Jewfem Blog

HBI Conference on Gender in Jewish Love and Family

Sylvia Barack FishmanDr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, chair of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University There is more than one way to form a Jewish marriage. This was a central message emerging from a recent conference in Jerusalem called “New Understandings of Gender, Love and the Jewish Family,” co-sponsored by the VanLeer Jerusalem Institute, the Hadassah Brandeis Institute and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University entitled. The conference offered a broad range of creative approaches to burning issues regarding familial relationships, and presented a flexible approach to persistent and arguably growing problems in contemporary Jewish life, including agunot, abuse and sexual violence. “Gender, love and family are basic to our human and Jewish lives, and we are now living through a time of extraordinary — and confusing — changes,” said Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, chair of Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department and JOFA board member. “This conference provides the first forum for discussing these changes in an open, systematic venue, and for bringing sociological, legal and religious thinking together with artistic representations of these powerful subjects.” The conference, which took place last month at Van Leer, brought together Jewish thinkers on the forefront of examining these important issues. “There is a big problem with kiddushin,” argued Dr. Gail Labovitz. “It does not create a marriage of equals.” Co-panelist Dr. Ayelet Blecher-Prigat concurred: “There is no way to ignore the fundamental gender problem in the Jewish ceremony of kiddushin.” Dr. Irit Koren spoke about some of the ways in which religious couples are creating “lovers’ ceremonies” without “kinyan,” the concept of “ownership” of the woman. Malka Melanie Landau, author of the book, “Tradition and Equality in Jewish Marriage: Beyond the Sanctification of Subordination,” supported Koren’s initiative. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/169476/hbi-conference-explores-gender-love-family/#ixzz2LCIroPUD

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The Rabba Revolution Continues

Rabba Sara HurwitzRabba Sara Hurwitz was the first publicly ordained female rabbi in the Orthodox community. Three years ago this month, Rabba Sara Hurwitz made history in the Jewish world by becoming the first publicly ordained female rabbi in the Orthodox community. Since then, the 35-year-old mother of three has been working as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution dedicated to training women Orthodox clergy, as well as working as Rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. The first three women are set to graduate this June with the title of Maharat — an acronym for “Religious, spiritual, Torah leaders” — marking yet another important milestone for women in Orthodoxy. Rabba Hurwitz spoke to The Sisterhood to explain what this all means. THE SISTERHOOD: What has changed for you over the past three years? RABBA SARA HURWITZ: The biggest change is the flourishing of Yeshivat Maharat, and the continuation of Orthodox women serving in communities. The graduation of the first three students this coming June fills me a tremendous amount of excitement and gratification. I have students currently working in synagogues, one in a school, one in a JCC and one in a Hillel. That’s real movement. What kind of feedback have you received from the Orthodox community? I think there has been noticeable change since I received my title. I’ve been doing a fair amount of traveling around the country and I think Orthodox communities are much more open to seeing women as spiritual leaders. In fact they are beginning to want it, to request it, which I think is a real shift. Part of the ability of women to lead relies on rabbis who have the courage to hire women as interns and graduates. I’ve been seeing a shift in the number of rabbis who recognize the importance of having women and who are eager to have women. I’m really grateful for these rabbis who are helping women carve out positions as leaders in the community. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/170276/the-rabba-revolution-continues/#ixzz2LCIC4M5O

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Orthodox women, Orthodox men: Never the twain shall meet?

