Two Women Make a Quorum

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As I wrote in The Torch last fall, I started attending the early morning minyan at my synagogue with the vague idea of making Rosh Chodesh more meaningful and ended up attending throughout Elul, drawn by the call of the shofar.

Well, I still show up these many months later, with Shavuot just around the corner. What I wrote then was only part of the story. I also started attending out of a historian’s curiosity. One problem faced by medievalists is how to cross the bridge of time to arrive at a reasonable certainty that we comprehend the context of what we read, and not just the words. Because most of the books and manuscripts I read were written by religious men, I wondered whether participating in daily ritual would give me insight into those authors from hundreds of years ago. Communal prayer structured their lives from dawn until night, so maybe I would read through different eyes and hear with different ears if I made that structure my own.

Playing with sacred time comes naturally to Jews, for we believe that God acts in history. We repeatedly ask what it means to reenact and to relive. We sit in the sukkah to commemorate God’s compassion on our ancestors in the desert and to place our trust in God in the here and now. The Passover seder inevitably lends itself to discussions of history, tradition, and memory. Soon the Jewish community around the globe will celebrate Shavuot: we will stand at a Mount Sinai of several thousand years ago while at the same time renewing the covenant in hundreds of cities and towns in May 2015.

What I wanted, though, were not the red-letter days, but the everyday. I wanted not only the calendar of sacred time, but also its clock. I admit the idea was fanciful, and I never expected the experience to be more than suggestive. How can we pass from our world of computers, cell phones, and robot vacuum cleaners to one of manuscripts, camel caravans, and village wells? Grabbing my down parka and hopping into a minivan that will get me in three minutes to a warm synagogue with central heating is a lot different from trudging through the snow to a drafty wooden shtiebel with a temperamental wood-burning stove. Whether I learned anything about medieval history is doubtful.

I do keep learning about the eternal present, however. I have had time to reflect on the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, which I came across back in the fall: “The prayer of women consists of only…the  ‘service of the heart,’ the direct personal relationship to God—while the public, ceremonial aspect does not exist at all” [A Guide to Jewish Prayer, p. 27]. His discussion of women’s prayer is thoughtful and insightful—I certainly fit the profile of the older woman without small children at home who can adjust her work schedule to accommodate going to synagogue–but a recent discussion with a friend added another consideration.

This friend, a successful professional, described at some length how unsettling and uncomfortable it was to be the only woman at her synagogue when she went to say kaddish on her mother’s yahrzeit. She is no shrinking violet, is committed to women’s participation in the community, and probably was friendly with most of the men on the other side of the mechitza, yet for such an occasion she needed something from the community that wasn’t there. It occurs to me that when men go to synagogue for minyan, their concern is whether the ninth and tenth man will arrive, and in large congregations, even that rarely poses a problem. Women, on the other hand, wonder about the second woman. In other words, will any other woman be there? Men and women stood together when we accepted the Torah so many centuries ago. Perhaps we women have a public role in the synagogue today as well, at least for each other. As long as I show up, if a woman comes to the early minyan in my synagogue—whether to recite kaddish or attend a baby naming or hear the Torah reading or answer a compelling need to stand before God away from house or office–she will not be alone.

Posted on May 20, 2015

It’s Okay to Leave

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Megillat Ruth is named for the heroine Ruth, who clung to Naomi in what the tradition has perceived as an act of kindness. She represents the role model of loyalty to Judaism, even when that requires sacrifice. Orpah, the daughter-in-law who obeyed Naomi and returned to her family, became over the course of the generations, a contrasting model of betrayal, of ingratitude, of moral baseness.

The rabbis in the traditional Midrash, portray Orpah as the most morally degraded figure, the ultimate gentile woman:

Midrash Ruth Rabbah (Vilna edition) § 2

Rabbi Yitzchak said: All that night that Orpah took leave of her mother-in-law, the nakedness of one hundred gentile men commingled in her, and thus is written  As he (David)  spoke with them, lo there was a man…from the ranks (ma’arkhot) of the Philistines (1 Samuel 17: 23), the written text has ‘caves’ (me’arot), from the hundred gentile foreskins that intermingled (nit’aru) in her all night. Rabbi Tanhuma said: even a dog too, as is written and the Philistine said to David, a dog am I? (Ibid. 43)

Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) long regarded as the ‘National Poet’ took this image of Orpah one step further.  In 1933 Bialik wrote a new scroll named “Megillat Orpah”  where on the basis of the traditional identification of Orpah as the mother of Goliath, he describes the parallel fates of the “sisters” Ruth and Orpah, who made opposite decisions at the crucial moment and became the mothers of opposing nations that are in an eternal war against each other.

 Orpah and Ruth the Moabite were sisters, daughters of the same father, of Eglon the King of Moav, and both beautiful young women and pleasing to the eye, daughters of valley and the plains. And Orpah was wanton, rebellious and bold since ever, a flighty young camel (Jeremiah 2:23).  And Ruth was as simple, humble, and fearful as a gazelle of the field.

