Rediscovering Megillat Ruth

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Lucy-Cropped

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

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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

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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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IMG_8142 (1)

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?

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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

Sex and Modern Orthodox Singles: Between Halakha and Reality

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I was a Girl Scout for ten years, from 3rd-12th grade. I learned how to start a fire, cook for a group, use a pocketknife, approach strangers and make a sales pitch (for cookies), and how to form the deepest of bonds with the strong girls – and then women – with whom I spent every other Sunday. Girl Scouts gave me my oldest friend (the sister neither of us had), my passion for activism, and the confidence that I, as a woman, could do and be anything I set my mind to.

As I grew into my own womanhood, replete with the decisions that entails, I also became more interested in the health and well-being of women and girls worldwide. I learned that family planning is one of the most important drivers of women’s economic stability and, by extension, the stability of entire countries. When women can control when and how many children they give birth to, they are able to attain higher levels of education, higher paying jobs, and better provide for the children that they do choose to have. I lived, I learned, I advocated on social media and in real life. Soon, I took my place in a different space of women. I became the friend they come to when they want to know about sexual health, when they have issues with a partner or spouse, or worries about a form of contraception. I became a member of the group of women answering these questions for one another, creating a sacred space of connection, stewarding a reclaiming of our bodies. But there is an added wrinkle when navigating that stewardship in the Modern Orthodox community, where the kinds of sex unmarried young adults are having are simply ignored in the greater conversation about religious life.

On a recent flight, I took the opportunity to listen to a recent Joy of Text podcast episode. As it began, a smile, hesitant at first, crept across my mouth in delight; I couldn’t be sure if what I was hearing was correct. I remember thinking, “Wait, are they going to say it?” And then they did!  Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, sex therapist and clinical director of The Medical Center for Female Sexuality, and Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, both advocated for the use of condoms if Orthodox unmarried young adults are having sex. To be clear, the questioner didn’t ask if it was halakhically permissible (meaning permissible under Jewish law) to have sex, only if, in the case that a couple had made that decision, they should use condoms. The answer was an unequivocal “yes.” Perhaps if the couple was serious and monogamous and tested, then they could move forward with the choice to use hormonal birth control and to refrain from using condoms, but otherwise, it was a simple issue of health and risk to life. Dr. Marcus made the important point that just because you are Orthodox doesn’t mean you don’t need to be safe. Just because you orbit a certain community doesn’t mean you can make assumptions about people’s sexual habits.  I smiled because it’s amazing that this conversation is happening, that people are finally talking about what is actually going on in this community.

Posted on April 8, 2015

Let’s Talk About Orthodox Conversion

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I completed my Orthodox conversion with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) in 2011. My process was an incredibly positive and meaningful experience. I learned the laws of
kashrut
, Shabbat, prayer, blessings, and how to live an observant lifestyle, formed lasting relationships that continue to benefit me personally and professionally, and became part of a committed, strong community. That said, I think I was very fortunate. If I hadn’t been a student at NYU, if my friend hadn’t been going through the process already and hadn’t connected me to Rabbi Sarna and Rabbi Smokler and their wives, if I didn’t already live in a Jewish community, I don’t know where I would have begun. I knew I wanted to join the Jewish people but I did not know how, who to turn to, how long it might take, what exactly I needed to learn and do. As I began the process, some of those things revealed themselves. But I never knew exactly how long the process might take and the lingering question, “Am I doing this right?” never stopped gnawing at me.

What I’ve come to realize since then is that conversion in the United States is overwhelmingly a women’s issue. Sponsoring rabbis report that a significant majority of conversion candidates are in fact women. Recently, I sat in a room with ten other converts to discuss our experience with converting through the RCA. I couldn’t help noticing that all present were women, with a man at the head of the table. His co-facilitator was a woman and both acknowledged the imbalance. I appreciate the efforts of the RCA to assemble a diverse committee to take stock of their process and to involve those directly affected. I am hoping this is a step in the right direction.

Lack of clarity around the conversion process and the exclusion of female leadership from the process motivated me in October to try to start an Orthodox Converts Network. Through this network, which I’m building with my friend and fellow convert, Jenna Englender, we hope to do four key things:

Posted on April 6, 2015

Marching for My Mom, the Agunah

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Last Sunday, March 22nd, a march was held in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY in order to raise awareness of the ever growing agunah crisis in our communities. I was honored to be one of the speakers at the march. Before I discuss whether or not the march was a success, I’d like to talk about why I spoke.

Thirteen years ago, when I was only seven years old, my parents got a civil divorce. To this day, my father has still not given my mother a
gett
, a religious divorce. His reasons for withholding a gett have changed over the years—he wants a different custody agreement, more money, he still loves her–but his attitude has not. Growing up, my siblings and I were constantly caught in between our parents. My mother tried very hard to never speak ill of my father when we were nearby. My father on the other hand, would go out of his way to put our mother down when we were with him. There were several times my father was even overheard threatening our lives if my mother continued to fight for full custody! Becoming involved with the Agunah march, and defiantly speaking out against my father, was probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.

