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despotism continues, more Israelis and Americans have come to believe that the role of a chief rabbi is unnecessary and outdated.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.
Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.
Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.
The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.
In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!
I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?
Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.
If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.
Some big issues for orthodox feminism have come up in the news lately. Did you see that women will soon be allowed to monitor kashrut in institutional kitchens in Israel? JOFA Board member Carol Newman wonders how new this actually is.
I wonder who the rabbis thought was in the kitchen all these years. I have been married for over fifty years and have made more meals than I could possibly count. I’ve cooked for my family, for extended family, for guests, and even for organizations that asked me to host events. No one ever came into my kitchen asking to see the mashgiach.
So what is this all about? My brother-in-law, Marcel Lindenbaum, says the rabbis are afraid of change and therefore what we are seeing in so many instances is a rabbinate that wants to keep things exactly as they are. I maintain that change has already happened. The rabbis simply fear change that has to do with empowering women in Judaism.
In her new book, “The Kind Mama,” Alicia Silverstone explains her refusal to give her son a brit milah. Her rationale suggests a lack of God’s omnipotence: “my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”
I believe that we were not born “perfect” for a reason, sometimes difficult to understand. I do believe that there are instances, and this is one of them, where we are asked to complete the work of “perfecting.” It began with Adam naming the animals and culminates in the act of procreation where men and women create new life. Bread, a staple of life, is given to us in the form of wheat, but it is humans who harvest, grind, knead, and bake the wheat flour to make the bread. We are partners and perfectors in the act of creation.
Sounds like there’s more than one way to be a “kind mama.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
My mother-in-law likes to use the expression “you could have knocked me down with a feather.” I can’t quite imagine that happening, but if it’s supposed to mean “shocked beyond words,” then that would have been an apt description of me five years ago, had I known there would soon be a move to nominate men to JOFA‘s Board of Directors. During the first ten years of JOFA’s existence, I don’t think any of us thought twice about the value of an all-female Board. In those days, we felt that the Orthodox establishment was generally so negative towards women, that we needed our own organization to call home. Yes, we had husbands, male friends and a few male supporters who were feminists but this was our space to be the main actors; they were the helpmates.
Well, speed up ten years and a lot has changed. Women are no longer the token members of synagogue and school boards that we once were. Women are officers and even presidents, though there are still too few women leading “name brand” Orthodox organizations. The main reasons JOFA had kept men off the Board of Directors are simply no longer relevant now that there are so many men who are engaged and effective feminists and community activists. What we have learned in the past ten years is that building communities with deep-seated modern Orthodox feminist values requires both women and men who have shared visions of equality, spiritual openness, and intellectual curiosity. Whether a leader lives those values and inspires others to do the same is much more important than that leader’s gender.
So how are we doing it?
First, we’ve decided, at least at this stage, that all members of the Executive Committee and the
majority of the Board will remain women. It is not easy to break down cultural barriers and we want to do it in an organized, intentional manner. We want this to work!
Second, this year, we don’t want to nominate only one man to our Board of Directors, we want at least two, and possibly several men. We do not deal in tokenism and we want that to be clear both from the inside and the outside. Will the conversations remain as spirited, the disagreements as collegial, and the compromises as satisfying? I sure hope so. It’ll depend on whether feminist men have a sense of humor too.
So, if this were even five years ago, you could have knocked me down with a feather, but today, we are an organization that talks the talk and walks the walk. I don’t know if it will guarantee our future but I do know that JOFA now speaks with one voice about our vision of the future. Wouldn’t it be great if other Orthodox organizations did the same and included women as full members of their leadership teams?
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Jewish tradition has four names for the Passover Holiday—Hag HaAviv (the Spring Festival), Hag HaMatsot (the Holiday of Unleavened Bread), Hag HaPesah (the Holiday of Passing Over), and Hag HaHerut (the Festival of Freedom). Each of these names represents a different aspect of the holiday.
However, there seems to be an additional name that would be fitting for Passover — Hag HaHinukh — the Holiday of Education. Indeed, no other ceremony in Jewish life is as dedicated to educating the next generation of Jews as that of the Seder. The educational mission of Seder night begins in the Torah itself, in three different verses, which instruct us to educate our children about the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The key verse in this educational paradigm can be found in Exodus 13:8:
וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:
And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
What this verse seems to be stating is that while you are eating matsah, you should explain to your child all that happened to you while you were leaving Egypt.
The same educational call is found in the Mishna, Tractate Pesahim 10:4:
מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו…. ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו.
