Jewfem Blog

The present I got today.....

I discovered today by accident (in a long email thread forwarded to me that made an aside reference to this) that my cousin, Harry Maryles, wrote me an "open letter" on his blog two months ago condemning my decision to become a Reform rabbi because, well, it would be a terrible shame to do this despicable thing to my ancestors. "She is joining a movement that her parents, grandparents and great grandparents fought against," he claims. Maybe he is right. My grandfather, who he claims to represent, died in 1955, way before I was born, so who the heck knows. Anyway, he writes, "By joining the Reform Movement she is saying that their version of Judaism is as valid as that of Orthodoxy but better in the sense that it is more welcoming - and a far better place for feminists like her." That's right. That is exactly what I am saying. I'm wondering why he is not embarrassed by that, why all Orthodox rabbis are not completely ashamed that they represent such a culture that makes women feel that way. Anyway, he continues, "I would ask my cousin Elana, to re-consider her choices. Please please don’t do this. I ask you to reflect on your family and your heritage. The negative repercussions may be far greater than you anticipate. And doing this may end up being the biggest mistake of your life." Okay then. I posted this on my Facebook page. I explained as follows: I am putting this out there in case any of you are interested in getting an insider's glimpse into what some of us have to deal with in our lives. I'm not going to honor this essay with an actual response or defense or explanation of my life choices, in part because he didn't bother to actually write to me or tag me or speak to me directly, so I have nothing to reciprocate (I have written in the past about how much I hate being talked "about" instead of talked "to", and this whole thing about men talking to other men about me and what other men think about women like me just makes me bristle). But also, I am not responding in order to remind myself that just because a person happens to be a blood relative, it doesn't mean that they have any clue about you, your life, or the wisdom of your decisions. This is a good reminder of that. And also, it is a reminder that every time women seek to follow our own minds and our hearts, there is someone there to claim that we are actually owned by others, by our ancestors, by an abstract community, by some kind of other-worldly obligation. Wow, I am so done with that. That was last night. This morning I woke up to an incredible outpouring of love and support. Including from some incredible people whom I consider teachers and mentors. WOW!  What a gift. This is such an opportunity to be...

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What happens when we mistake humans for God; or, an ode to editors

This week in Talmud class, we read a debate among rabbis about who has a bigger penis. Well, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the subtext. It was a debate in the tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) about who had more power and authority, the rabbis of Babylon, or the rabbis of Israel. To be fair, the debate took place somewhere around the fourth century CE, during the period when Jews were still getting used to not having their own autonomous country in Israel. There were now two centers of Jewish life rather than one, and much of this segment is about adjusting to this reality, and deciding which center is the one that really counts. There is more at stake here than masculinity, although I posit that an exclusively male tug-of-war about absolute authority has a lot of Freudian dynamics beneath the surface. Still, there is actually a lot at stake in this debate over which group of Jewish leaders are really the ones in charge. You can argue that it was not so much about their own power as much as it was about the future of the Jewish people, or belief about when there would be a Third Temple – if ever. You can say that the argument is not about the rabbis themselves or the sway of their words but something deeper with more genuine integrity and concern for the People of Israel. I get that.  A less cynical view than mine is likely just as legitimate. Interestingly, this power struggle between Israeli and Diaspora leaders over who represents true Jewishness is not that different from the than the state of the Jewish people today. Today, too, the Jewish people are rife with internal debates about whether communal resources and funding around the world should go to Israel or to their own local communities, about which communities are more important and deserving, over who is living out the more authentic Judaism. And today, too, there is a lot at stake in this tug of war. The Reform movement has a very important role to play in this struggle. Representing around half of American Jews, people whose rights are trampled on with ease and a complete absence of consciousness by the State of Israel, this is a group that wears on its sleeve the power play between Jewish leaders here and Jewish leaders there. The average American Jew who likely belongs to a liberal community pays the price of this tug of war in real terms. Who is allowed to get married in Israel, who is considered Jewish, who is allowed to officially represent religion in Israel, who gets state funding, who is allowed to pray the way they want wherever they want – these are all places where liberal Jews suffer because of power games among leaders. It is about men asserting their power by trying to keep others powerless. We are all little pawns in the penis game. This week, we...

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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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