A Feminist Walks Into An Orthodox Synagogue

This past Sukkot, I was on a spiritual high after Yom Kippur. The sanctuary had swelled with voices of prayer and I felt exuberant with communal connection. The rabbi invited me into the sukkah to shake the lulav and etrog. He made sure to remove the temporary mechitza (the divider separating men and women) whenever prayer services weren’t under way. My sense of religious belonging was strengthened by the rabbi’s inclusive and respectful actions. Then, as the second day of Sukkot came to a close and I was once again the only woman awaiting the start of the evening services in the women’s section, my soul came plummeting back to earth.

The crowds had cleared and the men began to joke about the plight of marrying a woman after only seeing her for a few moments. A congregant insisted, as he laughed heartily, that the rabbi finish the joke that he had started on the topic. The synagogue had become a boys club where the role of the woman changed, quite drastically, from participant to object, and in this instance, to the object of ridicule.

The rabbi, knowing that I was present and recognizing the inappropriateness of the topic, changed the subject. This was a teaching moment that was left unutilized. This is where feminism belongs. It is in this moment that rabbis must muster up the strength of the feminine, their intuitive knowing that something is wrong. This rabbi knew, but he failed to speak. I heard a young Orthodox rabbi and self-proclaimed feminist once say that he only takes suggestions from other rabbis. If we are  ever going to be a community of equals, the voice of half of our population must be integrated into the teaching of our communities and while this could certainly begin in the home, it need not end there.

Women’s objectification takes many forms. Sometimes we’re ignored, when, for instance, men enter the women’s section during prayer to chat with other men or to use their phones. On the opposite end of the objectification spectrum, there’s the habit of men leering over the mechitza or praying in the back of the women’s section with no words of rebuke or redirection. Other times we are the objects of separation and disrespect. Once, after morning minyan (prayer services), I was invited to join the group for breakfast, during which a man placed a large trash can by my shoulder to serve as the separation between me and the man sitting to my right. Tackling these issues directly, as I have done in my own life is important, but bringing inappropriate behavior to light cannot rest on the shoulders of women alone. Shifting the paradigm of female-male relations from objectification to personalization can only occur if those who see the problem, speak of it, teach, and insist that their peers struggle within themselves and change.

It is not too much to ask to be able to walk into a synagogue and feel respected for the duration. and that it be the rule and not the exception. My hope is that rabbis will begin to recognize when women are being objectified, whether as objects of dismissal or idealization, whether we are present or not and begin to teach their male congregants that equality is not defined by sameness, it is reflected in treating others as yourself.  In the above examples, it’s not enough to stifle the desire to tell a bad joke, but it’s important to begin to work on those qualities that compel you to make fun of an entire gender in the middle of a place of worship or anywhere, frankly. It’s not enough to stay out of the women’s section during prayer because you’re told to, rather caring for the spiritual well-being of your entire congregation must triumph. It’s not enough to suppress your desire to place inappropriate barriers between men and women, but to care that all sitting around a synagogue’s breakfast table feel and actually are welcome.

Men must begin taking responsibility for both their treatment of and unresolved feelings toward women. Rabbi Yaakov Hillel in his book Ascending Jacob’s Ladder, wrote that when a man learns Torah without also developing his character, he creates a monster. I have experienced such monstrosity. I have also experienced kindness, warmth, inclusion, and appreciation for making an effort to join the community for prayer. One day the monsters that Rabbi Hillel speaks of will be a thing of the past. In the meantime, it is important for all of us to continue working on ourselves to that end.

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