This is the second post in a two-part series of blog posts written by high school students. We encourage you to engage in constructive conversation with the authors around these posts. Read the first post here.
Each morning, my first destination is my living room. I take out my siddur and tefillin (unless it’s Shabbat, of course) and I pray the Shacharit service as my family bustles around. As I finish, I swap out my tefillin and siddur for a gemara to study. My day continues on, and between my chavrutas—studying with friends—and teaching at Hebrew school, my Jewish practices are hardly put aside. Meals are symbolized in both start and finish with blessings, and the chunks of the day are split up by my recitation of Mincha and Ma’ariv.
Somehow, because of these practices, I am “not Orthodox.”
The fact is: I am Orthodox.
Yet, I’m living in a paradox. When I say I want to daven (pray) more, I’m considered less religious. I take on more practices, suddenly, I’m less religious. I want a leadership role in my community’s prayer, I’m less worthy of actually being in my community. This attempt to purify the Orthodox community from people who practice differently—or rather, different people who practice—isn’t going to work. When we do this, we’re simply shutting doors on people who are committed to and in love with Judaism. Pushing me out won’t fix the problems, won’t stop the questions; it will merely slow down the process of change.
The problem is that the Orthodox community no longer defines itself as a group of people who are committed to Judaism. Rather, it is a group of people who are committed to a particular version of Judaism—a gendered Judaism. I believe it is time for a new paradigm of commitment to mitzvot, and a new paradigm for Orthodox Judaism.
Mitzvot are Mitzvot
Gender is not prescriptive of the ways that a person connects to religion. There is no such thing as male spirituality or female spirituality. Some women want to lay tefillin while some men don’t; some women want to be religious leaders while some men don’t. As an Orthodox community, we can either push away the women deeply committed to mitzvot on account of gender roles, or push away the gender roles on account of a deep commitment to mitzvot. I recommend the latter.
Mitzvot are mitzvot, and people who keep them are observant Jews. Do I believe that everyone (who takes on halakhic obligation) is equally obligated in tefillin regardless of their gender identity? Yes. But we shouldn’t try to build a community based on forcing people to perform mitzvot out of obligation; we should build a community of people who perform mitzvot out of commitment—out of acceptance of obligation. Of the male peers I know that pray every day, an absurdly low percentage care about it—yet they do it because they are told they must. Forcing all boys to keep mitzvot and coercing all girls not to generally results in resentment on both ends.
But somehow, that’s what it has come to. We’ve decided it’s better—for the sake of tradition—to build our foundations on boys who wish they didn’t have to go to minyan and girls who wished someone would ask them to. If, instead, we didn’t ask anyone to come to minyan, and merely counted on having enough interested members of our community commit to be there, I believe we would not only be able to maintain a minyan but it would be a happier one than ours is now.
Bringing In, Not Pushing Away
For those of you who are thinking, “But we have communities that are egalitarian and halakhic, why does Orthodoxy need to budge?” I have a simple question. What would happen if halakhic egalitarian communities started calling themselves Orthodox? If they simply pointed out that they are observant in every way that observance matters to us—merely disregarding gender and gender roles—and they are therefore still Orthodox, we would be a larger Orthodox community. If every time someone interprets halakha—not disregarding, but understanding it in a new light—we bring in rather than push away, the vibrancy of the Orthodox community can remain strong.
It would be simpler for me to stop calling myself Orthodox because it would mean I could do what I want. I could have an easy pass to interpret halakha any way I want. To anyone who argues with me I would simply say “I’m not one of you.” But I am. I’m an involved, committed, interested Jew and that’s about as you, Orthodoxy, as I can get. Even though it would be easier to take myself out—away from a place that judges and resents me—I don’t. If I let Orthodoxy’s inertia win, then in ten years, when my sister struggles with the same feelings of religious pride and fear of abandonment, I will have done her no good. I will have opened a door that closes right behind me as soon as I walk out through it. I have told her that she must either blend in or bow out, but she cannot be a red flower in a field of white. There is no value for the Orthodox to keep pushing away those who care about it—so I’m going to take the fact that I don’t budge easily and use it to keep having hard conversations. I’m going to keep bringing up difficult subjects, and I’m going to keep looking for answers. And every time I am pushed aside, my questions ignored or my answers rejected, I will still be just as much of an Orthodox Jew. It’s not just about affiliation, it’s about community. I am halakhically egalitarian and communally Orthodox—that needs to be a legitimate option.
