As a high school student, finding the right Purim costume can be rather stressful. There are so many factors to consider: Should I dress up thematically with my family or a group of friends? Does my costume conform to my yeshiva day school’s dress code? Can I repeat a costume from one year to the next?
One night before Purim, I spent a couple of hours scouring the internet for a new dress-up idea. Then, in perusing one of the sites geared towards Jewish consumers, I found this: “Boy’s Torah Costume, size 12-14.” I Googled the more general “Torah Costume” and was dismayed to find out that the item was called “Boy’s Torah Costume” on every website I visited. Despite the fact that it was not intended for me, I knew that I had found the costume that truly spoke to me. I love studying Torah. I love reading from the Torah in Women’s Tefillah services. I love incorporating the Torah into my ritual life.
As a petite woman, I knew that the costume would fit and I ordered it immediately. But I had to make one addition so that the costume would truly be appropriate. Many Orthodox rabbis suggest that a woman cannot touch a Torah scroll because she might be “temeah,” that is, in a ritually impure state, and she might transfer that status to the sacred Torah. Despite the many sources that clearly allow a woman to hold a Sefer Torah, this precludes women from participating in many synagogue activities, including dancing with a Torah on Simchat Torah. In order to take ownership of this costume, I added a quotation from the Talmud in tractate Brachot to the back. In English, the quotation means, “The words of Torah cannot take on impurity.”
On Purim day and on Shushan Purim at my school’s celebration, I wore my costume with pride. Admittedly, I wanted to get people talking. I am sure that some individuals saw my costume as extremely subversive or, perhaps, laughed it off as just another Nahafoch hu–a traditional Purim gag that upsets the natural order of things. But though I enjoyed participating in the lighthearted fun of the holiday, I was very serious about my costume’s message and its intent. I believe that I more truly engage with the stories, commandments and teachings of the Torah because I view the Torah as approachable, because I can open the scroll for myself, kiss the parchment and read the elegant words in their regal columns. I hope that more rabbis will join the ranks of those who already support women’s access to the Torah scroll.
I’m sure you’ll agree that my “Boy’s Torah Costume, size 12-14” looks pretty good as the more generic “Torah Costume, one size fits all.” Generally, I don’t wear a costume more than once, but I think I’ll make an exception next year. I want to keep spreading the message that women and men, girls and boys may approach and embrace the Torah.
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When LGBT Jews re-encounter their tradition on their own terms, they can experience spiritual risk, iconoclasm, and reimagined faith. One way to better understand and relate to this process is through the lens of biblical figures. Eshel, the national effort for LGBT inclusion in Orthodox families and communities, is introducing a series of monthly shiurim entitled, “The Real Modern Family: Biblical Characters in a Whole New Light,” which will explore nine biblical characters through this lens.
In order to give you a taste of this endeavor, I’d like to offer a short musing on a biblical character that plays a supporting role in the unfolding of the Abrahamic vision. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant is mentioned explicitly only once, in chapter 15 of Genesis.
Following a battle with kings to extricate his nephew Lot, Abram is promised great reward. The words “great reward” fall blankly upon Abram as he responds with subtle impatience. He reminds God that he is still childless and that his steward, Eliezer from Damascus, is his only possible heir.
Eliezer is introduced as a fall back, a foil to God’s delayed fulfillment of covenantal promises. God assures Abram that, this one, “ze” will not inherit him, but a child of his own body will. Eliezer is the first rejected heir. Later Ishmael will also be rejected. As the story unfolds, only a child of both Abraham and Sarah will fulfill the intended mission and give rise to the covenanted people.
Abraham’s trusted servant appears later in the narrative at another junction of threatened continuity. After taking care of Sarah’s burial, Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath that Isaac will not marry a local Canaanite woman. He bids the servant to seek out a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kin. We should expect the chief servant to be Eliezer, but not once in Abraham’s extraction of the oath, the servant’s prayerful preparation or the detailed negotiations with Laban, is his name mentioned. He is “eved Avraham,” Abraham’s slave, or “ha’ish,” the man.
Both rabbinic and scholarly consensus suggests that the unnamed servant is indeed, Eliezer. If so, then the avoidance of his name may be pointed. He is the shaliah, messenger, par excellence. Instead of being Abraham’s heir, he is his double, effecting Abraham’s will. For the Rabbis, Eliezer not only acts to accomplish Abraham’s purposes, he extends Abraham’s moral vision as well.