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Two descendants of the Moabite sisters, a giant Philistine and a young Hebrew man, stood off in a valley against one another and a deathly loathing, loathing of a people and its god for a people and its god, smoldered in their eyes.

In my years of Torah study I felt stronger and stronger frustration towards the use the Rabbis made of Orpah’s image, since the Orpah that I met in the Bible was a decent young woman, traumatized after losing her husband, her brother-in-law and her father-in-law, who followed the order, the demand of her beloved mother-in-law, and left to go back home, to begin a new, normal, decent life.

I felt resistance to the delegitimizing of her persona and her choice of action that the tradition had developed and deepened. And finally a few years ago, I wrote a literary piece, what I imagine a letter from her might have been, one that throws light on the step she took, and portrays her as a role model for other people who, for different reasons, may identify with her. I wanted to present her and her values as a legitimate option, the way I feel the Bible does. Because the step that Ruth took, is lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law. That is the reason why we call it chesed. Wonderful as chesed is, and inspiring and guiding us as it is, some people, at certain times, simply cannot do it, and the efforts they make to return to normalcy, are legitimate and worth of praise.

Orpah’s letter to her parents – found by her granddaughter, Chayah, after her death – by Tamar Biala

‘Orpah’ you called me, your baby daughter, as soon as I first opened my eyes, looking curiously at the world. ‘Orpah’ you explained, when I cried, with eyes flooded with pain, so you would learn from our experience, not to turn back lifnot ‘oref. Never, you would insist, never turn back, never think on ‘what if’ and don’t regret. Whoever turns around, hesitates, and keeps contemplating his past, becomes a pillar of salt, you would warn me.  Just keep moving forward, with head held high, open to the future! Always start over, lend a hand, believe!

And so I did after you all died from the plague that attacked me too, from which I recovered, by myself, alone.

Naomi, the stranger from Bethlehem, chose me.  She saw my loneliness, my strengths, and instantly was drawn to me.  And I – to her – to her big hug, her kind eyes, to the melodies that were so pleasing na’amu to my love-seeking heart.

I loved Naomi, who was a mother to me, I loved her, I loved her family and the little sister I merited all of a sudden, in the middle of life, Ruth, warm and embracing.

And then fate struck at me, again, at all of us, Machlon and Chilyon slipped right from our hands, but I lifted Ruth’s chin and made her rise from their graves and sit with us to receive the comforters.

On the way to Yehudah, to her home in Bethlehem, still stunned in our pain, hanging one on another, she pushed us away, our adoptive mother. Ruth and I refused, we didn’t want to separate from her, from her too?! But when she insisted, and made clear that by her side we’d have no life, I remembered what you commanded me, and I decided to fulfill her request, your request, the request of my young and believing heart. Ruth and I will appear all of a sudden in our town, I imagined, people will wonder, have pity, be suspicious, but we will keep faith with each other, because we will always be sisters, just as we’d promised in the past, endless times.

When I turned and started to go, I felt right away that something wasn’t right. I heard footsteps walking away, but not just those of Naomi. Two sets of footsteps I heard, soft, getting farther away, and I didn’t understand what was happening.  I wanted to turn around, to cry out to Ruth, call out, clarify, understand, but your voice, warning, and sharp blew on my neck nashaf be’orpi and pushed me forward, forward, with painful force: ‘never turn back, never think on ‘what if’ and don’t regret. Whoever turns around, hesitates, and keeps contemplating his past, becomes a pillar of salt.  Just keep moving forward, with head held high, open to the future! Always start over, lend a hand, believe!’ And I, as my tears fell and vanished into the hot sand on the way to Moav, kept moving forward, forward, alone. And I was a good girl.

Posted on May 18, 2015

Hello, Labels: Creating a Feminist Orthodox Wedding

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The night before my wedding, as I was falling asleep, I realized that my fiance and I hadn’t discussed whether I would say anything under the chuppah, wedding canopy, in response to the pivotal words “Harei At Mekudeshet Li – Behold, you are consecrated to me.” During the months of planning, we had discussed and confirmed many moments where women were included and their voices heard… but we had just plumb forgot about that voice in that moment my own.

Our wedding ceremony was Orthodox and feminist. Even though I sometimes struggle to describe myself with the terms “Orthodox” or “Modern Orthodox,” there is one permutation that I am always quick to confirm. I am a proud Orthodox feminist, and not shy about advocating for increased opportunities for women within the context of halakha, traditional Jewish law.

Weddings present an opportunity for women to be active participants in a public and ritual setting; depending on where you’re coming from, this may or may not sound like an innovation. By fully integrating your female family members and friends – and, of course, the bride – you ultimately honor not just them, but everyone there. A feminist wedding models values of inclusion for an entire community; or as the saying goes: a rising tide lifts all boats.

