With great fanfare, David Zvi Kalman and Joshua Schwartz announced their production of a new, “egalitarian and queer-inclusive” bencher, Seder Oneg Shabbos. A bencher is a booklet containing the grace after meals and other prayers and songs said at the table and is often given out at weddings as a souvenir. As someone with a dining room drawer full of well-used egalitarian benchers, some decades old, some from my wedding 18 years ago, I initially wondered what the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos was, besides its incredibly beautiful typesetting and illustrations. Seder Oneg Shabbos was preceded by a wide variety of benchers that have come out in the past twenty five years that use egalitarian language in English and Hebrew and are in other ways sensitive to gender inequalities: Nashir Unevarech (Reconstructionist, 1992), Mizmor Shir (unofficial Conservative, 1993), Anim Zemirot (Independent, 1999), Mikdash M’At (Reform, 2005), Yedid Nefesh (Independent, 2009) and L’chu N’ran’nah (Havurah, 2010).
What makes Seder Oneg Shabbos egalitarian? It has gender-neutral God language in English, optional insertions of our female ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) along with the male (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). But so do all the other egalitarian benchers that preceded it. Traditional benchers include Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, the traditional song from Proverbs sung weekly by husbands to their wives praising their housekeeping duties. Most egalitarian benchers either excluded it or included a parallel song Ashrei Ish, Praised is the Man (Psalm 112), to be sung to men. Eshet Chayil was omitted or partnered with Ashrei Ish, because associating women primarily with housework or having women be the focus of public ritual only once a week was not in keeping with the modern roles envisioned by the creators of the egalitarian benchers. Seder Oneg Shabbos includes Eshet Chayil, and purposefully illustrates it with an image of a woman in battle, but this is not as strong as statement as omitting it or making a parallel version for men.
Seder Oneg Shabbos also includes wording that is suitable for same-sex couples in the invitation to prayer used at weddings, which is really new, but not as comprehensive in terms of LGBT inclusions as innovations that have come out of Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue that recently issued its own prayer book. For example, it is unlikely they would have included a hymn for female spouses but not male ones. Beyond that queer-friendly insertion, however, the innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is not its egalitarianism.
The innovation of Seder Oneg Shabbos is its desired audience. Seder Oneg Shabbos, according to its authors, is intended to be used in Modern Orthodox communities as well as non-Orthodox ones. Kalman and Schwartz color-coded the inclusionary language so those who want to use only the traditional Orthodox text can just skip over anything colorful. While the simple presence of inclusionary language will probably mean that the vast majority of traditional Orthodox communities will not use or buy this bencher, its release is a real milestone. It means the authors think that there are enough Modern Orthodox Jews who will make this a viable bencher.
The initial reaction of some liberal Jews to the announcement of an Orthodox-friendly egalitarian bencher, was anger that all their efforts beforehand to create egalitarian and queer-friendly benchers which made this bencher possible went unacknowledged. The authors mention they include “a number of common egalitarian insertions.” Those insertions became common through the work of liberal Jews and that debt is not really acknowledged. It is true that what is done by liberal Jews and seen as heretical by one generation of American Orthodoxy, becomes commonplace for their Orthodox grandchildren (like hosting Bat Mitzvahs and baby namings for girls in synagogues). But for observant liberal Jews to focus on that frustration is missing a real and significant opportunity.
The focus should not be on the different paths taken to arrive at this place but instead we should rejoice in the fact, exemplified by the optimistic release of this bencher, that there are many modern Jews from various backgrounds seeking egalitarianism, inclusion, modern liturgy and rich, text-based observance.
All those who use egalitarian benchers, from the earlier liberal ones to this new Orthodox-friendly one, need to see how similar they are as Jews, get together, have an intense philosophical discussion over a meal, and bench together out of the same bencher. Ki va moed. The time has come.
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There are several things that happen when a stone is thrown into a lake. First, the stone pierces the top layer of the water creating a splash. Second, ripples undulate on the surface. Third, the stone plunges downward until it lands atop the lake’s floor. What is most visible is what occurs on the surface. We are less aware of the layers that the stone cuts under the water; of the muck it disturbs when it hits “rock bottom.” It is the alleged crime, perpetrated against unsuspecting women at Kesher Israel’s mikveh, which has unearthed fears of unchecked religious power.
