Being a woman on Simchat Torah is hard for me, but not for the reasons you might think.
Three females — a 63-year-old, a 41-year-old, and an 11-year-old — have much in common. In addition to their blond, curly hair and blue eyes, they are grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. They share life-cycle events and laughter and tears.
Over the summer, Larry, the organizer of the minyan that I attend for Rosh Hashanah, sent out an email asking for suggestions of how to be more inclusive of women during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I responded with about half a dozen ideas, all of which are within the bounds of halakha (Jewish law) but most of which are not “done” within our community. Larry took me up on one of my suggestions — to have a woman deliver the d’var Torah — which is how I found myself standing on the pulpit on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Larry responded to some of my other suggestions by asking whether such incremental activities were just tokenism and in fact would be more condescending than uplifting. As we began to discuss the integrity of incremental change vs. big bang new paradigm — the sociological impact of each, and what these different modes of change would mean for us as individuals and community members, a number of interesting events began to unfold with respect to women’s roles within Orthodoxy.
For the sin we have sinned before you in excluding women from leadership positions
My father died on Rosh Hashanah 5764. He died at home, in a clean white bed, surrounded by his wife and all three of his children. As my family and I entered the state of aveylut, mourning, I was keenly aware of the intuitive and organic way the halakhot, Jewish laws, respected our grief and our fragility and at the same time ensured the honor of the departed soul. Reciting kaddish seemed to be part and parcel of that system. The graceful choreography of daily recitation and response of elevated words glorifying God dignified my feelings of grief and loss and gave me endless comfort.
“Imma I want an upsherin!” My daughter revealed this mid-way through her first year at a Chabad preschool, where she had attended several of her classmate’s upsherins. A party and a first haircut (upsherin literally translates to shearing) was what she saw for those little boys, whose families were upholding a centuries-old chasidic custom that grew out of the biblical injunction to leave a tree’s fruits unharvested for its first three years.
I have a rich undergraduate memory of a professor teaching about communities. She said that one of the key aspects to defining a community is that it has its own calendar. As North American Jews, we are deeply aware of this truth. At times we struggle to coordinate one calendar/community with another calendar/community. This is most challenging when we have to take time from our “work” calendar to spend time in our “religious” calendar — such as at Rosh Hashanah when it falls in the middle of a week.
Ten of us walked to the creek, each one carrying her own trepidation, confusion, and curiosity. We represented different approaches to religion, a range of ethnicities, sexual orientations, and stages in our life journeys. Some of us had tears in our eyes, some sang slowly and softly. But we walked together as one, on our way to experience ritual immersion in a way I had never before encountered.
As this summer, and this Jewish year wind down, I’m completing the painting and writing for my fourth illuminated book Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, which presents illuminated paintings and commentaries on the anthology of synagogue and dinner-table prayers, blessings, songs and traditions with which we welcome the Shabbat bride.
One of the great disappointments of this summer has been finding out, with the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, that To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch was not such a nice guy after all. Even if he was as handsome as Gregory Peck, he was not quite as attractive on the inside as we thought he was when we read his closing remarks to the jury during Tom Robinson’s trial. This has led to many heart-wrenching essays about how our heroes always fail us in the end.