Whether you’re tying the knot soon, are thinking about it, or are just curious, listed below are some ways to ensure that women are major players in the wedding ceremony. The list is by no means exhaustive, nor will every suggestion be the perfect fit for every couple in every community.

These suggestions do represent, however, the kavanah or intention that people of all genders be seen and heard, included and honored:

Space and Pace – There are a lot of moving parts to a Jewish wedding, and with that comes many opportunities for women to lead and facilitate. In this role, one can create sacred space while also setting the logistical pace.

Examples: Leading a “kallah’s tisch” – before the wedding ceremony, facilitating songs and words of Torah and toasts to the bride; Singing traditional songs like “mi adir” or “mi ban tsiach” during the wedding procession and the circling under the chuppah; Facilitating and emceeing the transitions between all the different parts of the ceremony.

Honoring Friends and Family – In many Orthodox weddings, most or all of the kibbudim – ritual honors – are given to men who are close to the couple. This is due to the halakhic requirements and restrictions involved in a wedding, and can result in a ceremony not publicly honoring a single female family member, friend, or mentor!

There are actually ample, visible ways in which one can honor their loved ones, regardless of gender, within a halakhic framework. When someone participates with a certain task or blessing, they are not only being honored – they also become partners in creating a joyous and meaningful day.

Examples: Reading or translating aloud the ketubah – marriage contract; Holding one of the four chuppah poles; Reciting a translation of one of the sheva brachot – the seven Hebrew blessings given to the couple; Acting as a guard alongside two men during yichud, the private time the bride and groom spend together immediately after the ceremony.

The Couple – The bride and groom are at the beginning of a journey, for which the wedding ceremony is a send-off and a blessing that their experience together be happy, holy, and a blessing to others. In this setting, the couple have a chance to publicly and equally share voice and power setting a standard of inclusion within both their personal relationship and their larger community.

Examples: Signing the pre-nuptial agreement which protects women in case of divorce; The groom circling the bride in addition to  the bride circling the groom under the chuppah; The bride responding to the groom’s marriage vow with her own words of agreement; Exchanging two rings; Both the bride and groom speaking under the chuppah – giving blessings to each other, perhaps, or sharing letters written for the other.

On the night when I suddenly realized that my fiance and I had forgotten to discuss my response under the chuppah, we were following the tradition of not seeing each other (or speaking to each other) immediately before the wedding. The next day  – the day of the wedding – we coordinated what I would say, through middlemen and with our amazing mesader kiddushin, officiant – ensuring that both of our voices would be present under the chuppah.

I still struggle with labels of all sorts; ask me where I’m from, and I’ll give you my life story instead of a straight answer. But the reason that I’m so quick to describe my wedding as an Orthodox feminist wedding, and myself as an Orthodox feminist, is that those terms best reflect the meeting of my values, my community, my lifestyle, and my hopes for the future.

One of my dearest hopes is that the term Orthodox won’t actually need to be qualified with “feminist,” that feminism within the Orthodox community will always be a given, at all times – public and private, sacred and mundane.

Register for Tuesday’s webinar for more tips for planning your Orthodox feminist wedding.

Posted on May 14, 2015

Uniforms, Unity, Dress Codes, and Discord: The Context of the Debate

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My daughter is thrilled to start wearing a uniform next year, and frankly, I share her enthusiasm. At her Bais Yaakov elementary school, girls are required to wear a uniform starting in kindergarten. For my daughter, wearing a uniform will give her a sense of belonging. It will mean that she too is one of the big girls, a real Bais Yaakov girl. For me, it will mean no more fights over wearing tutus to school in the winter.

Uniforms and dress codes are a near universal practice in Bais Yaakov schools, and many other Jewish day schools as well. They are commonly found in prep schools and a growing number of public schools. There are three main reasons schools adopt policies legislating students’ dress.

  1. Uniforms create a sense of unity amongst students and build a feeling of belonging to a common community. You might not know every student who goes to your school, but you would recognize a fellow student in uniform anywhere. Anyone walking around Manhattan and seeing kids in their colored blazers and ties can sense how uniforms have the potential to convey a collective status symbol.
  2. Uniforms help equalize students and quell competition. Uniforms remove the pressure from students and their parents to spend copious amounts of money staying on top of the latest trends. They further help prevent teasing over clothing that can cause student alienation and damage the cohesiveness of the school community.
  3. Uniforms and dress codes are a way for school leaders to exhibit social and cultural control. School leaders who prohibit certain clothing are declaring particular types of clothing, and any associated behaviors, as inappropriate. Schools that require jackets and ties are making a statement about normative dress and acceptable behavior. Schools that forbid students from wearing gang colors are declaring violent behavior socially inappropriate. Uniforms also help the school to recognize its students so as to better identify them on the street and monitor their behavior. For example, anyone can identify a student who left campus during school hours if he or she is wearing the uniform.