If the allegations are true, the women who entered the bathroom of the mikveh—the regulars, converts, students—they represent that which is most directly and egregiously violated by the breach. Still, others are stabbed by the deception: the mikveh attendants, congregants, colleagues, family. Even less transparent, however, are the ripple effects that cascade down and out, disturbing unconscious layers of lived experiences.
Fast-forward to Friday night, just ten days after the news broke. I am sitting at Kabbalat Shabbat at the Modern Orthodox synagogue that I attend. I am the only woman there, until one trickles in, then another. I go into Friday night services as many do, with the intention of leaving the week behind and entering a space that extends beyond time. Mincha, led by one of the men in the community, shifts into the beautiful tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat. I close my eyes and sing along. All at once, as the leader begins singing Shiru L’Hashem, five men rush the bima, podium, with undaunted energy. Indeed, it is a beautiful sight: men singing blissfully in harmony together. Nonetheless, it is precisely at this moment, at a time when they likely feel the most connected, that I feel the least connected. In fact, I feel horribly disconnected. Marginalized. A feeling that I am not unused to; one that I have struggled with for the last twenty four years as my husband and I have chosen to raise our selves and our family in a Modern Orthodox community.
Overall, what I cherish about the community outweighs what I grapple with. Raising a family with a commitment to shomer Shabbat observance, particularly in the era of being plugged in 24/7, is a blessing in our life. But, this Shabbat, I feel sucker punched, overwhelmed with a heightened negative emotion that causes me to literally get up and walk out of services.
Was it the experience of watching the physical presence of a group of men– all of whom, by the way, I respect and count as friends—commandeer the space that triggered my reaction? Was it the fact that they and our Orthodox spiritual male leaders can’t possibly know what it is like to have the lived-experience as a woman in an Orthodox synagogue where there are so many things that we are not permitted to do, like join the men in their drum and dance circle, merely because of the fact that we are women? Was it the fact that the mechitza, something that I have mostly come to appreciate over the years, stood there that evening as a symbol of banishment? I’m incredulous: how is it that in the year 2014 I feel so deeply the pangs of second class citizenship?
Why tonight have I found myself having such an unusually strong reaction to observing the men at the bima? After all, this collective step-up to the amud happens with regularity at our synagogue, and, I often find my private way to cope with and move beyond the separation. Why was this week different? Because this week, the allegations were in the back of my mind. Because if true, the act of allegedly secretly videotaping women in the mikveh tramples on a deep public trust, a trust bestowed readily by congregants on their Orthodox rabbinic leaders. Any use of power to bastardize authority at the expense of those most vulnerable represents the deep and dirty muck at the bottom of the lake. Absolute power corrupts. Who is watching the gatekeepers of our halakhot, of our rituals?
Tears welled up in my heart as I instinctively raced out of the room and into the main sanctuary, which thankfully happened to be alight and utterly empty. Bursting into the space on the “men’s side,” I took a seat right behind the bima which stands in the center of the room. My friend, who had followed me out, sat with me and we talked. Two women talked, yet again, about our frustrations secondary to the fact that there are many things women are halakhically permitted to do, but that still aren’t permitted by the Orthodox rabbis. We talked about the lack of standardization of practice in Orthodox communities around the world. We agonized at the disconnect we felt between advances made in our secular lives and the great lag that appears to follow in the Orthodox world.
Our talking, however, did not leave me feeling better. I remained agitated. Affixed in our seats, quietly at first, my friend and I spontaneously began singing Mizmor L’David. I found myself rising up, standing squarely at the bima, she following in tow. We started in on a soulful Lecha Dodi, our voices rising synchronously and spontaneously in volume, in rhythm. We began to pound intuitively on the amud with increasing vigor; to circle the amud just as we have witnessed the men do week after week. We didn’t consciously come into the space to “take back the night,” but, that is what we did instinctively together. Creating a holy space through active participation, through action. In Orthodoxy, part of my “woman-self” comes into synagogue uplifted and comforted by the amazing women around me; but, another part of my “woman-self” is wholly and systematically muted.