Brandeis University Press authors win 2013 National Jewish Book Awards By Dana Trismen February 7, 2013 Section: Arts, Etc.   Brandeis University Press has recently boasted a series of successes, with two authors nominated as winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. Anita Shapira’s “Israel: A History” won in the history category, while Elana Maryles Sztokman earned a win in women’s studies for “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.” Brandeis University Press is a member press of the University Press of New England (UPNE), which publishes in various fields, the majority of which are related to Jewish culture, thought and Israeli studies. Yet, the published books cover diverse subjects and viewpoints on topics such as politics, history, gender and philosophy. While their focus may be on the Jewish experience, their “goal is to illuminate subjects of all stripes with intelligence, curiosity and care,” according to the University Press website. “My book was published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, an organization at Brandeis University led by Professor Shulamith Reinharz and Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, that focuses on scholarship in issues of gender and Judaism,” Sztokman said. Originally granted a research scholarship, she then submitted a proposal to be published, a request that was granted. “The people at HBI are phenomenal,” she said. “[They are] wonderful scholars and really incredibly supportive of emerging voices. I feel really lucky and privileged to have received their support.” Sztokman’s book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” examines gender identities of Orthodox men. “I wanted to know, when Orthodox Jews say things like, “Be a Man,” or “Today you are a man” (said at every bar mitzvah on the planet), what do they mean?” she said. “What does it mean to be an Orthodox man?” Her research drove her to interview many Jewish men, especially ones who belonged to synagogues called ‘partnership synagogues.’ These are places that have found a compromise between feminist ideals and Jewish law, allowing gender equality. “The men in these synagogues are deeply engaged in this gender struggle,” she said. The idea for her book came to her during a conversation she had with an Orthodox Jewish man. She remembers him saying, “I could never go to a synagogue like that, because if women are doing everything, what’s left for men to do?” Sztokman decided this was actually an important point. “He was articulating something very poignant about society,” she said. “When women step into roles that were once exclusively owned by men, the men suffer from a crisis of identity. They no longer know how to define themselves as a man.” This drove Sztokman to write a book that addressed what men were going through, instead of exclusively focusing on women in this movement. “We have to pay attention to how men deal with this if we are going to successfully create equitable, compassionate communities,” she said. Sztokman is very aware that Orthodox Judaism creates strict gender divisions. Men are allowed public actions...

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Simchat Torah as an entrypoint for women's ritual inclusion in Judaism

[CROSSPOSTED FROM TIMES OF ISRAEL] This week marks the ten year anniversary since the first time I read Torah in public. Simchat Torah 2002, my family and I had just moved to Melbourne, Australia, for three years, and I quickly found a warm home with the Orthodox Women’s Network. Dr. Jordy Hyman, Naomi Dessauer and Janet Belleli ran the group with skill and aplomb, and generously asked me if I would like to read the third aliyah on the holiday. It was thrilling and enthralling. To this day, whenever I get stuck on a cantillation, I think back to the passage I read then – “U’l’Yosef amar” – knowing that it’s all ingrained in my consciousness and my spirit from that very first Simchat Torah. That Simchat Torah was a watershed moment for me. Even if it took me three decades to go from passive listener to active leader, I love layning, and I always have. I can still recall sitting in the women’s section of The Young Israel of Flatbush when I was a teenager, listening to the Torah reading and trying to match the marks on the letters to the sounds I was hearing. (When I eventually learned to read Torah, I did it via tape recorder, and that’s why to this day, I have no idea what people mean when they refer to a “pashta” or “zakef katan,” but I can tell you how a little chupchik over the letter is meant to sound.) The cantillations have always been a vital part of understanding the text. I have given numerous divrei torah over the years using textual insights based on cantillations. When, in Megillat Esther, for example, Esther is called to the king during the beauty pageant – “Ub’hagiya tor Esther bat Avihail dod Mordechai,” the music brilliant reflects her hesitation with a pausing, haunting, aching melody. I love that. I love reading the Torah with its transmitted music. It brings the whole heritage to life for me, and makes the narratives real. Anat Hoffman of the Women of the Wall reads from the Torah at Robinson’s Arch outside of the Western Wall (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90) Still, until I actually learned to layn myself, I didn’t fully own the text as my own. It created a whole new set of connections for me. It was a crucial step for me in feeling like I was truly part of the community. For this, I would always be eternally indebted to the women of OWN Australia. I wouldn’t be who I am without the opportunities they gave me. I have layned many times since then and listened proudly to my children – both genders – layn. The layning has inspired in me hope that there is an active place for women in Orthodox life. It has inspired me to keep fighting for a better Orthodoxy, for one that fully appreciates the value of the women in the community.   [READ MORE AT THE TIMES OF ISRAEL]

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JOFA Blog Atlanta, Georgia: Where a teenage girl is leading change for Orthodox women

The women of the Orthodox community of Atlanta, Georgia, are going to be celebrating Simchat Torah like they have never celebrated before – and it’s all thanks to the hard work and vision of a young woman who led the way. Fifteen-year-old Eden Farber wanted more opportunities for women’s ritual inclusion, and spent the past six months working with her rabbi and community in a series of events that will be culminating with the first ever women’s Torah reading on Simchat Torah at the Young Israel of Toco Hills.  Eden, who studies frequently at the Drisha Institute and learns daf yomi, has been frustrated with women’s limited roles in synagogue, which she wrote in an article published in Fresh Ink for Teens last year:  What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service? Rather than rest on her laurels, Eden decided to speak to the women of her community about her concerns. With the help of her mother, Channie Farber, Eden sent out an email to some women in her community inviting them to her house to discuss the issue of women’s ritual inclusion in shul. Some fifteen women attended this meeting, and the energy, she recalls, was electric. “It was really amazing,” she said. “We discussed so many important issues – having more women scholars in residence, bringing the Torah to the women’s side during services, possibilities for women’s Shabbat mincha groups and kabbalat Shabbat. There is so much we can do, and it was very exciting.”   READ MORE AT THE JOFA SPOTLIGHT BLOG