11045438_10153214638699711_6822481123520697818_nSo why did I agree to speak? I agreed because it was necessary. The world needs to understand that gett refusal is a real issue, and we can’t keep sweeping it under the rug. I agreed to speak so that other agunot, chained women, will find the courage to reach out for help. I agreed so that other children of agunot will know that they are not alone, that there are others like themselves, who can help them make the right choices, especially when they are difficult choices to make.

Initially, many, many people seemed to be against the actual march, arguing that we were only marching to further our “personal agendas.” Well, they were actually correct. Since all Jews are brothers and sisters, if one Jew is in pain, it becomes every Jewish person’s personal agenda to relieve him or her of said pain. The challenge is that people don’t enjoy stepping out of their “happy little bubble” to see that there is pain. They would rather sweep it all under the rug, and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Posted on March 31, 2015

Megillah, Matzah, and Equality

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This is an exciting time of the year to be an observant Jew. The religious momentum in the months of Adar and Nisan begins to build up two weeks before Purim with Parshat Shekalim and culminates at the night of the first Seder. What makes the spring time so special is that the central mitzvah of each holiday – the public reading of the megillah on Purim and the private eating of matzah on Passover – are among the few time-bound commandments that apply equally to men and women.

The reason is well known. In the language of the Rabbis, women must hear the megillah and eat matzah because “af hein hayu b’nes” – women too were included in the miracle of the rescue in Shushan and the exodus from Egypt. In the Rabbinic mind, salvation from the mortal danger which threatened the entire community rendered all Jews equal. Eve, the primordial woman, was cursed with dependence on her husband when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. But, when Pharaoh and Haman threatened the Jewish people, equality between husbands and wives, men and women, was at least partially restored. Essentialist differences based on gender are erased on Purim and Passover.

It is becoming a widespread practice among Open Orthodox think tanks like Beit Hillel to publish responsa engaging with contemporary issues relating to gender in modern Jewish life, including the questions of women’s obligation in time-bound commandments. One discomforting aspect of these well-intentioned papers is a reliance on standard halakhic categories. Much of the discussion focuses on personal status rather than the performance of the mitzvah itself. The point of departure is invariably the relative rank of men versus women rather than the intrinsic capacity of the person to fulfill the mitzvah. For example, when considering women’s participation in prayer services, the discussion hinges on the position of women in the hierarchy of obligation (slaves, children, deaf people, mentally incompetent people, women and men) and this determines whether or not women can fulfill specific roles such as reading from the Torah or leading prayers for the congregation. The same logic prevails even in the laws relating to the reading of the megillah. Some halakhic authorities persist in affording women a lower status than men and do not permit women to read on behalf of men. There have also been attempts to support specific practices with innovative applications of established halakhic principles that transcend gender status. A good illustration is Rabbi Sperber’s invocation of the principle of kvod ha’briyot, “human dignity,” to enable greater participation by women in communal prayer and Torah reading. But this is a notable exception. Usually the think tank responsa compile a list of lenient positions without establishing an underling legal basis and, as such, are unconvincing.

Posted on March 29, 2015

Brave Chabad Woman Speaks Out Against Childhood Abuser

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On March 23, Sima Yarmush, the daughter of Chabad Shlichim, emissaries, in Santa Monica, California, shared her story of childhood abuse. Ten years after she reported her experiences to four prominent rabbis, who falsely promised to help her navigate this trauma, she stood up to share her dark story with the public. She withheld most of the details about the abuse, but shared some of the grooming techniques her predator employed. For years she had been scared to tell anyone about her abuser, even her parents.

I can’t imagine the pain inflicted on Sima and her family. What I found both compelling and devastating was the community’s reaction once the abuser had finally been exposed. How callously her neighbors and other Chabad rabbis reacted, and the attacks that her parents endured for doing what they believed was in the interest of protecting children.

The responsibility of exposing abusers and keeping children safe is ours – all of ours. We can realize this responsibility by creating an environment that would have allowed Sima to speak up when the abuse first occurred, and for swift and effective action to be taken. We need to have clear and blunt conversations with children of all ages about the dangers in the world and who to contact if your space or body is violated. When Sima did have the courage to share her story with those rabbis empowered with protecting her, they did next to nothing.

It is our responsibility to share her story, educate our children, and not to tolerate abuse in the community. It exists in every community, regardless of religion or denomination, and it is our job to protect children and expose the abusers. Listen to Sima’s story and share it – send a message loud and clear that this will not be tolerated.

Posted on March 27, 2015