It was mid-August and the air conditioning was broken in the café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Across from me sat a woman I was about to interview. Her hairline, concealed by a dark brown wig, emanated sweat. Every so often she would raise her arm and, using the long-sleeve of her blue shirt, wipe the perspiration away.
I apologized for the heat and pulled at my slightly-too-short skirt so that it covered my knees. She should feel comfortable, I thought, knowing that I, too, was a modest Jewish woman suffering through the humidity.
But this was not entirely true. I am not an Orthodox woman who adheres to the modesty laws—not in the strictest sense. I was there to talk to her, and, over the course of the summer, I would speak with twenty-one other Orthodox men and women, about their understanding of the morning blessing “she lo asani isha,” Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman. My hope was to uncover how Jews from different branches of Orthodoxy grapple with—or ignore—the implications of sexual hierarchy established by this blessing.
I was masked by my role as a detached academic, researching my senior thesis topic. More honestly, it was a personal project laden with frustration, pain and a longing to find my place within the Jewish tradition that I love.
Why do I want to be a part of a religion that values this blessing? The question has plagued me for the last few years as I find myself yearning more and more for traditional Jewish ritual and community.
I was not raised Jewish. My mother is a practicing Unitarian Universalist and my father is a non-practicing Jew. While our family celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, we never went to a Shabbat service or spoke the words of Hebrew prayer. Until I was fourteen, I attended a Unitarian church in Manhattan every Sunday. I participated in the youth group, Christmas pageant, and children’s choir. I identified both as a Unitarian Universalist and as a Jew. But at the start of high school, a major shift occurred.
I began to wonder if my Unitarian practice was the right fit. I convinced my father to join me for our first Kabbalat Shabbat service at a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. The awe I experienced that evening changed my life. It was like returning to something I had not known and yet understood somewhere in the recesses of my body. The Hebrew sounds were foreign, the music was mysterious, and I felt simultaneously at home and like an outsider. I fell in love that night, and I became determined to immerse myself in Judaism and to work towards feeling like an insider.
Since that evening I have struggled to learn about my Jewish tradition. I studied for two years to become a bat mitzvah at the age of sixteen, majored in Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, spent a year in Israel studying at Hebrew University, and, most recently, went to the mikvah for an official conversion and a re-commitment to Judaism and my practice.
But the deeper I have traveled into the body of Jewish text and ritual and the more I crave a rigorous faith, the more I run into the wall of what it means to be a woman inside a traditional community. I am constantly battling the side of me that wants to be enveloped in an Orthodox community and the side of me that is accustomed to, and believes in, contemporary norms of gender equality.
I set out to spend two years researching and wrestling with the blessing “she lo asani isha.” I looked to the blessing as the site of a struggle between tradition and modernity. I believed that through engaging with this blessing, I could resolve a tension within myself and a tension that I imagined many other men and women feel.
Each time I sat across from my interviewees I hoped that they would provide me with an answer. I saw them as guides—individuals filled with wisdom and spirituality who might share my sentiments. Did they wrestle with the blessing too? Could they give me a persuasive answer about why it is said and why it is important to say? How did they bridge the divide between tradition and change? Their words had the potential to counsel and revive my spirituality.
What I learned through the process of my research was that there was no resolution to be found—no answer that would quiet my battles and the tension that many of my Orthodox interviewees experienced. What I found were a variety of rationalizations that often seemed to evade the insulting nature of the blessing. Nearly everyone I interviewed applied multiple explanations even if one line of logic contradicted another.
This tangle of answers, combined with my own daily struggle with the words “she lo asani isha,” has enabled me to become more comfortable with my religiosity and with spiritual tension. At the start of my interviews I was uncomfortable critiquing women’s roles within Jewish tradition and within many forms of Orthodoxy. I was uncomfortable because I felt the weight of being an outsider. How could I critique what I did not know—a world that I was not raised in? I did not feel that I had the right.
Immersing myself in the interpretations, both historical and contemporary, that surround “she lo asani isha,” I began to feel more at home with critique. I could listen, contest and judge from a place of greater knowledge and understanding. While I am without a resolution, and while I am still deeply troubled by this blessing, I am more at ease in my Jewish body. I can embrace my critiques of Judaism because I am battling with my faith, my Jewish tradition and my Jewish forbearers from a place of immense love.
