I’ve always really liked Purim. When I was younger, my main interest in the holiday was dressing up in fun costumes and eating hamentaschen. Although I still enjoy those aspects, I now appreciate Purim because it brings two independent women, Vashti and Esther, into focus. I’m certainly not the only one who has noticed Purim’s feminist quality; for decades, Orthodox women and men who are sensitive to gender issues have rallied around the holiday, taking Ta’anit Esther as an opportunity to talk about agunah and using Esther as an example of why Jewish women’s voices must be heard.
Although Mordecai is an integral part of the Purim story, Esther is undoubtedly the main character. However, based on the communal recitation of pesukim (verses) during the Megillah reading, one might think that Mordecai is the more important figure: of the four verses recited aloud by the congregation, three are specifically about Mordecai, and none invoke Esther. This erasure of Esther’s contributions to the story seems oddly dissonant with the overall feminist slant of the holiday. Consequently, some Orthodox feminists have begun to right this wrong and recite pesukim about Esther aloud as well.
Reciting pesukim out loud during Megillah reading is a minhag (practice) that dates back to the Gaonic period, although the verses of choice were not settled upon for another few centuries. Because the practice is purely minhag, there is no halakhic reason congregations can’t say additional pesukim about Esther out loud. Although reciting the four traditional pesukim has been part of the mesorah (tradition) for centuries, Judaism is a living religion that can and should be tweaked within the framework of halakha to remain contemporary.
For communities interested in introducing more gender parity to their Megillah readings, Kehillat Hadar has identified pesukim about Esther that are roughly parallel to those recited aloud about Mordecai. The first pasuk that we recite aloud, “In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Yair son of Shimi son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (2:5), can be accompanied by, “He was foster father to Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was striking and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter” (2:7).
As a parallel to 8:15, “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries,” perhaps recite Esther’s petition to Mordecai in 4:16, “‘Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!’”
In connection to “For Mordecai the Jew ranked next to King Ahaseurus and was highly regarded by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred” (10:3) can come “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll” (9:32).
If you would like to recite pesukim about Esther aloud, but you can’t find a Megillah reading in your area that does, you should organize your own! You can register your reading on JOFA’s Project Esther directory. If you’ve never leyned before, you can also learn how to do so by using JOFA’s Megillah leyning app. Whatever sort of reading you end up attending or organizing, the important thing to remember is to enjoy it! Purim is a time of unadulterated simcha, and we can’t let anything – even frustrating little bits of perceived sexism – to take away from our joy.
Inspired by the ubiquitous Venmo ads on the NYC Subway, comedian and former yeshiva student Eitan Levine came up with these:
Lucas’s take on Genesis:
Lucas loves Jewish feminist literature, too!
Don’t know the Feminist Ryan Gosling? Give yourself some cultural education and a few good laughs.
And of course, we couldn’t help ourselves:
I am a person who puts on, or “lays,” tefillin (phylacteries). I happen to be female. While my gender, to my mind, does not affect the nature of my performance of this mitzvah, it inevitably adds a layer of complexity to others’ perception of it. I constantly smack up against the tremendous double standard that is applied to women who perform mitzvot that are seen as “male,” both in my day-to-day life and in the communal discourse.
I was recently interviewed for a piece in the Times of Israel about high school girls who lay tefillin. The piece was, on the whole, interesting and balanced. In this article, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates the two most flawed and problematic ideas surrounding the concept of women and tefillin and most other “men’s” mitzvot. He questions the “seriousness” and motivation of the women who take on these mitzvot.
“For those people who are troubled by women putting on tefillin,” Rabbi Boteach says, “the message needs to be, ‘Fair enough, put on tefillin, but accompanied with a serious embracing of Talmud.’” In all my years as a halakhically observant Jew, it is only when it comes to women wearing tefillin and tzitzit (fringes) that “seriousness” is made a qualification for the performance of a mitzvah. Is a person who does not often make the blessings on food told not to bother praying mincha, the afternoon service? Is a person interrogated about how much Talmud they learn each day before they are encouraged to give to tzedakah (charity)? Since when does one have to meet a certain standard of observance, or “seriousness,” before one is given “permission” to perform mitzvot?