If true, the rabbi’s alleged crime highlights a fundamental challenge for Modern Orthodoxy in the twenty first century. To be sure, there are practical problems that require immediate solutions. Women need additional protections to foster safety and trust and to optimize the sacred that must exist in the experience of mikveh. However, there are halakhic matters relevant to Modern Orthodox Judaism that require additional unpacking. There are deep and divisive issues which must be explored openly by the Orthodox community.
When JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, put on their first conference years ago, I remember hearing Blu Greenberg speak in the context of the agunah about the notion that: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” This purported act of total desecration of trust should serve as wake-up call to all those rabbis in positions of power. The time is now. The muck is calling out from the deep. Do the right thing. Express your rabbinic wills.
Vashti is a heroine of the Purim story because she chose not to expose her naked body to the Court despite the King’s requests. Unfortunately, she is put to death because of this. Esther, on the other hand, wins the King’s favor, survives and saves the entire Jewish people! The Purim story seems relevant to an analysis of the Washington D.C. mikvah case and to support the idea that the mikvah should stay open for women to immerse during the day.
When my husband Jeffrey and I first heard about the arrest two weeks ago, we immediately started following the news, recognized the hidden camera device from the mikveh, and decided to go to the Washington D.C. courthouse to report our story to the prosecutors and witness the court proceedings. After we volunteered to speak to the media, our video and story appeared on television and in print. This brought us more fame than ever before. But, according to our local Orthodox rabbi, speaking to the media was not the right thing to do.
Because we publicly spoke out against Rabbi Freundel, and supported the allegations against him, we have been made to feel unwelcome in our Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi specifically told us not to speak about the allegations against Freundel, which he considered to be lashon hara. On Simchat Torah, the synagogue’s founder came over to me and silenced a discussion I was having with my husband, Jeffrey, and the rabbi of a retirement home about the violation. An October 20 statement by the Vaad Hakashrus of Greater Washington illustrates the hostility we feel directed at us. The statement essentially sides with the accused by invalidating testimony made by only one witness. However, my testimony was in addition to six other witnesses documented anonymously by the court. Despite the Vaad’s claim to reach out to potential victims, we have not heard one word of support or assistance from our affiliated synagogue’s rabbi who worked closely with Rabbi Freundel on halakhic matters.
How could we be quiet when leaders of the community seemed to side with a criminal? As the mikvah’s hidden camera likened us to a blindfolded Vashti, our rabbi preferred to be blind and deaf and to ignore our story. We had to leave the hostile environment. In contrast, the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue right next door delivered a supportive message on Shabbat Bereshit.
On Simchat Torah, we are supposed to dance and celebrate with the Torah. But, the Orthodox synagogue added salt to our wounds. No one tried to console us, we were told repeatedly to keep quiet and to try to enjoy the holiday and watch men dance with the Torah. But, ignorance is not bliss. Ignoring this most high-profile case, a hillul hashem, reinforced a problem within the community. Voluntary blindness or brushing warning signs under the rug may be why such a violation could have happened in the first place. The truth is black and white.
The Torah tells us to be God-like, taking guidance from the thirteen Divine attributes. God is all-seeing, but is not a voyeur. God is perfect. May we all learn to make good decisions by acting in God-like ways.
Changing leadership structures and setting up rabbinic oversight committees may remedy the problems of abuse of power, but there should also be changes to the mikvah itself. Typically, Orthodox mikvahs are only open to women at night, ostensibly to preserve the women’s privacy. In light of the recent mikvah violations, women’s privacy cannot be guaranteed in the morning or in the night, so only opening a mikvah at night to protect a woman’s privacy is ridiculous. Daytime hours may better protect women by encouraging them to speak up when something is not right. Daytime hours could remove the stumbling block from the blind.
The Orthodox mikvah is a protected, private place for women and converts. Only a woman’s husband needs to know when she immerses, converts rarely reveal that they converted, and it is halakhically permitted to lie in order to safeguard the privacy of one’s immersion in a mikvah. Encouraging women and converts to hide the powerful experience of immersing in a mikvah and distracting them with the additions of a spa-like atmosphere further encourages them to ignore supposedly minor details such as who else is at the mikvah, who is in charge of the mikvah, and whether there is any impropriety at the mikvah. Now more than ever, we must adapt the culture of secrecy and retreat surrounding the Orthodox mikvah. The mikvah can be a great place to reach higher emotional and spiritual levels, and the evening-only secretive spa-like atmosphere is unnecessary. Simplifying the mikvah and changing the opening hours to be more flexible are just steps in the direction of removing the stigma surrounding the mikvah.
