that are present in many secular communities, but are further magnified in the Orthodox community. It is improper to be a “performer.” Dance is not a career, you cannot be a good wife and a good mother and live this kind of life. And the comments go on and on.

Most Orthodox communities do not respect dance as a realistic option for one’s life path (unless it is to teach dance to children who will only ever dance in a studio or teach other children and will never perform on stage). Most Orthodox communities have little or no structures that would allow the art form to be taken seriously. Dance is, more often than not, strictly a hobby that girls engage in before their Bat Mitzvah. Forget boys who show promise, and forget any professional aspirations. In many communities, a career as a dancer simply sounds impossible. Of course there are beautiful exceptions, but this is the general rule.

How can a person who shows promise and passion for this art form ever hope to self-actualize and share their skills and also continue to stay involved in a religious community and maintain an observant way of life?

Enter Nehara Dance Group.

wmpbgkgwqwle3joaex9aFounded in 2012 by Artistic Director, Daniella Bloch, Nehara is a one of a kind Israeli dance company that features professional dancers who are also religious women. The group maintains the highest standards of artistry and professionalism, performing for mixed audiences, and participating in the arts community in Israel and abroad, all while maintaining a sensitivity to modesty, Shabbat observance, intention of the work, and mother-friendly environments. It is the first of its kind and is making waves in both the Israeli artistic and religious communities – something that makes it quite unique indeed.

Now, Nehara is not only considered revolutionary for the caliber and quality of its dancers, it also encourages social activism through education and the mixed populations it attracts in its audience. Usually one would never find a secular Israeli from Tel Aviv willingly sitting next to a religious Zionist, yet this happens at every Nehara show! The performances bring different factions of Israeli society together in order to enjoy an art form that transcends politics, borders and “truths” while speaking to one’s deeper soul.

Nehara Dance Group has brought its unique voice all over Israel and Europe. Now, more than ever, presenting the world with a pluralistic and creative face of Israel will do wonders for Israel and for those who dream to one day express themselves through dance.

Posted on January 26, 2015

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Filling the Missing Half of the Sacred Bookshelf

shutterstock_17413681For years I studied and taught Torah, learning and teaching in many settings, including several batei midrash, teacher training programs, institutes, the Israeli army, and for Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum. In a word, limmud Torah, the study of Torah, was the air that I breathed. Yet as I was using the new feminist lenses to study the Jewish texts, my heart began to sink deeper and deeper. Recognizing the trivial but painful fact that my tradition, my love, my identity, was defined by men, for men, reflecting male life experience, interest and needs, made me very confused and left me with a strong sense of betrayal and abandonment.

For some years I tried to deal with this challenge through feminist theology, and wrote my Master’s thesis under the direction of Professor Tamar Ross. For a while the liveliness that feminist theology afforded me, diminished my anger and sense of helplessness. But unlike many feminist theologians, I did not feel I could discard the entire tradition and create new rituals from scratch – even if I toyed with the idea from time to time – because I felt that the Torah is a mirror of reality, a mirror that calls us to contend with reality in order to make it better. Even if I didn’t like some of the sacred texts, I understood that they demand a response. Precisely the ones that disturbed me the most are the ones where I have to take the responsibility of tikkun, or repair.

And then, a miracle happened. I found a little pamphlet of midrashim, exegetical commentaries and explorations of Biblical texts, written by Rivkah Lubitch, an Israeli Talmida Chachama, scholar, and To’enet Rabanit , an advocate in rabbinical court. In it were fifteen midrashim, witty, deep, uplifting and empowering, challenging the patriarchy and injustice from within a deep knowledge and love of the texts, and rabbinic culture.

I tried using this method of creating new midrashim myself. Midrash, literally, “searching out,” is a literary tool created by the ancient rabbis to discover within and draw out of the sacred texts new meanings relating to their own lives, problems and values. Midrash works through close readings of texts, syllogisms, word plays on roots and etymologies, filling in gaps, and reading texts in light of one another. Then, with a little bundle of women’s midrashim in my hand, I set sail on a new journey around Israel, travelling wherever I was welcomed, to teach those midrashim as kitvei kodesh, holy writings, and to tell whoever was ready to listen, that the other half of Judaism is being written in our days.

One night, in Modi’in, Israel, I met Nechama Weingarten Mintz, a woman my age, who shared that she, too, had a collection of midrashim written by women, and that she too had realized their redemptive power. We both felt that these midrashim not only enabled us to stay both Jewish and feminist, but were a new, empowering vehicle that could vivify the tradition and heal society too. And so we took upon ourselves this project of publishing midrashim written by contemporary Israeli women. We had no budget, but after we sent out a handful of emails soliciting midrashim, we were flooded with hundreds of midrashim.

And as a result, in 2009, we compiled and published Volume One of Dirshuni: Midrashei Nashim. The volume contains ninety midrashim, written by thirty-seven Israeli women–Conservative, Reform and avowedly secular, of all political stripes and ethnic backgrounds, from cities, kibbutzim, small towns, and suburbs. On publication, some people loved it, others hated and banned it. But above all, the book was a liberation and revelation for the women who wrote it – and, it increasingly seems, for its many readers, and for the people learning and arguing over it, in batei midrash, study circles, and elsewhere.