We are told that Eliezer happened by Sodom and stayed the night. During his short visit he has two distinct encounters. The first is with an aggressor who strikes and wounds him. Eliezer goes before a judge who deems that he owes his attacker a fee for bloodletting. With wit and humor, Eliezer rebuts by striking the judge with a staff and calling upon the judge to employ the bloodletting fee that is now owed him, to cover his debt to the original attacker. Here, Eliezer is playing Abraham’s iconoclastic role. Like the son of Terah who smashes all the idols and puts the club in the hands of the largest idol, mocking his father’s beliefs, Eliezer humorously (and similarly aggressively) contends with Sodom’s corrupt justice.
Eliezer’s second encounter with Sodom offers a poignant portrayal of the clash of cultures. The Sages associated Sodom with an aggressive rejection of the duty to welcome and protect travelers. The wealthy Sodomites, fearing an inundation of needy foreigners, had abandoned hospitality for the stranger. The Rabbis employ the myth of Procrustes’ bed, renaming it, the bed of Sodom to comment on their own cultural conflict with Athens and Rome (BT Sanhedrin 109b).
Procrustes’ bed inverts the ethic of hospitality. Procrustes (meaning he who stretches) kept a house by the side of the road for passing strangers. He offered them a warm meal and a bed. Once the visitors laid upon it, Procrustes would cut off the legs of those too long or stretch those too short. Theseus, the hero of the Greek tale, turns the tables on Procrustes and fatally adjusts him to his own bed. In Sodom, the Rabbis tell us, they also had a bed upon which weary guests might rest. Eliezer is offered to rest in the Sodomite bed and declines. He explains that since his mother died he pledged not to have a pleasant night’s sleep on a comfortable bed.
The people of Sodom are not only frightened of human need; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that has both zoned out poverty and insured that only “our kind” of folk will be welcome.
Eliezer’s mourning for his mother saves him from being amputated or stretched. Mourning the dead is a particularly selfless expression of relationship and love. The people of Sodom treat all outside its walls as already dead and Eliezer treats the dead as still alive. Eliezer is saved from Sodom’s evil not by his sword or cunning, as is Theseus, but by his own loving beyond all boundaries or benefit.
According to the Sages, Eliezer is one of nine biblical characters who entered the Garden of Eden without dying (Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, Chapter 1). Perhaps Eliezer’s self-effacing service, his humility, and his love beyond the grave gave him an unusual pass, a seamless entrance into the next world.
This early expression of dedication to both the teacher and his covenantal ideals feels like a precursor to a conversion process that will wait generations to become formal. Eliezer is not related to Abraham by birth, but in the words of Isaiah, he is a faithful “foreign son” (Isaiah 56:6). Jewish continuity is primarily familial and reproductive, nonetheless, access to the God of Abraham and Sarah cannot be restricted. As Eliezer’s name suggests, God helps anyone who wishes to serve. Unlike Sodom, our tent is open to everyone, different as they may be, needy for respite, hungry for food, yearning for depth, or just eager for companionship.
Eshel extends a hearty welcome to any and all to join us for a Chanukat HaBayit at our new downtown office on November 20th at 6pm followed by the first session of “Real Modern Family” on Sarah Imenu: The Laughing Princess.
Visit www.eshelonline.org/beiscamp to learn more about the “Real Modern Family” series.
I did not have Simchat Torah this year. Bold statement, right? Some of you are probably thinking that I must not be observant, because how could a good Jewish girl miss such an important holiday? Well, I’ve had a long and complicated relationship with Simchat Torah. So if I start at the beginning, maybe you will come to understand my point.
When I was little, as in elementary school little, I loved Simchat Torah. I ran around the synagogue with my friends, danced with my dad, and got loads of candy. I had a blast, and looked forward to it each year. Then, I turned 12 and celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Now, I could no longer dance with the men in my synagogue and I was relegated to the balcony with the women. At the time, I was a bit nostalgic for the good old days, but I still enjoyed the holiday. You see, watching from the women’s balcony as the men danced below with the Torahs was all I knew. So I enjoyed the holiday and spent it chatting with my mom and friends. And my relationship with Simchat Torah proceeded like that until I graduated from high school and attended Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Israel.
