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SH A LOM H A RTMA N INSTITUTE

A JOURNAL OF JEWISH CONVERSATION • Number 5 / Summer 2010 • SHALOM HARTMAN INSTITUTE


A J OU RN A L OF J E WIS H CON V E RS ATION Number 5 / Summer 2010 / $7.95

Thinking
About
Women
H AV R U TA
A Journal of Jewish
Conversation
Number 5 /
Summer 2010
Table of Contents
Editor A Letter to our Readers.............................................. 2
Stuart Schoffman

Associate Editors
Thinking about Women.............................................. 4
Laura Major Feminism and Jewish Tradition
Orr Scharf A Symposium
Editorial Advisory
Board Breaking the Silence ................................................. 28
Bill Berk Women’s Voices and Men’s Anxieties
Alfredo Borodowski
Ariel Picard By Channa Pinchasi
Rachel Sabath-
Beit Halachmi
Dror Yinon
Noam Zion
Leah’s Prayers: A Feminist Reading........................... 36
By Noam Zion
Graphic Design
Studio Rami & Jaki
Jewish Poetry and the Feminist Imagination ............. 46
Cover photograph
by Bruce Damonte
The Gifts of Muriel Rukeyser
By Laura Major

From Silence to Empowerment . .............................. 54


Women Reading Women in the Talmud
Seder Nashim: A Women’s Beit Midrash

Divine Qualities and Real Women............................... 62


The Feminine Image in Kabbalah
By Biti Roi

Who is In and Who is Out.......................................... 70


The Two Voices of Ruth
By Orit Avnery
Published by the
Shalom Hartman
Institute, Jerusalem Afikoman /// Old Texts for New Times
Contact us: “Without Regard to Gender”...................................... 78
www.hartman.org.il A Halachic Treatise by the First Woman Rabbi
havruta@shi.org.il
By Laura Major

HAVRUTA | 1
A Letter to Our Readers
In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 117a), it is taught: “Rabbah used to say something
humorous [milta debedichuta] to the other rabbis before he commenced [his discourse], in
order to amuse them.” In homage to that great sage, I shall open our conversation with a
classic Jewish joke:

Stuart Schoffman, Moishe is the manager of the forests on the estate of a Polish nobleman. One day, the
a columnist and nobleman calls him in and says, Moishe, you’re a smart guy, make life easy for yourself, be a
lecturer, is a fellow normal person, avoid the persecution, get yourself and your family baptized. Moishe thinks
at the Shalom it over, then announces to his wife and kids, we’re becoming Christians, and they do it. A year
Hartman Institute goes by, another year, and Moishe is wracked with guilt, he can’t bear it any longer, so he calls
and editor of his family together and says: we’re going back to Judaism. And his wife Rivkah says: “Moishe,
Havruta. His okay, but do me one favor, please. At least wait till after Pesach!”
translations of
Hebrew literature I’ve told this quintessential chestnut a hundred times, but only lately have I viewed it as a
include books by feminist text. The man makes the decisions; the woman cleans the house; and finally, she
David Grossman
finds her voice and challenges him boldly. Our new issue, devoted to “Thinking about Women,”
and A.B. Yehoshua.
is meant to illustrate and encourage this sort of reading – to see old texts with fresh eyes, to
apply traditional lore to the concerns of the contemporary world. That’s the larger theme of
this (and every) edition of Havruta.

Our contributors include Hartman scholars in Jerusalem and North America, as well as
prominent voices from the wider community. The articles span many intriguing subjects:
intermarriage in the Book of Ruth; a feminist analysis (by a male author) of the prayers of
the matriarch Leah; the biblical poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, author of “To Be a Jew in the
Twentieth Century;” feminine divinity in Kabbalah; the Talmudic taboo on a woman’s singing
voice, which the ancient Rabbis equated with nakedness (and many male Jews still do.)

For the last couple of years, a group of young Israeli women and men have sat around a table
twice a week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, studying traditional texts in a beit midrash
program called “Seder Nashim.” Havruta invites our readers to join them in a fascinating
discussion of an unusual Talmudic story, about a rabbi’s wife who masqueraded as (perhaps) a
man and drank a potion that made her sterile – a Jewish woman of antiquity, taking command
of her own body.

Who was the first woman rabbi? If you said Sally Priesand, who was ordained a Reform rabbi
at Hebrew Union College in 1972, you’d be wrong by almost forty years. Our closing Afikoman
section features excerpts from “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” a treatise penned in Berlin
by Regina Jonas, who in 1935 became the first woman in history to prove by example that
indeed they could. This still-controversial topic, and other pressing issues of Jewish life in the
21st century, are candidly discussed by the seven thinkers assembled in our Symposium, who
include Naamah Kelman, the first woman ever ordained a rabbi in the Land of Israel.

2 | Summer 2010
A Letter to Our Readers /// Stuart Schoffman

As our contributors illustrate, everyone involved in women’s issues travels her or his own path,
often unpredictably. The feminist icon Gertrude Stein, raised Reform in Oakland, California,
quit Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1901 to pursue a writing career. A friend (as Stein
related in her inimitable Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) beseeched her: “Gertrude Gertrude
remember the cause of women, and Gertrude Stein said, you don’t know what it is to be bored.”
Closer to our own time and concerns, Rabbi David Hartman says, in his spirited roundtable Passover 2010, Jerusalem.
remarks: “I don’t want to coerce any woman into having an aliyah or giving a sermon. If one Photo © Women of the
is happy with how things have been, that is fine.” Not every reader, of course, will necessarily Wall.
agree with what they read in our pages – but few, I am certain, will be bored.

Stuart Schoffman
Editor, Havruta

HAVRUTA | 3
Thinking about
Women
Feminism and Jewish
Tradition

{ A Symposium {

I n May 2010, many readers were intrigued to discover in the


New York Times that Elena Kagan, newly nominated to the
Supreme Court by President Barack Obama, was the first-ever
Bat Mitzvah, in 1973, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.

4 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

She had asked to read from the Torah on


Shabbat morning, but that request could not
be met, not yet, at that Modern Orthodox
congregation. Instead, the ceremony was held
on a Friday night, and young Elena, future dean
of Harvard Law School, read from the Book of
Ruth, which, according to the Times, “she also
analyzed in a speech.”
Today, the ritual of Bat Mitzvah is often
observed in Modern Orthodox synagogues, in
Israel and abroad, in a variety of ways. At the
same time, congregations defining themselves
as Orthodox retain the mechitzah, the partition
between men and women that has long since
been eliminated in Conservative, Reform and
other liberal synagogues. Meanwhile, the
ultra-Orthodox, who maintain the strictest
halachic standards in their insular enclaves,
continue to control marriage and divorce for
all Jews in the modern state of Israel. Indeed
the Western Wall, a spiritual magnet for Jews
worldwide, has been converted by the Israeli
rabbinate into an Orthodox synagogue.
The tensions between Judaism and
modernity find perhaps their fullest expression
in the arena of women’s rights and roles.
Should women study Talmud? Most Jews
today, including many Orthodox Jews, will tell
you yes. Are women capable of reaching the
highest levels of mastery in the sophisticated
and technical field of Jewish law? Of course
they can, in the consensus, just as they thrive
at Harvard Law and Haifa’s Technion. As for
women serving as rabbis – well, that depends
on whom you ask.
Learning, ritual and leadership are but a
few of the issues explored in our latest Havruta
symposium, by seven influential thinkers,
scholars and teachers from North America
and Israel. Each, in his and her way, has been
involved in the field of Jewish feminism,
as pioneers, standard-setters, activists and Self-portrait by the
analysts. Our contributors vary in voice and Israeli artist Naomi
outlook. They share a sense of urgency, and Gafni.
From the solo
also an understanding that things take time.
exhibition
Much has been achieved; more has yet to be “Momentarily Me,”
done. 2001.

HAVRUTA | 5
David Hartman:
Human Dignity

T
David Hartman here are three realms in which the need to be dealt with are: what is her role,
is the Founding gender issue surfaces in Jewish and how does he see his wife. The moral
President of the life: the family, the public and the solution to the agunah problem would be to
Shalom Hartman liturgical. Progress has been made in all change the laws of divorce. That is how far I
Institute. Rabbi
these areas, but much more is left to be am willing to go.
Hartman is a leading
accomplished. I think one of the driving The guiding impulse needs to be: Is any
contemporary
Jewish philosopher
forces for progress was women’s learning. given law or practice moral? Does it reduce
and internationally That was a major breakthrough that will the human being to an object? Does it cause
renowned author and continue to create grassroots dissatisfaction the lack of dignity? I am fully in harmony
recipient of numerous with the way public life and private life have with those who see gender questions as an
prizes, including the been constructed. Once a woman is learning issue of k’vod habriot, the dignity of human
Avi Chai and Guardian Torah, you can’t hold her back. beings. Take this story from the Talmud
of Zion prizes. Let’s first address the family realm. Here, in Sanhedrin 39a, for example: A Roman
the bottom line is that the woman has to nobleman says to Rabban Gamliel that God
be a subject, a full person. Many Orthodox is a thief, since he stole Adam’s rib from him
apologists who want to justify the status quo when he was sleeping. Rabban Gamliel’s
quote sections of the Talmud that say that daughter then tells the nobleman that she
a man should respect his wife more than wants him to send a Roman judge to impose
himself. But they don’t realize you can also justice on thieves who came into her house
respect your slave. You can be kind to a dog. and stole her silver pitcher, replacing it with
So yes, as a minimum standard of behavior, a golden one. The nobleman is puzzled; he
you cannot act brutally or coerce the wife, but says that she has nothing to complain about.
this doesn’t solve the underlying issue. And She replies that this is exactly the case of the
the issue is really the man’s, because men are rib. God took Adam and created something
the ones who need to realize that a situation better, a shifcha for a him, a servant.
must be created in which the woman is a full Now if the woman is seen as a servant, a
subject, and in which she can direct her life. shifcha, then the tradition has failed morally,
The acute problem of agunot – specifically and one of the fundamental principles in
women who are refused a writ of divorce (get) Judaism has not been upheld. Indeed, so
by their husbands – is a case in point. Some many of the laws regarding women violate
people are trying to implement pre-nuptial the intrinsic dignity of a person. And all
agreements in order to prevent a situation the apologists ask: “What do you want? The
where a woman is refused a divorce. This woman has a very important role. She is
might help in avoiding suffering. But even a nurturer.” I agree that it is important to
throwing the recalcitrant husband in jail be a nurturer. No one wants to give up on
and punishing him in order to force him to their image of their mother, always available,
give a divorce still keeps the idea of male loving, kind and willing to sacrifice so much.
domination in force. The issues that really And no one is giving that up. But we have to

6 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

ask: what price do you have to pay in order there has been some progress. The roots of
to create that nurturing mother? Does she this can be seen in a difference of opinion,
have to be an object in private and public life? about ninety years ago, between Rabbi
Does she have to be a person who is unable to Ben Zion Uziel and Rabbi Abraham Isaac
hold any office? HaCohen Kook, the Sephardi and Ashkenazi
These questions bring us to the second Chief Rabbis, regarding women’s suffrage.
Young women studying
realm – the public. The woman has to have Rav Kook quotes the Talmudic saying that Torah. Robert M. Beren
the ability to function as a full citizen in a “it is man’s manner to dominate and not Academy, Houston,
society, and take responsibility in shaping woman’s manner to dominate” (BT Yevamot Texas. Photo by James
that society. Therefore, she should be able to 65b). Women’s participation in any aspect of Lacomb.

testify in courts and hold public office. She public life is, accordingly, a threat to shlom
should look at her world not as a creation of bayit – peace in the home. Rav Kook basically
man but as a creation of human beings. All says that you have to ask her to give up on her
human beings have to participate in building right of suffrage so that the husband will be
and shaping a meaningful society. satisfied and will not have a wife who argues
Halacha does not guarantee this, though with him.

HAVRUTA | 7
This, in my eyes, is a cheap view of the things have been, that is fine. I can’t impose
relationship between a man and a woman. on people what should be an expression of
As if to disagree is not to respect. If the man total human dignity.
feels that the only way he can be secure in On the other side of things are the
his home is if everyone always agrees with Women of the Wall. Why do people bother
him, then that kind of man and that kind them? The Western Wall does not belong
of family are deserving of pity. Rav Uziel is only to the ultra-Orthodox. It is a symbol
correct when he asks, how one can expect for all Jews. Certainly, the women should
a woman to listen to the legislative body have tact and respect, but to call women who
of the government if she has no part in wear a tallit prostitutes, is vulgar and morally
shaping it. You can’t have responsibility and disgusting.
obedience unless you are part of the process.
Preventing their participation, as Rav Uziel
says, especially where there is no prohibition Once a woman is learning
to do so, would be insulting and deceitful.
Torah, you can’t hold her
How one can expect a back.
woman to listen to the Women are trying to give deeper
legislative body of the expressions of religious life. They are not
trying to provoke men or take over their role,
government if she has no or get back at men for years of oppression.
Human beings have a desire to feel they are
part in shaping it? active participants in religious life. Why
deprive them of that? And who is to deprive
The final area that I want to discuss her? What gives me the right to define
is liturgical life. Here my daughter, Tova what women should need? This is an issue
Hartman, has had a profound influence on of control, and the desire to define what her
me. She believes that the gender issue is true nature is.
not an issue for women but for men, because So the apologists run away from the
men have to ask themselves how they can moral issues and keep on preaching that she
subscribe to a Judaism that exploits male is unique, she is the matriarch Sarah, she is
domination as a way of living. Praying in the home, she has metaphysical dignity. No
our egalitarian synagogue, Shira Hadasha, one denies that. But what rights does she
has swayed me completely. I realized how have living in this culture? Can she bring
moved I was by women leading the prayers, testimony? Can she participate in elections?
women reading from the Torah and women Can she hold public office? Can she pray as
delivering sermons. I am still not satisfied she feels fit? Can she be granted a divorce
that women are excluded from leading certain when she requests one? We can’t continue to
prayers such as the Kedusha, and also cannot keep women limited and unfulfilled.
be counted with men in a minyan [quorum of Men are frightened. Once women have
10]. Those are the next things that need to be active roles, then the men don’t know who
dealt with in the liturgical arena. they are. Your whole maleness has been
I don’t want to coerce any woman into identified by putting on tefillin, a tallit, going
having an aliyah or giving a sermon. Those to synagogue. I can understand that. But
women who feel a need for reforms in these men need to get used to a change. They
synagogue life should have the freedom to go need to develop a sense of maleness that is
out and express this. If one is happy with how not based on excluding women.

8 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

Wendy Zierler:
Disparate Worlds

My life straddles two Jewish worlds. I history, a triumph of Jewish feminism. I am Wendy Zierler
spend my workdays as a professor of Jewish committed to a kind of post-denominational is Associate
literature and feminist studies, helping to feminism, where feminist ideals—equality Professor of
train rabbis, cantors, and educators for the of access, enfranchisement, a recognition of Modern Jewish
Reform movement. I spend my evenings the legal, ritual, intellectual, and spiritual Literature and
and weekends, though, in modern Orthodox personhood of all Jews—are acknowledged, Feminist Studies
Riverdale, New York. On Shabbat, I alternate enacted and practiced in the variegated at HUC-JIR, New
York, and a
between various Orthodox minyanim and ways that represent our diverse Jewish
member of the
prayer groups that are committed both community.
North American
to halacha and to feminism, but where a Yet in my Orthodox world, the basic
Scholars Circle
traditional halachic approach often forces a values promulgated by the Reform Breslau of the Shalom
compromise with strict feminist principle. Conference of 1846, including the abrogation Hartman Institute.
The work I do doesn’t neatly fit into the of the daily blessing in which men thank She is the author
prefabricated categories of classical Jewish God for “not making me a woman” and the of And Rachel
learning. I am always bringing together granting of women equality under Jewish Stole the Idols:
seemingly disparate worlds: classical Jewish law, remain out of reach. The Emergence of
texts and modern literary sources, Judaism Modern Hebrew
and feminism. My teaching constitutes an The participation of Women’s Writing
(2004) and co-
extended argument for the place of seemingly
secular, even heretical literary sources in the women in the revival of editor with Carole
Balin of Behikansi
canon of Jewish literary tradition: such as
the works of the beloved Hebrew poet Rachel the Hebrew language Atah (In My
Entering Now), the
Bluwstein, known simply as “Rachel.” In “Kan
al Pnei ha-Adamah,” (“Here upon this Land”),
is a triumph of Jewish Collected Writings
of Hava Shapiro
for example, Rachel invokes a biblical source feminism. (2008).
to plead the cause of this-worldy rather
than heavenly redemption, and imagines In the Reform movement, by sharp
“a thousand arms” coming together to roll contrast, there have been so many gains for
a stone off a well—a collectivist, Zionist women, so many women rabbis and cantors
midrash on Jacob’s heroic stone-rolling in and community leaders, that people worry
Genesis 29, which impressed the biblical about the disappearance of men. There
Rachel. are those who equate the ascendancy of
I am convinced that the revival of the women into leadership positions with the
Hebrew language and the participation feminization of Judaism, a term that has
of women in this revival (against the an unfortunately negative connotation.
background of so many years of women’s Rather than effecting changes in our notions
Jewish literary and intellectual silence), is of leadership, and broadening our sense of
one of the great miracles of modern Jewish what full representation of both genders in

HAVRUTA | 9
synagogue life can do for people’s spiritual need to be reminded to pray not only when
life, the arrival of women in clergy positions I am inspired or overcome with a sense of
has in some cases transformed the work into meaning, but also when I am not.
something that boys and men no longer want At work, I am surrounded by women who
to do, and turned the synagogue into a place have already become, or are on their way to
where men no longer want to or feel obligated becoming, leaders in their communities. This
to come. This is an issue that liberal Judaism is a given, a quotidian reality in my weekday
still needs to tackle. world. Sally Priesand, who in 1972 was the
first woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi,
It has always saddened has already retired from her pulpit. For my
students, the whole battle for women’s right
me that feminist to be ordained is a vestige from a previous
transformation is generation, and the absence of ordination
for women in mainstream orthodoxy is an
associated in the minds oddity, a throwback.
My students have been saddened and
of many Orthodox Jews bewildered by the recent developments
with the weakening of regarding women’s ordination that have
arisen at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Judaism. In March 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss formally
conferred the title of “Maharat” (an acronym
Nothing of this sort can be observed meaning “spiritual, halachic and Torah
in orthodoxy. On Shabbat, the typical leader”) on Sara Hurwitz, a woman who had
Orthodox congregation is packed on both served as a member of the synagogue’s clergy
sides of the mechitzah. This serves to team and had passed all of the exams for
reinforce an Orthodox self-perception that Orthodox rabbinic ordination. Rabbi Weiss
both halachically and sociologically speaking, reasoned that the neologism of Maharat
orthodoxy is “the right way” to ensure Jewish would grant authority and yet avert an
continuity. It has always saddened me that Orthodox political maelstrom, but it soon
feminist transformation is associated in became apparent that the title did not carry
the minds of many Orthodox Jews with the the weight he intended. Rabbi Weiss decided
attenuation of tradition and the weakening to remedy this by changing the title to
of Judaism. “Rabbah,” the feminine form of Rabbi, which
I live in my two worlds not just out of sparked fierce objection in the Orthodox
necessity, but out of choice. There is an odd establishment. Ultimately, Rabbi Weiss
dissonance that has become an integral rescinded the title Rabbah, and promised not
part of my life: the feeling of things coming to ordain any more women, in his words, “for
together that do not entirely mesh, yet the sake of peace.”
need to be together. I need and want liberal What now? It is not clear how many
Judaism to inspire me with notions of among the current cadre of supremely
change and radical equality, to remind me qualified Orthodox women will agree to join
of the need to be intentioned and thoughtful the fray of women’s ordination and subject
in my observance and prayer. At the themselves to this kind of controversy.
same time, I need and want the Orthodox Why suffer through that, when getting a
community to continue to set a high bar PhD in Talmud can grant them prestige
of expectation for learning, involvement, without an ulcer? One thing is for certain:
observance, and commitment. I want and political censure and denunciation of the

10 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

move toward women’s ordination will not day, land and sea, holy and profane—then to
put the genie of women’s learning, ritual what extent are gender distinctions basic to a
competence, leadership skills, and spiritual Jewish understanding of the world? Is there
capacities and yearnings back into the bottle. a way to incorporate a more fluid notion of
While the Orthodox movement might cling gender than that which is represented in
to some notion of continuity with tradition these ancient sources? How can one conceive
Women praying on
with respect to women in Judaism, it has a Jewish theology of gender difference
beach, Gaza 2005. Photo
been permanently rocked by the revolution that also encompasses a notion of gender by Mati Millstein.
of Torah learning. There are very few Jews, equality?
on any end of the denominational spectrum, For Jewish feminism to have a lasting
who still believe along with Rabbi Eliezer effect, it must also compel a lasting
of yore (BT Sotah 20a) that teaching one’s confrontation—both philosophical and
daughter Torah is tantamount to teaching practical—with the abiding inequities of
her tiflut —licentiousness or foolishness. Jewish law, as represented recently by the
There are quite a few, however, who still Women of the Wall controversy and most
believe that linking women’s Torah study to starkly by the abiding agunah problem. If
the movement or way of thinking known as halacha is a way of walking with God in the
feminism is indeed licentious and foolish. world, it cannot be compatible with a status
Feminists who remain committed to quo that denies the personhood and rights of
Judaism and its core tenets need to continue half of the Jewish community. For me, that
to develop a theology of feminism that is a given. Somewhere along the way, halacha
explores what is basic and enduring to Jewish went astray. It is the responsibility of great
belief. For example, if the Bible seems to halachic minds to work to repair the road. So
represent divine creation in terms of notions long as they balk at this task they are failing
of distinction and difference—night and to do God’s work.

HAVRUTA | 11
Naamah Kelman:
No Small Feat

Rabbi Naamah at a historic conference that launched the


Kelman, in 1992, The world I was born into and the world my American Jewish feminist movement. In
was the first woman daughters were born into are very different. 1986, the first woman was ordained by the
to be ordained by In 1968, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah in Jewish Theological Seminary. Those were
the Hebrew Union
New York. My father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, years of excitement and turmoil. Fears of
College in Jerusalem,
a leader of the Conservative movement, the “feminization” of Judaism were voiced,
where she is currently
the Dean. Born and
insisted I read the haftarah at our synagogue, as was great anxiety about the future of the
raised in New York, on a Friday night. At shul on that festive Jewish family and the energies that might
she has lived since occasion, one of the speakers was a woman be “unleashed” by this revolution. What
1976 in Israel, where who had been the very first Bat Mitzvah in energies, indeed!
she has worked Jewish history: Judith Kaplan Eisenstein. In
in community
organizing, Jewish
1922, her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the
theologian and founder of Reconstructionist
We are finally crossing
education, and the Judaism, pioneered the notion of Bat the “text-tosterone” line.
promotion and Mitzvah at the newly founded Society for
establishment of the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan.
Progressive and
Judith recalled that on a Friday, her father Women’s religious, academic and
Pluralistic Judaism
suddenly decided his daughter should read intellectual gifts have been a blessing to all
for Israelis.
the next day from the Torah, just as a boy denominations of Judaism. My bookshelves
would do. That night, they practiced together, can no longer hold the riches of scholarship
and the next morning, she rose before the and literature that Jewish women have
congregation and read. produced. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,
In 1968, so many years after Judith published by the Women of Reform
Kaplan’s exceptional debut, it was still Judaism, contains more than 100 entries
unusual for girls to have a formal Bat by female rabbis, scholars, poets and other
Mitzvah. In fact, a prominent Conservative thinkers, representing a range of Jewish
rabbi commented to me that night that it denominations. In 2008, it was named
was too bad that my reading would be “the Jewish Book of the Year, the top prize of the
first and last time” I would ever be allowed National Jewish Book Awards. The fact that
on the bimah of a synagogue. Luckily for my it won that honor, and not the annual prize in
generation, the feminist revolution was set the category of Women’s Studies, represented
in motion by the famous women’s march in a seismic shift. With this new commentary
New York City in August 1970. Two years and other fine books, we are finally crossing
later, Sally Preisand was ordained as a rabbi the “text-tosterone” line. Too often, important
by Hebrew Union College, a precedent soon and impressive works by women have been
followed by ordinations of women in the relegated to a gendered ghetto or dismissed
Reconstructionist movement. In the fall of as insufficiently “serious” or “learned” (which
1973, 500 women gathered in New York City often means rabbinic or esoteric.)

12 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

Tefillin Barbie. Photo


by Jen Taylor Friedman,
2006.
www.HaSoferet.com

For too many people, the image of a rabbi There have been major strides made
remains bearded and male. Here in Israel, in Israel, but as long as there is an official
there is no accepted word for “woman rabbi.” Orthodox Rabbinate and a highly militarized
Since I insist on being called “Rav” – the society, the struggle is difficult. The IDF
traditional male title – I am often branded remains a male-dominated institution,
as a provocateur before I utter a single word. despite efforts to place some women in
(“Rabbah” is now a preferred choice for many combat and intelligence units, and fewer in
women rabbis, though when the first woman secretarial positions. Since its founding,
Orthodox member of a rabbinic team in New the military has remained the favored
York was given that title, a great controversy training ground for leadership in politics and
erupted.) business, so that many men move easily into

HAVRUTA | 13
top jobs. The original mythic Zionist image The real shift has occurred with weddings.
of an egalitarian society, where pioneering Thanks to the Reform (Progressive) and
men and women tend the fields and defend Conservative (Masorti) Movements and
the borders, remains just that – a myth. Orthodox feminism, thousands of Israeli
By the time the state was founded, women couples are opting for non-Rabbinate
were mainly raising families and seeking egalitarian weddings. As a result, the
professions like teaching and nursing that Orthodox Rabbinate is scrambling to present
allowed them more flexibility as mothers. a more gender-friendly ceremony: a bride is
Yes, there are many female lawyers and now allowed to present a ring to her groom
physicians in Israel today, but the women at the end of the ceremony. Here, I believe
mainly work in the public sector, where we have “won.” Sadly, however, divorce is
salaries are lower. completely controlled by the Rabbinate.
In 1994, when my older daughter Leora Orthodox women have trained themselves as
was a Bat Mitzvah, she read the Torah para-rabbinic advocates (to’anot rabbaniyot)
portion and the haftarah, and gave a d’var to assist in intractable and difficult cases,
Torah at our Progressive synagogue. Judith as well as more routine ones. But the
Kaplan, by then well into her 80s, sent us a heavy influence of ultra-Orthodox parties
letter to be read at the ceremony -- a gesture within the Israeli parliamentary system
of continuity I know my daughter will never has effectively blocked, at least for now, any
forget. Since that day, Leora has not stopped changes in divorce law for all Israeli Jews.
leading services and reading Torah, at our In 1992, I became the first woman ever
shul and elsewhere in Israel. ordained a rabbi in Israel. CNN reported
This year, on Purim, I attended an the event, but Ha’aretz ignored it, and Yediot
Orthodox Bat Mitzvah in the US; the girl Aharonot put it on the “curiosities” page.
read the entire Megillah, no small feat, in The local Jerusalem newspapers, though,
a ceremony attended by men and women had more extensive coverage. There were
seated separately. In a number of Orthodox no protests from the ultra-Orthodox until
synagogues in Jerusalem, Bat Mitzvah girls 1999, when I was appointed by the Meretz
read from the Torah on Shabbat, either party to a seat on the Jerusalem Religious
in a separate reading for women, or even Council. The matter went to the Supreme
before the entire congregation. Orthodox Court, which ordered the council to seat
feminists have been very brave in Israel. me, but they disbanded rather than comply.
Women now serve as scholars of Talmud, Recently, however, a Reform woman rabbi
Jewish law, and more. In the area of ritual, became a member of the Religious Council of
though, progress has been uneven. Though Kfar Saba.
Bat Mitzvah as a religious rite is virtually Times are indeed changing. In 2007,
universal in the liberal denominations in when The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was
North America, and a growing phenomenon published, it made the front page of Ha’aretz.
in some Orthodox circles too, in Israel There is a growing renaissance of Jewish
it is less prevalent, across the religious learning in Israel, and women are central to
spectrum. The liberal movements here the flowering of independent batei midrash
have pushed hard for young girls to do as and havurot. I believe that despite our modest
their brothers do, but most secular Israelis numbers in Israel, the liberal movements
– whose thinking on such matters is have been a significant stimulus rod for
conditioned by the rabbinic establishment – change, especially in promoting the status of
view Bar Mitzvah as standard practice and women. A great deal, of course, remains to
Bat Mitzvah as alien. be accomplished.

14 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

Susan Weiss:
Parameters of Chutzpah

Though I regularly dispatch members of my “And,” added Rabbi B., “there’s the issue
Susan Weiss
office to Israel’s rabbinic courts, I rarely set of her tort claim. When Esther sued for is an attorney.
foot there myself. However, a few months damages for get refusal, she tied our hands. She founded and
back, I forayed down to Tel Aviv to argue The claim puts unlawful force on her husband, runs the Center for
a case. I thought I’d be able to leverage a invalidating any subsequent get.” Women’s Justice
sensitive legal moment to extract a get, a “With all due respect, your Honor,” I in Jerusalem.
Jewish bill of divorce, from a particularly replied, summoning up all the deference She is currently
difficult husband, and his equally infuriating I could muster. “The reason Esther is still completing her
attorney. In Israel, rabbinic courts have married is because her husband won’t give dissertation at Tel
exclusive jurisdiction over the marriages her a get – and because this court won’t order Aviv University
and divorces of Jews, and those courts him to do so, let alone put him in jail. And about legal
language and
apply halacha, religious law. According to with respect to the tort claim, it’s obvious
power entitled
halacha, a woman remains bound to a failed that it hasn’t infringed on his free will at all,
“Not Just Words.”
marriage until her husband agrees, of his since he remains firm in his refusal to release Together with
free will, to give her a get. his wife.” Netty C. Gross,
Our client Esther (not her real name) No matter how I pleaded, the rabbis she is writing a
lived with her husband for just three months refused to decide the case on its merits. In book provisionally
(months, not years), got pregnant, was badly their minds, the halacha didn’t allow it. It entitled Israel’s
beaten, left the house, and has lived apart did not matter that the parties hated each Civil War: Jewish
from him for 13 years (thirteen, not a typo). other. It did not matter that Esther, an ultra- Marriage and
He still refuses to give her a get. I threw my Orthodox woman, could not enter into an Divorce to be
client on the mercy of the tribunal. intimate relationship with another man. The published by
“Put him in jail,” I begged the court. (The halacha trumped Western values. It trumped University Press of
New England.
rabbinic courts have the authority to do my client’s lost years. It trumped the court’s
this in order to convince a husband to give crocodile tears. It trumped justice.
a get.) The moral of this sad story is that we Jewish
“Do you sleep at night?” Queried Rabbi women haven’t gotten very far in the rabbinic
B., the head of the tribunal, provocatively. courts. If the status of women in Judaism is
“I do,” I answered, not quite the truth. gauged by their status in the rabbinic courts,
“Do you, your honor?” I retorted, testing it is not very good. For every step we’ve
the parameters of my chutzpah. taken forward, we’ve taken two backward. In
“Because whoever has been advising the rabbinic courts, Jewish women have no
your client has done her a great disservice,” autonomy and are not equal. Their status is
the rabbi declared. “It’s because of those ill- completely dependent on their husbands’ will.
advised advisors that Esther is not divorced. For a while it looked like we activists
We cry for Esther, but had she given in to were making progress, slowly realigning the
her husband’s reasonable demands, she imbalance of power in the rabbinic courts
would have been free long ago.” so skewed in men’s favor. We managed to

HAVRUTA | 15
“Get Refuser: There is
such an animal,” by Tamar
Tzohar: First-prize winner
of poster competition,
International Coalition
for Aguna Rights, 2005.

convince the courts to issue more decisions husband simply agreed in theory to the get
against recalcitrant husbands, ordering or and stated his terms for the divorce, the court
recommending that they give a get. We even would refrain from enforcing any order against
managed to persuade the court to put more him, and demand that his wife accept whatever
get-refusers in jail. But as the number of those were his “reasonable” conditions for the get.
decisions increased, the courts themselves This is what happened in Esther’s case.
began to undermine them. If a recalcitrant Why is the status of women in Judaism, as

16 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

reflected in the difficult reality of the rabbinic ultra-Orthodox enclave, which defines itself
courts, so bad? In my opinion, it’s because as the “other” in the modern democratic state.
the State of Israel gave the ultra-Orthodox Having deferred to multicultural impulses,
a monopoly to decide issues of marriage and the status quo, or just plain politics, the state
divorce for all its Jewish citizens, irrespective has sacrificed women to the interests of
of their religious affiliation. Only men hold ultra-Orthodox interest groups. If it wants to
positions of leadership in the ultra-Orthodox be respected as a true liberal democracy and
community. Those men bear no sense of the center of the entire Jewish world, the
responsibility to the state or its citizens, and State of Israel must start to acknowledge the
are loyal only to their very insular community price that it, and in particular its women, are
and its particular “narrative.” That narrative paying. In the spirit of the freedom of religion,
is characterized by strict gender distinctions the state must break the monopoly it gave to
and textual accuracy. Men are different from the ultra-Orthodox and allow for different
and superior to women; and all this is justified denominations of Judaism to flourish. There
by an obsessively close reading of the text. are many authentic expressions of Judaism
that live in harmony with modern values of
If the status of women human life and freedom. Israel must take
responsibility for its citizens, in particular
in Judaism is gauged by its women, and protect their rights to
due process, human rights, equality, and
their status in the rabbinic individual autonomy, in all areas of life.
courts, it is not very good.
The state has deferred to the ultra-
On certain public bus
Orthodox in other areas, as well. For example, lines, women riders are
at the Kotel, the Western Wall, where ultra-
Orthodox pressure prevents women from relegated to the back
praying with prayer shawls. And on certain
public bus lines in Jerusalem, women riders of the bus – a shocking
are relegated to the back of the bus – a shocking
concession to religious extremism.
concession to religious
I single out the ultra-Orthodox because extremism.
even a cursory look at how women fare in
other denominations shows that Jewish
women, for the most part, have attained At the Center for Women’s Justice, we
equal status to Jewish men. Outside of the ask the family courts to do just that when
Orthodox community, women act as rabbis, we sue recalcitrant husbands for damages.
halachic arbiters, leaders. They are revered By awarding our clients damages, the
scholars. Even women in Modern Orthodox family courts are taking the position that
communities have made great strides towards withholding a get is no longer a husband’s
equality. All religious texts are open to them religious right, but a civil wrong.
for study. They are taking a growing role in Esther was eventually awarded damags of
prayer, ritual, and leadership roles. They can close to one million shekels by a family court,
be Orthodox and feminist. I anticipate that and her husband filed an appeal. We hope the
this trend toward equality will continue, Appellate Court will stand firm on the side of
notwithstanding occasional backlash and the Jewish women. The appeal is set for late 2010
ebb and flow of the process. But not in the before a tribunal of three women.

HAVRUTA | 17
Don Seeman:
For the Sake of Peace

Don Seeman Orthodoxy is by far the most diverse and The stakes for Orthodox communities
is Associate Professor internally pluralistic of all the contemporary could not be higher. Many communities
of Religion and movements in religious Judaism. Yet in the are now filled with women doctors, lawyers
Jewish Studies at absence of any authoritative decision-making and PhDs; after more than a generation of
Emory University. His
body, important debates are often raucous increased (though still imperfect) access to
ethnography, One
and can prove painful or frustrating to high level Jewish textual education, the lack
People, One Blood:
Ethiopian Jews and
some of the individuals involved. The recent of commensurate professional opportunities
the Return to Judaism controversy over women’s ordination— for women inside the Orthodox community
was published by part of a much broader conversation about has begun to put pressure on communities to
Rutgers University gender roles and women’s leadership in adapt. Yet any such innovation immediately
Press in 2009. Don is Orthodoxy—has proven to be no exception. pushes up against some of the most
currently a fellow of I have participated in these conversations important and deeply entrenched features
the North American in a number of different capacities (rabbi, of Orthodox self-identification, which have
Scholars Circle of community member, father and husband), as much to do with the relationship between
the Kogod Center but I also view them through the lens of a Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism as they do
for Contemporary social anthropologist, who is trained to look with the relationships between men and
Jewish Thought at
beneath the contradictions of the moment women.
the Shalom Hartman
for underlying cultural themes and anxieties On a political and sociological level,
Institute.
that define a society. the synagogue mechitzah has emerged in
Two apparently contradictory trends recent decades as the single most important
threaten today to tear the Orthodox symbolic divider between Orthodox and non-
community asunder. On the one hand, there Orthodox communities. While Orthodoxy
are obvious signs throughout the Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, for example,
world of increasing emphasis on gender differ considerably today on questions of
segregation and the imposition of barriers content as well as process in Jewish law,
to women’s participation with men in public it is the absence of the mechitzah, along
religious settings, including schools. This is with some other issues related to gender
one of the defining features of contemporary and egalitarianism, that most reliably
ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but has been felt distinguishes practically all Conservative
in American Modern Orthodox and Israeli synagogues today from all Orthodox ones.
Zionist Orthodox circles too. At the same Indeed, it is the self-conscious (though partial)
time, some segments of the Orthodox elimination of sex segregation during prayer
community have shown increasing signs (calling women up to the Torah, or calling on
of a willingness to experiment with new women to lead certain prayers), that has led
models of leadership and participation for the so-called “halachic-egalitarian” or “Shira
women, culminating most recently in the Hadasha-style” congregations to perch so
abortive attempt to create a formal women’s precariously on the boundaries of Orthodoxy
ordination program. - or probably more accurately, just outside

18 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

these boundaries, in uncharted social space. women’s space and inherited practice has
These groups represent, in Orthodox terms, been increasingly limited. Authorities have
an exaggerated reaction to the tendency of banned the burning of candles that was
greater segregation and separation that is a hallmark of women’s religious practice
increasingly prevalent. there, alongside prayers for fertility and the
In the non-Haredi Orthodox world, sex- distribution of amulets of different kinds.
Western Wall, early 20th
segregated schools and youth groups are on A yeshiva for men with knitted kippot now century.
the rise. Communities in North America dominates the site physically, and competes G. Eric and Edith Matson
debate raising the heights of their mechitzot for control of its religious ethos. Photograph Collection,
Library of Congress,
but rarely debate lowering them. In my The fate of sacred space at shrines like
Prints & Photographs
office hangs a photo, nearly a century old, of Rachel’s Tomb or the Kotel may seem far Division,
pious men standing in prayer at the Western removed from debates about the ordination LC-DIG-matpc-05899.
Wall, while a group of women crouch or sit of Jewish women. Yet these disparate
in prayer nearby. After 1967, the Kotel was phenomena may actually testify to a single
given the status of an Orthodox synagogue underlying dilemma of contemporary
and a mechitzah was installed. More recently, religious life: the accelerating collapse of
barriers have been raised and refurbished “mimetic Judaism” in our time. Historically,
several times, as the site has become a each generation matter-of-factly imitated
flashpoint of controversy over issues related the practices of its predecessor. But the
to women’s role in communal prayer. At devastating wars and massive migrations of
Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, similarly, the past century, combined with the growth

HAVRUTA | 19
of secularism, have disrupted the norms of unambiguously committed to Orthodox life
many Jewish communities, not least those in all its dimensions.
that governed issues of gender. The result One of the most important dimensions of
has been an unprecedented restructuring the recent debate over women’s ordination,
of Jewish life, away from the familial spurred by Rabbi Avi Weiss’s ordination of
transmission of religious practice and toward Sara Hurwitz, has been the recognition of
the textual or ideological basis of religious the potential for schism within the Orthodox
authenticity. But since the textual tradition world, and of the need for compromise.
never unambiguously addressed many of the Rabbi Weiss agreed not to ordain any new
issues that were guided by inherited norms, “Rabbah” candidates, while the Rabbinical
uncertainty and ideological posturing reign. Council of America (RCA), for its part,
It is difficult to know how this process refrained from asserting that this innovation
will play itself out over time. While Modern is either prohibited by Jewish law or that its
Orthodox communities have for the most supporters are beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.
part rejected women’s ordination for now, In opposing women’s ordination, the RCA
it does seem that high-level Talmudic and invoked the values of “sacred continuity”
halachic education for women is now an and communal peace, while reaffirming its
accepted part of the Orthodox landscape. support for other forms of women’s learning
The most impressive professional programs and contribution to the Jewish community.
in Torah for women have been pioneered by In this way, both sides stepped back from the
American immigrants to Israel: the yo’etzet brink of a denominational split that might
halacha program, which trains women as have weakened them.
experts in areas of Jewish family law, and There is every reason to think that this
the to’enet rabbanit program, which trains compromise will prove volatile and unstable.
women to work as expert advocates for It has been argued that Orthodox Jews
individuals maneuvering through the Israeli are currently facing the same dilemmas
religious courts. faced thirty years ago by the Conservative
Such innovations surely presage future Movement, which did eventually ordain
possibilities. So why all the furor over women. Yet this example hangs heavily
women rabbis? First of all, mainstream over the efforts of those who believe
attempts to normalize women’s religious that Orthodoxy needs to respond more
leadership have generally emphasized areas expansively to women’s needs and capacities
of technical halacha that affect women most for service. The growth of egalitarianism
directly, and in which technical competency in the Conservative movement coincided
is at a premium. These are essentially historically with a strong movement away
specialist niches that minimize symbolic from traditional observance and halachic
and professional competition with men, practice by large swaths of that community,
that answer a need felt by many religious and even left-leaning Orthodox leaders
women, and that require specialized must be concerned about the possibility of
training in areas that many male rabbis a parallel. The significance of this historical
today lack. These are groups that have moment will be determined in large part
gained credibility over time by providing by the Orthodox community’s ability to
an important service while disclaiming any generate models for women’s leadership that
desire to supplant traditionally male roles work to strengthen the values it holds most
or win pyrrhic symbolic victories. No less dear: excellence in learning and in practice,
important, they have appeared to most Jewish continuity, fidelity to Torah and
observers to produce graduates who are service of God.

20 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

Rachel Adler:
Feminist Redemption

How many people have lived to see an old learning my first piece of Talmud at a Rachel Adler
world give way to a new one? One thinks Reform camp in my teens, and falling in is Professor of
of the biblical Caleb, who experienced the love with the Talmud and its possibilities. In Modern Jewish
oppression of Egypt and lived to inherit in college I studied the first chapter of Tractate Thought and
the Promised Land. One thinks of those Berakhot and felt that there were layers and Judaism and
Jews who experienced the ghetto and layers of meaning waiting to be uncovered. Gender at Hebrew
then became citizens of the countries they I still see Berakhot as the Bereshit of the Union College-
Los Angeles. She
inhabited. New worlds bring new freedoms Talmud – its book of Genesis – a depiction of
is the author
and also new questions, new opportunities the rabbinic universe, held together by long-
of Engendering
and also new complications. rooted seedlings of prayer. The tractate
Judaism, which
The women of my generation grew up in introduces us to the denizens of a teeming won the National
a world in which women were “peripheral cosmos: angels, demons, funeral processions Jewish Book
Jews,” facilitating Jewish practice for men and wedding guests, as well as the turbulent Award for Jewish
while being excluded from most of the microcosm of the academy. Enumerated Thought, and of
positive, communal activities that sanctified too are the multitude of natural events that many articles.
Jewish life. My mother used to tell a story require berakhot, blessings: earthquakes and
about me. I was five years old, taking a walk shooting stars, the great sea, thunder and
with her, and she said, “So what do you want lightning.
to be when you grow up?” And without For years I studied Talmud in a study
skipping a beat, I said, “A nun.” My mother group populated by women rabbis and
was appalled. “You can’t be a nun. You’re academics. We took a multidisciplinary
Jewish. Jews don’t have nuns.” “Well then,” approach, because we all had different
I replied, “I will be the first one.” When I ask methodologies and information to bring
myself why I wanted to be a nun, the answer to bear on the text. The literary scholar in
is clear. I lived in a mixed Jewish-Catholic our group called our attention to motifs we
neighborhood, and in that other religious would otherwise have missed. The historian
culture, I saw what I did not see in my own situated us in classical and early medieval
community: a way to be a woman and be history. The Bible scholar caught all the
holy. I could not have foreseen that I would nuances of biblical allusions. We looked
grow up to be a theologian, or that other at David Macaulay’s book, City: A Story of
women would become rabbis and scholars. Roman Planning and Construction, to see
The closest I could come to imagining such how Roman bathhouses were constructed
impossibilities at five was envisioning and why they occasionally collapsed. And
becoming the first Jewish nun. we were always alert for any mention of
Mine was the first generation of women.
Jewish feminists who thirsted to enter In the earliest days of feminist
into the richness of a tradition generally scholarship, women were thrilled to see any
not accessible to women. I still remember mention of women at all in Jewish texts.

HAVRUTA | 21
Many of us were just in the first stages of Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss. The new
mastering this material. As we feminist feminist Talmud commentary edited by Tal
scholars grew more sophisticated, the Ilan, with individual volumes by the best
questions grew with us. After all, Jewish scholars, female and male, is expected to
texts were, with a few possible exceptions, be a similarly important reference series.
written and transmitted by men. Most The book Standing Again at Sinai, by Judith
of our reading was about what concerned Plaskow, was a huge step forward in feminist
or interested elite groups of learned men theology.
about women, and how these writers chose Today, gender-sensitive theology is
to represent women. Many of us saw often taken for granted. But there is a lot
these texts primarily as indicators of their more theology that needs to be written,
authors’ assumptions about gender, rather and I hope I will live to see young thinkers
than about women in some unmediated way. do this work. The central question – how
We could not proceed as if we were reading does one live a holy life? – must be asked
history or biography. anew, now that there is no longer an easy
complementarity in which women do some
kinds of work, leaving men free to do quite
Mine was the first other things. Two kinds of undervalued work
generation of Jewish that must now be shared are maintenance
and caregiving. Maintenance: keeping
feminists who thirsted to our places clean, our utilities working, our
laundry done; and caregiving: tending,
enter into the richness of feeding, supporting children, the sick, the
a tradition generally not aged, those in our families and communities
who need our attention. How are these
accessible to women. demanding activities to be integrated into
holy living?

Still, using the feminist hermeneutics Are there not goals more
that some of us devised, we were able to note
what meanings various representations of
important than self-
women seemed to convey, and even to wring actualization?
information or implications out of women’s
textual invisibility or marginality. It has
been inspiring to see how, at the annual
meetings of the Association for Jewish Mordecai Kaplan believed that salvation
Studies, the American Academy of Religion consisted of the self-actualization of the
or the Society for Biblical Literature, individual and the community. But what
gender studies are no longer ghettoized about the global community? What about
in a “women’s section.” Both women and the earth itself? Should they not too be
men present papers in which gender is an foci for caring and healing? And shouldn’t
interpretive issue. salvation be more than psychological
Feminist Jews have had some great health? Are there not goals more important
victories. I was lucky enough to be a than self-actualization? I would think that
contributor to The Torah: A Women’s a feminist notion of redemption would
Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn envision a world in which, along with prayer

22 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

and Torah study, a good life for a Jew includes


attention to caring and maintenance – these
very personal kinds of giving – for our own
young and elders, and also for the neighbor,
who, as the philosopher Emanuel Levinas
teaches, turns his or her face toward us,
making a moral claim upon us.

The central question –


how does one live a holy
life? – must be asked
anew.
Another area for holiness is sexuality.
How can we avoid stigmatizing the members
of our community who are gay or lesbian or
bisexual or transsexual, given that sexual
identities seem to originate in our “hard-
wiring” rather than in any preferences on
our part. Here the work of Rabbi Steven
Greenberg and Rabbi Elliot Kukla, who
have bravely made public their sexual
identities in recent years, has been very
important. For all of us living in consumer
societies, how can we propose alternatives
to the commodification and objectification
of sexuality that confronts us daily? How
can we bring into practice a sexuality that
is humane and respectful, that is neither
addictive nor compulsive – nor obsessively
polarizing and misogynistic, with women
sitting in the back of buses and walking
on only one side of the street, as in ultra-
Orthodox neighborhoods?
Emanuel Levinas says that we put
ourselves at the service of the other, not
because of a conviction that the other is
just like us, but being aware that the other opposite sex, what is the neighboring sex?”
is not us, is irreducibly different from us Gender scholars have taught us that we
and may never be fully understandable oversimplify when we think of gender as
to us. The other’s differentness does not a dichotomous, two-valued system. There
excuse us from being at the service of the are a lot of neighboring genders out there.
other. The mystery writer Dorothy Sayers The question for all of us is what kind of Tisha B’Av at the Kotel,
once asked in an essay: “If women are the neighbors we will choose to be. 2009. Photo by Pini Hamou.

HAVRUTA | 23
Rachel Sabath-Beit Halachmi:
A River from Eden

Rachel Sabath I spent several years during and after marital reproductive years, mikveh has been
Beit-Halachmi rabbinic school studying and writing about powerfully significant in my life in many
is the Shalom Hasidic texts on the movement of the male additional ways, often in the context of a
Hartman Institute’s body in prayer. Studying the spiritual liberal reconstruction of the traditional
Israel Director of phenomenology of the male body further orthodox observance. In my twenties and
North American developed my awareness of the extent to early thirties, the mikveh became a place for
Leadership Initiatives, which the physicality of every human body, spiritual and religious focus, where I took
and is a member
including my own, is an essential feature of note of the phases of my experience of the
of the faculty and
religious experience. As the Psalmist teaches, world and my own self-renewing body, and
a research fellow.
a deeply prayerful stance includes the entire also tried to cultivate my middot – my ethical
Rachel was ordained
at HUC-JIR in New body: “All my bones will say: Lord, who is like awareness and practice. As an unmarried
York and received You?” (Psalms 35:10) woman, I was not consumed by issues of
a Ph.D. in Jewish As a woman, I was created in the image reproduction or family purity, but instead
Philosophy from the of God (Genesis 1: 26-27) – the same as was claimed by the power of the place itself
Jewish Theological a man and also different. My being a and the depth of commitment and spiritual
Seminary. She woman, of course, should in no way limit devotion that surrounded the ritual act of
teaches liturgy and my religious life as an individual and within monthly immersion.
modern Jewish the community. This assumption, shared During those years, I became an expert
thought at HUC-JIR by so many contemporary Jews, is not one on the issues that Jewish women confront at
in Jerusalem and has
that has informed the Jewish tradition for such places: the differences in the concerns
co-authored two
centuries. And yet, while one might think of younger versus older women, the various
books and published
that rational, egalitarian Judaism offers the halachic problems that arose and the
numerous essays.
best assurance of access to God regardless of ways in which male authorities sought to
gender, in fact my womanly experiences of resolve them. I also learned many recipes
marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and for chicken and a lot about husband-wife
mothering have challenged this classic liberal relationships and family dynamics. When I
view. Rather than becoming immaterial in was asked to act as the “mikveh lady” (a role I
order to assure equality, my gender is central later performed in liberal settings), I felt that
to how I experience God’s presence in the in order to prepare myself for such spiritual
world, and how I understand myself to be intimacy, I needed to create and recite special
claimed by God. prayers before greeting the women, and to
There are several core religious re-learn all the pertinent halachic issues, to
experiences that highlight the role that be sure I would give correct advice.
gender has played in my spiritual life. In this Orthodox setting, it was clear that
The first is the experience of mikveh, the a male would be the final decision-maker on
ritual bath. While the ritual of monthly halachic questions. But inside the mikveh
purification has for the most part been itself, male authority was invisible, and
observed by Orthodox women during their essentially irrelevant. I met women preparing

24 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

for marriage, many of them fearful of their for nearness to God and the possibility of
first sexual intercourse with a man, hoping personal renewal and hope.
that the waters would help ease whatever pain My prayers at the mikveh became a
they were expecting. I encountered women monthly source of strength for my own
in the process of converting to Judaism, spiritual yearnings. Eventually, I composed
reconfiguring their relationships with their a prayer in Hebrew and English, which
bodies and their mothers and their God and expresses the connection between mikveh, a
people. I spoke with women before and after woman’s body, and my ethical values:
surgery, rape, illness. At the mikveh, many
women came month after month praying Inside the mikveh itself,
that they wouldn’t be back the next month
because they would finally be pregnant – male authority was
and some prayed not to become pregnant
again, having already been blessed with the
invisible, and essentially
number of children they felt they could raise. irrelevant.
The women after miscarriage and abortion
arrived too, the most sullen, barely speaking. May every limb of my body
The silence of the mikveh, the gentle noise of Touched by these living waters
the water and the power of the renewal of Be renewed for goodness and life
their bodies became a source of hope. The May my toes and feet dance
waters of the mikveh seemed to cause new life May I run to do mitzvot and to aid those
to flow into them, after death had infiltrated in need
their bodies and their lives; and as they May my arms embrace those in need of
emerged from the mikveh, the possibility of comfort
new life flowing from them seemed palpable. May my hands write words of truth and
I wept with them; I wept for them. teaching
May my fingers touch others with love
My prayers at the mikveh and play music
May my mouth speak words of loving
became a monthly source kindness,
Torat chesed al l’shoni
of strength for my own And may my tongue teach words of
spiritual yearnings. Torah and prayer
May my eyes see sights of God’s many
wonders,
At the mikveh, I became an insider in a Ma rabu ma’asekha!
hidden sanctum where physical, emotional And reflect love and gratitude for this
and spiritual desire, joy and sorrow are all whole body.
mixed and given expression, verbally and May the month to come be one of hope
silently, not in a community, but also not in and love
isolation. Here, the individual was carefully As my womb cycles toward fullness and
tended to, washed gently, submerged in the again sheds like the waxing and waning
waters from Eden that the mikveh symbolizes, of the moon,
and once again clothed and set forth into the May I cycle upward, toward
world. In all my work as a rabbi in all areas of righteousness,
ritual, I have witnessed or experienced very Rebirthed now, b’tzelem elokim, in the
few acts and places with such great potential Image of God.

HAVRUTA | 25
Another set of spiritual experiences that egalitarian ideology. Being a Jewish mother
have transformed my relationship with entails a much larger meaning for me than
God are pregnancy, birth and motherhood. the simple liberal stance of not relinquishing
Giving birth to Israeli children was not any possible religious activities because I am
solely about personal or familial fulfillment, a woman. It emphasizes the necessity to
but also about fulfilling a greater sense of respond to God’s existence and commanding
what my fully gendered existence should and presence by going far beyond myself, to
could mean for the Jewish people: beyond take ultimate responsibility for others,
the blessing of being a woman, beyond my and to literally give birth to and shape the

26 | Summer 2010
Thinking about Women /// A Symposium

Photo © Janice Rubin, The


Mikvah Project, 2008.

possibility of Judaism in the future. my children has intensified my love of God,


My gender, my body, and the specific as well as my love of the Jewish people, the
physical experiences of being a mother to land of Israel and all God’s creation. It has
new and fragile life – to Jewish children in made me, simultaneously, more religiously
a Jewish state – all have a radical impact particularistic and universalist, feminist
on the way in which I experience God and and Zionist. In other words, the increasingly
Jewish peoplehood, and dream about the postmodern Judaism I might have articulated
future of Israel and of Judaism. In some a couple of decades ago has been transformed
inexplicable way, deeply related to my sense by my gender and by my life in Israel. Blessed
of awe, wonder and gratitude, my love for is the One Who created me a woman.

HAVRUTA | 27
Breaking the
Silence
Women’s Voices and
Men’s Anxieties
The persistence of a Talmudic taboo presents a serious challenge for
Orthodox consumers of popular culture

S hould Jewish women be allowed to sing in public? For


most Jews in the modern world, this question is no more
relevant than asking whether women should be allowed to
vote. Yet for Jews who live according to halacha – including
many Orthodox women who seek to harmonize their feminist
instincts with their commitment to Jewish law and tradition
– the question is serious and far from simple.

{ By CHANNA PINCHASI

28 | Summer 2010
Breaking the Silence /// Channa Pinchasi

The feminist issue is the litmus test of one’s that a woman’s voice is tantamount to erva
attitude toward the tension between halachic – a term that connotes sexual exposure and
Judaism and modern life. In this regard, the impropriety. Without denying this principle,
subject of “kol isha” (“the woman’s voice”) is Bigman is saying that women’s modesty
critical, for the voice, after all, signifies the (tsni’ut) and women’s singing are not per se
border between the physical and the spiritual. incompatible. Such singing is permitted,
The voice also represents the desire of women as long as it is free of vulgar and insulting
to express themselves in the public sphere – sexuality. Rabbi Bigman has finally succeeded
their opinions, personalities and abilities. in separating the wheat from the chaff.
In 2009, Rabbi David Bigman, the Still, reading his response carefully leaves
American-born head of the Maale Gilboa me unsettled. Rabbi Bigman takes the halachic
Yeshiva in the north of Israel, was asked sources as the plain truth, as a description
for his halachic opinion regarding women of reality, and I find myself offended. As an
singing in public, and responded with an Orthodox woman, I wish I could suppress my
extensive ruling. Based on a close analysis sense of insult, but I can’t. How can it be, I
of a key Talmudic passage (BT Berakhot 24a) wonder, that there’s not one word in his ruling
and subsequent authoritative commentaries, expressing any reservation regarding the
medieval and modern, it was published by assumptions made in the rabbinic sources?
Kolech, an Orthodox feminist organization. What more do you want, I quickly correct
On the face of it, his opinion seems quite myself, adopting a stance of practical politics.
flexible. In communities that already have Rabbi Bigman, after all, is willing to go to
established the practice of women singing bat for women. Criticism like mine, which
in public, he concluded, there is no reason questions the basic assumptions of the sources,
to discontinue it, provided that five aspects will weaken Rabbi Bigman and those like him.
of the singing are appropriate: venue, lyrics, “You see,” observers from the religious right
musical style, clothing and body language. wing will immediately tell him, “they are never
Bigman even indicated that religious women satisfied.” Yes, it’s a slippery slope, the dissent
could work in show business: “There is from our sages’ beliefs. Rabbi Bigman’s tools
no problem for those modest and virtuous are the tools of the halachic process. These are
daughters of Israel to develop a singing career the rules of the game. You decide, I tell myself:
even within the general culture, as long as are you inside or out?
they do not make concessions of the refined Inside and out, it seems, is my permanent
foundations of Torah culture and do not existential position. I am torn between my
cooperate with those vulgar and commercialized understanding, as a religious feminist, that
features of the culture around us.” I need Rabbi Bigman and his halachic ruling;
and my own personal conversation with the
Talmudic sources, which is invariably bolder
Women’s modesty and (and perhaps more dangerous) than that of
women’s singing are not the most responsive male rabbi. Can I at once
support the rabbi, and convey my appreciation
incompatible. of him, and at the same time express my
fundamental difficulty with the worldview
reflected in his decision? I believe that I can.
As I read this technical halachic ruling,
it’s clear to me that Rabbi Bigman has opened
The Anxieties of Men
a gate far wider than previously thought The ancient phrase “a woman’s voice is erva”
possible. A central tenet of Jewish law holds claims exceptional status in the Israeli

HAVRUTA | 29
religious Zionist public and the Modern
Orthodox world. Three little words – kol b’
isha erva – encapsulate the risk of granting
women a voice and space in the cultural and
social sphere. I think that the power of this
phrase derives from its didactic moral status,
as expressed by Rabbi Bigman, and also from
its halachically binding nature, which has been
fortified by generations of rabbinical sages.
The combination of “halacha” and “aggadah,” of
legal power and homily, has made this phrase
more significant than many other Talmudic
adages. Also, the statement embodies a much
broader worldview concerning masculinity and
femininity. In order to clarify these remarks, I
would like to review the sugiyah, the Talmudic
discourse, in Tractate Berakhot.
Rav Hisda said: “A woman’s shok (leg,
shin) is erva, as it is written (Isaiah 47:2),
‘Reveal your shok, wade through rivers,’
and it is also written (v.3), ‘your nakedness
will be uncovered and your shame will also
be revealed.’”

Shmuel said: “A woman’s voice is erva, as


it is written (Song of Songs 2:14), ‘…for
your voice is pleasant and your appearance
attractive.’”

Rav Sheshet said: “A woman’s hair is erva,


as it is written (Song of Songs 4:1), ‘Your
hair resembles a herd of goats.’”

(BT Berakhot 24a) The Song of Songs explicitly expresses love


As is their custom, the sages find and desire. It was called “ kodesh kodashim”
corroboration for their viewpoint in biblical (“Holy of Holies”) by Rabbi Akiva (Mishnah
verses. Rabbi Hisda’s comment demonstrates Yadayim 3:5), hinting that the metaphor itself
this well: the verse in Isaiah indeed shows is both holy and dangerous: in the Temple, only
that if one reveals one’s leg, one’s “shame the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies,
will be revealed.” Shmuel and Rabbi Sheshet’s and only on Yom Kippur. The appropriation of
positions, by contrast, are based on verses from the Song of Songs to underscore the seductive
the Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), a poetic threat of the feminine is a forceful and
text that describes love between a man and a suffocating statement. It seems to declare that
woman, and which is generally interpreted as one should not read the Song of Songs as a vital
a metaphor for the love between God and his allegory, inspiration for an equal relationship
nation Israel. Here, however, its verses are in which the woman has passion and a voice,
turned to another purpose. but rather as a cautionary tale. The choice of

30 | Summer 2010
Breaking the Silence /// Channa Pinchasi

this beloved biblical text as proof for restrictive personal, cultural and interpretive elements
Talmudic opinions speaks volumes about how that created the mantra “X in a woman is erva”
our sages have regarded women, a worldview – just fill in the blank.
that goes beyond their comments about body Rabbi Hisda, Shmuel and Rabbi Sheshet do
parts. not, we should note (in all fairness), claim that
One may wonder how the leg, hair and everything in a woman is nakedness – though
Orthodox women’s band
voice were actually chosen. Was this Shmuel’s they could, since the Song of Songs also says
Ashira at the Dead Sea,
personal opinion about female hair? Or was “you are all fair, my love.” Instead, they strive 2009. Photo by Miriam
this how women’s hair was seen in those days? to pinpoint exactly where in the female body Alcer.
Or maybe the similar ring of the words “erva” nakedness begins to reveal itself: the leg,
(nakedness) and “arev” (pleasant) was the voice or hair? Each of the three Babylonian
determining factor: the pleasant voice is like sages specifies a different location, on the
nakedness, as if the poetry were the proof. assumption that the mere exposure of these
Most likely, it was the intertwining of all these will trigger the same response in a man as

HAVRUTA | 31
Rita in concert, Zappa
Club, Tel Aviv. Photo by
Yossi Tzevker

32 | Summer 2010
Breaking the Silence /// Channa Pinchasi

erva, the naked female genitalia, resulting in physical and spiritual, body and mind, and
prohibited sexual relations. Men in general – expresses both emotion and rational thought.
according to the learned men who wrote this All human potential is bound up in the voice:
Talmudic passage – cannot control their urges: wisdom, temptation, prayer. A voice is a
they see nakedness in a woman’s voice, hair or world: hence the intense religious and cultural
leg, and immediately become slaves to their struggle over the boundaries of the woman’s
instincts. voice. The issue, indeed, is not merely a
And what is the halachic remedy for this matter of singing – it is about the silencing
male condition? That the woman must take of women in the largest sense.
responsibility for the man’s uncontrollable
urges, and hide from sight or earshot anything Opening the Gates
that ignites them. Since men work and circulate When I try to think what a woman’s voice is
in the public sphere, this also means that the to me, where it becomes meaningful in my
proper place for the woman is in the home. In own life, four scenes come to mind:
other words, it is not the man’s task to avoid Yom Kippur eve, eating a hearty meal prior
the threatening female presence; instead, the to the fast. Everyone who eats on the ninth
woman, whose body is temptation, must keep (of Tishrei, the eve before Yom Kippur), the
herself under wraps. It is she who is blamed rabbinic adage says, is counted as having fasted
and penalized for the fears and anxieties of both on the ninth and the tenth. The awe of the
men.
coming day is in the air, the holy mixed with
The dispute among the sages is actually
the mundane. The radio is playing, and there
quite interesting: what can be learned from the
the Israeli meets the Jewish. For years, the last
fact that it is not clear where the nakedness
song on Kol Yisrael before the announcement,
is located? What does it mean that different
“here our broadcast ends; we will return after
things (voice, hair, or leg) represent one thing
Yom Kippur,” was “Open the Gate,” performed
(erva, genitals)? And why, to return to our
by the Israeli singer Tzila Dagan. “Open the
main concern, does woman’s voice remain such
gate to us, at the time of its locking, because
a major issue among the Modern Orthodox?
the day is passing. The day will pass and the
sun will set; we approach Your gates.” For me,
A voice is a world: hence this song is part of the Yom Kippur experience.
Beginning in my childhood, I was led into the
the intense religious and sanctity of the day by this song; just before the
holy day commenced I knew that soon it would
cultural struggle over pass and the gate would be locked. The fullness
the boundaries of the of Tzila’s high-pitched voice as she sings “we
will come to your gates,” gives me goose bumps
woman’s voice. to this very day. I think this is the case for many
Israelis who grew up on this song. I did not
know then that her voice was compensation for
The voice is a central motif in Judaism. the absent female voice in the synagogue.
The voice is the vehicle of God’s revelation August 2009, Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem, a
in the world. Psalm 29, which we sing as the performance by Yehudit Ravitz, the “mother”
Torah is carried back to the ark on Shabbat, of Israeli rock music. A fifty-something secular
proclaims: “The voice of God is in power, the woman standing on stage in faded jeans and
voice of God is in majesty. The voice of God a simple shirt. She sang as only she knows
breaks the cedars…” In human terms, the how, and hundreds of Israelis of all ages sang
voice represents the elusive linkage of the with her. Based on appearances, about half of

HAVRUTA | 33
them were religious, screaming their lungs out, excited teachers; girls who are strangers to
enjoying the recollection of songs that shaped each other gather in the middle of the month of
their identities as Israelis. I’m moved as I hear Elul to pray together for the first time. At the
her; I look at her and see a model of a woman end of the service, after “Adon Olam,” a feeling
in midlife, making a significant contribution of relief fills the air. Soon the service, with all
to contemporary Israel. Her songs are us. It is its awkwardness of unfamiliar tunes, would
clear that her femininity, bursting on stage in be ending. Just then, a seventh-grade student
contagious vitality, is part of her power: without opens up her backpack and pulls out a shofar.
any attempt to seduce. This is how she is. She places it in her mouth and blows: “tekiah,
truah, tekiah, shvarim.” The resonant sounds
Are we doomed to live of the shofar fill the space and penetrate the
heart. Elul, the month of repentance, is here.
split lives – sustained I am moved by the girl’s confidence, by her
natural ownership of the shofar, by her ability
by the voices of women to bring a large group of girls and women into
in the general culture, the month of Elul.
Such personal recollections help me to
but accompanied by the define a cultural landscape. These female
voices are not expressed within the halachic
knowledge that this is framework – indeed they ignore or defy it.
barely acceptable in our Many Israeli women in the religious Zionist
and Modern Orthodox communities, who
religious world? conduct their daily lives within halachic
boundaries, can attest to the kind of life-
affirming experiences I have described.
A few months after the disengagement from
These women often live with a sense of
Gaza, I was listening to a new CD called “Orange
fragmentation, sometimes even guilt,
Days.” One song begins with a recording that
regarding the penetration of these voices into
documents the singing of the young women
their cultural and religious world, even though
at the Neve Dekalim Synagogue; this is a
the voices feed and fill the soul and spirit. Are
song filled with plaintive crying. Slowly, you
we doomed to live split lives – sustained by
can identify the song. Slowly, amid the tears,
the voices of women in the general culture,
you can hear the voices of girls singing with
but always accompanied by the knowledge
gentle and thrilling beauty. The crying voices
that this sustenance is, in the best case, barely
fade as young women, recorded in a studio,
acceptable in our religious world?
sing the lines from Psalm 102: “A prayer of
the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed and
pours out his complaint before God.” In their
Do Not Disturb
singing is their craving, their longing: “O God, It could be argued that according to Rabbi
hear my prayer, and let my cry come unto Bigman’s ruling, all the female voices I have
You.” Through their voices we hear the depth cited are permissible. At the same time, the
of their religious experience, which remained fact that the religious public is primarily a
steadfast even though their prayer – that consumer of women’s voices, and not their
the disengagement be prevented – was not producer, tells us a great deal. For most
answered. Israelis, it is hard to imagine a religious
September 2007. The first day of school at woman belting out the High Holiday prayer
the Shalom Hartman Institute’s high school for “Avinu Malkenu” (“Our Father, our King”)
girls, known as the Midrashiya. A new school, like Barbra Streisand, or singing the Israeli

34 | Summer 2010
Breaking the Silence /// Channa Pinchasi

national anthem “Hatikva” before a national facilitate new ways of thinking. For example,
audience, as the Israeli diva Rita did at the the term “the nature of things has changed”
state’s 50th-birthday celebrations. (The (hishtanut ha’tevaim), utilized in various
wonderful performances by Streisand and responsa takes into account that the ways in
Rita are both viewable on YouTube.) which certain physical, natural and even social
The difficulty in imagining a religious phenomena were seen in the Talmudic period
woman in such a performance stems from are no longer applicable. I am also encouraged
the internalization of Shmuel’s statement by the halachic principle, dating back to the
that “a woman’s voice is erva.” The spirit of 12th-century commentator Rabbi Avraham
these words has been deeply absorbed into ben David (RaBaD) of Provence, that “if one
Orthodox culture, and has influenced not is used to something, one cannot be disturbed Channa Pinchasi,
only how men see women, but how women see by it.” For example, a man who is accustomed, a fellow at the
Shalom Hartman
themselves – as dangerous temptresses, whose by dint of his everyday life, to seeing the
Institute, is a doctoral
voices should rather not be heard. A parallel uncovered hair of single women, is unlikely
candidate at Bar-
source in the Palestinian Talmud (Tractate to be dangerously stimulated by such a sight. Ilan University. Her
Challah 12:2) makes the point more bluntly: This rather obvious observation points to the research focuses on
“Shmuel said: ‘A woman’s voice is erva.’ What larger possibility that social conditions do gender aspects of
is the reason? ‘Through the voice of harlotry change the nature of arousal, and that there Midrash. Channa is a
she defiles the land.’ (Jeremiah, 3:9).” is a place in modern halachic discourse for the leader of a women’s
Rabbi Bigman’s five conditions limiting man that “cannot be disturbed” by what he feminist beit midrash
women’s singing – location, body language, sees – or hears – every day. at the Herzog
and the rest – invite a raft of new questions: I’m not calling for rampant Center and an active
Is Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool, a favorite permissiveness, far from it. It is clear to member of Kolech,
a feminist orthodox
outdoor venue for artistic performances, me that women in the contemporary world
organization.
deemed as appropriate? Who makes such a need protection from degradation and
judgment? Yehudit Ravitz dresses modestly sexual exploitation, and in this respect
by modern Israeli standards, but is she halacha has a broader moral purpose than
acceptable according to halacha? And is rock, just protecting religious women. But I do
by definition, a musical style that breaks the wish to question the fundamental logical
boundaries? When Etti Ankri, a popular structure of halachic thinking in this area,
Israeli singer who has become religiously which argues that women are seductive by
observant over the years, sings the medieval nature; that men cannot control their urges;
poetry of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi – “Friend, and that public space therefore belongs to
have you forgotten your presence between men, and women must turn inward. Each
my breasts?” – is this a problem, even though reiteration of this train of thought weakens
the poet’s word for presence (shekhinah) is a women, and reduces the spiritual and
reference to the divine? And the movement cultural wealth of the whole community.
that accompanies singing? How can we Over the ages, this model has caused the
know when it is the instinct of life itself, and loss of many precious women’s voices.
when it is gratuitously seductive? Is it at all I do not presume to offer a comprehensive
possible to function as a religious artist – or or clear-cut solution, but I do have confidence
enjoy the performance of women – if we live and faith in the Torah’s power to endure
in fear of failing, God forbid, to comply with the upheaval brought about by the feminist
the five parameters? stance, even its most critical expressions.
I am not (of course) a rabbi, but through A woman’s voice, after all, is an important
my close study of Rabbi Bigman’s ruling, I instrument of tikkun olam, the repair and
have collected a few halachic tools that may redemption of the world.

HAVRUTA | 35
Leah’s
Prayers:
A Feminist Reading

How the “unloved” wife of the patriarch Jacob taught the God of our
mothers and fathers a lesson in compassion

W
omen are obligated to pray, that is, petition God for their
needs, for everyone needs rakhmanut [divine compassion]
(Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 3:3)

{ By NOAM ZION

36 | Summer 2010
Leah’s Prayers /// Noam Zion

What is the window into the biblical a direct, unabashed prayer that sounds more
woman’s heart? There are no diaries in the like bringing suit than worshipful pleading.
Bible, certainly no women’s diaries. But we Such literary rendering of the inner life of a
do have a few rare personal prayers to God, woman – imagined or real – through prayer
recited by women at revealing moments of became in the Jewish tradition the paradigm
deepest pain and joy. In the book of Samuel, for the proper state of mind, kavanah, for all
barren Hannah, ridiculed and taunted by her human petitional prayer. Thus, paradoxically,
co-wife Peninah, pours out her heart in the women, who were excluded from temple
temple of Shiloh as she weeps. Exhibiting a worship, and marginalized and exempted
body language of extreme bitterness and (or excluded) from synagogue prayer,
desperation, she appears to be intoxicated to became – through their ability to express
the decorum-conscious High Priest Eli: “And deep human need in words and tears – the
Hannah spoke in her heart; only her lips halachic and midrashic models for effective
moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore prayer. In Judaism, the prayers of women
Eli thought that she was drunk” (I Samuel pour out inner longing to God, who, in turn,
1:13). Then, after God responds affirmatively is characterized as a compassionate listener
to her prayer by giving her a child, we have to the voices of the persecuted, the neglected
a magnificent theological poem in Hannah’s and the needy.
prayer of jubilation and thanks (I Samuel
2:1-10).
Centuries later, the Rabbis of the Talmud Women were
expand this biblical account to enter marginalized and
Hannah’s inner world, and ghostwrite a new
and more audacious prayer for her: exempted from
“And Hannah spoke in her heart” (I Samuel synagogue prayer, but
1:13). Rabbi Elazar said in the name of
Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: She spoke concerning became the halachic and
her heart. She said before God: Sovereign
of the Universe, among all the things that
midrashic models for
You have created in a woman, You have effective prayer.
not created one without a purpose: eyes to
see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth
to speak, hands to do work, legs to walk
Hannah may be the foremost of the Bible’s
with, breasts to give suck. These breasts
praying women, but she’s not the first. In the
that You have put on my heart, are they
book of Genesis, we find the story of Leah,
not for nursing? Give me a son, so that I
the elder and unloved wife of Jacob. Unlike
may suckle with them.
Hannah – and her fellow matriarchs, Sarah,
(Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 31b) Rebecca, Rachel – Leah had no problems
with fertility, which is the usual motive
The Rabbis thus invent a new Hannah, for women’s prayer in the Bible. In fact,
liberated from her deferential stance toward she had six sons and a daughter. Yet Leah
the authority of her husband and the High had much to pray for. Here too, her biblical
Priest. They make her into a full-bodied prayers triggered the literary-psychological
feminist, who demands that the Sovereign imagination of the Rabbis, who wrote her a
of the Universe grant her rightful needs, in personal prayer of petition and protest.

HAVRUTA | 37
Praying at the Sigd
festival of the Ethiopian
Jewish community,
Jerusalem, 2009. Photo
by Pini Hamou.

38 | Summer 2010
Leah’s Prayers /// Noam Zion

HAVRUTA | 39
Leah’s inner life is Leah is disadvantaged in “looks.” Her
eyes, says the Hebrew text, are “rakot,” which
characterized by tzuris, most commonly means “soft,” but can also
connote weakness or fatigue. Leah’s eyes
chutzpah, and rachmonis, affect her view of the world, but also the way
roughly translated as she is viewed by others; they are the only
way she is described, apart from birth order,
troubles, audacity and in the biblical text. Rachel, by contrast, is
good to look at, in terms of what feminist
compassion. criticism calls “the male gaze.” As a result,
Let us follow Leah’s inner life and its verbal Jacob not only falls in love with her at first
expression, in both the Bible and rabbinic sight, but is also willing to pay a bride-price
literature. She wrestles indignantly, even of seven years’ labor for Laban. He makes
impudently, with God, who has sentenced it very clear which daughter he wants: “I
her to a life deprived of her husband Jacob’s will serve you seven years for Rachel, your
love. But she also grows in emotional younger daughter” (Genesis 29:18).
intelligence, as her initial jealousy of her But Laban gets the better of Jacob,
younger sister Rachel, the wife that Jacob manipulating Leah as an instrument to
does love, gradually gives way to compassion. deceive the choosy suitor: “Now in the
Ultimately, she will try to teach God Himself evening he took Leah his daughter and
what she has learned about forgiveness. brought her to him, and he went in to her”
(Genesis 29:23). Justifiably, Jacob comes to
“Now My Husband will Love Me” complain the next morning against what
Laban – not Leah – has done to him. Jacob
To put it in Yiddish, Leah’s inner life is
contracted as a free agent for the beautiful
characterized by tzuris, chutzpah, and
younger daughter. Laban responds by citing
rachmonis, roughly translated as troubles,
Leah’s advantage in traditional legal terms:
audacity and compassion. Her tzuris–from
“Such is not done in our place, giving away
the Hebrew word tzarot, troubles (or “dire
the younger before the firstborn” (Genesis
straits,” since tzar means “narrow”) – derive
29:26). Indeed, Jacob and Laban had no
from her placement in the family. (Indeed in
right to make a deal in violation of Leah’s
biblical Hebrew, the name for co-wives of the
birthright as the elder daughter. The Bible
same man is tzarot.) Leah is the first-born
imposes poetic justice upon Jacob, who had
daughter, entitled to be married off first, yet
stolen the birthright of his elder brother
she cannot compete with the exceptional
Esau by tricking his elderly, blind father
physical beauty of her younger sister Rachel.
Isaac. Yet here too, Leah is an instrument, a
She is passed over when their cousin Jacob,
tool of divine chastisement.
seeking a wife, falls in love with Rachel at
After Jacob has served Laban for
first sight. Leah is introduced to the reader
another seven years, he takes Rachel as
as an obstacle to the fulfillment of Jacob’s
his second wife: “He lay also with Rachel,
romantic love.
and he loved Rachel also, more than Leah”
“Now Laban had two daughters: the name (Genesis 29:30). It may be reasonably
of the elder was Leah, the name of the inferred from this verse that Jacob did also
younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were love Leah, albeit less than he loved Rachel.
weak, but Rachel was fair of form and But as the Bible scholar Avivah Gottlieb
fair to look at. And Jacob fell in love with Zornberg commented in her book Genesis:
Rachel.” (Genesis 29:16) The Beginning of Desire:

40 | Summer 2010
Leah’s Prayers /// Noam Zion

Leah is the stone that fractures Jacob’s battle of the sisters escalates: “When Rachel
perfect dream of romantic fulfillment with saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel
Rachel, which is why she cannot be fully envied her sister” (Genesis 30:1). She gives
loved. It is not so much that the women Jacob her maidservant Bilhah as a concubine,
are different, but rather their symbolic to act as a surrogate mother to compensate
roles in the dreams and disappointments for her own infertility. Leah, by now having
of Jacob. Rachel will always represent the produced four sons (Judah is born in Genesis
unattainable in the European, romantic 29:35), counters by giving her maid Zilpah to
sense, while Leah will always represent Jacob as another concubine.
“unromantic” fertility. Leah’s hopes to Then, in a rather strange episode, Leah
win her husband’s heart through child- gets another chance to produce her own
bearing can never be fulfilled, because biological child:
fertility is part of the workaday world, like
And Reuben went in the days of wheat
raising sheep.
harvest, and found duda’im in the field,
In the very next verse, we see that God’s and brought them to his mother Leah.
perspective is radically different: “Now when Then Rachel said to Leah, “Give me, I beg
God saw that Leah was hated, he opened her you, of your son’s duda’im.” And she said
womb, while Rachel was barren” (Genesis to her, “Is it a small matter that you have
29:31). And Leah, for her part, turns to God, taken my husband? And would you take
praying that God’s attentions, expressed away my son’s duda’im also?” And Rachel
in the fruitfulness of her divinely opened said, “Therefore he shall lie with you
womb, will produce similar attentions from tonight for your son’s duda’im.” And Jacob
her husband: came from the field in the evening, and
Leah went out to meet him, and said, “You
She called his name: Reu-ven / See, a Son!
must come in to me; for I have hired you
For she said: Indeed, God has seen my
with my son’s duda’im.” And he lay with
being afflicted,
her that night. And God listened to Leah,
indeed, now my husband will love me!
and she conceived, and bore Jacob the
Twice more Leah conceives and bears sons fifth son. And Leah said, “God has given
to Jacob, and again the naming of the child is me my hire, because I have given my maid
also a prayer for love: to my husband; and she called his name
Indeed, God has heard that I am hated, so Issachar” (Genesis 30:14-18).
he has given me this one as well! What are these “duda’im”? Most
translations render the word as “mandrakes,”
And she called his name: Shimon / but no one really knows exactly what plant
Hearing. or flower young Reuben picked in the field.
Now this time my husband will Duda’im resembles the word “dod,” which
accompany me, means “lover” or “beloved” (as in dodi li or
For I have borne him three sons! lekha dodi), which supports the assumption
Therefore they called his name Levi / that this was an aphrodisiac or a fertility
Accompanying” (Genesis 29:32-34) drug. Here, in the Bible’s sole verbal exchange
The biblical Leah now emerges as between the two sisters, the contest over
a struggling woman, who insists on the duda’im is a battle for Jacob’s love.
recognition from her husband as something Leah resists Rachel’s request, indignantly
she has earned through hard labor. But that comparing the “giving” of a few flowers to
recognition is not forthcoming. Instead, the Rachel, to the “taking” of her husband. Her

HAVRUTA | 41
reaction reflects how hurt and vulnerable she
is, and suggests, though this is unspoken in
the text, that Jacob has avoided contact with
her, preferring to sleep with her tzarah, his
second wife Rachel.
Leah’s chutzpah comes to the fore in her
confrontation with Jacob. She demands an
extra night of conjugal duties, which she
has purchased from Rachel for an insulting
pittance of duda’im. “I have hired you,” she
tells her husband with ribald malice, as if he
were a male prostitute. The transaction is
stripped of emotion; she does not require love
or attention. She simply demands Jacob’s
services as a hired stud. In Hebrew, the word
sachar connotes payment and employment,
hence the name of the child, Issachar.

“I have hired you,” she


tells her husband with
ribald malice, as if he
were a male prostitute.

And yet, even now, Leah does sustain


the hope that her husband will love her. The
birth of Issachar is followed by that of Leah’s
sixth and last son, Zebulun:
“God has presented me with a good
present,
this time my husband will prize me
(yizbeleni) –
for I have borne him six sons!
So she called his name: Zevulun / The
Prince.” Imitation of Woman
(Genesis 30:20) The birth of Dinah is immediately followed
In the very next verse, Leah gives birth by the birth of Joseph, Rachel’s long-awaited
to a daughter whom she names Dinah. But first child:
this naming, unlike those of Jacob’s twelve Afterwards she bore a daughter, and called
male children, does not rate a prayerful her Dinah. And God remembered Rachel
explication. So it goes, in the patriarchal and God listened to her and opened her
narrative of the Hebrew Bible. But there is womb, so that she became pregnant and
more to the story. bore a son. She said: “God has removed

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Leah’s Prayers /// Noam Zion

[asaf] my shame!” So she called his name name Dinah, from the same root, meaning
Yosef, saying: “May God add [yosef] “justice,” as Dan, the son of the concubine
another son to me!” (Genesis 30:23-24). Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant? And, most
intriguingly – why is Rachel remembered by
A host of questions arises from these two God right after the naming of Dinah; and why
juxtaposed events. Why does Leah, who has does it say God listened to Rachel, when the
begun again to bear children, suddenly stop “Jacob Encountering
Bible never mentions Rachel praying directly Rachel,” by the Austrian
after Dinah? Why is Dinah the only one of to God? In Midrash Tanhuma, the rabbis of painter Joseph von
Jacob’s children whose name is not explained antiquity sought to provide some answers by Führich, 1836.
by her mother? Why did Leah choose the inventing a prayer for Leah:

HAVRUTA | 43
Leah, who after bearing [Jacob] six sons, There is thus no reason for God to alter
saw prophetically that twelve tribes were his preferential treatment of Leah, unless
to emerge from Jacob. Having [herself] Leah herself relinquishes her demand for
borne six already, and pregnant for the justice, or God is overwhelmed by sheer
seventh time, and with the two sons born rakhmanut, compassion, for Rachel, the
to each of the two maidservants, ten had innocent victim of God’s intervention
already been born. Therefore, Leah stood, into Leah and Jacob’s relationship. In the
angrily confronting the Almighty, saying: midrash, both possibilities are synthesized,
as Leah is turned from an angry victim into
“Master of the Universe, twelve tribes are a strong, audacious character who demands
to emerge from Jacob, of which I have six, the fair treatment of her sister. God’s change
and am pregnant with a seventh, and by of mind, his “remembering” of Rachel, is thus
means of the maidservants two and two, understood in the light of the change of heart
hence there are ten. If this [unborn] child of his “client,” Leah, who has moved beyond
[I am carrying] is also a son, then my sister jealousy to rachmonis.
Rachel’s share will not [even] be that of
the maidservants!”
Leah is turned from
At once the Blessed Holy One heard
her prayer, and the fetus in her belly
an angry victim into
was turned into a female . . . And why a strong, audacious
did Leah call her Dinah? Because the
righteous Leah stood before the Master character who demands
of the Universe demanding justice, and
the Blessed Holy One said to her: “You
the fair treatment of her
are merciful, and I too have mercy on her sister.
[Rachel],” and it is immediately written:
“And God remembered Rachel.”
(Midrash Tanhuma, Vayetzeh, Chapter 8) The midrash praises Leah for bringing
suit against God. While the substance of her
Until this point, God has opened Leah’s
plea is to request mercy for her sister, her
womb and kept Rachel’s womb closed, as a
co-wife or tzarah, the style of the pleading is
way of pressing Jacob to love Leah, mother
adversarial – chutzpadik – an appeal to logic,
of his children, no less than Rachel. But
not pathos. She names her daughter Dinah
it hasn’t worked. Jacob never engages in
–“Justice,” as it were – and argues her case
self-reflection even when confronted with
in terms of the moral and mathematical
Rachel’s prolonged infertility. He responds
symmetry of the tribes and their mothers.
to Rachel’s demand for children by a brusque
Most strikingly, Leah offers herself as a role
denial that this has anything to do with him
model for God, who decides to act in imitation
at all:
of woman, rather than the usual theological
And when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob model, in which human beings act morally,
no children, Rachel envied her sister; and in imitatio Dei: “You [Leah] are merciful, and I
said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I too have mercy on her [Rachel].”
die.” And Jacob’s anger was kindled against In the midrash, Leah is crowned with a
Rachel; and he said, “Am I in God’s place, new trait missing in her biblical character
who has withheld from you the fruit of the – rakhmanut, which in Hebrew derives from
womb?” (Genesis 30:1-2). rekhhem, womb. In this Jewish biological

44 | Summer 2010
Leah’s Prayers /// Noam Zion

metaphor, compassion is the archetypal trait At the culmination of her inner struggle,
of women, whereas in the Greek counterpart, Leah transcends her jealousy of Rachel and
women are portrayed as hysterical (from the acquires the moral strength to rebuild her
word hysteria, meaning womb, the origin relationship with her sister. In Genesis 31,
of the word “hysterectomy”) – incapable of Rachel and Leah join forces with Jacob in
controlling their emotions, unmanly in their defying Laban, who sold his daughters as
lack of self-control. Such emotion is strictly commodities, tricked their husband, and
negative in the Greek world, which celebrates now seeks to deny their family of their hard-
rationality and physical courage. But it is a earned wealth. The chapter begins:
positive mark of divinity in the Bible, where
And he [Jacob] heard the words of Laban’s Noam Zion,
el rakhum – merciful God – is the first of the
sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all a fellow at the
thirteen attributes of divinity revealed to Shalom Hartman
Moses at Sinai, and a central idiom of rabbinic that was our father’s, and from that which
Institute, has an
prayer, especially on the High Holidays. was our father’s has he gotten all this Master of Arts in
Asking for divine rakhmanut is a cornerstone honor.” And Jacob saw the countenance of philosophy from
of Jewish liturgy, an ongoing tribute to such Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him Columbia University.
women as Hannah and Leah as models for as before. (Genesis 31:1-2.) His numerous
petitional prayer. publications include:
God speaks to Jacob in a dream, telling A Different Night: The
him to rise up, leave Laban’s house in Padan- Family Participation
A Feminist Postscript Aram, and go back to Canaan. Jacob tells Haggadah, A Different
his wives about the dream, and they reply in Light: The Big Book
The ethos of rakhmanut is consistent with
unison: of Hanukkah and A
aspects of modern feminist theory. Carol Day Apart: Shabbat at
Friedman Gilligan, a leading scholar of And Rachel and Leah answered and said to Home. Noam is also a
moral development, describes the cultural him: leading contributor
ideal of the “good woman” in western society. Do we still have a share, an inheritance in to the SHI website’s
According to Gilligan, women represent our father’s house? Education Channel.
such values as solidarity, networking and
Is it not as strangers that we are thought
compromise as opposed to male values of
competition and individualism. Women of by him?
promote an inclusive morality of mutual For he has sold us and eaten up, yes, eaten
responsibility, not an abstract morality of up our purchase-price!
rights in which one side wins at the expense Indeed, all the riches that God has snatched
of the other. away from our father – they belong to us
and to our children” (Genesis 31:14-16).

Women represent At this moment of truth, these women


are no longer rivals, seeking to undermine
such values as one another. They have no trouble choosing
solidarity, networking between their deceitful father and their now-
vulnerable husband. They are moral agents,
and compromise as empowered by solidarity and prayer. Jacob
and his household flee with all their livestock
opposed to male values and goods. Rachel, in a final act of chutzpah,
of competition and steals the household gods of her father the
idolator. The compassionate God is watching,
individualism. and we may assume that S/He is happy too.

HAVRUTA | 45
Jewish Poetry
and the Feminist
Imagination:
The Gifts of Muriel
Rukeyser
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” A
secular American Jewish poet finds answers in traditional sources

I f the name Muriel Rukeyser is familiar, it may be because of


a single poem. In 1944, at the height of the Holocaust, she
wrote a haunting sonnet called “To be a Jew in the Twentieth
Century.” It begins:

{ By LAURA MAJOR

46 | Summer 2010
Jewish Poetry and the Feminist Imagination /// Laura Major

To be a Jew in the twentieth century while discovering new ways to speak to and
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse, about women. Rukeyser was a left-wing
Wishing to be invisible, you choose political and social activist and a humanist.
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. She was also a Jew, if not a religious one, who
wrote about being a Jew and about Jewish
“Accepting, take full life,” the poet continues,
texts through the prism of her views on
but the full life comes with a price: “The gift
gender, culture and politics. As she stated
is torment.” The poem’s final, defiant, very
in 1944, in a publication of the American
American words – “Daring to live for the
Jewish Committee called “Under Forty: A
impossible” – give the reader hope. The poem
Symposium on American Literature and the
has been reprinted often in Reform and
Younger Generation of American Jews:” “My
Reconstructionist prayer books, and retains
themes and the use I have made of them have
its truth into the 21st century.
depended on my life as a poet, as a woman,
Rukeyser’s other Jewish poems are
as an American and as a Jew.” A closer look
no less timely and skillful, and should be
at some of her Jewish poetry highlights this
better known than they are, for they have
fruitful potential of the multiple identities of
much to say about Jewish identity. Her
the American Jew.
overall poetic achievement remains under-
appreciated, despite a body of work that was
truly groundbreaking. Her fellow poet and
What Kind of Father is That?
Jewish feminist Adrienne Rich described Among the poetic tools employed by Rukeyser
her with admiration as a “beginner,” akin to is the rewriting of ancient myths, primarily
Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson: “They Greek and Jewish. Today, in the Jewish case,
are openers of new paths, those who take the this kind of creative revision and re-invention
first steps, who therefore can seem strange is sometimes called “modern midrash.”
and ‘dreadful’ to their place and time.” Rukeyser does not replace the original story
with a new one; she recognizes the potency
and artistic and cultural value of the biblical
“My themes and the use I and Talmudic imagery. She does, however,
have made of them have strip the original of its canonical authority;
she shows how the original text inadequately
depended on my life as a represents women’s experience, and
constructs another side to the story. In this
poet, as a woman, as an way, she not only grants a voice to previously
silent, passive women, but also undermines
American and as a Jew.” the universal claim of the original story.
Radical feminists might argue that a
poet who rewrites or revises past texts or
Born in New York in 1913, Rukeyser was traditions cannot free herself from the holds
influenced by such modernist poets as T.S. of those traditions: women writers aspiring
Eliot, but soon developed her own unique to write on their own terms should draw their
voice, and at age 21 won the Yale Younger strength, inspiration and subject matter from
Poets Prize. Her career predated the women’s a source other than the patriarchal tradition.
movement, and she had no feminist tradition But is it feasible or even desirable to break
of poetry from which to draw, but was part away from a rich and ancient tradition?
of an emerging feminist consciousness that Rukeyser thinks not. As she makes the
exposed, attacked and even appropriated biblical text her own, she challenges the
patriarchal notions and strategies, all the aspects of it that misrepresent her as a person

HAVRUTA | 47
and consign her to stereotypical roles. This eyes; only to these men do nothing; seeing
confrontation is necessary, for to avoid it and that they have come under the shadow of my
ignore the weight of her own history might roof” (Genesis 19:8). When leaving the city,
leave her still struggling with that history, Lot’s family was ordered not to look back.
not free to create new traditions or connect Despite this divine commandment, “his wife
with a female past. looked back from behind him and she became
a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26).
Is it feasible or even Rukeyser picks up the story at the point
when Lot and his two daughters flee the
desirable to break away cities leaving the salt-pillar mother behind.
The speaker, one of the daughters, opens the
from a rich and ancient poem by protesting the actions of her father:
tradition? “Well if he treats me like a young girl still/
that father of mine…” The way in which she
refers to her father reveals both anger and
Such confrontation with the “father assertiveness, but the syntax of the line also
texts” happens not only on the level of the betrays her frustration and helplessness:
written word. The gendering tradition in we expect the conditional “if” statement to
the Bible and classical myths, fairy tales be followed by a confident “then,” but this
and literature is an important (though not does not appear. Ms. Lot – the daughter –
necessarily healthy) part of the socialization recognizes the structure of power relations:
process of young women in various cultures; she knows that she cannot change her
constant exposure to these traditions father’s habit of controlling her and that
inevitably causes an internalization of the empty threats will not help.
central values entrenched in them. When All she can do is express her objections.
Rukeyser sets out to reinvent Bible stories, She does this by moving between an
she has to rewrite on a much deeper, more analysis of her father’s actions and their
complicated level than that of the original impact and the memory of her mother. The
text. She has to rewrite parts of her own resulting structure of the poem reflects the
cultural consciousness – a painful process of dichotomy between the two parents. The
deletion and reinterpretation that redefines daughter bemoans the humiliation she feels
her existence as a woman. – “everyone on the road knows he offered
The poem “Ms. Lot,” for example, tells us/ To the strangers when all they wanted
the biblical story of Lot’s family from a was men” – and immediately thinks of her
fresh perspective. In Genesis 19, we learn
mother and mourns her loss: “And mother
that Abraham’s nephew Lot, along with his
a salt lick the animals come to.” She speaks
wife and two daughters, was spared the
harshly of her father, blaming him for her
destruction of Sodom. Their escape from
mother’s demise:
the evil city took place after an especially
traumatic incident: Lot, trying to protect Mother did not even know
God’s messengers (or angels in human form), She was not to turn around and look.
offered his virgin daughters to the men that God spoke to Lot, my father.
surrounded his house demanding that these She was hard of hearing. He knew that.
messengers be handed over to them: “Behold I don’t believe he told her anyway.
now, I have two daughters who have not What kind of father is that, or husband?
known man; let me, I beg you, bring them In answer to her apparently rhetorical
out to you, and do to them as is good in your
question: “What kind of father is that?”

48 | Summer 2010
Jewish Poetry and the Feminist Imagination /// Laura Major

“The Flight of Lot,” by


Albrecht Dürer, 1496.

she repeats as if in disbelief: “He offered us all those men as if she were a harlot (even
to those men. They didn’t want women.” though, in the Bible, the physical violation
She objects to being offered in trade as a does not take place), her chances for a proper
commodity to men in order to serve her marriage are slim: “Who’s going to want me
father’s desperate needs. She wants to now?” she asks poignantly.
be happily married, and remembers her Rukeyser paints Ms. Lot as being unable
mother’s promise that “Some normal man to transcend the hierarchical structures of
will come along and need you.” She knows, her time, confining her to the possibilities
however, that now, after being offered to available at that period. Indeed Lot’s

HAVRUTA | 49
daughter cannot picture herself as the author The Singing Lands
of her own life and happiness, remaining
rather dependent on men. She does, Another biblical heroine given voice by
however, have the insight to recognize and Rukeyser is the prophetess Miriam in
speak out against the patriarchal control to “Miriam: the Red Sea.” In this poem, Miriam
which she is subjected. She also recognizes is portrayed as a lone muse, singing at the
that the mother-daughter relationship is the Red Sea long after the waters have parted. In
sustaining one in her family. the biblical book of Exodus, Miriam played an
Lot’s daughter is referred to as Ms. Lot, important role praising God in the aftermath
“Ms.” being the designation favored by of the miracle: “And Miriam the prophetess,
feminists who wished not to be defined the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her
according to their marital status. Indeed, hand; and all the women went out after her
the “Ms.” title hints at the ambiguous marital with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam
status of Lot’s daughter. Is she a “miss,” or is answered them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he
she a “Mrs”? When the speaker asks: “What has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his
kind of father is that, or husband?” she is rider has He thrown into the sea’” (Exodus
apparently referring to the kind of husband 15:20-21).
Lot was to his wife, but Rukeyser relies on In Rukeyser’s poem, Miriam sees herself
the double meaning in the line to refer to the as standing “ankle-deep” in water, but she
kind of “husband” Lot was to his daughters. has transcended any geographical location:
The poem ends as the three flee from “the “High above shores and times,/ I on the
cloud of smoke still over the twin cities,” shore/ forever and ever.” Miriam recognizes
but the original biblical story, as Rukeyser that her role in history is different from that
hints here, unfolds in a shocking way. The of Moses:
daughters of Lot, convinced that they are Moses my brother
the only surviving humans, inebriate their Has crossed over
father with wine and lie with him in order to To milk, honey,
impregnate themselves. This is actually an That holy land.
act of rape – they take their father as their Building Jerusalem.
“husband” without his consent or knowledge I sing forever
– which, within the context of Rukeyser’s on the seashore.
poem, constitutes revenge for his previous ...
offering of them.
My unseen brothers
One of the offspring of this incestuous
have gone over;
union was Moab (the Hebrew suggests “from
chariots deep seas under.
the father”), a forebear of King David, through
I alone stand here
Ruth the Moabite. Without entering into the
ankle-deep . . .
biblical interpretation of their complex act,
we can certainly say that the deeds of Lot’s Moses is apparently accomplishing the
daughters had an enormous impact on sacred important task of nation-building in the
history. The eventual messiah of the Jewish Holy Land – a creative misreading, since
nation, after all, will come from the Davidic Moses was forbidden to enter the promised
line. The knowledge of these subsequent land – while Miriam remains static,
events, together with the voice of Ms. Lot destined to sing on the seashore forever.
in the poem, places Lot’s daughter in a new Miriam, of course, does not yet know that
light: she is not the passive tool of her father Moses will be barred from entering the
but an active participant in history. Holy Land. The key word in these lines is

50 | Summer 2010
Jewish Poetry and the Feminist Imagination /// Laura Major

“forever:” long after Moses and Aaron will on dry land, the Egyptians drowning – to
cease to be, Miriam’s song will echo in the an eternal summit, “High above shores and
hearts of the Jewish people. (Indeed, the times.” Furthermore, Rukeyser converts
poem’s words “unseen brothers” suggest the the content of Miriam’s biblical song into its
mortality of Moses and Aaron.) Although very opposite. In Exodus, Miriam sings in
it seems as if Miriam is stuck “ankle-deep” triumphant victory over the Egyptians: “Sing
American poets, 1955
at a single point in time, as a muse she has to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; (clockwise from left):
transcended history. Her mission is no less the horse and his rider has He thrown into Wallace Stevens,
consequential than that of her brothers: the sea.” In the poem, by contrast, she Randall Jarrell, Alan
“and I sing, I sing,/ until the lands/ sing to chants “until the lands/ sing to each other” Tate, Muriel Rukeyser,
Marianne Moore.
each other.” The image of lands singing to – she sings for peace. Rukeyser herself was a Randall Jarrell Papers,
each other is a vision of world peace, and radical peace activist, whose political views University Archives and
the singing of the muse inspires this exalted earned her an FBI investigation. Though her Manuscripts, University
of North Carolina at
vision. early communist sympathies waned with the Greensboro.
In this rewriting, Rukeyser departs years, she was always anti-war, dedicated to
radically from the biblical text. She a vision of lands singing to each other. It
transposes Miriam’s song from a specific is this commitment that informs her poetic
moment – the children of Israel crossing revision of Miriam’s song.

HAVRUTA | 51
The image of lands reconstruction – imaginative and material
– are endless. For Rukeyser, the connection
singing to each other is between the individual realm (“What would
happen if one woman told the truth about
a vision of world peace, her life?”), and the social realm (“The world
and the singing of the would split open”), is essential. Rukeyser
believed that in order to have an impact on
muse inspires this exalted history, one must first take possession of
one’s personal history.
vision.
The splitting of the Red Sea has added
No Real Survival without These
significance for Rukeyser. Splitting open This connection between personal and
is an act that involves the crumbling of cultural history also runs throughout
barriers, the breaking down of the illusion of Rukeyser’s long poem “Akiba,” commissioned
wholeness. It also suggests the opening of the by the Union of American Hebrew
womb in childbirth and the female birthing Congegations and later published as part
of new ideas. Indeed, in her poem “The Poem of her series of “Lives” (which also includes
as Mask,” she describes herself giving birth – “Kathe Kollwitz”). It is a very different
“split open in sleep “ – just before proclaiming sort of poem from those we have discussed
her famous words: “No more masks! No more so far – less a rewriting of the Jewish text
mythologies!” In other words, being split than an admiring interpretation of an
open in birth is so deeply connected to her historical figure who was important to
creative processes that it provides her with Rukeyser. In her essay “The Education of a
the insight that her poetry must be personal Poet,” published four years before her death
and original, stripped of any disguise. in 1980, Rukeyser remarked that Jewish
Splitting open allows for new versions of tradition in her childhood household was
truth to emerge, and such individual truths, limited to a silver Kiddush cup, the Bible on
like the vision of Miriam, can produce the bookshelfand the family lore that her
changes in the world. Indeed, as Rukeyser mother was descended from Rabbi Akiva.
asked in her poem “Kathe Kollwitz:” Unverifiable,” wrote Rukeyser, “but a great
gift to a child.”
What would happen if one woman told the
“Akiba” is divided into five distinct parts.
truth about her life?
The first, “The Way Out,” deals with the
Exodus, repeating some of the images we saw
The world would split open.
in “Miriam: the Red Sea.” The second, “For
Kathe Kollwitz was a German artist and The Song of Songs,” focuses on Rabbi Akiva’s
activist who rebelled against male myths of bold insistence that this beautiful, erotic
aggression, creating instead mythical mother text, a metaphoric expression of the love
figures with the ability to change society. between God and Israel, be included in the
Kollwitz’s reimagination of myth embodies biblical canon. The third part, “The Bonds,”
for Rukeyser the heroic act of attempting to looks at Rabbi Akiva’s life, his transformation
change the world through art. from ignorant shepherd to brilliant scholar.
The act of splitting open or deconstructing The fourth part of the poem, “Akiba Martyr,”
myths shows them to be not eternal, deals with his famous martyrdom, while
untouchable truths, but simply texts. the final section, “The Witness,” brings
Once the myth has been split apart, once a together the Exodus, Rabbi Akiva’s story and
taboo has been broken, the possibilities for Rukeyser’s own attitude to history.

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Jewish Poetry and the Feminist Imagination /// Laura Major

Rukeyser does not re-imagine Rabbi At the very moment at which his physical
Akiva’s story from his wife Rachel’s life is most precarious, Rabbi Akiva chooses
perspective, as we might have expected, spiritual transcendence. In her classic poem
given “Ms. Lot” and “Miriam: The Red Sea.” “To be a Jew,” she makes a similar point:
After all, Rachel, the daughter of wealthy “If you refuse” the gift of Judaism, “you
Kalba Savua, gave up her wealth, her family choose/ Death of the spirit.” Being a Jew,
and normative married life so that the “the she continues, has always meant “torture,
huge wordless shepherd” could become a isolation; or torture of the flesh.”
learned man. When Rabbi Akiva returns Rabbi Akiva dies uttering the
to her, accompanied by his students, after Shema prayer, fulfilling its ultimate
Laura Major
twenty-four years of study, he reminds commandment: “I knew that I loved him is an associate
his students that all he has become and with all my heart and might./ Now I know editor of Havruta.
all that they are is due to Rachel. Both in that I love him with all my life.” The moment She received her
tradition and in this poem Rachel receives of his death is envisioned by Rukeyser as doctorate in English
a supporting role only. The story really full of “delight” and unity: Literature from Bar
belongs to Rabbi Akiva – the giant of Torah Ilan University in
To love God with all the heart, all passion, 2005.
study and the symbol of mutual respect. It
Every desire called evil, turned toward
was he, after all, who emphasized that “To
unity,
love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus
All the opposites, all in the dialogue.
19:18) is a major principle in the Torah.
All the dark and light of the heart, of life
In “Akiba Martyr,” the poet retells one of
made whole.
the most resonant and moving tales in the
Talmud (to be found in Tractate Berakhot This moment, for her, is a deeply personal
61b), that of Rabbi Akiva’s death: “This one, “surpassing the known life, day and
was an old man under iron rakes/ Tearing ideas:”
through to the bone. He made no cry.” My hope, my life, my burst of consciousness:
Tortured by the Romans for teaching Torah, To confirm my life in the time
Rabbi Akiva remains firm in his faith: of confrontation.
Does the old man in uprising speak for
compromise? The old man saying Shema.
In all but the last things. Not in the study The death of Akiba.
itself. The incredible clarity and firmness of
For this religion is a system of knowledge; belief demonstrated by Rabbi Akiva at the
Points may be one by one abandoned, but time of his death is an inspiration to this
not the study. secular Jewish poet, giving her strength
... “in the time of confrontation.” In writing
poetry, in opposing sexism and other forms
Now the rule closes in, the last things are
of injustice and, as she wrote in “To be a
forbidden.
Jew,” in “daring to live for the impossible,”
There is no real survival without these.
Rukeyser draws on her Jewish heritage as
Now it is time for prison and the unknown.
a source of strength. In the final lines of
The old man flowers into spiritual fire.
“Akiba,” the poet declares: “The witness
Rabbi Akiva will not give up the study or is myself.” Through her deeply personal
teaching of Torah – “there is no real survival writing, wrapped in the indestructible
without these” – preferring death. And so, parchment of Jewish tradition, “the signs,
says Rukeyser, he “flowers into spiritual fire.” the journeys of the night/ survive.”

HAVRUTA | 53
From Silence to
Empowerment
Women Reading Women
in the Talmud
A strange story from rabbinic antiquity prompts a fresh look at the place
of women in the Jewish canon and contemporary society

F or many centuries, the beit midrash – the Jewish “house


of learning” – was a territory for men only. Women
were not allowed to enter the hall, much less take part in
the conversation.

54 | Summer 2010
From Silence to Empowerment /// Seder Nashim

In our own time, however, Jewish studies


have been immeasurably enriched by the
work of female scholars and students. In
H avruta: What are your personal
reactions to this text? Is it a
feminist story that somehow slipped into the
this spirit, the Shalom Hartman Institute patriarchal Talmud?
established its Seder Nashim program
in 2008. Nashim (“women” in Hebrew)
is the name of one of the six sedarim or
“orders” of the Mishnah. Yet the program
extends beyond Talmudic study to include
Bible, Hebrew literature, Jewish history,
philosophy, and education. In this new
beit midrash, feminist theory and personal
experience combine to re-interpret the
Jewish canon.
The members of Seder Nashim lately
invited Havruta’s Orr Scharf to participate in
a study session of their beit midrash. The text
under deliberation, a fascinating passage
from Tractate Yevamot of the Babylonian
Talmud, appears at the end of a lengthy
sugyah – thematic discussion – that centers
on the subject of pregnancy:

Mishnah
The commandment to procreate applies to
the man but not to the woman. R. Yohanan
ben Barokah says: [the commandment
applies] to them both, as it is written:
“And God blessed them, and God said unto
them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.”
Valeria Seigelshifer:

Gemara I think that this is a very rich text, because


it contains radical elements within a
Yehudit, the wife of R. Hiyya, experienced conventional Talmudic discourse. It tells
tza’ar leidah [the suffering of childbirth]. of a woman who openly confesses that
She changed her appearance and came childbirth is very hard for her, and that it Valeria Seigelshifer
before R. Hiyya. She asked: is a woman is a PhD candidate at
brings her physical pain. What is more, she the Melton Center for
commanded [by Jewish law] to procreate? can choose not to give birth in the future. Jewish Education at the
He answered her “No.” She went and Yehudit is very clever, has knowledge of the Hebrew University of
drank a sterilizing potion. Eventually, law, and takes matters into her own hands. Jerusalem. Valeria teaches
at SHI’s Midrashiya girls’
the matter became known. He told her: The text presents feminine agency at work high school and works as
“If only you would have borne for me one within the confines of the male-dominated an advocacy expert at the
more ‘bellyful.’” social framework by which Yehudit abides. Women’s Budget Forum.

We also learn that even a woman as clever Photos of Seder Nashim by


BT Yevamot 65b and resourceful as Yehudit cannot act in her Yonit Schiller.

HAVRUTA | 55
Shoshana Cohen teaches own name, and that she needs to use ploys those expectations. This text therefore
Tanach and Halacha and camouflage to achieve her goals. So my tells a story of resistance. I often look
at the Conservative
Yeshiva and Talmud at
first question is: “Is today any different?” for the places where the texts undermine
SHI’s Midrashiya girls’ I’m afraid that we are not that far off from themselves, where the very norms that they
high school. Shoshana the reality that Yehudit faced. And this try to establish are questioned. Part of my
is a graduate student
at Hebrew University in
realization leads me to my next question, fascination with those passages is that the
Ancient Jewish History, which is strategic: what is Yehudit fighting canonical corpus as a whole cannot tolerate
and holds a BA from for? Is she struggling for certain results, or their critique, and yet they are there.
Brandeis University in is she fighting for the ability to communicate Again, we must not forget that even
Judaic Studies. 
directly, as herself? though the female protagonist here takes
matters into her own hands, she must
disguise herself, and as Valeria says, she
cannot speak directly as herself. In order
to change the system, one must speak in its
language. Yehudit cannot speak in her own
name about the injustices she has endured,
and this is a tragedy in itself, which leaves
this system flawed and problematic.

H avruta: What about the gaps in the


text? Rabbi Hiyya has the last word,
but what does he mean?

Valeria:
I’m uneasy about the end of the story. It
reinforces the impression that this is mostly
about the male perspective, and also that
the couple suffers from miscommunication.
We may read Yehudit as telling her husband:
“You don’t even see me; I’m here in disguise
and you can’t even identify your own wife.”
But we may also see the husband as being
forced to maintain a certain persona – after
all, he is the important Rabbi Hiyya, head of
the beit din [rabbinic court]. Perhaps he faces
pressures that are too powerful for him to
oppose. It could be that in a sense his voice
Shoshana Cohen:
is silenced too.
Our reading could follow a few different If you would ask me how I would complete
directions. At least on one level, this text his closing statement –”If only you would have
is subversive. That is, women face a strict borne for me one more ‘bellyful’”– I wouldn’t
framework within which they are expected want to silence his wish for another child.
to give birth and not sterilize themselves; But maybe if he and Yehudit had talked more
yet within that very system and the text openly, he could have also said, “I understand
representing it, we find a way of resisting that you are suffering.” But he didn’t.

56 | Summer 2010
From Silence to Empowerment /// Seder Nashim

Tsippi Kauffman:
I must confess that Rabbi Hiyya’s concluding
statement sounded very inconsiderate to me
on first reading. I read him as saying “I want
more children, and I don’t care if you suffer at
childbirth,” regretting that he gave Yehudit
a way out of her predicament by telling her
that women are not legally obligated to
procreate. But upon rereading it, I found
that his statement is very personal. I read
him as saying, “I would have very much
liked another child.”
What comes to mind here is the
American feminist scholar Carol Gilligan’s
distinction between two discourses of
morality – a universal discourse of laws,
and a personal morality that derives from
emotions and specific contexts. Yehudit
understands that her only option is to adopt
the male halachic discourse, obtaining her
exemption from childbirth by asking the
right questions about the commandment of
procreation. We may consider Rabbi Hiyya’s
statement as an indication that his wife
had actually led him to adopt the personal,
more “feminine” moral discourse. Because
rather than telling her, “You are obligated to

H
do XYZ,” we can hear him say, “Oh, I would avruta: Do you think he is angry
like so much to have another child.” He with her?
lets himself think from her viewpoint for
a moment, and to speak with his personal
voice, of Hiyya, not Rabbi Hiyya. This may
indicate that he is undergoing some sort of Valeria:
personal transformation. This is a possible narrative. But we must Tsippi Kauffman is
co-director of Seder
not forget that they are not standing on Nashim and a fellow at the
Shoshanah: even ground. When the public sphere is Kogod Research Center
not egalitarian, you can never assume that for Contemporary Jewish
I feel that Yehudit may owe her success to the personal sphere is. Securing equality Thought at SHI. She holds
her use of the master’s rules in order to win a PhD in Jewish Philosophy
in a highly discriminatory context is very from The Hebrew University
the game on the master’s court. He replied hard work. A few pages earlier, in Yevamot of Jerusalem. Tsippi is
to her genuine question only to discover 63a, the Gemara describes Yehudit as a author of In All Your Ways
that it meant that the game was over for Know Him (Hebrew: Bar Ilan
woman who “pained” or “tormented” her University Press, 2009).
him. So I don’t know if we can consider his husband. The text does not contemplate
final statement as expressing acceptance or the possibility that he is causing her pain
vulnerability. too. Such acknowledgement of Yehudit’s
needs and wants is essential. While I am

HAVRUTA | 57
prepared to grant that Rabbi Hiyya’s wish denied the right to express and act upon
for another child is genuine, our sensitivity their subjective needs and wants in the area
to his needs is justified only if we can also of childbirth. Acknowledging the centrality
hear Yehudit’s side of the story. Her voice of this dynamic to the scene described here,
must be heard. we can certainly read Rabbi Hiyya’s final
response to his wife as expressing personal
emotion. Perhaps it was the starting
point of a discussion that they had never
held before. But this miscommunication
between them was inevitable under the
circumstances. Maybe after this recorded
conversation the couple went back home
and held a completely different sort of
dialogue.

Shoshanah:
I agree. Finally, they began a dialogue.