In the Purim story, God is the elephant in the room. This Simchat Torah, the mikvah case was the elephant in the room. While Vashti lost her life and may have made the wrong choice by refusing to do the King’s bidding, both she and Esther acted out of free will. We can choose which mikvah to go to, but also whether to go to any mikvah at all.
Women need to speak up about mikvah, especially since it is one of the three mitzvot directly commanded of women. Women should not be embarrassed or silenced about using the mikvah. It is time to shed light on the mikvah, bring it out of the dark, and open the mikvah during daytime hours.
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In my mind, the definitive tale of sisterhood was not the conventionally chosen classic, Little Women, but rather the All-of-a-Kind Family series. To eight-year-old me, those books were perfection: I read them like they were scripture. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie (and Charlie, born later and the only boy) probably shaped my vision of what family and sisterhood should be. True, they were a poor immigrant family at the turn of the 20th century living in the Lower East Side and I was a not poor, not immigrant child, not living at the turn of the 20th century, living in Toronto, but subtlety was never my strong point.
Those sisters did it right. They went to the library, they bought penny candy, and they had Shabbat dinner. Sure, Henny was a troublemaker and Sarah even lost a library book once, but even in their delinquency I loved them.
All this goes to explain that somewhere, deep inside of me, I always thought I’d be a mother of girls. I blame Sydney Taylor and her glorious books. I thought I’d be a mother of daughters. They’d love each other and fight with each other and braid each other’s hair. Instead, I had one daughter (off to a great start, I thought) and then four boys.
My daughter was born five weeks early. We didn’t have time (or foresight) to pick out a name and, perhaps more significantly, figure out how to celebrate her birth with a Simchat Bat ceremony. It turns out that when you grew up as a Modern Orthodox Feminist (all words that are so charged with multiple meanings that I could easily be persuaded to align myself with none of them as well as all of them) and you have a girl, it becomes a pretty big deal. At least, it became a really big deal to me. Add all of that anxiety of how to properly welcome a girl into a society which has no organized ritual in place for girl-welcoming, to sleepless nights and crazy hormones and you have… me and my very patient, very thoughtful husband sitting up at 3 am the night before our daughter’s Simchat Bat collecting prayers, wishes and quotes on how to raise a daughter which we turned into centerpieces on each table. Think Dr. Seuss meets Rashi.
At the ceremony, I stumbled through some Dvar Torah welcoming our baby and expounded on the need to create a way to embrace daughters. I probably talked for too long and maybe got a bit preachy, but we served really good cake so I think people were kind enough to let it slide.
I love/hate the murkiness of raising a daughter in this world. I get it right sometimes and I get it so very wrong some times (like yesterday, I got it wrong yesterday). At what age does she attend a women’s megillah reading with me? Is it okay for me to separate her from her friends in synagogue so that she joins me and my agenda? If she isn’t comfortable with my version of Simchat Torah, do I tread lightly or turn it into a teachable moment? And all of that angst is okay.
What would Sydney say? She has become a de facto guru of mine. I look to her for wisdom. And I read my daughter All-of-a-Kind Family as soon as she could understand the words.
For great content and networking on the subject of ritual innovation, join us for the JOFA UnConference November 23, 2014. Learn more.
“Are you going to fast on Yom Kippur?” “Are you going to try not to eat until chatzot, midday?” These were the questions my friends and I were discussing around the age of 10 and 11. We had never considered that there would be a period of time in our future when we would have to ask those questions again. As an 11-year-old, I proudly shared that I fasted before I was obligated. It wasn’t until over a decade later that I would begin grappling with these questions again.
Although the questions remain the same, the circumstances and process for coming to an answer has changed. As a child, I did not ask a rabbi what I should be doing. I knew the general custom and practice amongst my peers, and made my own decision accordingly. I did not feel an ounce of guilt if I broke my fast early. Ironically, the process looks very different for adult women who are either pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive.