I’m not going to stop praying. I’m not going to stop observing halakha. I’m not going to stop having pride in my religion. The question is whether or not you’re going to support me.
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I was sitting in synagogue beside a beautiful, ornate, wood carved mechitzah when I saw something I had never noticed before. The Gabbai, while checking if the congregation was done praying the Shemonah Esrei and if the leader should continue with the prayers, looked over to my side of the mechitzah. It was only then, as a senior in college, that I realized what I had been missing—a prayer community that acknowledges and values women’s presence.
I have never really been interested in women’s prayer groups as I feel that communal prayer is about community and mine includes all people, men and women. While I won’t argue with their validity, I also have never been a proponent of egalitarian style minyanim, prayer communities, as I am very okay with the fact that I, with a nursing baby and no eruv have a different halakhic requirement for praying with a minyan, quorum, than men do. But, I am also not okay with the fact that I am often all alone in the women’s section for the first hour and a half of synagogue services on Shabbat morning and for all of synagogue services on Shabbat afternoon.
My family normally attends a small Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn where my husband is the rabbi. On two occasions this year, we have gone away for Shabbat. When we arrived in synagogue on Shabbat morning, the first thing my daughter asked was, “why is there no one on our side?” and then she ran to the men’s side to be with Daddy.
Orthodox Judaism, you are failing me as a mother! I have never felt like a lesser member in an Orthodox synagogue than at that moment.
How was what I did in synagogue any different than what my husband was doing? Or for that matter, what most of the men were doing? When it comes down to numbers, only about 3-8 men are up on the bima, podium, leading or visibly participating in the service for those three hours on Shabbat morning. It was not until that college Gabbai turned to check that the women were done with Shemonah Esrei that I realized that I want the synagogues in my daughter’s future to make a much more conscious effort to make her feel like an important member of the community. In our small synagogue there is no noticeable difference between the two sides of the mechitzah (as I said, we’re a small synagogue to begin with), but in all too many Orthodox synagogues the women’s section is lacking in numbers of attendees, as well as space.
My daughter was born on Tisha B’Av, which excited me because it means that she could have a truly purposeful Bat Mitzvah. Instead of reading a speech in synagogue written by her grandfather, like I did (and even that was pretty progressive), she has a variety of meaningful options. She can learn to read the Book of Eicha, Lamentations. She can make a siyum (celebrate the completion) on Eicha or on select selichot. Those projects have lasting purpose. They are transferrable skills. She could reuse her skills and read Eicha every year on Tisha B’Av.
Recently, my synagogue began a women’s megillah reading program. As I prepared to read Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, on Passover, and the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, I thought about making sure that my daughter was up in the main synagogue while I read so that she could see her mommy doing “something important” in synagogue. I then realized that the point of all this is to normalize women’s participation. She should be able to miss my megillah reading sometimes, just like she sometimes misses her daddy’s Torah reading. Women’s participation shouldn’t be special, it should be normal. She should think, “Mommy and Daddy both go to synagogue and sometimes Daddy leads prayers and Mommy can read me a book, but then sometimes Mommy is busy praying and Daddy can get me water.” If my megillah reading is special, then it is not common place.
Sadly, the “normal” in today’s Orthodox synagogue is an empty or half empty women’s section until two hours into the service. As a larger community, we need to look deeper and question why this has happened and then instill policies that can ameliorate this problem.
Is the problem child care? Then let’s start children’s groups at the same time as services, or let’s be more accepting of children’s noise. Let us even go so far as to create a dark, quiet space for babies to nap.
Is the problem a lack of opportunities for women to get involved? Then let’s invite and encourage women to read the prayers for the government and for the State of Israel. Let’s pass the Torah around the entire synagogue. Let’s have two Hoshanah circles during Sukkot—one for women and one for men. Everyone should be able to dance with and celebrate the Torah!
