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?”
Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.
Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.
The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.
In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!
I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?
Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.
If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.
Some big issues for orthodox feminism have come up in the news lately. Did you see that women will soon be allowed to monitor kashrut in institutional kitchens in Israel? JOFA Board member Carol Newman wonders how new this actually is.
I wonder who the rabbis thought was in the kitchen all these years. I have been married for over fifty years and have made more meals than I could possibly count. I’ve cooked for my family, for extended family, for guests, and even for organizations that asked me to host events. No one ever came into my kitchen asking to see the mashgiach.
So what is this all about? My brother-in-law, Marcel Lindenbaum, says the rabbis are afraid of change and therefore what we are seeing in so many instances is a rabbinate that wants to keep things exactly as they are. I maintain that change has already happened. The rabbis simply fear change that has to do with empowering women in Judaism.
In her new book, “The Kind Mama,” Alicia Silverstone explains her refusal to give her son a brit milah. Her rationale suggests a lack of God’s omnipotence: “my thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”
I believe that we were not born “perfect” for a reason, sometimes difficult to understand. I do believe that there are instances, and this is one of them, where we are asked to complete the work of “perfecting.” It began with Adam naming the animals and culminates in the act of procreation where men and women create new life. Bread, a staple of life, is given to us in the form of wheat, but it is humans who harvest, grind, knead, and bake the wheat flour to make the bread. We are partners and perfectors in the act of creation.
Sounds like there’s more than one way to be a “kind mama.”
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
There have been numerous conversations recently about mikveh, tzniut, niddah, and sexual relationships within the Orthodox community. They have spanned the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about time that we’re having these conversations, because these are really important and central issues that have an enormous impact on our lives. And when issues of personal status, ritual, and belief systems are hard to talk about, they tend to get swept under the rug or ignored. And when people feel ambivalent about halakha, they often feel a terrible sense of shame.
Two years ago, Mayyim Hayyim asked me to write a blog about sex and the mikveh. Now might be a good time to revisit the issue of when halakha becomes a smoke screen to hide sexual problems. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.
I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.
Continue reading “When the Mikveh Feels Overwhelming” at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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 email@example.com. Most importantly, be sure to thank the change-maker directly.
This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.
My mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.
I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.
In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.
Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”
Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
Jewish tradition has four names for the Passover Holiday—Hag HaAviv (the Spring Festival), Hag HaMatsot (the Holiday of Unleavened Bread), Hag HaPesah (the Holiday of Passing Over), and Hag HaHerut (the Festival of Freedom). Each of these names represents a different aspect of the holiday.
However, there seems to be an additional name that would be fitting for Passover — Hag HaHinukh — the Holiday of Education. Indeed, no other ceremony in Jewish life is as dedicated to educating the next generation of Jews as that of the Seder. The educational mission of Seder night begins in the Torah itself, in three different verses, which instruct us to educate our children about the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The key verse in this educational paradigm can be found in Exodus 13:8:
וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם:
And you shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
What this verse seems to be stating is that while you are eating matsah, you should explain to your child all that happened to you while you were leaving Egypt.
The same educational call is found in the Mishna, Tractate Pesahim 10:4:
מזגו לו כוס שני וכאן הבן שואל אביו ואם אין דעת בבן אביו מלמדו…. ולפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו.
A second cup of wine is poured out; and the son should then inquire of his father. If the son doesn’t have da’at (understanding) to do this, aviv melamdo—his father teaches him…. And according to the da’at of the child should the father teach him.
This Mishna describes the moment at the Seder when the child’s curiosity should be piqued. After all, why are we suddenly having a second cup of wine when we normally have only one? Here, the expected response of the child is depicted. However, in the event that the child does not ask, the parent is obligated to teach. The Mishna delineates an additional requirement: that the parent teach the child according to the child’s da’at — the child’s understanding, or intellectual capabilities. It is a remarkably modern approach, that of individualized education. The Mishna here is communicating that the one-size-fits-all educational model doesn’t work; education must be child-specific.
Continue reading Yaffa Epstein’s words of Torah in this spring’s Shema Bekolah.
Looking for help engaging the wide range of people at your seder? Check out the Many Ways To Tell Our Story, JOFA’s handbook of activities for people of all ages and styles.