These reasons manifest themselves in a particular way in Jewish day schools. Jewish schools are a fundamental building block of the Jewish community. School leaders seek to instill in students a sense of Jewish identity, belonging and connection to a specific Jewish community. Uniforms help foster these feelings and connections.

Young men learning in right-wing yeshivas, institutions of higher Jewish learning, wear white shirts and black pants. This dress code serves to distinguish them; to indicate status and belonging to a group. The same is true of Bais Yaakov uniforms. With their long skirts and button-down blouses, these girls are easily recognizable as Bais Yaakov students. This assists students in recognizing their classmates and the students of other Bais Yaakov schools. Uniforms have been imposed for what education researcher Ines Dussel called, “a symbol of distinction, of social inclusion in a different class of people.” For Bais Yaakov school leaders who want to distinguish their students from secular American girls, uniforms serve that purpose.

The Jewish community is also economically diverse and historically committed to providing universal Jewish education, regardless of whether parents can afford to pay for it. Therefore, any Jewish day school is going to have wealthy and poor students — those who can afford designer clothing and those who cannot. School leaders are sensitive to that reality and want to prevent competition and the potential for students to feel alienated as a result.

Finally, uniforms and dress codes are a socialization tool. School leaders, particularly in Orthodox schools, use them to teach Jewish law and social norms, most notably the traditional laws of tzniut, modesty. Orthodox rabbinic and school leaders have explicitly stated that observing the laws of modesty is a safeguard against a perceived growing sexual permissiveness in American society. Via uniforms and dress codes, school leaders instruct students on the clothing and behaviors that are expected and forbidden in their community.

This is a valid form of education. The Talmud states (Pesachim 50b), “Mitoch she’lo lishma, ba lishma, a person who does the correct action for the wrong reason, will come to do the correct action for the right reason.” It certainly worked in my case. I stopped wearing pants in public when I started attending a Bais Yaakov high school. I did so to comply with the rules, not because of any religious motivation. However, at some point during the four years, and I couldn’t tell you exactly when, I no longer felt comfortable wearing pants. I actively chose to belong to a community in which women wore skirts exclusively. This practice, initially forced upon me, became a legitimate religious belief. While this method of education has been criticized with regards to the heated topic of dress code, it is indeed a practice that happens in schools daily. For example, schools regularly mandate community service hours in the hopes that students will adopt the value of social responsibility.

However, uniforms and dress codes have an educational downside as well. An administrator at a very strict Bais Yaakov high school in Brooklyn acknowledged to me that because all students dressed in accordance with the school’s standards of modesty, school leaders lost an opportunity to engage with students on the issue of tzniut. By imposing religious observance on school premises through the uniforms, the school forfeited an opportunity to educate students on the reasons for and ideology behind dressing modestly.

Whether in Jewish or secular schools, dress codes tend to have a gendered component. Within the Orthodox Jewish world, dress code policies are tightly intertwined with the laws of modesty, which are generally directed toward women. Similarly, dress codes issued by public schools, although seemingly directed towards both boys and girls, generally only focus on girls’ dress. For example, a California junior high school in 1982 restricted students from wearing tube tops, bikini tops and short skirts. More recently, new rules have targeted boys’ dress, such as 1990s dress codes which sought to prevent the gang related clothing typically worn by males.

In both the Jewish and secular worlds, dress codes and uniforms remain a source of controversy and debate. School communities continue to discuss the merits, rationales and best ways of implementing these policies. Are dress codes and uniforms a restriction or a way to build community? Education or coercion?

My daughter doesn’t see the controversy or the politics. She doesn’t anticipate the annoyance I felt as a high school student, with the scratchy maroon sweater and pleated skirt I wore. She feels the excitement of being like all of the big girls in her carpool and I will not quell my daughter’s enthusiasm. I will embrace the convenience, the financial savings, and the policies of the school that I chose. And when she dons her uniform for the first time, I will proudly take pictures of my little big Bais Yaakov girl.

Like this topic? Check out our virtual conversation with school administrators on the topic of “The Role of Dress Code in a High School Setting.”

Posted on May 12, 2015

How My Good Girl Routine Failed Me

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I was born Orthodox. I was raised Orthodox. And without much of a rebellion at all, I slipped into adulthood as a happily Orthodox person. No drama. My elementary school, my high school, my summer camps – all Orthodox. I spent a year between high school and college studying in Israel. I really just followed the path set out.

All of this led to my (no exaggeration here) SHOCK when I started going to Kallah classes, classes that explore the Jewish laws of marital intimacy, before I got married. My teacher was a lovely person but perhaps not a great teacher. And also maybe I wasn’t a great student.