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Ushpizot: Inviting sacred women into the sukkah

The “Ushpizin”, literally “guests”, is a Jewish custom to invite the spirits of our ancestors into the Sukkah during the seven nights of the traditional holiday (eight in the Diaspora). The Ushpizin represent the commandment to open one’s house to poor people, as well as the more kabbalistic idea that each guest has a unique character trait or energy that we would like to invite into our lives, families, communities and world. The seven traditional Ushpizin are all men. Over the past few years, women have created parallel rituals to invite “Ushpizot”, women spiritual guests, each night a different woman. Although some Ushpizot texts use the seven women who are traditionally believed to have been prophetesses, others vary the names invoked based on women whose lives had particular meaning. The ceremony suggested below uses seven Jewish ancestral women based on particular traits that they embodied, with a suggested variation at the end. DOWNLOAD USHPIZOT CEREMONY HERE          Ushpizot, Judaica by Enya Tamar Keshet http://www.enyakeshet.com 

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Rav Elyashiv's legacy on women

Revered Leader Blocked Progress on Divorce and Equality getty imagesPainful Legacy: Thousands mourned the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. But his teachings caused enormous pain for women.     Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the 102-year-old Lithuanian religious figure who died this week, is being hailed in some circles as the “greatest leader of his generation”. He may have been great to some men, but for women, his ideas and rulings were often the cause of enormous pain. For example, he was a vigorous adherent of the most oppressive and retrograde views on the issue of agunot, or women who are denied religious divorce. He regularly promoted a 16th century opinion by the Maharshdam (Rabbi Shmuel di Medina of Saloniki) according to which a man may never be pressured in any way to give his wife a get, or divorce, ever. Moreover, he believed that if any pressure is exerted by the woman, such as requests to compromise on financial settlements or custody issues, then the get will be considered invalid. Any children born thereafter will be mamzerim, or forbidden from ever marrying a Jew. This position renders rabbinic judges completely helpless in cases of recalcitrance on the part of husbands. Elyashiv’s opinion effectively nullified the 1994 Law of Sanctions, a law passed in the Knesset with the support of the religious state establishment at the time, which gives rabbinic judges the power to enforce sanctions against recalcitrant husbands. These sanctions – which include revoking a driver’s license, revoking a passport, and in some cases imprisonment – are used regularly by rabbinic judges to help women level the playing field when it comes to exiting from Jewish marriage. But to Elyashiv, sanctions were not permissible, and the rabbis should never pressure a man to give a get. (It should be noted that many rabbinic rulings since the 16th century have taken a much more humane approach. Rabbi Haim Pallagi, the chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, ruled that if a husband and wife live apart for 18 months, the court must force the man to give a get). Elyashiv’s retrograde approach played a strong role enabling men to blackmail women during divorce. It is this dynamic that facilitated the formation of the so-called “Agunah Fund”, a pool of money that the rabbinic judges have which they use to literally pay men in order to give their wives a get. The legality of this fund was unfortunately upheld by a 2010 High Court ruling, based on a petition brought by Susan Weiss of The Center for Women’s Justice. One agunah named “Orit” whose story was reported in Maariv several years ago, suffered personally from Elyashiv’s refusal to allow the rabbinical court to help her. She described a marriage full of physical, emotional, and financial abuse, from which she had to escape in fear of her life. The rabbinical judges actually issued a “hiyuv get,” an order to give a get, but she never knew about it because the...