When my family sits down to the seder table on April 14, we won’t be passing around the Maxwell House Hagaddahs. We don’t use the Sacks one, anything by Artscroll, or even something from JPS. We will be using “Our Family Haggadah.”
The brainchild of my mother and Savta in the mid-90’s, this DIY publication has been a work in progress that is currently in its fifth edition. While the first versions most likely contained dozens of copyright infringements, the current version is getting closer to an original family document.
We realized that the people around the table wanted something traditionally authentic, intellectually challenging, and unique to our family. As you can see, we have cut many portions of the traditional hagaddah, but have done our best to maintain the essential pieces while creating more opportunities for discussion and questions. Without the pressure to get through so much text, we have the comfort and opportunity to truly be open to any questions that might arise.
If you don’t want to use our haggadah, and don’t have the time to make your own, consider cutting out a few sections and replacing them with open discussion or guided Q&A. You will be surprised to see people refreshed by the change and the chance to make the seder experience more personal.
Seder Table Activities
The other way we’ve adapted our seder is by adding in new activities and games each year. We realized that there is often down-time during the meal (shulchan orech): as soup is being served, between courses, and during dessert. So we play games! We’ve tried a number of different activities over the years including our own versions of Cranium, Mad Gabs and most importantly Jewpardy. It’s not so simple to create your own games, so use the ones other people have already made. Pick a game, print it out, and you’re good to go!
An Activity for Every Family
This last suggestion is more than a game – it’s an interactive reimagining of a 2,000+ year old tradition. Anyone can run this activity at their seder:
Whatever the true origin of the orange on the seder plate, the idea of placing symbolic items on the seder table feels as old as Passover itself. But in addition to the six symbols on the seder plate, the orange, and Cup of Miriam, we can add our own symbols.
Before the seder, send out a casting call to your participants asking them to bring their own Passover symbol to place on the table. They can bring anything they want, but must be ready to explain how it is symbolic of a Passover theme or concept. Before the seder begins, place each of the symbols on the table. As the seder progresses, take periodic breaks to allow the table to discuss one of the objects. Solicit suggestions from the group as to what the item might symbolize and then ask the person who brought it to explain what it means to them.
At the end of the seder, or once all of the symbols have been presented, vote on which item added the most to the seder experience. The winner gets a reserved space at the table next year!
I wish you the best of luck with a meaningful Passover seder. If you’re looking for divrei torah and other content for your seder, visit http://www.jofa.org/Education/Holidays/Holidays for some great articles and resources.
The seder is my favorite Jewish ritual, and every year, I have the best of intentions. In line with the rabbinic notion of preparing for a holiday thirty days in advance, I begin preparing for Passover as soon as Purim is over. I buy the newest haggadot that seem like they’ll provide interesting material. I go to a class about the haggadah given by someone who I expect to say something insightful, meaningful, and thought-provoking. And then I tell myself, this year will be different. I will actually sit down with all my haggadot before the seder. I will study them and use them as a springboard to develop my thoughts about the Exodus, redemption, and its relevance to our lives.
Sometimes it really works out that way but mostly, I am still holding tightly to this goal right up until the afternoon of Erev Pesach, hours before the first seder, when I am forced to recognize that it will simply not happen. I will likely have to wing it, assuming that is, that we still want several tasty charoses variants (the family standard is to have at least two) and bug-free romaine.
It is certainly not the cleaning that keeps me from delving into the haggadah in advance. I take the rabbis very, VERY seriously when they say that this isn’t spring cleaning. We do what the halakhah requires, but the search for chametz in our house does not involve dry cleaning the drapes. So what’s my issue? What is holding me back from preparing new content for the seder? And does it matter?
We can start with the fact that I love to have a festive table — no, make that a festive room. I decorate the room with wild beasts on the chandelier, frogs on the walls, and bug rings on the napkins. Lording over everything are little naked Moshes in baby baskets (Party City in the baby shower aisle!). The baby baskets are set inside vases with water, nestled into bigger baskets of grass. How could I possibly read anything until I’ve plastered every bare space with Exodus ambience? This may be one reason my adult children and my young grandchildren love our seders. It is not only the rituals and “k’zayit“s that make this night different — it’s about the sights, the smells, the textures, even the silliness.