This issue of “seriousness” takes another form as well. I have often heard and read that it’s all well and good for “serious” women to lay tefillin, provided they do so every day. As a person who considers herself to have a binding halakhic obligation to lay tefillin, I can testify that I sometimes mess up. As a teenager who likes to sleep in, this is a difficult mitzvah for me to do, as I know it is for many of my peers. Despite my commitment to halakha and mitzvot, there have been Sundays when I have slept through my alarm and rushed out to teach Hebrew school without laying tefillin. I make mistakes; then I make a commitment to do better next time. But my “right” to lay tefillin is not contingent on my consistency. Do Chabad shluchim (ambassadors) only offer tefillin to men who don them daily? No. Mitzvot are mitzvot, and I do not need to prove my right to lay tefillin any more than my equally sleepy male friends do.
The second women-and-tefillin trope Rabbi Boteach employs is to question women’s motivation. “Judaism is not in a state where we can play games with it…If it’s to demonstrate [women] can do everything men can do, it’s not a spiritual motivation, rather politics, and that’s not favorable to Judaism. Assimilation is catastrophic. Let’s never forget the bigger picture.” Setting aside Rabbi Boteach’s ludicrous slippery-slope fallacy (women performing more mitzvot will lead to assimilation?), I will simply say to this: enough. I, and all other women, do not need to prove our motivation to you. We are seeking equality because it will bring us closer to God.
The dichotomy between religious and political motivations is a false one. Our demand to perform mitzvot to which we have been denied access is inherently political in a community where certain mitzvot, like tefillin, are indicators of power and masculinity. However, that does not make the mitzvah any less about God. Women’s performance of these mitzvot will enhance the Jewish community as a whole. By democratizing access to ritual practice, we can redefine “men’s mitzvot” simply as “mitzvot,” and thus change their function from an indicator of who’s a member of the “club” to an expression of commitment to God and Torah. By laying tefillin, I make a political statement about the moral and halakhic correctness of feminist innovation, evolution, and influence. This statement is a reflection of deep religious and moral convictions, and I am proud to make it.
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Anyone who knows me even a bit also knows that I thrive on social contact and interacting with people. However, during my year of mourning (avelut) for my father, I shied away from social situations. My guideline was: turn down the volume of my social life while turning up the volume of my family life. This gave me time and space to mourn and cherish my memories of my father while pondering my own role as a mother to my four children.
As I neared the end of this long year, a close friend gave me a valuable gift. About a month before the end she said: “Bracha, it’s time to start preparing yourself to step back into life.” Jewish law sets up a designated mourning period of a year for the loss of a parent. When this year comes to a close, we do not extend it as we are instructed by the Torah: “bal tosif” (do not add). When it is time – it is time.
My friend’s wise words made me mindful of this transition and allowed me time to think about how it would feel to socialize again and jump back in to life when the time came. It felt odd and a bit artificial at the beginning, but I was ready and prepared to shed my cloak of silence.
I shared this story with my Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Jeff Fox, and he pointed out that while the halakha helps enormously to transition into mourning, there are no set laws or customs to transition out of mourning. Indeed, without my friend’s counsel, it would have been much more jarring and difficult for me.
What Reb Jeff said made me realize the function of two beautiful customs created by women for women. These customs “bookend” the year of avelut, and help shape the transitions into and out of saying kaddish.
Ushering In: A woman from my community in Raanana, Israel sadly passed away from cancer after a valiant struggle. Among her children, she left triplet daughters. I went to their synagogue on the Shabbat during shiva to give comfort to both her husband and to Judi, the daughter who lives nearby. As I accompanied Judi upstairs to the women’s section after Kabbalat Shabbat (when the mourners enter the synagogue) she shared with me that the triplets had decided to take on saying kaddish together. Each sister chose a specific service: shacharit, mincha or arvit (morning, afternoon, or evening) to say kaddish each day for the entire year. I was moved to tears and hugged her in silent empathy.
As we walked into synagogue, I was surprised to see my friend Talia sitting and waiting as she doesn’t usually pray in that synagogue. She rose to greet the new mourner. That’s when it clicked – and fresh tears arose in my eyes- Talia had just finished her own year of saying kaddish for her father. She was there to accompany the new mourner at her first appearance in synagogue saying kaddish. Talia showed Judi when and where to say kaddish and she hugged Judi when tears slipped down Judi’s face. I could see how comforting it was for Judi to have Talia’s support as she ventured into this new space.
Escorting Out: My friends Sharon, Talia and others have marked the end of their year of avelut in a unique and special way. Each of them hosted a se’uda shlishit on the Shabbat following their last kaddish of the year. Only women with some connection to saying kaddish were invited. This included women who said kaddish three times a day, once a day, only on Shabbat and only on the yahrtzeit. There were also women who had attending minyan specifically to answer amen to other people saying kaddish.
At each gathering, there was a powerful feeling within this circle of Jewish women. We felt a strong link with each other – both through our personal loss and through our choice to step forward and give honor in our bereavement. There were palpable layers of warmth, understanding and comfort as we helped escort the avela (mourner) and (I felt) the neshama of the deceased as well. This tradition has been passed along — from woman to woman – marking the transition from actively saying kaddish to fading back into the general circle of congregants who answer amen.
The short conversation with Reb Jeff shed a new perspective for me on these and other recently created traditions. I believe that these customs have a much larger role to play in our spiritual lives. They help us celebrate life-cycle events, move through transitions and achieve closure after difficult ordeals.
I see empty spaces just waiting for us to fill. Let’s do it!
Check out A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish to explore the halakhic sources surrounding women and kaddish.
Recently, the Ritual Committee of my congregation, Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, asked its members whether we might occasionally allow Kabbalat Shabbat to be led by a woman. The question, spurred by requests from the daughters of several members and raised at a specially convened and very well-attended Seudah Shelishit before Rosh Hashanah, has set off a lively debate in the community, at times bordering on acrimonious.
People have threatened to leave the community if this change is adopted, or suggested that those in favor of it go elsewhere if that is what they want to do. Even the left–right political debates that have occasionally wracked our community have rarely been so divisive. Where it comes to politics, people want the other side to shut up; Where it comes to the debate over Kabbalat Shabbat, they want them to leave.
In a community like ours that pioneered the lengthwise partition and the customs of passing the Torah through the women’s section, women dancing with the Torah on the holiday of Simhat Torah, women’s Torah readings, women standing before the whole community to give divrei Torah and read the Megillot, and girls singing Shirat Hakavod, why is this particular question so divisive? Continue reading
I have two issues with the title of this blog post. For one thing, I should not have to ask permission from anyone for the right to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. Second, Rabbi? Shouldn’t a woman be the supervisor of a women’s mikveh? If I have a question regarding the mikveh, why should I have to turn to a man to plead my case?
There is a deeper issue here. Why should I have to plead my case at all? It is ridiculous that I need permission to immerse alone. Yet, this is how it is many mikvaot: without permission, the attendant will not allow me into the mikveh waters. Immersion in the ritual bath is an important mitzvah for me. But that’s precisely what it is: a mitzvah for me. This mitzvah is not for the rabbi, or the mikveh attendant. If I would like to immerse on my own, I should be able to, without questions, or strange facial expressions in response.
Even more baffling is where these rules come from. In certain communities, women are not allowed to immerse alone without the rabbi’s permission, but in other places in Israel, women are allowed to immerse on their own, no questions asked. How does that work? Who decides where and when women can be trusted on their own and when they cannot?