As Yom Kippur is rapidly approaching, a number of articles and posts on this topic have arisen. Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, who has spoken on this issue in the past, recently published “Pregnant and Nursing Women Fasting on Yom Kippur-Reflections” on Morethodoxy.
This piece followed her shiur, “Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call?”, disseminated by JOFA this past Tisha B’Av. Her shiur spurred a great discussion on my personal Facebook wall. Women shared stories of reluctantly fasting, nervous of the effect that it would have on their unborn children or their nursing supply. I recall one woman in particular giving an hourly update of the wails of her nursing child. She had decided that since her child was almost one year old, and eating supplementary food, that she would fast. For whatever reason, her child was refusing solid food on that particular day. The mother had made her decision before the fast, and despite the change in circumstances, would not revisit her decision. It was painful to read her account on that day.
We all make our own decisions of what to eat when pregnant, how to exercise, what to exclude from our diets, whether or not to nurse, etc. Fasting while pregnant or nursing seems to be a decision unlike others. This is one area with which many observant women, throughout the spectrum of the Orthodox community, grapple and are left feeling uneasy no matter the outcome. Guilt is always the result. Women feel guilty for “breaking the fast early” or for not properly nourishing their children. Even if breaking the fast entails eating according to defined shiurim (a halakhic measurement of food permissible according to biblical law) once an hour, the guilt remains. If one chooses to fast for the duration, the guilt remains.
One cannot ignore the spike in pregnant women being admitted to the hospital during and following Yom Kippur. While it may be “okay” to fast while nursing, it can, and has, lowered or diminished milk supply for many women, including a number of women that I know.
A good friend of mine was eagerly following the Facebook discussions born from Maharat Kohl Finegold’s shiur. She had already been nursing her then nine-month-old, and decided to fast on Tisha B’Av. She knew that she wanted to wean him in the coming months, and figured that it would seem inauthentic to eat on Tisha B’Av with that in mind. She was uncomfortable because she felt as if she was trying to rationalize why she should not have to fast without any strong support for this decision. This led to her coming to a stringent decision to completely abstain from water and food throughout the fast day. While she had been nursing her child three to four times a day, her child refused to nurse from the tenth of Av and on. She is not positive why it ended, but, most likely, it was because her milk supply had diminished. Anecdotally, my friend’s story is far from unique.
As children, we were confident in our decisions whether or not to fast, because we were not halakhically obligated. As noted in the articles cited below, there are both halakhic and health factors that mothers should take into consideration. Just as mothers research strollers, baby gear and the like, we should put effort into researching and coming to a decision on whether or not to fast. Mothers asking this question should read the articles mentioned below and think about this decision in advance of the fast day. Making the decision at the last minute contributes to a sense of uneasiness and urgency.
While I am not a medical or halakhic authority, below are a number of items to consider and questions to ask your trusted physician and halakhic authority:
- How far along are you in your pregnancy?
- Is your pregnancy high risk?
- See your doctor or midwife before the fast to ensure that your baby’s prenatal vitals are in good shape.
- Ask your doctor if there is anything else that they think you should know. Are there any risks involved in fasting? Any relevant studies?
- What risks are involved for the child of a nursing mother? For a pregnant mother?
- How old is the child that you are nursing? Does this affect your decision?
- If you need to drink/eat any amount during the fast, what should you drink/eat? (I would suggest a protein drink or the like.) Where should you drink/eat?
- What halakhic options are available to you on general fast days? How do things differ on Yom Kippur?
- While you have a “game plan,” what should be your action plan if your situation changes during Yom Kippur? Will you eat or drink? Will you decide to stay home? What are options or issues that may be a consideration?
Some suggestions to make the fast easier:
- Prepare by drinking extra water the day before the fast.
- If possible, make sure that you will have extra help for your children and any other responsibilities that would put extra strain on you during the fast day.
It is time for us to recognize that our bodies and our children are holy vessels. The same way that we make decisions about where and how to pray, what minhag, custom, to follow, and how to observe halakha, we need to take ownership over this decision.
It has pained me to read and hear the words of women sharing their level of pain or discomfort, or the cries of their nursing children who are hungry. Women who ask rabbis whether they should fast are sometimes told to fast until they become sick or until it would affect their milk supply. Most women, most people, cannot answer that.