Initially, when I saw women at Midreshet Lindenbaum dancing with the Torahs and leading hakafot, the processionals, I was overwhelmed by this newness. Where I grew up, women did not even kiss the Torah, let alone carry it and dance with it. But by the end of the holiday, I had become comfortable with this new concept. I had accepted that women could interact with the Torah in a religious and meaningful way. I realized that a world existed where I could celebrate Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Torah I lived by every day and studied my entire life, with the actual Torah. But what would happen on the next Simchat Torah, after I left Midreshet Lindenbaum and returned to the United States? You see, I was at a tipping point in my relationship with the holiday. At this point, I could still return to the women’s balcony and write off my seminary experience as a chavaya, a one-time experience. But instead, I went over the other edge.
I spent four years at the University of Maryland, College Park, where Simchat Torah became my favorite holiday. I danced around the Torah, I held the Torah, and I fell in love with the Torah. The ruach, the energy, the sheer excitement was so contagious. It was not only the men who danced their socks off, but the women too! Every year at the University of Maryland, I went to Simchat Torah services expecting to come home with aching feet and drenched in sweat. I was a member of a community where both women and men loved the Torah equally and displayed that affection publicly.
At our Simchat Torah celebration, there was something for everyone. There were women’s aliyot if that was your thing, and there was “Torah Dash,” where men and women gave thirty-second divrei Torah on every portion in the Torah while community members received their aliyot. There was even a Kallah Torah and Kallah Bereishit, honors given to women of the community, in addition to the traditional honors, Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit, given to men. Women were integral members of the Simchat Torah celebration in College Park, and I felt like my presence was meaningful and positively impacted the community.
Simchat Torah of my senior year was bittersweet. I had an amazing time, and had the honor of leading the community in two hakafot, together with my fellow graduating seniors and community leaders. But the dark cloud of impending doom loomed over me. I was depressed enough about leaving the University of Maryland Jewish community for many reasons, but I felt even more upset on this holiday. I wondered: Would I ever dance with a Torah again? Would I love the celebration of the holiday wherever I was in one year’s time? I suppressed these thoughts, not wanting my fears of the future to ruin what might possibly be my last chance at Simchat Torah happiness.
So what was my Simchat Torah like this year, my first year post-college? Well, it was not Simchat Torah.
It was like any old holiday. I went to synagogue, watched the men do things on the other side of the mechitzah, and socialized with the other women as we stood around with nothing to do. My husband later asked me if I heard them sing this song and that song, and if I had seen him carry a Torah. No, I did not hear the songs they sang, and no, I could not see who carried the Torah. As I watched the men dance with my Torah, I felt utterly invisible and extremely empty. I had been so far removed from the celebration, that I had no longer had any part in it. This time when I was relegated to the women’s section, I was not okay with it. I had tasted the forbidden fruit of equality and religious expression and I was not content being downgraded from a passionate participant to an irrelevant bystander.
Join us for the JOFA UnConference on November 23 will be exploring topics related to Ritual Innovation. More information at jofa.org/unconference2014
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.
On July 27, the 29th of Tammuz, I will observe the 909th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known as Rashi. Normally, an author has no deadline to finish her first novel, but I was determined to get Volume One of Rashi’s Daughters out in July 2005, to take advantage of all the hoopla I expected would commemorate Rashi’s 900th yahrtzeit. As it turned out, I was the only hoopla, but who knows if my historical trilogy about Rashi’s daughters would ever have been published without that impetus?
While Rashi is justifiably celebrated for his Bible and Talmud commentaries, few Jews know that it was under his authority and that of his Ashkenazi colleagues that Jewish women in medieval France enjoyed power over their own lives that their Sephardic sisters in the so-called “golden age” of Spain could only imagine. These were the days when Jews enjoyed a monopoly on long-distance trade, many traveling as far as the Levant. Jewish merchants became welcome visitors to French estates, buying the estates’ surfeit produce and selling them imported goods. By necessity, Jewish wives assumed the responsibilities of running the home and managing the family business while their husbands were away.