Dr. Monique Katz, a member of JOFA’s Board of Directors, once shared a d’var Torah that has stuck with me for many years since.
She pointed out that we spend most of our time trying to initiate changes in our Orthodox community where we see injustice to women vis-à-vis the agunah issue, leadership roles in synagogues and on boards of Jewish institutions, and women’s participation in Jewish rituals. Human nature causes people to dwell on the bad things that happen rather than the good, so our news is just like the newspapers—when something good happens, we forget to include it in our report. But, Nicky said, when a rabbi makes a change that has a positive effect on women, we must remember to practice hakarat ha’tov—recognizing the good.
I was recently reminded of Nicky’s charge shortly before Passover when I was at Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue for my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. To my great surprise, a woman carried the Torah scroll through the women’s section. It was very moving to watch women kiss the Torah—some for the very first time, and to see their reactions. Once the Torah had been put away, Rabbi Lookstein announced that the woman who had carried the Torah was the vice president of the synagogue and had petitioned him to permit the women to bring this ritual, and kavod (honor), to the women’s section.
I saw Rabbi Lookstein that evening and made a point of going over to him and thanking him for making this change. He told me I was the only one to offer him praise, though he had received numerous negative comments from others.
I think it would make a huge difference if we all remembered to give thanks where and when it is due.
Thank you, Nicky.
We encourage you to give public recognition for good that has been done in your community. Please share your stories here, on JOFA’s Facebook page, or submit a blog entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Most importantly, be sure to thank the change-maker directly.
Michal Dicker shares her compelling story of growing into her Orthodox feminist identity. She originally submitted this essay to gain admissions to Barnard College, where she is now a senior, about to submit her senior thesis on the agunah crisis.
“Like mother, like daughter.” This comment often embarrassed me, as I tried to fit in with the girls in my Jewish Orthodox community. I strove to be anything but different—a futile endeavor. Despite my gregariousness, and social graces, my trendy outfits and popular rank, I was branded with an “F”—feminist—thanks to my progressive mom. As I grew older, I thought that I could remain impervious to her convictions but, fortunately for me, I failed. The vast majority of my mom’s opinions began to seem logical. To my own surprise, I found myself advocating her beliefs—specifically in my middle school Judaic classes, where the concept of equal opportunity barely existed. The stirrings of my feminist notions were conceived in a rather convoluted and unconventional manner.
In a class of twelve rambunctious girls who loved to get riled up, I became the resident feminist advocate. Initially, because of my expertise in the field of modern Orthodoxy, and being full of “leftist ideas,” I was the logical choice to play devil’s advocate with our ultra-Orthodox teachers who often stressed male superiority. To the astonishment of my classmates, I grew into the role; what were once strictly my mom’s thoughts and teachings, became my own. The debate with my teachers became a personal crusade to communicate the perspective of my centrist world. Most important to me was advocating the study of Talmud by girls and women, because the Talmud is the foundation for the development of Jewish law (halakha), to which both men and women are subject. I publicly confirmed my feminist beliefs when I took the plunge and read from the Torah to mark my bat mitzvah, a ritual recently revived by some Orthodox women. Although eager to advocate my beliefs, I was unprepared for the social ramifications. Much to my chagrin, I officially became known as “radical”, and I feared ostracism from my peers. I had not yet read The Scarlet Letter, and did not appreciate the concept of a modern-day “Hester.” Despite my display of independence, my good friends did not abandon me.
As I reflect upon this time, I now recognize the crucial role that it played in my personal development. I learned the importance of being psychologically independent; after voicing my “liberal” views, I could not assume that I would be supported. Like my former self, my friends aimed to blend in; many quickly deemed what they did not understand as “erroneous,” a fallacious mindset that still prevails in Jewish Orthodox communities. My indifference to peer pressure proved to be one of my most powerful tools. Both in the classroom and socially, I did not give in to my teachers and peers who did not want to understand. Those who stood by me taught me the importance of genuine friendship.
During this tumultuous time, I also discovered my passion for the pursuit of knowledge—and my adamant refusal to accept anything as fact without research. I attended feminist conferences, joined the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and became dedicated to educating myself and my peers on topics that related to women’s ritual participation and leadership opportunities in Orthodox Judaism. As I entered high school and gained equal access to Judaic texts, I was further inspired to continue on a feminist path. Armed with this power of knowledge and the support of my true friends and family, I have learned to feel comfortable with myself, and confident about my convictions. Now the phrase–“like mother, like daughter”– is the highest form of praise and a badge I wear with pride.