The halakhic process is best lived out when we are in dialogue with modern medicine, attuned to our own health needs and have access to well trained, compassionate, and knowledgeable poskim and poskot, halakhic decisors. There is an ever expanding network of Maharats, Rabbis, Yoatzot Halakha and other klei kodesh, spiritual leaders, who welcome a genuine and mutual conversation on these important and sensitive subjects. When we, as women and mothers, are empowered in this conversation the entire halakhic process benefits.
‘Does Fasting Put Pregnant Women at Risk?’
BabyCentre on Fasting in Pregnancy
Doctors: Fasting during all but last weeks of pregnancy increases risks
Effect of a 24+ hour fast on breast milk composition
Fasting on Yom Kippur During Pregnancy by Hannah Katsman
Impact of maternal fasting during Ramadan on growth parameters of exclusively breastfed infants Journal of Fasting and Health. 2013;1(2):66-69
Teshuva from Rav Nachum Rabinovitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Maaleh Adumim
I pray every day. Most days the early morning cerebral fog is pretty dense and my anxiety about being late for work crowds out thoughts about the Divine. But even then, in the midst of constantly adjusting my tallit, prayer shawl, and fiddling with the straps of the tefillin to make sure they are not digging too deeply into my skin, I sometimes find myself actually reading the words on the page with a concentrated mind.
Recently I have been thinking about one sentence that in recent years has been reinserted into Aleinu at the end of the prayer service—she’haim mishtschavim l’hevel v’rik u’mitpalelim l’el lo yoshea, that they bow down to something worthless and empty and pray to a god that cannot save (SMLVULLY). I remember being introduced to this sentence in late adolescence and thinking it was the coolest thing going. I was on the winning team and felt like a member of a secret club, privy to a powerful incantation that not everyone knew. I experienced the power of once again saying a sentence that had been removed from the prayer book because of fears of arousing the animosity of Christian censors. Finally, it felt like a vindication of the validity of Orthodoxy as a whole. Heady stuff for a teenager.
Fast forward more than a few decades. These days, when I am paying attention I find myself having more and more difficulty with this sentence. If I can stay alert and avoid the sing-song rhythm of the daily prayer ritual, I do not recite this line. With the passage of time and my own perception of what is happening in our world, I am more uncomfortable with this expression of Jewish supremacy and denigration of other religions. I value the ethical meaning created by a life lived in the shadow of the Divine and acknowledge the truth and value of conduct structured by adherence to the halakha. But genuine pluralism and respect for others motivates me to recognize other religious perspectives. Thinking we are superior to others because we believe our God is superior to theirs will not enhance our holiness. I worry that this is a recipe for mutual hatred. So as everyone quickly takes off their tefillin and the men and women rush out the door, I quietly skip this sentence.
So why am I coming clean now? Perhaps it is the time of the year for confessions. But I will not venture into that area. Instead I think my engagement with SMLVULLY may offer an insight into prayer. Jewish prayer is criticized for being fixed and formulaic. Scholars like Catherine Madsen, contributing editor to the inter-religious/interdisciplinary journal CrossCurrents and author of the book The Bones Reassemble, have demonstrated how effective liturgical language has been constructed to foster associative thinking and to make the routine seem new. The implications are that text is capable of almost limitless change. But we have heard that before and this exhortation may fall on deaf ears if one is not fully aware of the many literary associations being invoked in the language of prayer. So instead of looking at prayer as the disco globe that is always changing and revealing new light patterns, I think we can reinvigorate prayer by recognizing that we change.
The same words can have profoundly different meaning and impact at different times because we are not the same person reading the prayer each and every day. I loved reading Lord of the Flies during my first year of high school but I am glad I was not asked to read American Pastoral before I was forty five. Similarly, my response to SMLVULLY has changed. I don’t know if it is for better or for worse but I am glad that for that moment, as I come to the conclusion of the prayer service and consciously mull over that sentence, my prayer is meaningful and makes me think about something important. As we get ready to dig in for the onslaught of high intensity synagogue time in the coming weeks, I see the prayers inviting me back to read them again because they know I am not the same person I was last year.