Here’s why: I could not separate my moral outrage from the lesson plans. I was twenty four years old and could not believe that there was a set of halakhot, laws, that I was simply unfamiliar with. How had they been kept hidden from me for so long? I mean, sure, I knew the basic outline of niddah, laws pertaining to menstruation and a couple’s relationship at that time, and of mikveh yet how was it that my good girl routine did not gain me entry into this world of halakhot? It seemed that there was a list of vocabulary words, anatomy lessons and customs that were only laid out in front of me scant moments before I walked down the aisle. Suddenly I needed to become way more familiar with the inner workings of my menstrual cycle. I needed to jot things down, calculate my cycle, and spend a lot of time counting days. Not exactly what I wanted to think about as I met with the florist and the caterer. There were new laws and there were new customs and I felt that I had no one to turn to who could guide me.

We are super good at keeping things quiet… us Orthodox Jews. Perhaps under the guise of modesty or perhaps simply “waiting for the appropriate moment,” we choose to be selective in how we present our Judaism. I think it probably extends beyond Orthodox Jews and it probably extends beyond these laws. We don’t talk about miscarriages or infertility. We don’t talk about divorce. We don’t talk about sexual abuse.

So here’s for a little more transparency. I’m not advocating talking to you local kindergarten about the mikveh, but I think we could do a bit better. The conversation, the vocabulary can be introduced – in detail – a little earlier. In high school (true story) instead of visiting the mikveh and the butcher in an all-day Jewish version of “who are the people in your neighborhood,” we can start exploring sexuality and the role it plays in Judaism. Happily, these days the resources are there. There are curricula being written. There is an elite cadre of women (at least in my mind) who can answer any question related to family purity laws. We have developed an infrastructure to help woman learn about and talk about sexuality.

These days I teach brides but they are few and far between. I choose the women that I know and that I love or that need a little more attention or direction or sensitivity. I walk through the curriculum each and every time with a yoetzet halakha (women who are trained as halakhic advisors in the area of niddah) to build the perfect curriculum for each student. I want the students to encounter the halakhot in a way that is appropriate for them. I want them to connect spiritually and emotionally. I want them to feel comfortable feeling very uncomfortable. Because, if you are not squirming a bit, I’m probably not teaching you well.

There is an implied shame in things we don’t talk about. There should be no shame in mikveh. There should be no shame in niddah. It is our job as parents, as women, and as educators to open this conversation up. We have seen the damage that can be done when things are kept quiet. Let’s start talking.

A new chatan and kallah class for couples who want to learn from teachers with a modern sensibility is beginning Sunday, May 10, 2015. Click here for more information. 

Posted on May 6, 2015

Rediscovering Megillat Ruth

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Last year I rediscovered Megillat Ruth. On the morning of the second day of Shavuot I joined a closely knit group of friends and family gathered for shacharit, morning services, at the home of the Weiniger family to celebrate Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. It was a standard Orthodox service enhanced by the intimacy of the space and everyone’s participation in the melodious tunes. When it was time for the customary reading of Megillat Ruth, Lucy stood at the bima, podium, which, in line with the mechitza, was between the women’s and men’s sections. She leyned Megillat Ruth from a klaf, a handwritten parchment scroll, chanting the words in the traditional tune.

Her words rang out with passion and enthusiasm, and suddenly, as she intoned Naomi’s words:  “No, my daughters, for it is much more bitter for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me,” entreating her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers’ homes, I too felt a lump in my throat. As she continued: “They raised their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth cleaved to her,” I had tears in my eyes.

I have heard and studied Megillat Ruth many times. It is a biblical narrative unusually populated with female characters. Ruth and Naomi’s beautiful and moving story resonates with women in particular, because it speaks of the bond of female friendship, of experiencing bereavement as a mother and as a wife, of being childless, of loneliness and vulnerability in being homeless. It is a story that easily engenders cognitive empathy. But this reading was different. I heard it in a completely new voice. It was more than the fact that it was chanted by a Bat Mitzvah girl to mark her own commitment to Jewish faith and Jewish community.

Hearing the narrative read by a female voice engendered affective empathy. It elicited in me, and those around me, emotions and feelings mirroring those experienced by the characters. Experiencing first the grief, longing and despair, then joy and relief with Ruth and Naomi as their story unfolded made the story particularly compelling.

This Megillat Ruth experience inspired me to encourage more women to engage with the story of Ruth in preparation for Shavuot and to encourage opportunities for women’s leyning of Ruth on Shavuot itself. The main focus of Shavuot is generally the Tikkun Leil, all night study session, which is not always easily accessible to women. We are often rather washed out by the second day of Yom Tov, and so Megillat Ruth often doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

I invite you to change this and rediscover Megillat Ruth. Whether through traditional text study or through the ritual of leyning on Shavuot. It is possibly the most accessible of the five megillot; rich with themes for discussion and a great entry point for women to explore a new ritual by learning to leyn.