Michal submitted this in response to our call on Facebook for college application essays about Orthodox feminism. If you’ve got an essay sitting somewhere in your files that you’d like to share, send it on over to email@example.com.
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.
Orthodox feminism’s struggle for women’s leadership and ritual inclusion set a strong precedent for the recent consideration of the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. As JOFA supporter Dinah Mendes asserts in Moment Magazine, “LGBT traditional Jews share some similarities with traditional Jewish feminists; like them, they press against established gender boundaries and norms in their quest for more equal representation and involvement.”
“There is no new thing under the sun,” declared King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the literary, somewhat world-weary distillate of his lifetime experience. But if the wise old king were catapulted into our new gender relaxed world, would he still opine thus? Would he stick to his guns if the Sunday Times landed on his breakfast table, the “Vows” section filled with the nuptial announcements of gay couples? Or if he were to glance at the cover article of a recent Atlantic Monthly entitled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples,” positing the higher level of fulfillment enjoyed in many homosexual unions?
Although legally sanctioned anti-Semitism ensured Jewish cultural separatism and prevented full participation in the larger world for much of Jewish history, Jews living today are, for the most part, free to design the parameters of their dual citizenship. This is not much of an issue for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are largely self-insulating, or for relatively assimilated Jews at the other end of the spectrum, who are unburdened by the yoke of religious Jewish authority. Ultimately, only traditional and Modern Orthodox Jews, who aspire to inhabit and integrate two worlds, confront serious challenges at points where the values of the two cultures clash with each other.
Continue reading “Is There a New Judaism for Gender Identity?” at Moment Magazine.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
The story of Esther teaches us many things, amongst them, that timing is everything.
This year, the women’s Megillat Esther reading in Sydney, Australia marks its fifteenth year! We began in a private home with about thirty women. As the years went on and our numbers grew, we read the Megillah each year in various communal halls in Sydney. In 2013, for the very first time, we held our women’s Megillah reading in the main sanctuary of a Modern Orthodox synagogue! Over 25 women read from the Megillah for a total of 110 women in attendance.
This year we will have more women reading than ever before and, please God, a record number of women attending in celebration.
What can we, a group of women who have been gathering to read the Megillah for fifteen years, learn from the story of Esther? When we are looking for Hashem’s hand in Jewish history, we must take a long-term perspective.
The story of Esther seems like an unlikely, outrageous chain of events that follow one after another. During the course of the hour-long reading, the Jews go from the verge of annihilation to miraculous redemption. The events seem to occur in immediate succession, but actually Achashverosh ascended the throne a full twelve years before Mordechai and Esther step up and consolidate their political power.
In our twelfth year of reading Megillah – our “Bat Mitzvah” year – we gathered in a hall at the oldest and largest Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School in Sydney. It took some discussion, but we successfully gained permission from the rabbi of the school to hold the reading on the premises.
A young woman’s Bat Mitzvah is the point in her life when she enters adulthood and assumes responsibility for her own spirituality. As a consequence, the community takes her seriously. And so it was with our women’s Megillah reading. Our Bat Mitzvah year was a turning point – it was the year that the mainstream Orthodox community began to “take us seriously.”
We were excited to be in this new phase. Since then, we have gone from strength to strength. In year thirteen, we held two readings: The first was in the Jewish Day School, at which some of the readers were students of the school and the attendees included female students and teachers. For many women, this was the first time they had even heard of a women’s Megillah reading. The second reading that morning was held in the hall of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. Last year, we read the Megillah inside the sanctuary of that same synagogue. We are grateful to be meeting in the main sanctuary again this year.
We have followed the example of Queen Esther in working with some of the Modern Orthodox rabbis in our city: we ask for what we want, respectfully, assertively, and persistently. In this way, we have been able to grow and inspire more women to become involved.
A women’s Megillah reading celebrates Jewish women as the source of redemption and continuity. We hope that through our reading we can pass on to our daughters and to the next generation, our passion and enthusiasm for the story of Esther, our enhanced connection with the festival of Purim and the text of the Megillah and our love for and commitment to Judaism.