Even before Rashi was born, Jewish women were already the beneficiaries of edicts by Rabbeinu Gershom, which gave them previously unheard-of power in marriage. These prohibited a man from both taking a second wife and divorcing his wife without her consent. In addition, a woman was allowed to initiate divorce and receive a get, even against her husband’s will, and Jewish merchants were expected to give their wives a conditional get when they left on a journey in order to protect them from becoming agunot (chained wife).
Marriage was not the only arena in which the Ashkenaz Jewish woman asserted herself. Many sought to increase their ritual participation by fulfilling those ritual obligations which, according to the Mishnah, women were not obligated to perform—mitzvot aseh she-hazeman grama, the “time-bound positive commandments.” Obvious examples include blowing and hearing the shofar (at Rosh Hashanah), and taking the lulav and dwelling in the sukkah (at Sukkot). Others, perhaps less obvious, are reciting the Shema (said in the morning and at night) and wearing tefillin or tzitzit (worn in the daytime).
In Sephardic lands, these ritual exemptions became outright prohibitions, but the women in Rashi’s community not only insisted on performing these mitzvot from which they were exempt, they wanted to say the blessings for them as well. Rashi’s teacher, Rabbi Isaac haLevi, taught that “We do not stop women from saying the blessing over lulav and sukkah … since she performs the mitzvah, she cannot do so without the blessing.” It is interesting that they use the phrase “we do not stop women” rather than “women are permitted.” This suggests that the women took these mitzvot upon themselves and insisted on reciting the blessing as well.
There was yet another area affecting women in which Rashi argued against society’s restrictions. When it came to limitations on a woman while she was niddah (menstruating), Rashi made it clear these proscriptions applied only between husband and wife. In a time when superstitions about menstruation abounded (a scholar was forbidden to greet a niddah because the utterances of her mouth were unclean; a man shouldn’t walk behind a niddah since even the dust beneath her feet caused impurity; an untimely death resulted from walking between two menstruating women), a responsum of Rashi declared that, “Dishes which the niddah touches are clean, even for her husband. For people today are already impure from graves, houses of dead people, and corpses, and we will not be purified until the days of the Messiah. Therefore it is permitted to touch and use whatever the niddah touches.” He continues, “Niddah prohibitions are only to prevent sin between her and her husband; impurity does not pertain here.” Thus, while many of his Sephardic contemporaries were forbidding a niddah to even enter the synagogue, in Troyes, France the niddah “attends services as usual, prays as usual, and if she is accustomed to study words of Torah, she studies as usual.”
Finally—women studying Torah. Rashi, whose own daughters learned Talmud and Torah, was among many rabbis who obligated a man to teach his daughter those texts concerning the mitzvot, for “otherwise how can she observe them properly.” Sadly this golden age for medieval Ashkenaz women was short-lived. When the Black Death swept Europe, people held witches responsible, which tainted all learned and presumptuous women. It would take five hundred years before Jewish women would again reach the heights they attained in Rashi’s time, and in the case of initiating divorce, we are still waiting.
For those who want to learn more, I recommend these recent books:
Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman
Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe by Elisheva Baumgarten
For millennia, it has been taken for granted that the place for Jewish women was in the home and in the kitchen. And of all the public arenas that women were discouraged from entering, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was on the top of the list. Many Jewish women never even had the opportunity to engage with a page of Talmud.
While that reality has changed for most modern Jewish women, we owe a great debt to those pioneers who cleared the way for thousands of Jewish women to engage in high level Torah and Talmud study.
To celebrate a few of these women, JOFA has teamed up with six young Jewish women artists to create a poster featuring six such educational leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. These posters are available now through a Kickstarter campaign ending July 14.
Meet the scholars:
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Nechama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, educated in Berlin, and moved to Palestine in 1930. She taught at many schools including Tel Aviv University, where she was appointed a full professor. In 1942, she began distributing stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah portion, They reached a vast audience and were eventually translated and published. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Education. Though her thoughtful, literary approach to the Bible revolutionized Torah study, she humbly insisted, “I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” Her tombstone is inscribed, “Nechama Leibowitz: teacher.”