To facilitate this JOFA has created a set of resources. After Shavuot, we asked Lucy to record her leyning in the hope it will inspire others. You can find it all at jofa.org/megillat-ruth-book-club

Posted on May 4, 2015

The Quiet Greatness of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: One Woman Remembers

HaRav_LichtensteinTucked away, among a pile of folders and spiral notebooks that contain the photocopied sources and notes of classes gone by is a manila folder that makes me smile every time I come across it. Therein lie my careful notes from what we knew as “the machshavah shiur,” a class in religious ideas given by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, before his weekly Talmud shiur at Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem.

In the early nineties, for the academic year when I attended the shiur religiously, R. Lichtenstein zt”l diverged from the known text of that time slot (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers) and taught Ramban’s commentary on the Torah instead. Among the insights that have stayed with me without needing to check my notes are the parallels he drew between Ramban’s commentary on the Torah and the interpretive and analytic efforts of the Baalei HaTosafot on the Talmud. Because Rashi and his comprehensive line-by-line commentaries preceded both endeavors, both Ramban and the Baalei HaTosafot were free, as it were, to investigate at will, penning passages – mini essays, if you will – on meta concerns of meaning.

Women were welcome to attend the machshavah shiur. A few large, round tables were set up, usually on one side of a large room, to accommodate the female attendees. Women were also welcome to attend the Talmud shiur, and for many years, there were several women who did just that. For about a year and a half, a pair of my friends stayed for the Talmud class, together with twenty Gruss guys and another three women. Then…in the interest of peace, R. Lichtenstein zt”l responded at last to the discomfort of some of the men in the shiur who were less receptive to the women’s presence there than he himself was, and the women were asked to stop attending. That R. Lichtenstein zt”l supported the women’s Torah learning is indisputable, however.

I emphasize this point because over the course of the past week, I have heard beautiful, inspiring tear-jerking eulogies, and the occasional lament that women did not know R. Lichtenstein zt”l. Leaving aside the obvious point that a men’s rosh yeshivah will logically and necessarily leave more male students than female, I have a deep desire to shake those who lament, and say to them that they simply don’t know the right people, and they aren’t reading R. Lichtenstein zt”l’s words.

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A case in point: a woman who first moved to Alon Shevut to live in the “kollel buildings” with her new husband in the mid-nineties. Even then, before these long twenty years under R. Lichtenstein zt”l’s close influence, she quoted him to me to explain how she wasn’t taking on all of her husband’s practices: “R. Aharon said….” Words that I heard repeated often. And now her articulation of the profundity of this loss speaks for itself:

In “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself,” Rav Lichtenstein writes about those who, beyond simply shaping his ideology, were the living embodiments of the faith experience for him, indelibly influencing and shaping his own faith experience by their mere presence and intrinsic essence.

For me, that person was HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein.

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A case in point: a young woman whose education prior to Stern College did not include the Gemara learning she attained there, and undermined her confidence as to whether she truly ought to be learning, and then preparing to teach, Talmud. When she discovered that R. Lichtenstein zt”l was to speak on women and talmud Torah at Manhattan’s Jewish Center, she decided to ask him about it. I was there at the shiur – he delineated the history and halakhic issues pertaining to women learning Torah, and what emerged was – to me – a profound and inspiring endorsement. If only it hadn’t been Shabbos…I’d be glad to add notes from that day to my manila folder!

But here’s what’s important: after the shiur, he then engaged with this young woman’s question seriously, and discussed the issues with her for eighteen long New York City blocks, as she accompanied him to his next engagement at Lincoln Square Synagogue. He didn’t pasken for her. She didn’t become a close student of his. But – despite her concern that she was monopolizing his time – R. Lichtenstein zt”l focused on her, treating her concerns with as much rigor and respect as due any serious inquiry. She might have preferred a more definitive “go forth and teach” (she does; she’s excellent), but I’m so pleased to know she was not dismissed in any way, not even with positive words.

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It is not insignificant that many of the serious institutions of women’s Torah study have enjoyed some serious measure of R. Lichtenstein zt”l’s influence. Drisha’s founder Rabbi David Silber maintains that R. Lichtenstein zt”l was his first rebbe. He was among the rabbinic authorities backing Matan. And, of course, he was a presence at what surely has been a showcase for women’s batei midrash since its inception, Migdal Oz, founded not surprisingly by R. Lichtenstein zt”l’s daughter, Esti Rosenberg.

Nor is it insignificant that many of the men who have undertaken to teach women Torah (Talmud in particular, but not only) on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion. They carry R. Lichtenstein zt”l’s training and influence with them, and it will surely proliferate and spread in ways as yet unknown, as an ever increasing number of women study under them, counting themselves among the circles of learners.

Which is not to say that R. Lichtenstein zt”l was trumpeting a clarion call for women learning Torah. Rather – he didn’t. The prophet Elisha teaches us that the still, small voice in the wilderness is often the most powerful in rallying people to God. R. Lichtenstein zt”l learned and he taught and he led, granting respect to all who were engaged in the same. Women and men. Without fanfare.