And although I haven’t been reading my new haggadot, I have been cogitating about the Exodus and redemption. Sometimes the discussions that come from this process are the most interesting. As beautiful, meaningful, and special as the seder is, its most important purpose may be to set a tone for the rest of the year. If we can feel our Judaism so dynamically on this one night and enjoy it so profoundly, I know we have it in us to try a little harder to engage with it throughout the year.
So will this night be different? I don’t know. Though there’s still time for book-based prep, I know that whether I download articles and divrei Torah from years past on JOFA’s online library (at 6:05pm Monday night) or have my own divrei Torah ready in advance, my bugs on the napkin rings will make me smile, at least one of the charoseses will be weird and I can hope the spirit of the seder will carry over to the rest of the year.
It is the day before Passover and everyone has a yahrtzeit but me.
My mother’s mother collapsed on seder night, ten days before her young grandson succumbed to cancer. “I don’t want to see my grandson die,” she told a relative. The shivas of grandmother and grandson tumbled one into the other. My brother’s wife died the first day of Passover, her son’s 13th birthday. The bar mitzvah was held in the shiva house on the Shabbat after Passover. My father’s mother lived almost a hundred years, surviving every Jewish calamity of the twentieth century. The night she died, my father was with us in America. Although he usually sat with her day and night, he did not perform the final duty as son; missing the funeral and sitting shiva alone, ten thousand miles away.
Where am I in this house of mourners the day of the seder? I am locked in a room next to the kitchen attending to the tax law. A tax regulation project is barreling through the Treasury Department, and I am the only one who can advise on the financial provisions. And woe is me if I do not help draft it, because then I’m going to have to interpret what they produce left to their own devices.
Fortunately, I do not have to come to the office. They have arranged a conference call so I can hear the discussions and make suggestions from afar. And when they break, I can skip into the kitchen and issue instructions there.
This is not the way I like it. Erev Passover, the day before the seder, is the liminal moment between the weeks of scrubbing and worrying, and the redemption of seder night. It is the fleeting transition when I survey the perfectly antiseptic aluminum foil spaceship I have built, and then sully it with preparations for the evening.
I prefer not to work on Erev Passover, but this time I don’t have a choice. I know the family will take care of everything, leaving only the romaine lettuce for me to check: I earned my insect-checking PhD in a religious kibbutz kitchen and delegate it to no one.
I call in to the tax drafting. As we argue and haggle, a Jewishly observant colleague chimes in. He does not have to cook or clean I muse; when he arrives home like a monarch at the appointed time, the table will be set and meal cooked. Yet I do not envy him: the preparation makes the holiday.
My daughter bangs at the door. I mute the phone. “You need to change the gasket in the oven,” she whispers. I roll my eyes. We self-clean our oven but I have a theory the gasket never gets hot enough for Passover cleanliness. Having conjured the problem, it’s my job to solve it. Hooking the phone to my shirt and adjusting the ear-phones, I remove the shelves from the oven and insert half my body. The gasket is attached with screws and requires some dexterity to remove.
While I’m deep in the cavity with the screws in my mouth, someone on the phone calls out, “Viva, what do you think about the language I’m suggesting?”
The phone is still on mute. I lean forward to unmute it and the oven tips onto me. “Viva! Are you there?” I gasp, “Yes, I’m here.”
“It’s hard to hear you. Are you in an echo chamber?” I push the oven off me and slide onto the floor.
“Can you repeat the language?” I ask, panting.
From the floor, I watch the family’s shoes scuttling; peels and food parts land on my lap. The children are twittering and making provocative faces at me.
On the phone, they repeat the regulatory language, and I suggest a modification. We debate the merits of the variant forms. I am pontificating on the floor, waving my hands. The drafter comes up with a third mutation, and we all agree.
I mute the phone again and climb back into the oven.
When it’s done, I clamber out, rising slowly to the upright position. My father is peeling potatoes. “Let me do that,” I edge him away. “No, no,” he says. “This is my job. You go back to yours. My mother would have been so proud of you.”
And so would my mother’s mother, who never went to university but was always urging my mother to finish her degree. As for my sister-in-law, the breadwinner, may she rest in peace, she was scrubbing her house for Passover the week before she died. What secrets would she share now?