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What Banning Facebook Is Really About

Facebook is forbidden among Chabad teenage girls, as The Sisterhood told you — and as the Forward reports here. This reflects a blatant double standard, the report points out, because the movement has widely embraced technology to spread its message, but refuses to allow its own youth to use these tools. But Chabad’s double standard in its relationship to secular society is only one part of the problem. It seems to me that the story of girls being forbidden from using Facebook and other internet tools is less about Chabad’s missionary stance and more about their view of women and girls. After all, it is only girls whose school is handing out $100 fines and having mothers’ monitor their computer use. Moreover, the practice of banning girls from the computer largely revolves around one concept: modesty. The Facebook ban is just the latest in a long string of insidious practices in the Orthodox community — not just Chabad, to be sure — aimed at restricting women’s and girls’ freedom. These practices are promoted under the term tzniut, or “modesty,” but really are nothing more than classic misogyny. Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/154558/what-banning-facebook-is-really-about/#ixzz1riBynrCb

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Passover, women, and the cleaning competition

Pesach is one of my favorite holidays. I love the educational, creative possibilities of the Seder, the opportunity to debate, discuss and dramatize our collective history. Over the years, my family has done some wonderfully imaginative things at the Seder table — plays, original songs, games, colored dips, hand-made pillows, and even a puppet show about the exodus in which all the characters were variants of felt penguins. One year, we made our own Haggadah, using the kids’ drawings and writings connected to select parts of the book. For me, Pesach preparation is about creative education. It is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar where the whole point is to bring history to life in any and every possible way. But you would never know it from the traditional lead-up to Pesach. When Jews meet one another on the street these days, conversations about “preparations” generally refer to how much cleaning has been accomplished. Even Shlomo Artzi, the Israeli pop star who can well afford to hire cleaning help, revealed in his column last week that memories of his mother handing him a vacuum cleaner before Pesach have remained indelibly etched on his Jewish soul. Today, he finds vacuuming to be a source of comfort, in the same category as chicken soup, the kind of activity that makes some people miss their mothers. I have found myself trying to avoid talking to people this week because I really don’t want to hear some variety of this question: “So what are you up to in your house?” Meaning, how many rooms or shelves or chandeliers have you managed to scrub clean already. It’s so tired and predictable that I would rather run and climb up a few dozen stairs to reach the other side of the neighborhood in order to find a way not to enter into another one of the cleaning competition conversations. It really is a competition. These conversations are not really about the holiday as much as they are women’s attempts to find approval from an invisible “they.” This is women looking to other women to grade our own okayness as Jewish women.   Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/154259/how-passover-pits-women-against-women/#ixzz1rA5NCkJB

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On Esther, Vashti, Agunot, and women's eternal dilemmas

Purim is a holiday that is about women’s power, in its different forms. Thinking about the roles of Queen Vashti and her successor Queen Esther in the Purim story highlights some of the dilemmas that women have faced throughout history. I therefore think it’s particularly apt that Ta’anit Esther is International Agunah Day, the day the marks the harrowing struggle of “chained women,” or women denied divorce. Vashti and Esther were both married to a man, the same man, for whom women were objects to be adorned and used. This was arguably the prevailing culture at the time, but there are also gradations in the exploitation of women. (To wit, someone visiting the planet for the first time who puts on MTV would believe that our culture is no better today than it was then.) Moreover, King Ahasverus was particularly adamant in his use of women’s bodies to claim his own power. He summoned Vashti specifically “to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on,” he chose his next queen based on a beauty contest, and declared that peace in his entire kingdom was a function of women’s submission, that “all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small… that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.” Interestingly, Vashti and Esther dealt with the king differently. Vashti was defiant. She refused to be put on display like cattle — and paid for it with her throne, with her status, and according to the midrash, with her life. Esther, on the other hand, played the game. She was silent for the first four chapters of the book, quiet, docile and pretty as the other dominating male in her life, Mordechai, called the shots and gained political standing. When Esther finally acted, it was by using her feminine charm, her sexuality, to woo the king into pleasing her and killing Haman. To save the Jewish people, she played the seductress. She may have stayed alive and kept her throne – but that’s not necessarily a blessing. She remained in her gilded cage, married to the megalomaniacal wife-killer, for the rest of her life. By being the “insider” in the system, she sacrificed her own freedom. Vashti, the quintessential fighter, may have lost her life, but she may have also kept her dignity. Women face the insider/outsider dilemma all the time. Should we work hard and sacrifice our integrity (and money) to meet social expectations of female beauty in order to reap the significant social rewards of beauty and sexuality, or should we challenge the system, refuse to turn ourselves into seductresses, and force the world to deal with “real women,” as we are? For example. In Judaism the insider/outsider dilemma is faced in the most harrowing way by agunot, women who cannot get a Jewish divorce because the system relies on male volition. To stay in the Jewish legal system,...

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