This entire question of immersing alone exacerbates for me what is already a challenging practice. For nearly 11 years, I have disliked going to the mikveh — in fact, I have dreaded it. Sometimes, the attendant has made it worse, such as once when the attendant asked me to dunk over twenty times, constantly changing positions. Or when I was told that I have to remove makeup from under my eyes when I was just tired. Or just the visceral experience of being watched as I walk in and out of the water. No matter how many times I am told that the attendants are not “really” looking at us, I cannot get past a profound discomfort. Even when mikveh attendants are nice, I don’t want them in the room with me when I immerse. I am just not comfortable having another person in the room with me when I am undressed.
The entire day of the immersion I am worried about who the mikveh attendant will be. Will she ask me questions? Will she insist on having me use bleach to remove stains from my nails? Will she insist that I still have make-up on? Will I have to cut my nails shorter? Will she look at me when I walk up and down the stairs, or will she only watch me once I am in the water?
Yes, the mikveh attendants are mostly nice. But even when they are “nice”, the experience is still incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling for me. All I am asking for is for the right to perform this mitzvah on my own, as I wish, without being watched as I am naked and vulnerable and having a private moment. This is my mitzvah and nobody else’s, and yet I have not been allowed to own it.
This changed when I discovered a mikveh where women are allowed to immerse alone. I found it on Facebook in a group called Advot, which is a round-table of women trying to make changes in mikveh practices in Israel. When someone in the group posted photos of the mikveh in her town. I replied that I would be happy to go to that mikveh if I could immerse alone. That night, I took a three hour drive for the experience of being able to immerse alone, to make the ritual and the body experience mine and only mine.
The desire to immerse without being observed by an attendant should be respected in the mikveh. Women should have the right to make that decision for ourselves, without having to beg a rabbi or anyone else.
I will be joining a conference organized by Advot on November 13 in Israel on the subject of women’s experiences of mikveh, so that we can speak about what needs to change. Let’s all talk about. It’s the only way to make the change.
The upcoming 8th International JOFA Conference will be highlighting new approaches to mikveh, with Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern. Join us at John Jay College, December 7-8, for this memorable and important event. For more information go to http://jofa2013.sched.org
This past Simchat Torah I had the fortune of dividing my time between two minyanim: the Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights and Yavneh, the Orthodox minyan at Barnard College, Columbia University. This was one of the first times that I attended Mount Sinai and I was, therefore, apprehensive about spending Simchat Torah in a potentially non-women friendly atmosphere.
For most of my life, I have not spent Simchat Torah night in the standard Orthodox synagogue environment. During my teenage years, I was often at a Bnei AkivaShabbaton. At Barnard, I danced on Simchat Torah night alongside Jews of a variety of denominations, an experience I certainly would not have had at any typical Orthodox Jewish congregation.
As I stood in the women’s section at Mount Sinai during hakafot, it occurred to me that this was the first time that I was choosing to be in an environment that did not involve women’s equal participation to the degree that halakha permits. In my mind, attending the shul in my hometown and the Orthodox minyan at Barnard were never really choices: they were options that were either familiar or available. Yet, exactly one month before the holiday, my husband and I celebrated our joint aufruf in which we both read from the torah at a partnership minyan. On my second shabbat in Washington Heights and for the first time in my life, I was choosing to daven at a shul with values inconsistent with my own.
But when Simchat Torah came around, I was pleasantly surprised! Mount Sinai presented women with two options: we could dance without a torah but in the same room as the men, or we could participate in women-led hakafot in the shul’s basement. If you are anything like me, when you read “dance without a torah,” you probably sighed inwardly. Then, upon seeing that the more “active” women were relegated to the basement, you probably became incensed!
I am here to report that what I originally conceived of as a mere basement rapidly transformed itself into a supremely vibrant and empowering environment. Women of all ages and of varying degrees of religiosity stood with their arms wrapped around sifrei Torah and led hakafot. The excitement was palpable. I danced with my friends conscious that our collective presence constituted the women’s hakafot experience. It was reassuring to realize that women can come together and create something meaningful of their own that feels neither forced nor apologetic.
The following morning, a sweaty 68 blocks and 2 avenues later, I arrived at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel pumped to continue the Simchat Torah celebrations. As I opened my arms to accept a Torah, I glanced across the mechitza: the fact that I was holding a Torah equal to the men was not lost on me.
After hakafot, for the fourth and final year, I participated in a Women’s Tefillah Group at Barnard sponsored by Jewish Women on Campus. I was proud to read shlishi 5 times; there were that many women who were excited to receive aliyot. Women were given the option of saying birchot hatorah, lamdeini chukecha, or nothing at all. This environment, too, did not fully reflect my religious beliefs. It was thrilling, nonetheless, to be surrounded by women learning from one another and making informed religious choices that enhanced their celebration of the Torah. I loved that women who had never received aliyot would provide the gabbait with both their mother and father’s names before being called up to the torah—like it was the most normal thing in the world!
While in general I prefer to pray in a partnership minyan, my Simchat Torah experience at Mount Sinai and Columbia/Barnard reminded me of how crucial it is to support women in celebrating the torah in whichever context they choose to pray.
Hi, my name is Constance Bearman and I’m 12 years old. In the summer, I went on a Masorti summer camp called Noam, even though I am Orthodox. Of course, there were many things that were unfamiliar to me and that weren’t consistent with my personal beliefs, but before I went my mother and I agreed to go knowing that I ‘respect what they do, but it isn’t what I do,’ and I was perfectly happy with this, until it got me thinking.
I had never questioned the ways of Orthodoxy, or the general routine of my shul. I knew that women sat at the back together, and definitely weren’t as involved in the service as the men were, and I had accepted this without much thought. But after this summer camp, I started to question the justifications of this set-up in shul.
We are now in the 21st century, and women are very lucky to have equal opportunities in our lives to men, although this may not be true in all countries. I have often heard that ‘the role of the Jewish woman is to take care of the home.’ I think this is fine, but I don’t see why this should be the only role of the Jewish woman. Thousands of years ago, women rarely went to shul, and so their role was to bring up the children and take care of the home. But now, women are just as educated and spiritual, so why can’t we participate as well? Women who attend synagogue regularly are denied access to ritual and prevented from participating even though there is no halachic prohibition for them not to do so apart from the fact that it just has not been ‘done’ until now.
Take a typical Shabbat in my shul. The service will be run by a Rabbi, and laining will be done by men in the congregation. Not once is a woman asked or given the opportunity to participate. I do not want to be doing exactly the same things as men, and I want to make sure everything I do is within the laws of halacha. That is very important to me.
My ultimate question, however, is this: If there is no reason why certain things can’t be done or changed, why haven’t they been changed already? A friend of my mother’s was once told, ‘If you want to be doing more in shul, come to shul every morning at 6:30, then we’ll talk.’ This bothers me. After all, does every man in the congregation come to shul every morning at 6:30? No! Yet they still get to participate in the service. So why should women have to practically ‘prove’ our spirituality and dedication by coming to shul at 6:30 every morning if the men don’t have to?
I recently went to the very hospitable home of Dina Brawer and her husband Rabbi Naftali, as I had a lot of questions that my mother felt Dina and Rabbi Naftali could answer. And of course, mothers know best and she was absolutely right. I had so many burning questions that I definitely needed answering and I definitely got just that. I also found out about JOFA, and the amazing work that they do for people that feel the same way I do. I realised there was a whole community that felt the same way I do!
Having realised this, I am sure you are all reading the words of a very active and passionate new member of the JOFA community. Even though I don’t think I can make it to the International Conference in New York in December in person, I send you best wishes for what is going to be an amazing event!
Finally, I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to know that there are so many people that feel the same way I do, and to know that in the end we all want to achieve the same goal.
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!