After graduating high school in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold established the first American night school to teach English and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. After moving to New York, she became an editor for the Jewish Publication Society. At the age of 49, her first trip to Palestine sealed her life’s mission: the health, education, and welfare of the Yishuv. In 1912 she founded Hadassah, which became the largest and most powerful Zionist organization in America, and which now boasts 330,000 members worldwide. Starting in 1933, Szold also ran Youth Aliyah, which helped save 30,000 children from Nazi death camps.
Rachel “Ray” Frank was born in San Francisco to Polish immigrant parents at a time when Jewish communities were just beginning to emerge in the West. She taught bible studies and Jewish history in California, where she quickly garnered a large following. She rose to prominence after delivering a series of sermons in Washington for the High Holidays and was soon dubbed “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and later, “the Golden Girl Rabbi of the West.” Although she had no rabbinic aspirations, Ray Frank’s presence in the pulpit made space in the collective imagination for public female religious leadership.
Farha “Flora” Sassoon was born in Bombay to a family of influential tradesmen from Baghdad known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” By the age of seventeen, she knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French, German and had a thorough knowledge of Jewish texts. She wrote on Rashi, lectured on religious education, read publicly from the Torah, and her expertise in Sephardic doctrine and practice was unparalleled. According to historian Cecil Roth, she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.”
Born in Poland, Beilka “Bessie” Gotsfeld immigrated to New York with her family in 1905. In 1925, she founded the precursor of AMIT, an organization connecting religious women to the cause of Zionism and expanding educational and vocational opportunities for religious women in Israel. Gotsfeld became the Palestine representative of the organization, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. She worked to establish three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that provided Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, and new immigrants educational programs and resources.
Born in Krakow to poor Hassidic parents, Sarah Schenirer left school after she turned thirteen and became a seamstress. After World War I broke out, she started to teach Jewish studies to a group of girls. This blossomed into 300 schools now known as the “Beis Yaakov” network, and by the time of her death approximately 35,000 girls were learning at Beis Yaakov schools. In her will, she wrote: “My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.”
Nearly every book of Tanakh, the bible, is filled with stories about strong, independent women who influenced and led the Jewish people. Contemporary Jewish feminists have championed these women, taking inspiration from their actions and using them as role models. One biblical figure that has been a source of encouragement for generations of Jewish women leaders is Devorah HaNevia, Deborah the Prophet.
Of the sixteen shoftim (judges) that served in pre-monarchic Israel, the only woman among their ranks was Deborah. She was also one of seven female prophets recorded in Tanakh who communicated directly with God. As with most of the other shoftim, little is known about her personal life: the only information the text gives us is that she was “eshet lapidot,” the wife of Lapidot (Judges 4:4). Most commentators hold that this simply means that Lapidot was the name of Deborah’s husband. Some go on to explain that he is called Lapidot, which literally means torches, because Deborah encouraged him to deliver wicks to light the Menorah in the Mishkan (Temple).
However, there are shivim panim laTorah (70 interpretations of the Torah), so this passage does not have to be taken literally. The term “eshet lapidot” can also mean that Deborah had a deep connection – was “wedded” to – torches. I believe that this relationship is derived from the fact that torches are made up of several wicks tied together. Beginning with our matriarch Sarah, the Jewish women of each generation dedicated a wick – a wick of knowledge, strength, experience, religious fervor – to the torch. Deborah was able to seize the torch that was passed down to her and use it to illuminate her generation with Torah.
It is imperative that the Jewish feminists of today follow Deborah’s example and continue to pass on the proverbial torch. I cannot even begin to stress the importance of cultivating the younger generation and encouraging them to get involved in Jewish feminist activist work. Because of my age, I have found myself unwelcome and marginalized in so many feminist spaces. If it wants to have a vibrant future, the Orthodox feminist community cannot let young people continue to feel this way.
Consequently, I am so pleased to be a part of JOFA’s transition to Feminism 2.0. Young people are on the Internet, and the way to engage them is through that medium. In this age of the Internet and constant advancement in the high-tech field, it is crucial for the feminist movement to use the various new forms of technology that become available.
This new JOFA blog is named The Torch to signify Deborah’s torch, the torch that so many Jewish feminists carried before us. We cannot let the torch idle in our hands. We must actively engage with the times and ensure that there we create a space where the younger generation feels comfortable. By doing so, we will be continuing the legacy, the mesorah, that has been handed to us by centuries of strong Jewish women.