It strikes me that it’s the same approach that brought Esti Rosenberg and Toni Mittelman to eulogize their father, as they also gave shiurim at the eightieth birthday celebration in his honor last year. That is, naturally and without fanfare, each took her place, in order of age, to speak, to mourn together with the community that shares their loss. It was presented as a given, and smoothly: children eulogizing their father. More’s the shame that it begs comment.

And more is the shame that there is a need to articulate R. Lichtenstein zt”l’s influence on women – for whom he served as a model of greatness, in his being and in his writings (go read them, and be enriched), just as he did for men – and with regard to the matters that are treated as if they pertain to women only. My sense is that here is where we go wrong: if R. Lichtenstein zt”l was able to respond with respect to all who sought Torah and to all matters of Torah, regardless of gender, then that is moving legacy enough.

Posted on April 30, 2015

Modesty – How Everyone Gets It Wrong, and Why We Need to Get it Right

Employee, covering mouth. Speak no evil concept

The use of tzniut, modesty, as a cudgel against Jewish women has been well documented in the JOFA Journal, conferences, and blogs — and rightly so. I’m sure the reader is well aware of how tzniut is used as a pretext to silence women, squelch spiritual growth, and create prohibitions on mitzvot that halakha, Jewish law, tells us women should (or at least may) perform.

However, if you want to make a change, it is not enough to say what is wrong. You also have to present a positive model of what is right.

Right now, secular society provides the only alternative to this oppressive and perverse depiction of “modesty,” and it’s not much better with its sexual objectification of women and girls. The media’s depiction of females wreaks havoc on women’s self-esteem, and reinforces the idea that they must be beautiful, silent, and always ready to please men. Men are taught that they are entitled to judge and use women for their own needs. The negative effects of growing up female are well documented: negative body image, eating disorders, unhealthy relationships with men, and self-hatred.

In fact, these two depictions of how women should dress and act are only superficially different. Imagine that you are a photographer trying to photograph a woman so that the viewer can really see who she is. You need to have just the right amount of light. If there is too little, the photo is too dark and the woman can’t be seen. If there is too much, then the photo is overexposed, and you can’t see her either. The misuse of excessive modesty is like the photo that is too dark, whereas secular society’s sexual objectification is like the photo that is overexposed (pun intended). The two extremes have the same effect: preventing the woman from being seen. True modesty means having just the right amount of light.

Modern Orthodoxy should be at the forefront of developing a positive model for what modesty ought to be. The approach needs to differ for men and women because they have very different challenges in today’s society.

For boys and men, we need to address the deleterious effects of pornography (whose messages are so ubiquitous in secular society) and the cult of male entitlement on retarding men’s ability to have a healthy, long-term relationship with women. Also, boys’ self-image is often bolstered through the degradation of females (and the daily blessing “she’lo asani ishah, Thank you God for not making me a woman” doesn’t help). We need to help boys develop their own self-esteem as men without the need for lowering their esteem of girls.

For girls and women, modesty starts with developing a positive self-image (and women need these messages just as much as girls). At the highest level, it means knowing that we are not bodies with souls, but souls with bodies. It also means developing a positive body image based on the wonderful things the body can do — involvement in athletics and dance can be very helpful here. It is feeling that one is beautiful, and challenging society’s narrow and heavily photo-shopped image of what beauty is.

Girls’ clothing, the battleground for many modesty battles, also needs to be addressed. Not that boys’ clothing is not important. It’s just that in secular society, with few exceptions, standards of dress for boys mean being well covered up in loose clothing — there is simply not much to fight here. A girl, however, is expected to be “confident about her body” by wearing skimpy and tight clothes. The clothing should not be the focus of discussions on modesty, but clear standards need to be established that provide girls freedom to express themselves without allowing degrading styles of dress.

Finally, any talk about modesty inevitably leads to discussion about sexuality. We need to keep in mind that, till about one hundred years ago, twelve was a common age for girls to marry and fifteen for boys. Today, we expect teenagers to delay sexual activity for about ten years after they become sexually mature. We need to have frank discussions about sexuality with young adults that don’t infantilize them, or imply that those with stronger sexual natures are “bad” (particularly the girls), but recognize the very normal feelings that they have.

As modesty is increasingly used by the right-wing as a pretext to blot out women, Modern Orthodox Jews need to be careful not to have a knee jerk reaction against it. Instead, we need to create a positive model of what modesty should be — a powerful tool to bolster female self-esteem, help men respect women, and maintain healthy relationships. In this way we can fight back, using modesty as a means of ensuring that women are seen and heard, and are active participants in Orthodox Jewish life.

 

Continue the conversation about creating a positive model of modesty by tuning in to our virtual discussion about dress codes in high school.