The question that needs to be asked is: How do we make sure that everyone is valued the same whether they are male or female? How can we create Orthodox synagogues that value our daughters as important members of the community?
Gabbais should always know to check the women’s side to make sure that they are ready for the next section of prayers, and there should always be a packed house looking back.
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When I think about Shavuot, the first image that pops into my head is a mob of Israelites gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, impatiently waiting to receive the Torah amidst shofar blasts, smoke, and lightning. This image inevitably triggers Merle Feld’s poignant poem, “We All Stood Together,” and Judith Plaskow’s iconic book, Standing Again at Sinai. Both of these feminist texts explore women’s absence from Jewish tradition and from the moment of revelation and explore the ways that Judaism can transform itself to become more inclusive. I am well aware that feminism and gender are essential lenses for my Jewish experience (after all, I do work at JOFA) but I was a bit surprised that my subconscious had designated Shavuot as a holiday of exclusion. The Torah tells us that women, along with men, were present at Mt. Sinai, and the Midrash, rabbinic commentary, teaches that all of the souls of future generations of Jews were present at Sinai. That seems relatively egalitarian. Upon further thought, I realized that Ruth, the protagonist of our Shavuot narrative, embodied the marginalization that I was sensing and that Shavuot is an appropriate time to engage with the topic of exclusion.
Ruth is a woman, a widow, a convert, a penniless immigrant, and a Moabite (a different, hated race forbidden from entering the Jewish people). She is an outsider in every sense of the word. And yet, she is at the center of our Shavuot story, and at the core of the narrative of the Jewish people, as the great-grandmother of King David.
On many holidays, we focus on the ways that Jews were excluded, marginalized, and victimized by other cultures. On Hanukkah, we were oppressed by the Greeks. On Passover, we were enslaved by the Egyptians. On Tisha B’Av, we were victimized by the Babylonians and the Romans. All of these holidays memorialize times when Jews were marginalized as a nation. Ruth is notable because she was marginalized by the Jewish people. She was an outsider in the Jewish community. Yes, Ruth was ultimately a “success story.” She converted to Judaism, married Boaz, a wealthy and prominent land owner in the community, and gave birth to Oved, the grandfather of King David. She ultimately overcame these disadvantages and was accepted into our Jewish narrative as the great-grandmother of King David and the paradigm of chesed, loving kindness, and selflessness. However, we should not focus solely on the end of the story, to the exclusion of her other identity markers. The story of Ruth should remind us of the ways that the Jewish community is still segmented, and should serve as an opportunity for us to explore the way that our community treats other individuals within the Jewish community, those who are “Other” because of their gender, their race, their socioeconomic or religious background.
On Shavuot, we have the rare opportunity to sit with our communities and study texts into the wee hours of the night until daybreak. Tikkun Leil Shavuot is an alternate reality with ebbing and flowing cycles of intensity—caffeine buzzes, catnaps, sugar rushes, crashes after the first few cups of coffee and pieces of cheesecake wear off. It can be a dreamy time, learning underneath the stars, finishing up that final chevrutah as the birds start chirping and the sun rises, eagerly anticipating receiving the Torah anew, and imagining what our ideal Jewish community should look like.
We have the opportunity to examine the big questions: What does it mean to receive the Torah? How does the Torah impact us all differently? How do we engage with the more difficult, exclusionary aspects of the Torah and halakhah? How can we build a more inclusive community? A more committed community? How can we create a community that would welcome and accept Ruth, a community that values and encourages the equal contributions of women to our ritual community? How will the Torah help us build the Jewish world that we are craving?
This Shavuot, let’s embrace the opportunity to discuss those big questions, and explore ways to build the more equitable Jewish community that we crave. We could start by inviting more women to teach classes and address the congregation from the bima, including mothers’ names in ketubot and aliyot, offering more childcare options during prayers and classes, or simply welcoming everyone with a warm smile, and the question, “How would you like to participate in our community?”
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.