Jewfem Blog

From Weinstein to Trump to the Talmud: Lessons on being a woman in this world, then and now

Don’t embarrass important men. Don’t ruin things – for others, for yourself. And anyway, maybe what you think you experienced didn’t really happen. Maybe you’re just making it up. Let’s move on. There is important work to do, important issues to discuss. Let’s not waste time on these trivial matters. On your personal agenda. Enough with that. The sexual assault allegations against high profile men that have been coming to light – Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, Trump, etc etc etc – have been shedding light on some of the many ways in which our society uses, silences, and shames women. Women are too frequently seen as sex objects or servile –  no matter how talented, smart or accomplished we are. When we speak up, we are often not believed. We need sixty other women to say the same thing before our stories are taken seriously. And when we do speak, we are often encouraged to stay silent for the sake of the project, the business, the community, the greater good, whatever. Anything but our own needs and our own well-being. But these dynamics are hardly new. I am discovering as I reopen the centuries-old Talmudic tomes that form the basis of Jewish and arguably Judeo-Christian thought, that the subsuming of women’s needs and desires is an old practice. We have been thrown under the bus for a very long time. This week, I read a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud about spirituality that I was keenly interested in. I am a lifelong student of comparative religion, and this passage, which discusses the character traits of the person deemed most fit to communicate with God, addresses topics that are often on my mind. What does it mean to be a spiritual being? What concepts of leading a good life or being a good person are universal? I suppose I am searching for an understanding of humanity that crosses cultural boundaries. This text speaks to that, so I was engaged. And then came the bit about women, and I stopped short. The passage (JT Taanit 1;4) brings a series of anecdotes about practice of fasting for rain. When there was a drought in ancient Israel, the religious leadership would call for fasting in order to speak to God – first individuals would fast, and then if things didn’t improve, the entire public would fast. So the Talmud asks the question: Who are those righteous individuals who can speak to God and get the job done? The answers are given via a series of stories with men who are deemed to have qualities of righteousness, and some of these answers are surprising. The first story is about a man who refused a request for money because the funds in question had been set aside for tithes. The rabbis were so impressed with his commitment to charity that they said, “You should pray for rain.” That is nice and makes sense. It is about generosity, honesty and integrity, considered here to be the basis of a...

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When rabbis don’t know right from left; or, learning to listen to the God within

There is a fascinating debate in the rabbinic literature about how far rabbinic authority goes. It is an argument over two words in a verse in Deuteronomy (17; 11) that admonishes the people of Israel not to deviate from the word of the Torah “right and left” yamin u’smol. The dispute sheds light on what some rabbis thought about their followers and themselves. This particular verse is very significant for the rabbis over the generations, because the Talmudists shrewdly manipulate the words in a way that constructs rabbis as exclusive agents of the word of God. “Do not deviate”, they argue, is a commandment meant for the mere plebian Jews who are too boorish to know what the Torah means. These run-of-the-mill Jews need rabbis to reveal God’s intentions. “Do not deviate” gave rabbis justification to invent a plethora of practices – such as lighting Shabbat candles or washing hands before eating bread – and claim that they are directly from God. Jews funnily recite the words, “…as God sanctified us and commanded us”, over some of these customs, even though they are not written in the Torah. The rabbis said, so it’s as if it’s from God. Do not deviate.    Rabbinical cleverness has often served us well. The rabbis created, for example, the notion of pikuach nefesh, that saving of a life justifies breaking Shabbat. Apparently in non-rabbinical Jewish communities, such as the Ethiopian Jewish community pre-Aliyah, the concept of pikuach nefesh doesn’t exist. So that, for example, years ago when a group of Ethiopian boarding school students in Israel watched the fire department extinguish a blaze on Shabbat – which is against the bible – the kids refused to return to the boarding school because in their view, putting out the fire was a violation of Judaism.   The idea of pikuach nefesh, the primacy of saving a life, may be a biblical fiction, but it’s a good one. The rabbis who invented it listened to their own hearts and understood right from wrong, and shared that with all of us. As arbiters of change, the rabbis have made many rules over the generations that radically alter the letter of the Torah, such as allowing Israeli banks to charge interest, allowing Israeli farmers to grow crops in the seventh year, allowing Jews to keep bread hidden in their closets over Passover, and more. They have changed everything except arguably (in Orthodoxy at least) the status of women in marriage and in leadership because, well, that is apparently just going too far. In any case, in a class this week with Rabbi Shlomo Fox at Hebrew Union College, we discussed these issues along with a particularly riveting set of rabbinic writings on these verses. We first read an interpretation by Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, one of the primary medieval commentators on the Bible and Talmud. Rashi wanted to know what the Torah meant by “right and left”, and he wrote, “Even if [your rabbis] show you something that is...

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Returning to the Talmud, on my own terms

I’m studying Talmud again. It’s been a while since I learned at the full-time Drisha Talmud program (A while? Like 25 years!) It’s been even longer since I studied with Rabbi Harari at the Yeshiva of Flatbush (OMG, more like 33 years.) Maybe it’s like riding a bike and you never forget how. More likely, the way I am studying now is unlike any other way I have ever studied it.  It helps that I just finished reading Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, an exquisite piece of literature in which the author uses the lens of her daily Talmud study – daf yomi – to reflect on the tumult in her life. In recounting passages about the destruction of the Temple, for example, she finds comfort for the dissolution of her marriage; in the Talmudic tractate of Yevamot, she finds her strength in women’s independence; from a bizarre passage about fish, she explores the depths of sexuality. She finds charm and complexity as only a voracious reader can. She sees comparisons between the Talmud and Shakespeare, Whitman, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. These allusions seem to come naturally to her, as they would to someone with this kind of life-long addiction to reading. She often uses her morning runs – before daf yomi class – as opportunities to memorize poetry.  Or, when she had a sprained ankle and was demoted from jogging to swimming, she would keep photocopies of poems in a plastic sleeve at the edge of the pool, pop her head out of the water every time she got to the wall, and memorize one line of poetry per lap. (Yeah, I know.) Her brilliance has not only given her an encyclopedic knowledge of literature that is rare today; it has also made her an exemplary interpreter of Talmud and a rich commentator on life. And by the way, what an extraordinary pleasure it is to read a book written by someone who so deeply loves books. I thought about Ilana Kurshan as I sat in my first class in Talmud 101 with Rabbi Dr. Alona Lisitsa at Hebrew Union College. The Talmud is not quite as charming for me as it is for Ilana. When Rabbi Lisitsa (who has a special place in my heart because she is the one who first invited me to apply to HUC rabbinical school, with the argument that it is the only place where Jews can be anything they want; evidenced by the fact that she herself completely adheres to halakha), when she went around the room asking us to describe our relationship to Talmud and what we expected from this course, I could feel my head start to spin. “I don’t like studying Talmud at all,” I admitted to my new colleagues, perhaps too honestly, suddenly realizing that I am about to reveal more about myself than perhaps I should be at this stage of Rabbinical School Year 1. Certainly, learning Talmud from Rabbi Dovid Silber and...

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Breaking worlds: Noach, Trump, Meredith Grey, and me

“Sometimes doctors have to break things before they heal them,” Meredith Grey recently said in one of her famous Grey’s Anatomy voiceovers. I wasn’t actually watching the show, but just passing through a room where someone else was watching. The words sort of seeped into my subconscious, the way so much of the Jewish prayer does when you are listening absentmindedly to someone else reading the words. “Sometimes,” she continued (trigger warning: graphic content ahead), “if a broken bone did not set right, we have to break it again and reset it.” Ouch. Seriously, ouch. Once I got over my squeamishness, I realized that this metaphor really speaks to me. Actually, I think it describes me. And perhaps also much of the world. I am broken. I have been broken by flawed ideas that seek to own me, by people who were supposed to love me, by societies and communities that treat people like me as objects rather than as human. I have been broken by words and by deeds, by individuals and by groups, by others and ultimately by myself.  But now, I am the one who has done the breaking. I broke out, I broke free, I broke norms, I broke conventions, I broke expectations, I broke rules established by others, I broke down ideas that are wrong, I broke gender constructs, and I finally broke through. My decision to become a Reform rabbi is about all of this. It is about breaking what was already broken in order to create something that is healthy and healing.   I thought about this around yesterday’s Torah portion as well, Noach. This is a story about a great being (God) who created a great thing (The World) and then broke it all (via flood) in order to start again. Ouch. Reading this, you can’t help but wonder why God thought that this was the only option. Did he really have to break the entire world? Wasn’t there any good in it? I guess God knows, as Meredith Grey knows, that sometimes there is no way to fix something other than to start all over. I think about this regarding the world we are living in now. We are living in such a broken place. The election of Trump was the act of such wanton destruction. His election broke so much. It broke hope, it broke integrity, it broke belief in humanity, it broke compassion, it broke decency, it broke honesty, it broke care, it broke logic, it broke truth, it broke progress, it broke bridges, it broke connections, it broke cooperation, it broke generosity, and it broke the movement towards creating a better world. We are all experiencing the impacts of that breaking on a regular basis. And there is so much that is breaking that he allows to continue to break. Floods. Fires. Hurricanes. Mass shootings. One after another, breaking, breaking, breaking.  And he does this actively and on purpose, not just by neglect or stupidity. Trump seeks to continue breaking everything that he can. He is trying to break health...

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Women dropping out of shul

One Friday night in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem 10 years ago, a woman was standing in the back of the sanctuary rocking her hips, soothing her fussy baby. A man walked up to her. She thought to herself, maybe he is coming to welcome me. Instead, he leaned into her and said, “If your baby is making noise, you need to leave the sanctuary.” She left – and never went back. Exchanges like this have taken place in countless congregations around the world. It is one of the myriad of scenes in which women are made to feel unwelcome. The question is, how are women responding? In researching this article, the women I spoke to all said that synagogue was once important to them, but that now they are without a congregation to call home. They live in Israel, North America and the UK and are between their twenties to their sixties. They are predominantly Orthodox, but not exclusively. They dropped out of synagogue for a variety of reasons, each of which presents its own biting critique of Jewish communal practices. “The rabbi noticed I wasn’t there,” reports Aviva, a 40-year-old mother of three from the United Kingdom who stopped going to services two years ago. “He said, ‘We missed you’, but never actually asked the question about ‘why’. I was dying for him to ask. But he never did.” Consider “Nadia” (name changed at her request, as are those of the other women I interviewed). ) On the Friday night that she led the Kabbalat Shabbat services in her “partnership minyan,” (an Orthodox service that separates the sexes but allows women to lead certain parts of the service). She made a one-word change to the song “Lecha Dodi.” Instead of using the word “ba’alah” (literally, “her owner”) to designate “husband,” she used the word “isha” (literally “her man), a word that is used in many feminist spaces in order to avoid the connotation that women are property. As a result of this change to the liturgy, one man in her shul was incensed. He started circulating around the men’s section in fury, trying to rile people up. Unsuccessful, he simply went to the podium and announced, “This woman does not represent the community. We are not Conservative.” Nobody reacted or told him to stop. Nobody said that it wasn’t his place or his role to speak on behalf of “The Community.” And not one person in the synagogue approached Nadia to apologize for her being humiliated this way. Nadia never returned to the congregation, and nobody seemed to care. The man who humiliated her stayed for many years, and was given many honors. Life went on without her. These are not stories of cloistered Hassidic women breaking free with great drama. These are educated, modern women who quietly slip away from a communal life in which they feel unwelcome or unwanted. A mid-life rebellion may not even look like one. These quiet, private rebellions—which result from experiences around gender...

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News or cautionary tale? When an Orthodox feminist becomes a Reform rabbi

My decision to become a reform rabbi is apparently newsworthy. It was reported in a whole bunch of Jewish papers -- Forward, Times of Israel, JTA, Ejewishphilanthropy, and a few others. Most of these articles covered the story from the angle of Orthodox feminism to Reform, as in the Forward headline, "Former Orthodox Feminist Leader Now Studying To Be Reform Rabbi". It sounds like I'm a former KGB agent defecting. Like a vegan suddenly becoming a spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Like a Mac user buying a PC. Shocking! This has a lot to do with the way Reform is presented in Orthodoxy. It is that enemy thing. Indeed, one Orthdoox woman who is trying to arrange a Simchat Torah celebration for women in her synagogue told me that her rabbi opposes women even holding the Torah because if women start doing that, they will become Reform. I said, I feel like I've become the cautionary tale. First women want to be part of the synagogue ritual, and then what? OMG they may decide to become a RABBI!  Of course it isn't that way. Putting aside for a moment the gender double standard -- that is, men who want to be more engaged are celebrated while women are feared -- this whole attitude to the movements is misguided at best. For one thing, the way that Reform is presented in Orthodox discourse is wrong. Reform isn't the enemy of Judaism, or even the enemy of halakha. Reform is, as I keep saying, the big tent. It is also the movement that places compassion first. Neither of these negates Torah. They are completely legitimate and beautiful ways to interpret Torah.  Moreover, if an Orthodox woman is disillusioned by her religious practice and is already marginalized and slipping away from communal life, then I would say it is much better for her to decide to take an active role in Reform Judaism than to walk away entirely. This decision is my way to step inside the community -- deep inside, as it were, completely enmeshed -- rather than, say, become Buddhist, or just a completely disconnected Jew.  Miriam Shaviv, in a pained and honest response to my news, wrote about her own feelings of being disengaged from her community. In her oped in The Jewish Chronicle, she wrote that reading my news felt like ,"watching a caged bird fly the coop." She added that "part of me was jealous",  because after 20 years of fightihng for a greater role for women in synagogue, she feels "the same tiredness" that I expressed. She wrote: "When even the smallest issue is an ongoing, uphill battle, it wears you down.Every time a rabbi tells you, 'Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but no, it’s 10 years too early'… Every time you hear, 'Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but my Board won’t let me'… Every time you arrive at shul to discover that the women’s section isn’t open… Every time a shul Board member makes a misogynistic comment… Every time the...

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Being joyful is not a commandment; It is a life hack

  Ever since I embarked on studies to become a Reform rabbi, I have been inundated with comments and questions about halakha, or Jewish law. “What about halakha?!” is how the challenge usually goes. “So, you don’t care about halakha at all!” And often it’s followed up with an “I told you so. “You never cared about halakha!” And sometimes that particularly nasty reprimand. “You see, Orthodox feminists don’t care about halakha.” Or as one woman wrote to me this week, “Orthodoxy is the only authentic Judaism because we are the only ones who follow halakha.” Like that. I’ve been thinking about this topic of halakha, even as I fend off these micro-attacks. Although my decision to become a Reform rabbi is not a reflection of a desire to change my personal observances of halakha, this topic seems to be the centerpiece of challenges to my decision. The (wrong) assumption is that Reform Jews have zero relationship with halakha, and that commitment is not a thing in this world. Despite the fact that I keep pointing out that my Reform rabbi mentors like Rabbi Rachel Adler and Rabbi Alona Lisitsa are deeply engaged in halakhic discourse and practice, the fact is that I want to change this conversation altogether.  I am not particularly interested in discussing halakhic practice – mine or anyone else’s. This is exactly the point. I want to stop making law the primary discussion about Judaism. I want to talk about Judaism as a spiritual practice rather than as a collection of rules and laws. This holiday of Sukkot that we are currently celebrating strikes me as a particularly clear example of how this constant reading of Judaism as halakha instead of spirituality can be misleading and dangerous. Sukkot is unique for a variety of reasons – not only the strange branches we carry around and the bamboo-covered huts we sit in, but also the way the Torah says, “v’samachta b’chagecha “And you shall be happy on your festival” My children were reminded that Sukkot is the only time we are told to be happy, when a well-meaning relative called on the holiday eve to say, “Don’t forget to be happy on Sukkot! It’s a commandment!” Let’s think about this for a moment. What does it mean to command someone – yourself or others – to be happy? Does that even work? Can one be commanded to be happy? And is that even a good idea? Should we really stop everything we feel and be happy – especially times like today, when we are surrounded by mindless massacres, death-inviting hurricanes, and dark clouds of ignorance and bigotry from our so-called leaders? Is happiness-nomatter-what even the right way to live? Clearly the Torah is saying that at least once a year we should take a moment to stop everything and allow joy. That in itself is a very potent stand. The Torah knows that life can be crappy and hard. And it is telling us that once in a...

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Are the High Holidays a celebration of women?

Fourteen years ago this week, I gave birth. My beautiful daughter, Meital, arrived into the world two days before Rosh Hashana, the holiday marking the creation of the earth. It gave me a whole new perspective on births, birthdays, and beginnings (as I wrote back then) . The Talmud teaches that every human being is an entire world. I brought an entire world into life, just like God did 5778 years ago, or so the Jewish tradition tells us. I tell my daughter that she arrived on the earth’s birthday, and that she is a birthday present for the world.    The idea of God birthing the world on Rosh Hashana evokes a particularly woman-centric image. This is quite the relief in a tradition drenched with male-centric imagery. In our prayers, God is likened to a father, to a king, and to a slavemaster. The standard Orthodox prayerbooks continue the patriarchy by referencing God of our forefathers and ignoring our foremothers. The traditional blessing addresses God as male -- "barukh ata adonai". (Of course, there are no gender-neutral pronouns in Hebrew, so many people argue that the male form is actually a reference to all genders. But that doesn’t really work. After all, if male is really everyone, when is male just male? It’s tempting to make convenient distinctions when we don’t want to admit how much patriarchy has constructed our religion. But the argument that when we say “men” we mean “everyone” doesn’t really hold water. At least not for people who are not men.) My point is that despite the whole kings-and-fathers theme of Rosh Hashana, there possibly remains a certain echo of “feminine” themes in the liturgy. One of the main locations of this theme is in the text we read after the sounding of the shofar: Hayom harat olam. This is loosely translated as, Today is the birth of the world.  That is the imagery that I hung on to when my daughter was born. It felt beautiful, special, and profoundly relevant to my life experience. Last week at Hebrew Union College, I listened to a class by Dr. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel that expounded on this theme. A scholar researching the connections between myth, Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, and gender, Dr. Kaniel taught us a text from the Zohar that, she argued, demonstrated a rabbinic intention to invite a feminine manifestation of the divine into the high holiday liturgy. The text described a rabbinic discussion about how the ten sephirot , or energies of God, include some “feminine” aspects and some are “masculine” aspects. The rabbis in the text were struggling with the balance between these “masculine” and “feminine” aspects – with God as the avenger (male) versus God as the embracer (female). Dr. Kaniel argued that the rabbis were trying to make room for the so-called feminine aspects, something which can be viewed as radical. She said that this reading helped her personally come to terms with the festival, in that it enabled her to view the experience as a rabbinic...

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How I learned the significance of OYs and AYs in Rosh Hashana liturgy, Jewish life, and the human spirit

This morning in class, I think I was dreaming about Tevye. I was listening to Rabbi Uri Kroizer teaching us melodies of Selichot, the traditional prayers about repentance that Jews recite this time of year, and I could swear Tevye was somewhere in the room, spreading his energy around.  It may have been when Rabbi Kroizer, with his bellyful, honey-sweet voice and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish liturgy, offered us the significance of oys and ays. “The oy”, he said, “is a powerful sound, coming from deep down, and when done right, it reaches straight up to heaven,” he said, the light glowing from his eyes. It is a primeval sound, coming straight from the aches of the heart, asking God to take our sadness, he said.  He was teaching us the melody of a classic piece of the High Holiday liturgy, “Sab’enu”. He did not only teach us the music. He also instructed us on how to do a proper “kvetch”, to access the meaning of the “oy”. “Think about something that has been missing for your this year,” he said, “something that you long for.” That “oy” is a moment of conveying that longing, of reaching out to God and asking to fill that gap. Plus, he said, “When you are upset about something, often you can feel yourself stopping to breathe,” he said. "The 'oy' is there like a pounding on the chest, to get your breath going again.” LISTEN TO RABBI URI KROIZER TEACH HUC RABBINICAL STUDENTS HOW TO DO A PROPER "OY" IN SAB'ENU Interestingly, the “ay-ay-ay”, on the other hand, serves a different function. It is meant to lift us up in joy. “When the melody is at its low point, it takes your spirit with it. So what do you do? How do you get out from under that?” he asked. The answer, he said, is in “the gradual uplift of the ay-ay-ay.” “The oy is sad and the ay is happy,” Daliah Shaham, a third-year rabbinical student and musician, told us. “Most of the liturgy has both oys and ays, as we are usually happy and sad in the same breath,” she said, thus explaining so much of the Jewish experience. I felt like I was moving back in time, feeling the aches of my ancestors throughout history   Only I wasn’t back in Europe with my Hassidic Jewish ancestors. I was in Jerusalem, at Hebrew Union College, studying to be a Reform rabbi. . There is some irony in the fact that I’ve spent my first two weeks of rabbinical school learning ancient liturgy. In joining the Reform movement, my assumption was that I would be moving forward in my practice, leaving some of this behind. And yet, I am finding myself connecting to old traditions – sounds, words, and practices –  accessing them in ways that I never have before. This has been an unexpected pathway into the Reform movement. And it has been exhilarating. In my 40+ years living in Orthodoxy, I never learned how to lead the High...

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Where are women allowed to think and feel for ourselves? That is my question

Around this time last year, I had an exchange here on FB about head covering which eventually contributed to my feeling that Orthodoxy is a bad place for me as a woman. When I suggested to a woman who had written, "I have been covering my hair for 17 years and hate every minute of it", that perhaps if she hates something that much, she should find a way not to do it, the pushback was fast and furious. From Orthodox women! It wasn't about halakha per se. It was about the idea that I thought we should be able to follow our hearts. "If we all just did what we wanted, who would ever keep Shabbat? Or fast on Yom Kippur?" one woman wrote. "This is not a place for angry outsiders", the original poster wrote. I left the thread, and absorbed the clarity of the message. It's not that going with hair uncovered sends you to the role of "outsider" in Orthodoxy. It's the very notion of allowing yourself to think or feel for yourself. I told this story to a reporter last week from JTA who called me to ask if she could write about my decision to become a Reform rabbi. You can read some of the rest here.  

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