A second cup of wine is poured out; and the son should then inquire of his father. If the son doesn’t have da’at (understanding) to do this, aviv melamdo—his father teaches him…. And according to the da’at of the child should the father teach him.
This Mishna describes the moment at the Seder when the child’s curiosity should be piqued. After all, why are we suddenly having a second cup of wine when we normally have only one? Here, the expected response of the child is depicted. However, in the event that the child does not ask, the parent is obligated to teach. The Mishna delineates an additional requirement: that the parent teach the child according to the child’s da’at — the child’s understanding, or intellectual capabilities. It is a remarkably modern approach, that of individualized education. The Mishna here is communicating that the one-size-fits-all educational model doesn’t work; education must be child-specific.
Continue reading Yaffa Epstein’s words of Torah in this spring’s Shema Bekolah.
Looking for help engaging the wide range of people at your seder? Check out the Many Ways To Tell Our Story, JOFA’s handbook of activities for people of all ages and styles.
Jewish feminists have a lot to say. We have been grappling with issues of gender inclusion in Jewish life for a long time, wrestling with our sometimes competing pulls and ideals for years. Centuries, I think. Maybe since the beginning of Judaism. Maybe since the creation of Eve. So there’s a lot we like to talk about — need to talk about.
Like my friend Tammy. Tammy loves Jewish life, the sounds, colors, and connections that she experiences in her synagogue community and in her Jewish traditions. But going to shul has become a struggle. Climbing the stairs to the women’s section of her Orthodox shul, where women’s presence is an afterthought or a mystery – Tammy has to drag each foot to climb each stair. She’s searching for another way. Whether that means a different synagogue, a new community, or transformations from within, she knows that she needs a change. And talking to other women who are on the same journey – perhaps different locations on journey, perhaps further along or further back – has become critical. We talk, we listen, we laugh and we cry, and we support one another as we figure it all out. That sharing of experiences, stories, reflections and dreams has become a crucial component of the grass-roots drive towards communal transformation.
That’s why we have this blog. For all the women like Tammy out there who are seeking connection on their journeys. This is a place for a free and open sharing of experiences around gender in Judaism. It’s the space for women and men of all ages and backgrounds to write about how they grapple with their lives as seekers of fairness, justice and compassion within the Jewish tradition. The written exchange is a vehicle for personal and communal empowerment. It’s writing as a tool for social change. It’s also a tool for love and support for those who are willing to share their vulnerabilities – and their strengths. This is a place where we welcome the struggle, and learn to love each other for it.
I just want to acknowledge that we’re not the only space on the internet for Jewish feminist blogging. In fact, we love the Jewish feminist blogs out there – the Lilith blog, the JWA blog, the Sisterhood blog, and the many individual women and men who courageously put forth their Jewish feminist voices every day. I’m a huge fan of the writers out there, and I’m so excited that JOFA is joining this fabulous club.
I would add that The Torch is perhaps slightly different in that JOFA focuses primarily on religious experiences, and on the particular struggles of Orthodox feminists. However, it’s really important to note that even though that’s our primary focus, it is not an exclusive focus. In fact, one of my own core beliefs is that Orthodox feminists have an enormous amount in common with other Jewish feminists, and also with religious feminists of other faiths. This is, in my opinion, an under-explored aspect of Orthodox feminism, and I would love to use this blog as a space to build those connections in different ways. Life and blogging is about finding and creating links and bonds. I’m very excited to do that here.
What unites us here is a feminist consciousness. We love unapologetic, daring commitment to gender equity. It’s what brings us together and motivates us.
Hence the name the Torch. It’s our fire, our passion, our refusal to have our voices squelched. Here, our fires are free to burn. Like those of the amazing women before us, from Deborah to Beruria to Glückel of Hamelin to Blu Greenberg to Rabba Sara Hurwitz. We are proud to be part of a millennia-long journey, and proud of all the women before us who have passed the feminist torch to us.
We welcome your submissions. The more voices, the better! We especially enjoy reading on topics related to gender in: religious life, family life, Jewish education, Jewish thought, halakha, Jewish history, bible or Talmud, Jewish professional or organizational settings, politics, business, spirituality, sexuality, body issues, art, and pretty much any area of your life. If you think you have something to say, please send it in! If you don’t consider yourself a feminist but think you have a contribution to make to the discussion, send it in! We welcome that exchange as well.
Please email your pitch to: firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to comment and share.
Looking forward to the conversation!