Most of the midrashim in Dirshuni dealt with issues of special concern to women, but there were many others of more universal interest, and all represent the existential struggles of Israeli women. A great deal of them explored the treatment of women by Jewish law and rabbinic authority in the traditional sources, in the community, and in the rabbinical courts. They offer deep and wide-ranging discussions of Biblical personalities, women’s religious roles, sexuality and fertility, prayer, the meaning of Torah study, different issues of social justice, theology, and more.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 3.45.30 PMAfter publication, we kept receiving many, many wonderful and powerful midrashim, which dare to engage new subjects not dealt with in Volume One – incest, mamzerut, Holocaust theology, and more.   But, as usual, im eyn kemach, eyn Torah – ve-afilu Torat Nashim, if there is no flour, there is no Torah—even women’s Torah. In order to complete the project I am turning to the sisterhood, to help support my Kickstarter campaign to enable me to finish Dirshuni Volume Two, and I invite you to take part in taking responsibility to leave our daughters a Judaism that has kitvei kodesh, holy writings, written by women too.

I leave you with a small taste of our project, a midrash, written by Rivkah Lubitch and included in Volume One of Dirshuni (here in English translation, by Yehudah Mirsky).

And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near…and these are his daughters’ names: Machlah, Noa and Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah (Numbers 27:1)

Why were they referred to, first, as ‘the daughters of Tzelophchad’ and only afterwards by their own names?

Because of the Tzel and Pachad, shadow and fear, that was in them at first. For at first they dwelled in their father’s shadow, and feared to raise their heads. Once they drew near to one another, they were empowered, and known by their own names, as is written, And the daughters of Tzelophchad drew near…and these are his daughters’ names.

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Posted on January 22, 2015

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Not Seen and Not Heard

shutterstock_1789465Last week, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox paper, HaMevaser, photoshopped German Chancellor Angela Merkel out of a photograph of the solidarity march in Paris, a photo that appeared in countless newspapers around the world. In fact, all of the women who were in the original photograph, including Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, were conspicuously removed in HaMevaser. The women weren’t blurred out or whited out, they were simply removed. As if they did not exist.

It is no secret that in the ultra-Orthodox world, there are strict modesty guidelines. Pictures of women do not appear in newspapers or in advertisements. The idea of k’vod bat hamelech pnimah (literally, the beauty of the King’s daughter is within) seems to have become a battle cry, and the rationalization for these extreme modesty guidelines.

When the story of HaMevaser’s creative editing reached world news, it was yet another embarrassing moment highlighting how ultra-Orthodoxy views women.

Yet, juxtaposed with the story of the disappearing women is another story slowly gaining attention, this one both surprising and inspiring.

With Israeli elections on the horizon, a group of ultra-Orthodox women have started a campaign to add ultra-Orthodox women to the electoral lists of two ultra-Orthodox political parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism. While ultra-Orthodox women have been encouraged to vote in past elections (exclusively for ultra-Orthodox parties), women have not been included on the rosters of candidates. This groundswell from within the ultra-Orthodox world demands that one woman be included on the electoral list of each party. In fact, they have gone so far as advocating “No representation, no vote.” If women aren’t included on the ballot, ultra-Orthodox women are encouraging each other to stay home on Election Day.

To be sure, this is a grassroots movement with some support, but certainly not the full support of all ultra-Orthodox women. And while many maintain that their husbands support their endeavors, it is clear that the rabbinic leadership remains staunchly opposed.

Devorah KatzIn truth, ultra-Orthodox women are already in the public eye. They are in the workforce. They are the breadwinners. They are responsible for household and family matters as well. An ultra-Orthodox woman on the ballot seems like it should be a natural extension. Yet it is seen as both a betrayal and as a portrait of immodesty.

Will there be ultra-Orthodox women in the Knesset through either of the ultra-Orthodox parties? Probably not. The campaign started a little too late to garner the attention it needs to advance. But what they have done, successfully, is begin a dialogue.

I know the value of dialogue and I know the value of grassroots movement. And, I am ready to admit, I know the value of allowing issues to develop. The road behind us is full of accomplishments and the road in front of us is full of challenges. I am so excited to watch this challenge unfold and eventually become an accomplishment for women in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Posted on January 20, 2015

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Bruce Springsteen Would Be Proud (Or Maybe Scratch His Head in Confusion)

shutterstock_127446512 (1)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.

Posted on December 11, 2014

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Aliyah – A Journey to Family, to Community and to Empowering Our Sisters in Israel

Amy OppenheimerIf 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.

BM_Logo_transMany 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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Posted on September 15, 2014

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Life as a Female Semicha Student

Meira Welt-MaarekWhen 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.

Posted on July 15, 2014

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Is there a MOFA (Muslim Orthodox Feminist Alliance)?

Shahid_Humaira_Awais_credit_Saadia_AnwarThis 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.

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Posted on June 6, 2014

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One Day or Two Days (part 2 of 2)

This is a continuation of Friday’s post. In part 1, Bracha explained the background for the question and here she concludes her analysis.

bracha jaffe picThis 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[1], 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[2]. 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[3] 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[4]. 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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[1] Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka, p. 226

[2] The Baal HaTanya was the only one I found to rule that Israelis should observe two full days.

[3] Har Tzvi 3:78

[4] Pninei Halacha: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/2013/02/

Posted on May 25, 2014

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One Day or Two Days? (part 1 of 2)

bracha jaffe picI 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.

Background

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[1].

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[2] 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[3] 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[4] 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.

Click here to read Bracha’s conclusion.


[1] 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

[2] 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.

[3] Shulchan Aruch HaRav 496:11, Mishna Brura 496:13, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:101, and others

[4] Rav Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi (1660–1718), Responsa 167

Posted on May 23, 2014

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Confessions of the Tehillim Lady: Further Reflections on Learning How to Pray

woman pushing stroller on path

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.

open siddur

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.

tefillin

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.

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Posted on February 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy