Jewfem Blog

Because shaming or humiliating women is still okay....

I have been getting so many notes from women, from across the Jewish world, about my decision to become a Reform rabbi. Even though I know that this is really hard for Orthodox feminists, who are constantly trying to prove that they are Orthodox and not Reform, I have also been receiving a lot of camraderie along with mourning. The note that I am sharing here is in that category, too. But I have decided to share it because this story she writes about humiliating women happened YESTERDAY. In 2017. It is still okay to literally ask women to leave, to roll over, to abandon her own needs and spiritual practices, because men come first. We need to air these stories. "Hi Elana. Mazal tov on your choice, I truly wanted to reach out and tell you this story, because I finally understand your choice. When you first announced it, I admit that I was sad. I wasn't disappointed in you, I totally supported you doing what worked best for you. I just felt my heart break that this would be used against Orthodox feminists, who would say 'See? A little feminism and you leave the Torah' and tighten restrictions more. But then my friend, an Orthodox Jewish woman with kids, was humiliated today, with her husband being told to ask her to leave [the sukkah] (my friend was sitting right there, but no one spoke to her) because women and children do not have a 'chiyyuv' [obligation] and men who have that chiyyuv might need the seats. Even though there were other empty seats, it was offensive my friend was taking up seats that in the minds of some rightfully 'belonged' to men, men who weren’t in the restaurant or who might not even exist." And it hit me. It finally hit me why you left. It's because intelligent men who learn plenty blatt Gemara [page of talmud] can decide my friend and her beautiful children are not really people, and don't deserve basic courtesy. They're just...appendages to be stored away at the convenience of men who aren't even there. My friend's Judaism isn't as vital as a potential male's Judaism, she should be considering men and making herself smaller so she doesn't take up room. In what world is 'Reform' more problematic than advocating women be so invisible that they sacrifice for potential men? The cudgel is there, no matter what we do. Those advocating the silencing of women will silence even modestly dressed Orthodox women for eating in public. You're just saying 'I won't take it anymore.' Good for you." When i say "compassion first", this is what I mean. A world in which it is considered "okay" to humiliate women because of how a particular man reads halakha, that is not a world built on compassion. It is not a world that is built in the Divine image. And it is not Torah.   

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.  

How I learned what it means to be a rabbi -- warts and all

On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school. I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing. On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion. After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him. This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.   I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green. I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the...

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Responses to the responses on becoming a Reform rabbi

  In the day (!!)since I announced that I am studying to become a Reform rabbi, responses have been overwhelming. I’ve been chatting with people around the world, each with their own story about connection, community, spirituality, and Judaism. The vast majority of those responses have been resoundingly supportive. And this is not only from Reform friends. Many of my Orthodox friends have been incredibly understanding and even sharing in the excitement. Despite all the predictable naysaying Orthodox gatekeepers who have been doing their thing (some you can see in the comments on my previous post, or on my FB page; I left them in because it is important to know what kind of discourse is out there, what we’re all up against), despite all that, I have been receiving an incredible amount of support, even from places where I thought the reaction would be harsher. I am so relieved about that. My biggest worry was that Orthodox feminist activists would see me as the one who jumped ship, and leave it at that. But for the most part, I’ve been getting a lot of love, and that makes me really happy. I see us all as fighting the same fights but from different corners. On the other hand, some Conservative, (Masorti) and Reconstructionist friends are a bit upset that I passed over their denominations. Especially stinging was the fact that I wrote that I felt Reform is the “only place” where women can be truly free. If there is one word that I regret in my original post, it is that word “only”. I would like to change that to say the “best”, or “one of the best”, instead of the “only”. I will not change the post now because that would be intellectually dishonest. But I do think that I was wrong to write it that way. I have some wonderful mentors and friends around the Jewish world. Professor Alice Shalvi, for example, who became Conservative after decades of work as an Orthodox feminist, is someone I consider an incredible role model. I think I came off too dismissive of the work of feminists in other denominations, and I’m very sorry about that. I would like to emphasize how much I consider feminist activists across denominations to be allies.  This is where the work is. I’m not here to trounce on hard-working women trying to change the world. I want to work together. That is the vision. I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job of emphasizing that in my original post.

So.... I'm becoming a Rabbi..... a Reform Rabbi

So this week I did something really new. I began my journey to become a Reform rabbi. For the next four years I will be studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. And I am positively ecsatic.  You probably have questions. The most common question I've received so far is, why Reform and not Conservative? There are several ways I can answer this question. My primary answer is that the Reform movement is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole person. And as a woman, I place that high on my list of priorities! There are all kinds of people serving as Reform rabbis -- with all kinds of identities, cultural backgrounds, and practices. During my first conversations about taking this path with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, a beautiful rabbi who actively combines compassion and scholarship, Rabbi Lisitsa described HUC as the ultimate "big tent", the only place in Judaism where everyone truly can belong. She also showed me how  many Reform rabbis keep Jewish practice with no visible distinction to Orthodox Jews. They keep Shabbat, kashruth, and ritual immersion practices and engage with Jewish law. One of my most esteemed mentors, Rabbi Professor Rachel Adler, is a brilliant scholar whose commitment to halakha is unquestioned, and deeply compelling. Everyone has a place, and that is a powerful vision. This is a place where nobody is judging your practice. It is where you are fully embraced for being who you are. That is so refreshing, so new, and so healing for me.  The other question that I get is about abandoning Orthodoxy. Most of my Orthodox feminist friends have been loving and accepting, and I keep hearing from them that it is clear that this is exactly where I belong. That has been a beautifully validating experience. I feel like I have been fighting for a long time to find or create a suitable spiritual home. And it seems clear that this is it. Still, other people have been  less generous. One Orthodox friend told me that this will delegitimize me. Yes, of course it will, in the eyes of certain Orthodox self-assigned gate-keepers. I have been called "Reform" for much of my adult life, in a way that uses the word as a slur. Orthodox feminists in general are called "Reform" as a way to delegitimize them all the time. Most of the time, the response is, "I am not!" But now, my response is, "I take that as a compliment!" To be Reform means to place human compassion before all else, to understand that we must be human beings before we are Jews. I am so excited about  the idea of really living that way, and being surrounded by people who also live that way. And rather than internalize the notion of delegitimizing the other, we should figure out ways to truly see one another, to understand what is the ethical force driving each other. Rather than internalizing the hate, we...

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