Jewfem Blog

On love, Plato, and the gender of half shekel gold coins

This was the Dvar Torah I delivered at the Toronto Partnership Minyan, March 5, 2016: The “half shekel” is a fascinating story. In this community custom, which began in the desert and continued throughout the Temple periods, Jewish adult men would have a half shekel to the priest leadership during the month of Adar each year, in advance of the new fiscal year, which began on the first of Nisan.  According to the Mishna (Shekalim, chap. 4) the courts would post reminders regarding this tax a month earlier, on the 1st of Adar. The practice can be viewed in one of three ways. It can be seen as a tax, as a charity, or as a spiritual practice. Viewed as a tax, the half shekel was a collection that enabled the new leadership to provide services for the collective. According to the Mishna, the half shekel tax was used to purchase the animals which were used for the communal sacrifices. The leftover funds were used for a variety of communal purposes, including providing salaries for the judges and maintenance of the Temple and the city walls )Mishna Shekalim chapter 4). The tax view gives it a bit of a cynical rendering. In political theory, what gives a governing entity authority is the ability to incarcerate and to tax. It is an expression of “Consent of the governed” – that is, if you can convince people to part with their money, you have authority. In that sense, if this is a tax, it is about giving authority to the priests by giving them the ability to tax, thereby creating a powerful financial component to the central religious authority. Viewed as more of a charity, the practice is more utopian and less cynical. It is perhaps the original charity offering of the Jews. Put differently, it was the Jews’ first collective budgeting tool – like a precursor to the Federation system or to giving circles.  It is about coming together to embrace giving to create a collective enterprise. Perhaps it had echoes of the kibbutz – pooling what you have in order to create a communal life built on a shared ethos. It gave everyone an equal part in the collective. The constancy of the donation, built on a vision of horizontal equality, may have been natural in the desert, where there was actual equality. Everyone had the same tent, the same lifestyle, the same expectations, the same amount of rain. Nobody was getting rich off of the manna or building gold-plated bathrooms. Among Israelite men, equality was the given. The half-shekel practice in later generations – even when conditions changed towards more stratifications –idealized the equality-among-brothers, maintaining an echo of desert life in the community’s consciousness. Thus, even in temple times, when socio-economic differences existed, the Torah insisted on equal half-shekel donations to remind people of fundamental human equality, at least among free Jewish men. “The rich [man] will not give more and the poor [man] will not give less than the...

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Limmud UK Recap


What an amazing week I had at Limmud UK last week. I was privileged to be there as part of the UJIA Israel delegation, courtesy of Dr Helena Miller, Director of Research & Evaluation at UJIA and Dr Michael Wegier UJIA Executive Director.  It was an exceptional privilege to be a presenter at Limmud, where I delivered five talks, facilitated two panels, including a film, met dozens of phenomenal people from around the world -- some of whom I knew only from Facebook! -- participated in several really interesting informal discussions in the bar and over meals, including a "dine and discuss" group over dinner facilitated by Dr. Miller, and overall felt really lucky to be in the company of so many amazing Jewish educators, activists, thinkers, and community members. I was live-FB-ing the conference (as you might have noticed, I don't really do much tweeint; FB is really where to find me). Below are some of my recaps from the four day event:  DAY #1of Limmud: Saw some people, briefly IRL like Sara Averick Eve Sacks Keith Kahn-Harris Devora Steinmetz, Bevery Gribetz, Allison Kaplan Sommer, Manny Waks Alan Meerkin Helena Miller (and others i'm surely forgetting)...... Gave two sessions -- the first on "Rabbis who abuse", teasing out the ways in which Jewish communal life enables abusers and disables victims, and why high profile abusers often receive high profile support.  (sad that this session coincided with Dan Brown's session on Jewish philanthropy that i wanted to go to.) The second session on religion and state in Israel, on issues like marriage, divorce, conversion, mikveh, and control of public spaces reflect a growing religious radicalism in israel backed by law.... Neither of these for the faint of heart....Tomorrow's session, "A revolution of dolphins", about Orthodox feminism, will be much more uplifting, hopefully.. Anyway, I had some really great exchanges and discussions over dinner and in the bar-lounge and in corridors, and I'm looking forward to more tomorrow. Part of me wants to stay up and do fun late-night things. But after so much traveling following by intense teaching, my eyelids and my muscles rebel. More tomorrow..... Still looking for some people: Amanda Borschel-Dan where are you? Gabrielle Birkner looking for you too....... LIMMUD DAY #2: Loved meeting people IRL, some of whom I had only met on Facebook (!), like a lovely breakfast with Danya Ruttenberg and Robyn Tessler Shames discussing feminism, creative processes and parenting.... meeting Nadia Jacobson Eve Sacks Manny Waks Dyonna Ginsburg..... Also enjoyed seeing (briefly) Levi Lauer Sally Berkovic and Jacqueline Nicholls. Went to some great sessions: watched Manny Waks' really intense film "Code of Silence" about what he and his family went through because of his experience of sexual abuse in Yeshiva College...... Levi Lauer on the really difficult and heart-wrenching topic of prostitution and sex trafficking. Dyonna Ginsburg on Israel's history of international development work..... AND, gave a talk called "A revolution of dolphins", about the public and private revolutions of Orthodox feminists. Despite some technical...

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How Sukkot and Simhat Torah Are Evolving Into Feminist Holidays

By Allison Kaplan Sommer, in Haaretz: "Historically, notes feminist scholar and former JOFA executive director Dr. Elana Sztokman, Simhat Torah, together with Purim were the two holidays that the early women’s tefilla movement in the 1990’s latched onto because these were considered exceptional times of the year, and it was easier to convince women that it would be acceptable to read from the Megilla and the Torah. Simhat Torah became the most influential of the two, she says, because “I think that reading from the Torah has been the most impassioned area of empowerment for Orthodox women.” Sztokman’s major step on her personal feminist journey took place the first time she read from the Torah on Simhat Torah. “It was an entry drug, those Torah readings ... My father was a Torah reader and a chazan, so for me, reading from the Torah was the pinnacle of participation. Once you learn to read Torah, you never look at the text the same way again … Reading from the Torah gives you a real connection. It altered everything for me - it changed my relationship to being Jewish - you are standing at the center, you own the tradition and the heritage. You can’t go back.”  Read more: http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/routine-emergencies/.premium-1.677715

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Erasing Women From Photos — and the Conversation

The annoying thing about the Internet (or one of them) is that when ridiculous posts go viral, the kind of posts that are full of lies and misconceptions, you may find yourself in the no-win situation of figuring out how to respond. This is especially true when those posts are about you, or about something you know something about, like your life or your body. The choice to engage with trolls and haters means drawing more attention to them. It also means that you actually have to spend time reading the drivel and letting it enter your brain in order to formulate the right response. It means diverting your energies away from your creative work in order to fight off the nutters. However, the choice not to engage means that they win, because they get the last word. It’s a lose-lose for the good guys. Such is the case this week with the rubbish being tossed about over at Cross-Currents — a publication that touts itself as “a journal of thought and reflections, from an array of Orthodox Jewish writers”—about the removal of women’s images and names from public spaces and media. A rabbi wrote some really idiotic thoughts about why he thinks it’s okay for him to demand that his world be rid of women’s faces, names, voices and bodies. And some other men responded. And then the original poster complained that people were being mean to him (has he seen the kinds of vitriol that feminist bloggers have to deal with ? Suddenly it’s a problem when you’re on the receiving end, huh). And then another man responded about why erasing women is bad for the Jews. And somewhere outside of this discussion, women were reaching for their buckets. I can still hear the hurling. Still, here I am responding. So I would like to make a few things clear. First of all, if a group of people is having a discussion about the lives of another group of people in a setting where that other group is not represented, there is a problem. Imagine a conference on Jewish history or anti-Semitism where there were no Jews present. Jews would never take such a conversation seriously, and would more likely be up in arms and calling their Congresspeople. That is how the Cross-Currents conversation looks to some of us women. A site that hasn’t had a woman writer in months if not years (I scrolled back as far as I could to find a woman writer and there were none on the horizon), if such a site publishes a bunch of men talking about women, why should anyone care? What possible interest could such a conversation have? I mean, what kinds of relevant or interesting ideas can anyone expect them to have? They do not even recognize the exclusion of women in their own midst, and certainly don’t view it as a problem, so of course we cannot expect them to have deep insights about excluding women. Sure, it is so easy and...

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NEW Telecourse: How do you create feminist synagogue communities?

Introducing Safe Sanctuaries: A three-part mini-telecourse, just in time for the high holidays, exploring the meaning and experience of feminist synagogues with some of the greatest Jewish feminist spiritual teachers of our time: What do feminist synagogues look like?How do you create them?Do they exist? Sundays August 30, Sept 6, Sept 209:30-10:30 AM LA time, 12:30-1:30 PM NY time, 7:30-8:30 PM Israel time, 5:30-6:30 UK time, 2:30 AM-3:30 AM Melbourne/Sydney time Cost: $120 Sessions are live and recorded, and can be viewed at any time WEEK 1: LITURGY (AUG 30) What is feminist liturgy? What are some of the challenges in our liturgical traditions for advancing gender inclusion? What do we do about God language? What are specific challenges around the High Holidays? TEACHERS: Prof Rachel Adler Rabbi Dalia Marx Marcia Falk WEEK 2: THE SANCTUARY (SEPT 6) What does a feminist sanctuary look like? Is it possible to have feminist sanctuaries that have partitions? What else should a community do to advance gender inclusion, across denominations? TEACHERS: Aurora Mendelsohn Shira Ben Sasson Furstenberg WEEK 3: THE COMMUNITY (SEPT 20) What does a feminist prayer community look like? What does it mean to create gender inclusion outside of the sanctuary? TEACHERS: Dr Tova Hartman Rabbi Dr. Judith Hauptman Dr Debbie Weissman

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Giving advice to the parents of a newly religious young woman @TheSeesaw

"Help! Our 'Half-Jewish' Daughter is Becoming Frum "Both my wife and I are half-Jewish, and raised our kids as mostly cultural Jews. For the record, our kids are technically Jewish because my wife’s mother was Jewish. This past year while away at college, one of our daughters became increasingly drawn into the Chabad and has told us that she wants to both keep kosher and observe Shabbat this summer and plans on studying in Israel next spring. "We want to support her in wherever her heart and mind goes and are excited to learn from her. But we are also aware of the second-tier status of women in certain Orthodox sects, including the Chabad, and are worried this particular path into Judaism might get in the way of her ambitions. Seesaw, how do you suggest approaching her about this? We suspect this might be a crucial moment and want to get it right. Elana Maryles Sztokman writes:  "Help Her Rememeber Her Old Self Too "There are many beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy, and of Chabad, that can be very attractive to young people coming from non-Orthodox backgrounds. The richness of traditional practices, the seeming tranquility of Shabbat meals, the communal singing, and the escape from secular pressures around material culture and body. All of these can be very alluring, especially to a 20-year-old forging a vision of her own life. The problem is that the allure itself can be entrapping. Orthodox language, especially language aimed at convincing non-practicing Jews to embrace Orthodoxy, is often absolute and black and white. The lifestyle is often presented (especially in places like Chabad) as an all-or-nothing endeavor. And the demands to keep the most extreme formulations of religion are often engulfed in a combination of super-suave marketing and God-pressure. As in, “God has asked this of you, and even though it looks strange it will give you the greatest high.” So to speak.This pressure is especially felt with women, who often go from surfing on the beach or having creative career ambitions to putting on long skirts and scarves and giving up all former iterations of the self in favor of frenetic motherhood. Read more: http://forward.com/opinion/spirituality/310436/help-her-rememeber-her-old-self-too/#ixzz3gK8azoNr

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Orthodox women aren’t just talking about a revolution, they’re driving one

There was a sense of subdued determination among the 450 people swarming the halls of the Wohl Conference Center at Bar Ilan University during this year’s Kolech conference. Some of the attendees had been coming to Kolech conferences for years, while others had not been born when Kolech, Israel’s premiere religious feminist organization, was established in 1998. Still other Orthodox feminists told The Times of Israel they did not attend the July 13 event because it was no longer necessary for them to be there. However, judging by the range of topics covered, the unapologetic perseverance driving Orthodox feminism today leaves no stone unturned and no stained-glass ceiling unshattered. The lives of Orthodox Jewish women have changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Just six years ago, no Orthodox women had received rabbinic ordination, only a handful of “partnership minyanim” (Orthodox synagogues that promote women’s inclusion) existed in Israel, sexual abuse was still largely swept under the rug, and Jewish lesbians were still a small and mostly unseen community. In fact, at the 2009 conference, participants were surveyed about what title they would theoretically give a woman rabbi – rabbanit, rabba, and “important woman” were all on the list. The title of “maharat” had not yet been invented: Back then, it was all still hypothetical. READ the rest at Times of Israel

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The New Critical Mass of Orthodox Women Rabbis

  Image: Yeshivat Maharat The past two weeks have been historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from Maharat to Rabba to Rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with five years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba.” Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organizations seem to racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism. The advancement of Orthodox women is part of a historical narrative around women’s leadership in the Jewish world. All the denominations have roots in the conception of Jewish leadership as exclusive men’s clubs. The fight for women’s inclusion in the rabbinate began in earnest with the feminist movement of the 1960s – although in reality it began much earlier. The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained in 1972. The first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974. The first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985. The first woman rabbi in Israel, Naamah Kelman, was ordained in 1992. Three women received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis before Yeshivat Maharat opened: Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004. The ascent of women has been slow but gradual – and nevertheless invigorating. There are few areas of the Jewish feminist movement that can show such clear markers of impact as the struggle for women’s rabbinic leadership. Even if the struggle is far from over – with high-status positions still male-dominated, and issues of equal pay, work-life balance, LGBT inclusion, and others still painfully unresolved – the fact that women have gained titles is extremely significant. Titles are a vital step to being seen, heard and respected, which are vital for women to be included as leaders. Actually, though, the story of women’s rabbinic leadership begins earlier than third wave feminism. The very first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Germany in 1935. And the truth is, Jewish history is replete with women who served as rabbis – informally and without being ordained – before denominational divides had fully taken over Jewish life. Chana Rochel Wernermacher became “rebbe” of Ludmir (1805-1888). Pearl Shapiro, the daughter of the Maggid of Koznitz, prayed with tallit and tefillin, and held court like any other rebbe (1768-1848). Merish daughter of Eliezer of Lizhensk, served as a rebbe in her community, as did Freida and Devora Leah, the daughters of Rabbi Shneir Zalman Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. Gershon Winkler’s beautiful book, “They Called her Rebbe: The Maiden of Ludomir,” has an extensive compilation of women in the shtetls of Europe who served as rabbis. Women have often served as leaders, just without recognition and without systematic impact on women’s lives. Remembering the history of women’s struggles for...

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Adrienne Rich And Fixing Our “Half-Finished Houses”

[Cross-posted from The Jewish Week] Adrienne Rich  This week would have been the 85th birthday of Adrienne Rich, the Jewish feminist poet who died three years ago leaving behind a tremendous legacy of ideas and words that helped shape many people’s gender identities and inspired the work of feminist activism. Adrienne Rich narrated her life and our world through her poems. Her poetry chronicles her transformation from bored, repressed suburban wife to restless, passionate, lesbian feminist activist. Her descriptions of the inner lives of women – radically spoken at the time from a woman’s point of view – were revolutionary then and continue to resonate today. As women (and others) struggle to break free from societal expectations of gender, Rich’s voice gives power and credence to the process of social change and discovering freedom. She embodied the personal as political. She did not merely narrate feminism; she also urged it along with power and vision. Her impact on the evolution of the feminist movement can be felt in the many tributes to her since her death, which testify to the sometimes very personal ways in which her writing affected people, liberated women and often validated the desire to live fully and embrace their passions and identities. The Jewish Women’s Archive also paid tribute to her last month as part of Poetry month. Still, I think that in the Jewish world, her impact has perhaps not yet been fully actualized. We still have a lot to learn from her. Her poetry leaves signposts for Jewish feminist activists, bits of power and encouragement along the way. One poem that articulates the mission in a way that particularly relates to Jewish life is “The Roofwalker” (1961), where Rich wrote of the “half-finished houses”. She asks, “Was it worth while to lay--/with infinite exertion--/a roof I can't live under?/All those blueprints/ closings of gaps/ measurings, calculations?/A life I didn't choose/ chose me: even/my tools are the wrong ones/for what I have to do.” This resonates deeply with me, and possibly with others who are trying to make changes around gender within Jewish life. I also feel that the life chose me, of fixing the roof of the half-finished house that I am not sure I can live under. It is half-finished because Jewish women have not been fully able to make our mark on the culture. And the “measurings, calculations” remind me of all the Talmudic and halakhic discourse with which the Jewish house is built. There are other, better tools out there, and Rich reminds me to search for them and use them. Adrienne Rich also brilliantly revealed the ways in which gender oppression take place on the female body. In the poem "Tear Gas," she wrote "The will to change begins in the body not in the mind/My politics is in my body." Her book, “Of Woman Born,” goes even further in unpacking the myriad societal constructs around motherhood. Indeed, in Judaism the female body is at the center of incessant discourse and discord, as Jewish...

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Meet Naomi Pelled, third generation Jewish feminist

The following is a guest blog post by Naomi Pelled, the new Technical Director of "A Jewish Feminist", and a self-described third-generation Jewish feminist.  When I was asked to work with Elana on the tech side running and recording a Telecourse series on Jewish Feminism, I was delighted.  I thought how fascinating it would be, a series on issues affecting Jewish Women from every walk of life, and where I could listen and learn from some world renowned Jewish Women, who have expertise in many pressing women's issues.  I had always considered myself a feminist, following in the footsteps of my mother and her mother before her, but I wasn't an ‘active feminist'. When we met, Elana gave me a copy of her book, 'The War on Women In Israel'. I thought to myself, what a great new Shabbat reading book, but feared that it would irritate my Israeli husband, who is so closed when it comes to Feminism.  This is not because he is anti-women's rights, but because he grew up in the Israeli religious school system and is very naive about these issues. I started reading the book on Shabbat and realised that there are so many news items in Israel, that I take for granted, which I should actually be questioning and not just accepting.  I was so proud as a religious Jewish women, that I have my own mind and do not vote according to what my husband says, but was struck by the number of religious women, whose political affiliations are controlled by their husbands, to the detriments of their human and women's rights. I always believed in woman's rights and equality between men and women. Before making Aliyah, I worked for corporations in HR.  One aspect of my role was to enforce HR governance, working to ensure men and women were paid fairly and equitably to one another. I grew up in the UK, the youngest of three children, and the only daughter.  My mother separated from my father when I was two and a half years old.  My mother never remarried and says her life is far less complicated without a man.  My father, on the other hand, remarried within eighteen months. My mother demonstrated that she was self-sufficient and an emotionally intelligent woman who could hold down a full time job, be a single mother, look after her children and do all home duties, to a high standard.  She was a great role model.  She taught us all that she, as a woman, could be a successful teacher and sensitive mother.  My elder brother, helped around the house with vacuuming, cooking and clearing away and babysitting for me. He has grown up to be a great dad, who shares all household responsibilities from caring for the children, as soon as they woke up, to cooking and cleaning.  He is involved in many other tasks that 50 years ago would have been considered a woman's duty, When I see my father now I see...

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