I never could carry a tune but, at an early age, I discovered that I could make a soulful sound by blowing across a bottle top. Unfortunately, this set of talents did not equip me to read from the Torah or lead prayers in synagogue. While I learned to compose and deliver a dvar Torah, an active role as a spiritual leader via melody did not seem to be in the cards for me.
My capacity for making foghorn sounds with a bottle, did, however, translate into playing the flute in high school. Years later, I found that I could use the same embouchure to make sounds with a shofar. At first, I enjoyed picking up the shofar and blowing random blasts during the month of Elul. Then, when my community minyan Darkhei Noam opened auditions for female and male shofar sounders a few years ago, I decided to try out. I was given the honor of sounding the last set of kolot, blasts, after the Musaf service. I was invited to join the tradition of making a primordial sound from a ram’s horn that wakes up Jews from spiritual slumber, connects back to the Akeidah, the Sacrifice of Isaac, reminds us of the majesty and tragedy of Temple times, and evokes the sorrow of Sisera’s mother. Practicing tekiahs and shevarims took more effort than making arbitrary sounds, but yielded far more satisfaction. I learned how to think of my teruahs as three sets of triplets and prepare my breath for the tekiah gedolah. “Remember,” my coaches said, “If a Satan gets into your shofar and you can’t make a sound, just wait. Relax. You can’t force a shofar blast.”
My first year as a shofar sounder went off like a charm. The little children sat up on the stage to better see and hear the shofar. They looked at me with big, admiring eyes. I felt a special connection to the little girls on stage who seemed to sit up taller as my sounds came out strong and confident, lightly graced with a few humble quavers. My second year was a different story. A Satan found its way into my shofar. My first tekiah was more airy vibrato than anything else. And then…nothing. I forced breath into my shofar but no sound emerged. I waited. The little children pulled back their heads in surprise. Sweat beaded on my forehead and dripped down my nose. I tried again and mustered up some puny notes. After limping through the end of the blasts, I slunk to my seat and sat down, bathed in humiliation. Friends came over to comfort me, and surprisingly, to congratulate me for my effort. The next year, when for unrelated reasons I attended a different service, women from Darkhei Noam stopped me after Rosh Hashanah, telling me that they missed my shofar blowing.
This year I look forward to lifting a shofar to my lips again, at a small country community in Connecticut. I hope my sounds are strong and stir the souls of the congregation, but I know that sounding shofar is not a performance, but a prayer.
For more on the halakhot of shofar blowing, visit www.jofa.org/shofarguide
Each shofar has a unique undulating shape and trumpeting sound. The sound may be low and haunting or bold and jarring. But whatever its call, the shofar awakens us from slumber and reminds us that the time for teshuva, repentance, has arrived.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar on a daily basis at the conclusion of the morning service. This custom is derived from the Midrash that Moses ascended Mount Sinai at the beginning of Elul to receive the second set of tablets, having broken the first set when he witnessed the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. While Moses was on the mountain, the Israelites blew the shofar on a daily basis to serve as a warning to the people to maintain their faith in God.
It is interesting to note that the Shulchan Aruch explicitly permits a woman to blow shofar for herself or for other women on Rosh Hashanah. But our rabbinic sources are silent on the issue of women blowing shofar during the month of Elul, leaving us to extrapolate for modern times. The Rema, Mishnah Berurah, and other halakhic authorities categorize blowing the shofar during Elul as a minhag, custom, rather than as an obligation. With these considerations in mind, a woman could blow shofar for herself or in the presence of other women during Elul to assist them in fulfilling the minhag. Alissa Thomas-Newborn, author of a forthcoming JOFA publication entitled, “A Cry from the Soul: Women and Hilkhot Shofar,” holds that a woman may indeed take on this role.*
Blowing a teki’ah (the long, solid blast) is not all that difficult. It takes some creative positioning of the mouth and hands, and some trial and error, but it can be mastered within a few minutes of effort. It is incredibly satisfying to put the shofar to your lips and produce a deafening blast. While the sound is energizing when it is merely heard, the call of the shofar is incredibly impactful when it draws from the energy deep within you.
Would you like to try it yourself?
The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Federation of Metrowest New Jersey, is hosting the Great Shofar Blowout on Sunday, September 21st in Whippany, NJ. In an attempt to break the Guinness World Record, 1500 participants will blow shofar in the same place at the same time! JOFA is co-sponsoring this historic event.
