The Torch explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. Named for Deborah the Prophetess, "the woman of torches," the blog highlights the passion and fiery leadership of Jewish feminists, while evoking the powerful image of feminists "passing the torch" to a new generation. Disclaimer: All posts are contributed by third party authors. JOFA does not assume responsibility for the facts and opinions presented in them.
In third grade, most learning stopped while we prepared for our class play. It was quite the production. We each stood up and recited a Rashi we had learned by heart (the equivalent I suppose of a pep rally in our fairly ultra-Orthodox school) and then we performed our little hearts out. The story: the age-old classic of Joseph and his brothers. Since we were an all-girls school and the parts were mostly male, we were forced to get creative. Yet the most coveted role of all was that of Serach, Jacob’s granddaughter. It wasn’t a major part but Serach, the only female character in our play, was modest and sang to Joseph—two very important and enviable skills in our world.
My school had strong views. We were taught to be modest, taught to be good girls. The role of follower was lauded. You followed the rules without questioning them. The best girls were the ones who followed. They were the ones who got to play Serach in our class play. The leaders found themselves hearing about how we should be behaving more like them.
In elementary school, we skipped the first eleven chapters of the book of Bereishit and just stepped on to the story train with Abraham. The thought being that the first part of the book of Bereishit would be lost on us youngsters, or that the Torah truly begins with our first patriarch. Be that as it may, we began chanting the stories of the Torah with Abraham.
And Abraham taught us the art of following. Meaning God said, go, and Abraham did. Perhaps what is significant for us today is to understand the motivation behind following. What inspires us to listen to others and follow their lead? At times we follow because we love, we have faith, we have trust, we are committed, we are scared, we are lonely, we are vulnerable. There is a whole range of human emotion that leads us to a place where we agree to follow.
The Torah is full of followers. And they are noble and praise-worthy. The roles of leader and follower are not mutually exclusive—you can be both. Abraham follows God and then goes on to start a great nation. Moses rejects the role of leadership only to later be called the greatest leader we have seen. Deborah leads as a prophet but then follows Barak on to the battlefield. It is a complicated role—to lead. Know what else is complicated? To follow. Following requires the right balance of buying into an ideology and not questioning that ideology too much. If we took a true look at what we follow blindly, we may not like what we see.
I have been both a leader and a follower. I think we pick the moments when we lead and the moments when we follow. Society gives us cues when it is appropriate to shine and when it is appropriate to step out of the limelight. But society gets it wrong from time to time. Specifically, my society gets it wrong. Not always, but often enough that it may be time to question the culture we find ourselves in.
We all create our own societies. Like building blocks, we pick and choose what goes into it— friends, family, community, religion are all part of mine. And, to be fair, each of those elements has failed me from time to time. But I don’t walk away. I question, I reassess, and I make changes to the world I am committed to.
Over the last few weeks, so many people have spoken about religious institutions, oversight and female involvement—and that is all appropriately meaningful. But I am certain that as individuals we need to re-evaluate the moments when we are leading and the moments when we are following. Women’s leadership roles, much like the role of Serach’s in my third grade play, need to be coveted. More of us need to be standing on the stage. We find ourselves, once again, at a pivotal point, in the intersection of scandal and halakha. Let us take this moment to lead.
I was never a contender to play Serach. I wasn’t a renegade leader in elementary school. I just didn’t follow the way they wanted me to. I probably still don’t.
Pronounced: buh-RAY-SHEET, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “in the beginning,” it’s the Hebrew name for Genesis, the first book of the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.