Posted on April 27, 2015

A Shabbat of Learning, Prayer, and Growth at UPenn

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This summer, I had the privilege of attending a conference about Partnership Minyanim, hosted by Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. I was impressed by the number of people this weekend attracted and by the deep engagement with Jewish tradition. However, one voice I felt was missing was that of young people. When Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Darkhei Noam in New York were first founded, they were led by and largely consisted of young adults and families. Now that these communities have been around for thirteen years, they attract a significantly older demographic.

American college campuses are now home to some of the fastest growth of partnership minyanim. There are currently at least eight partnership minyanim on U.S. college campuses. For the second year in a row, Penn Shira Hadasha hosted an Intercollegiate Partnership Minyanim Shabbaton. This year, we attracted students from ten different campuses. In addition to a variety of peer led discussions, the shabbaton featured Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz, a YCT graduate and founder of Uri L’Tzedek and the Shamayim V’aretz Institute, as a Scholar-in-Residence. With JOFA’s generous financial support, we were able to bring in Rav Shmuly to guide the group in thinking about a variety of important Jewish and social justice topics.

For me, the proudest part of this Shabbat for me was the davening. Many of the partnership minyanim on college campuses come together once every two weeks for one prayer service over the course of Shabbat. Our communities have settled for being prayer communities that meet sporadically and provide only a small subset of the required Jewish prayers. However, over this Shabbat, dozens of students came together for all of the prayer services and a number of female students led services and read Torah for the first time. This is certainly the most meaningful part of running a partnership minyan, empowering a female student, who never knew she could participate in services, to lead the community and find a new way to connect to prayer. The fact that our community was able to provide a space for partnership-style prayer throughout Shabbat inspired all of the participants. We all realized that partnership minyanim are a sustainable model, and that we should all strive for prayer spaces that allow for women’s participation and not settle for traditional Orthodox communities.

Throughout Shabbat, Rav Shmuly led us in conversations about veganism, social justice, and women’s participation, including a class we cosponsored with the Orthodox Community, entitled “Constructing a Philosophy of Halakha: The Role of Women in Ritual.” During the class, we considered several models of revelation and how we view our relationship to true Torah, and how each of these informs our view of halakha, specifically women’s roles in ritual. Rav Shmuly challenged each student to first define our own conception of halakha, and then make our decisions about specific issues based on this model. This conversation continued for two hours, as we spoke about modern challenges in Orthodoxy such as the price of living an Orthodox lifestyle, the challenges of being part of a community you don’t agree with ideologically, how to bring the idea of Torah U’Mada back into Modern Orthodoxy, and more. This honest and critical conversation about many of the issues we face with our communities was both refreshing and rejuvenating.

Our community is so proud to have been able to bring together a group of students committed to Judaism, feminism, and social justice for a meaningful Shabbat of prayer, learning, and conversation. We were so impressed by the students we met and the hard work they are putting in on their campuses to grow this movement of Orthodox Feminism and Partnership Minyanim. We were able to engage in many meaningful and important conversations about Judaism that are unfortunately all too rare in our separate communities. We hope that these Shabbatons continue in the future, fostering a space for critical conversations about our communities and inspiring students to continue building this movement across the country.

Posted on April 20, 2015

What!? You Mean Women Can Actually Study Talmud?

Memories of the film, Yentl, came to mind when a number of highly Jewishly educated women invited me to join the Shalhevet Women’s Kollel of St. Louis. Yentl was based on Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s story of a girl who is so determined to study Talmud that she disguises herself as a boy in order to enter the yeshiva. By contrast to the main character in Yentl, I did not start to study anything about Judaism until my late twenties, and feel that I have been trying to catch up for the past forty years.

The idea of studying Talmud was planted last Shavuot when Maharat Rori Picker Neiss invited several of her classmates from Yeshivat Maharat to St. Louis for a study-filled holiday at Bais Abraham Congregation. They sat in a circle to demonstrate what a group of women studying a Talmud text looks and sounds like. It was quite inspiring. Their example instilled the desire in women from all over our community to form our own study group. Then, we started the Shalhevet Women’s Kollel of St. Louis just before Rosh Hashanah.

The volume we are currently tackling is Tractate Beitza which opens with the question of the status of an egg laid on a holiday. In the beginning, the material was so completely foreign that some of us felt very intimidated. Maharat Rori, the Rosh Kollel, assured us that our feelings were completely understandable. She shared some essential vocabulary and history to give us some clues that helped us to engage with the text. We were assured that our persistence would be rewarded and the Talmud’s arguments would become more coherent as we moved along.

My study partner and I decided we would simply approach this study the way we had approached the world as daring, curious little girls devouring our environment while constructing meaning for ourselves. We indulged in all kinds of tangents. For example, when and how does an egg actually develop? During our explorations of the Notes, Halakha (Jewish law), and Background explanations around the edges of the pages of text in our volumes of the Koren Talmud Bavli (The Noe Edition) we have collected little pearls of information that have yet to be strung together in a beautiful necklace of understanding.

Posted on April 15, 2015