But before you can join in the Blowout, you may need to practice. JOFA will be hosting a workshop for women, men, and children who are interested in getting some practical experience; first-timers are welcome! The workshop will be enriched by a shiur, text-based class, which will review sources addressing the permissibility of women blowing shofar. I invite you to join me on Sunday, September 7 at the Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey, at 10 am, for this exciting event. Bring your personal shofar as you will want to learn the best technique for your instrument!
Rosh Chodesh Elul is almost upon us. The shofar calls out to me with a voice that is strong and unwavering. It is a call that has been heeded by countless generations each year at this time. This year, I will do more than just listen to that call. I intend to feed it with my own strength, my own will and my own breath. I will infuse the shofar call with my own hopes and desires for a fresh start in the New Year, for a greater level of commitment to God, to my people and to my community.
* Note: The issue of women blowing shofar for a mixed congregation, however, is more complex and requires intensive study of the sources; a synopsis is beyond the scope of this posting.
The quintessential image of home, holiness, and Jewish motherhood is that of a woman blessing the Shabbat candles, performing a ritual we assume has existed since time immemorial. But this assumption is wrong. In fact, it was only nine hundred years ago that, after much debate, lighting the Shabbat lamp came to be defined as a mitzvah—one with its own unique blessing, one that Jewish women took upon themselves.
Because there is no such commandment in the Torah, most rabbis before 1000 CE maintained that lighting the Shabbat lamp was not a mitzvah; it was merely a task women did because they were home and men were in synagogue on Friday afternoon. It was important only because, unless she lit the lamp before sunset, her family would be forced to sit in the dark. And while the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) meticulously details what kinds of oil and wicks are best to keep the Shabbat lamp from going out, there is no mention of any special ritual for lighting it.
The great French scholar Rashi (1040-1105) took an opposing view. In his commentary on Tractate Shabbat (page 23b) he stated, “By observing the mitzvot of kindling a lamp on Shabbat and Hanukkah, one brings the light of Torah into the world.” Yet even if a community accepted that lighting the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, should a blessing accompany it? And if so, which one? There is no such blessing mentioned in the Talmud and halakha forbids any non-Talmudic blessings. Because of this, medieval Sephardic women lit their Shabbat lamps in silence.
However during the eleventh century, Ashkenazic women had greater religious status and autonomy than those in Sefarad, so much so that they began to fulfill those mitzvot that only men were obligated to perform, such as blowing shofar, and wearing tefillin and tzitzit. According to Machzor Vitry, a compendium of laws and customs collected by Rashi’s students, women took these commandments upon themselves and recited the blessings as well, in the same way that women today have taken on traditionally male mitzvot, instituted new rituals like Bat Mitzvah, and become rabbis and cantors.
Rashi clearly held that kindling the Shabbat lamp was a mitzvah, one that women, as well as men, were obligated to perform. Thus it seems logical that, if women made a blessing when they performed mitzvot from which they were exempt, surely they must recite a blessing if they perform a mitzvah for which they are obligated. Indeed, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, declared that lighting the Shabbat lamp required a blessing.
But creating a new blessing is prohibited, so what prayer should be said? The solution was to take the blessing for lighting the Hanukkah menorah, which was in the Talmud, and substitute “Shabbat” for “Hanukkah.” As astonishing as it may seem, the Hanukkah blessing is the original one, a thousand years older than the Shabbat blessing, its derivative.
We know of this new blessing because we have a responsum by Rashi’s granddaughter, Hannah, describing the ritual her mother performed. She explained that in Rashi’s house, the woman first lit the Shabbat lamp and then recited the benediction, whose words are the same ones we say today. Rabbeinu Tam’s decision and his sister Hannah’s responsum were so authoritative that within a hundred years, even women in Sefarad were saying this blessing when they kindled Shabbat lights. Maimonides complained about it but admitted that he couldn’t prevent women from doing so.
Today, when women (and men) light Shabbat candles, they never imagine that the ritual doesn’t come from Sinai, that the blessing was once a source of controversy. And who knows? Maybe nine hundred years in the future Jews will assume that girls have always had a Bat Mitzvah, that women have always studied Talmud, and that there have always been female rabbis.
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.