Rotem:
Yes, a bit too late for him. But it wasn’t too
late for her. It was absolutely clear to her that
she would not tolerate the pain any longer.
And of course, from the broader context of
the discussion in the Gemara it is clear that
she had fulfilled her obligations insofar as
the letter of the law is concerned: she had
twin boys – Yehudah and Hizkiyah – and
twin girls, Pazi and Tavi (Yevamot 65b).
I’d like to expand on the idea of the
presence of a woman in the text, which is
very uncommon, even subversive. Here we
Rotem Preger-Wagner: have a female protagonist with a name and
a voice. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that
I also think that the personal and legal a long-winded discussion of procreation
aspects of Rabbi Hiyya’s statement are concludes with the sages letting the woman
intertwined, in spite of its personal
speak. This format can also be found in
tone. After all, Yehudit took advantage
the Talmudic discussion of rape. I believe
Rotem Preger-Wagner of a loophole in patriarchal law, which is
that the rabbis let women speak with their
is a scholar of Hebrew generally watertight. This story touches
literature. She is founder own voices in the text when they engage in
on one of the cornerstones of the relations
and co-director of Seder issues that concern the most fundamental
Nashim, and is a doctoral between the sexes: the social dynamics of
aspects of women’s autonomy over their
candidate at the Hebrew pregnancy and birth. While women possess
Literature Department,
own body. The rabbinical commitment to
the physical capacity to give birth, men
Ben Gurion University. complete and comprehensive legislation
hold the political, legislative, and rhetorical
forces the sages to hear the woman’s side
power. In the Talmudic context, women are
of the story.

58 | Summer 2010
From Silence to Empowerment /// Seder Nashim

Tsippi: how far it should go; what price one pays when
participating in a halachic world that prides
On the other hand, within the story itself, it
itself on a legal system that encompasses all
is unclear if the voice that she was permitted
aspects of life, “when you lie down and when
to have was actually recognized as a woman’s.
you rise up.”
It is unclear whether she dressed up as
another woman, or as a man, in order to ask
her question within the masculine zone Shoshanah:
of the beit midrash. It is very interesting to
I think that we should try to sharpen the
speculate whether she put on a disguise that
definition of tza’ar leidah in this text. Is it
made her unrecognizable to her own husband.
the common labor pains that every woman
And if not, what exactly happened? It could
experiences in childbirth, or is it something
also be that she had to dress up as a man so
more intense? I tend to think that it refers
that she could even enter his territory, and
to exceptional suffering, as opposed to what
he recognized her but had to play along. We
happens in most births. Therefore, to a degree,
could think of several possibilities. But the
this story justifies the expectation that under
very fact that she could only sound her voice
normal circumstances, women are expected,
in disguise, even as another woman, means
if not legally obligated, to conceive.
that she presented herself as a subject with
a certain ambiguity. She could not approach
Rotem:
him as his wife and speak to him; that is,
even when she was allowed to speak, it was I would actually like to suggest the opposite
under highly problematic circumstances. reading: I think that the story also applies to
the notion of suffering in general. Suffering is
not an empty term. It relates to “in pain shall
Rotem:
you bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). The
I don’t think that she is able to fully assert her idea was already present in rabbinic culture
subjective identity in that situation. But her long before this sugyah was composed. But I
appearance at the beit midrash is certainly do think that the interesting context here is
not faceless. the mishnah that the sugyah discusses; and
more specifically, the minority opinion in

H avruta: Would you define her


presence as the voice of suffering?
this mishnah.
“The commandment to procreate applies
to the man but not to the woman.” (Mishnah
Tsippi: Yevamot 6:6). This is the opinion of the
sages. But R. Yohanan ben Barokah says: “[it
The story recognizes the experience of applies] to both [man and woman], as it is
suffering at childbirth – tza’ar leidah­. This is written ‘and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful
one reason we selected this sugyah for Seder and multiply’” (Genesis 1:28). I think that
Nashim. This is a text we take personally. ultimately R. Yohanan ben Barokah’s opinion
And Yehudit’s suffering is truly lamentable. allows the Gemara to subversively reiterate
In addition to what almost every woman the egalitarianism of procreation that he is
experiences in labor, she has to brave the advocating. A minority opinion of such an
scene at the beit midrash in order to release important sage cannot be ignored, even if
herself from her suffering. As women it contradicts the majority opinion in the
studying Talmud, we are called upon to discussion. It is quite clear to me that the
consider the limits of the law: how far into Gemara in this story revives this disruptive
the intimate details of our lives it goes, and element from the Mishnah.

HAVRUTA | 59
This is a very interesting feature of saying: “Okay, it’s there, we have done our job
rabbinical texts: they leave us with a lot of as feminists.” But most of us have moved on
room for work and thought. Surprisingly, from that. Initially, we do have to consider
we often find that they offer very strong the meaning of statements related by women
counter-responses to their own stated in the name of women. Then, however, we
positions, and in this sense they may offer need to consider questions about how this
some consolation. system is constructed; how does it construe
masculinity and femininity; what are its
flexibilities and inflexibilities; and how are
Valeria:
those subversive voices making themselves
Going back to the question of the price that present.
each party is prepared to pay: an egalitarian
approach also comes with a price tag. Equality
with men within halacha means that women
Valeria:
assume uncomfortable obligations. Yehudit
bore children, even though procreation was Our hope is the very fact that we are reading
only required of men. And if we translate this text. I cannot play along with the
this question to our own times, and we are politically correct expectations of feminists
in favor of an egalitarian perception, this – “you let out your anger, you screamed
means that women assume an obligation your pain, now do something pleasant.”
to fulfill many mitzvot that they may find Sometimes life is unpleasant. I feel no
uncomfortable. obligation to come out of my two years at
If we choose the less egalitarian, Seder Nashim with a happy ending, because
patriarchal option, then the price would maybe there isn’t one.
be the constant fear, on the part of men, of The very fact that I am reading this text
losing control. The rabbis are fully aware of means that I am doing something for myself
that. If control is not absolute, then some and for others - women here and now, and for
Yehudit will always appear and break the those who will come after me. They will be able
rules, or act subversively. Thus, we must to speak their mind directly, not like Yehudit,
ask: what kind of society do we want? A who had to strike a bargain with patriarchy.
society motivated by an existential fear of My ideal is not to negotiate or bargain, but not
the next threat to our control over it, or an to have patriarchy at all. So if we are expected
egalitarian society that accepts the fact that to say that we have hope, let’s not forget about
once power is given to people, open conflicts the road that lies ahead.
are inevitable?
Tsippi:

H avruta: What hope women may And on the other hand – although we may
draw from texts such as this one? talk about the demise of patriarchy, this will
probably not happen in my lifetime. And in
my lifetime I want to live at peace with my
mother and father, despite the difficulties,
Shoshanah: questions or criticisms I may have. To me,
One of the things that I like about our group this text is my mother and father, in a sense.
is that we do not stop at that point. Many That is why I don’t think that there is a single
feminist readings make do with identifying feminist strategy we should follow, but rather
the feminine voice. It’s as though they are that all strategies must be applied. Any way

60 | Summer 2010
From Silence to Empowerment /// Seder Nashim

we turn it around, these texts were written by are mainly directed at women, our solace
men for men who did not see women as they can be found in the very structures of the
really are, who objectified women. They did texts establishing those mechanism: they
it in their era and I want to live differently; never go all the way with their oppression.
yet I want these texts to be part of my life. Contrary to most halachic writings, like
And my goal is not to prettify them, or to those of Maimonides, which establish
give hope and say that it will have a happy decisive and final rulings and do not leave
ending. I want to find in them the elements any room for doubt or argument, the very
that can empower women, to highlight or structure of Talmudic discourse opens up
emphasize the things that generations of new possibilities.
Gemara readers completely overlooked. The We all operate within our culture; there is
very fact that women are reading this text probably no way for us to travel outside of it.
opens up so many possibilities we must I identify with what Valeria is saying, but I
pursue, so whatever it is that we choose to do see no way of how we may do away completely
is important. True, the text does have a lot with the existing structures of our society
of problems; yet what I want to take with me and culture. That is, I cannot see how any of
from it is hope. what she is saying can become concrete. But
if within my culture, whose problems I cannot
ignore, I may discover oases that provide me
Valeria:
with alternatives, then this is where I can
Strategically, I completely disagree with operate without having to disguise myself.
Tsippi. Ideologically, I would like to teach
my daughters that we must aspire to have
Shoshanah:
a world in which a woman does not have to
speak like Yehudit. I’m not comforted by I agree with Rotem. Something of the
Yehudit’s “success.” This is not what I want openness, the uniqueness of the Talmud, is
for myself or for my husband or children. Yet reflected in the structure of this text. I am
it doesn’t mean that I resent my culture. To not saying that there are no other books like
take the “parents” metaphor, I am very close it in the world. But a text like the Babylonian
to my parents; I love them dearly and cannot Talmud or Midrash is radically self-critical. It
imagine my life without them. But this keeps offering different and diverse readings.
doesn’t mean that I love everything they say The rabbis can tilt in one direction for a long
or do. I can love them and say – I don’t like time, but then, just before reaching their
this choice that you’ve made, and when I have conclusion, they often undermine the entire
my own family I will make different choices. structure that they had just built.
This is a structural feature that we should
emphasize. This is what I am trying to pass
Rotem:
on to my students: how to conduct such a
Returning to the cultural model that discourse in our own lives; a discourse on the
rabbinical texts offer, I honestly think that norms of our culture that is open to different
as women searching for a complete revision and multiple voices, which are nonetheless
of the power relations within the culture engaged in a perpetual struggle. Here in this
at large, we should approach these texts by sugiyah, the Talmud accommodates conflict
looking for their structures and seeing how between different opinions and positions,
they can be deconstructed. And if the entire and yet it lets them coexist. I think that this
rabbinical corpus is an expression, or an is what we can take from this text – models
embodiment, of oppressive mechanisms that of social and cultural discourse.

HAVRUTA | 61
Divine Qualities
and Real
Women
The Feminine Image
in Kabbalah
Long before women gained entry into the halls of Jewish learning, Jewish
mystics explored and extolled feminine aspects of the Divine

W ithin the Jewish religious tradition, the literature of


Kabbalah is second to none in its engagement with
the feminine. The mystical authors of medieval Spain
and southern France, the men who produced the Zohar
and related texts, were averse to simplistic conceptions
of gender.

{ By BITI ROI

62 | Summer 2010
Divine Qualities and Real Women /// Biti Roi

Their sensitive attunement to sexual, as a synonym for God. Grammatically, it is


mental, physiological and social aspects of a feminine Hebrew noun, but the Shekhinah
female existence is strikingly manifest in initially lacked any female attributes or
their imaginative contemplation of God and even a distinctive identity of its own. In the
speculations about the interplay of the divine works of early kabbalists, however, it was
and earthly realms. Indeed, the contemporary transformed into a queenly personification
discourse on women in Judaism – which is of the Godhead, the Matronita:
still bound up with Talmudic categories and
How many thousands, how many myriads
the strictures of halacha – can benefit greatly
of holy camps does the blessed Holy One
from the riches of kabbalistic imagery and
have! … Above them He has appointed
perceptions of women and femininity.
Matronita to minister before Him in the
Sefer Ha-Zohar – “The Book of Splendor”
– is a sprawling masterpiece that presents palace … Every mission that the King
a complex conception of divinity based wishes issues from the house of Matronita;
upon an intricate exploration of the hidden every mission from below to the King
meanings of the Hebrew Bible. Its mystical enters the house of Matronita first, and
quest is structured in the form of teachings from there to the King. Consequently,
of the 2nd-century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Matronita is agent of all, from above
Shimon bar Yohai (“Rashbi”) and a handful to below and from below to above …
of his contemporaries, written in an Aramaic and no secret is concealed from Her.
dialect that is unlike any other in Jewish (II Zohar 51a)
writings. The authorship of the Zohar is The Shekhinah is far from being passive.
traditionally attributed to Rashbi himself, In times of need, her charms save the People
but modern scholars have demonstrated of Israel from being abandoned by the male
that it was composed by a group of Castilian God:
kabbalists of the 13th and 14th centuries, a
circle that included Moses de Leon, Joseph It is like a man who was in love with a
Gikatilla, and Bahya ben Asher. Having woman who lived in the street of the
acquired a canonical status, the Zohar tanners. If she had not been there, he
continues to inspire traditional students would never have set foot in the place; but
and scholars of Jewish mysticism, as well as because she was there it seemed to him like
adherents of the popular spirituality of the the street of the spice merchants, where
21st century. all the finest scents in the world could be
found. (III Zohar 115b)
No Secret is Concealed From Her The kabbalistic study of the Shekhinah
The cornerstone of the kabbalistic perception seeks to reveal its many different faces: she
of the feminine is the study of the dynamic is the connecting point between the heavenly
interrelationships within the Godhead, the realm and earthly reality. For the kabbalists,
mystical representation of the divinity. In the Godhead is not detached from real life:
the face of a tradition overshadowed by the the divine reality is reflected in every concrete
masculine God of the Bible, the kabbalists object on earth. Within this worldview, each
developed a conception which consists of and every woman represents, in a sense,
key feminine elements within the Godhead, the figure of the Shekihnah. Contrary to the
the foremost of which is the figure of the medieval philosophical system that conceives
Shekhinah. of the world as comprised of static essences,
Before the emergence of Kabbalah in the in the Zohar the Shekhinah holds a dynamic
middle ages, the term Shekhinah was used relationship with the Godhead as its queen

HAVRUTA | 63
(Matronita) and lover. This relationship
extends to life on earth, or as the Zohar puts
it in its unique Aramaic, she is alma de-nukba
– the feminine world.

Each and every woman


represents, in a sense, the
figure of the Shekhinah.
The earthly presence of the Shekhinah in
general, and in womankind in particular, is
also extrapolated from the literal meaning
of the word. The Hebrew root shakhan, from
which the word derives, means “reside”
or “inhere.” In his mystical work Sha’arey
Orah (gates of light), composed in the same
period as the Zohar, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla
finds a biblical precedent for the notion of
alma de-nukba: “The Shekhinah, in the time
of Abraham our forefather, is called Sarah,
and in the time of Yitzhak our forefather
is called Rivkah, and in the time of Ya’akov
our forefather is called Rachel…” Reflecting
a similar view, the Zohar concludes that
“all of the females in the world share in her
knowledge of the divine secret” (II Zohar
105b).
Medieval Jewish philosophers, on the
other hand, could not accommodate a
conceptualization of a dynamic divinity,
let alone the notion of a divinity with
overt feminine attributes. For them, the
inferiority of women was grounded in such
proofs as Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib, and
manifested in “essential” female qualities
like deceit, inquisitiveness, garrulousness
and pride.
The influential Provençal philosopher,
scientist, and biblical exegete Gersonides
(Ralbag) (1288-1344) placed women on
an interim rank between beasts and men.
In his commentary on Genesis 3:30, he
observed: “‘And Adam named his wife
Eve,’ in accord with his perception of her
feebleness of mind, that is, that she did not

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transcend other animals considerably… for corners of streets and highways in order
most of her functions were indeed adapted to attract men … This is the finery that
to physical matters, to the feebleness of her she uses to seduce mankind: her hair is
mind and for her servitude of Man.” Even long, red like a lily; her face is white and
the sophisticated Maimonides, writing pink; six pendants hang from her ears …
in Cairo in the 12th century, employed her tongue is sharp like a sword; her words
classical philosophical categories to draw smooth as oil; her lips beautiful, red as a
a comparison between men (who are both lily, sweetened with all the sweetness in
“matter” and “form”) and women (who are the world…
“matter” alone):
The fool turns aside after her … and
Matter is in no way found without form and
is consequently always like a married woman commits harlotry with her … What does she
who is never separated from a man and is do? She leaves him asleep on the bed … The
never free. (Guide of the Perplexed, III 8) fool wakes up, thinking to sport with her
as before, but she takes off her finery, and
While the modern reader may find them odd, turns into a fierce warrior, facing him in a
such observations preclude the possibility garment of flaming fire, a vision of dread,
of understanding the feminine in a complex terrifying both body and soul, full of horrific
and interesting way. eyes, a sharpened sword in his hand with
The kabbalists too conjured up negative drops of poison suspended from it. He kills
images of women, but these did not always the fool, and throws him into Gehinnom. (I
represent them as inferior. The Jewish Zohar 148a-148b, Sitrey Torah)
mystics were obsessed with the magical
powers associated with women’s bodies – In an era dominated by rigid sexual
their hair, fingernails, womb, blood – and in identities, the early kabbalists appreciated
some Zoharic depictions, women appear as the fluidity of gender. Here, in the Zohar,
demons: the female demon morphs, in a seamless
transition, into a male warrior.

The Jewish mystics were Mother, Lover and Creator


fascinated by the magical Perhaps the most important contribution
of the Zohar to Jewish theology is the
powers associated with elaboration of a symbolic framework known
women’s bodies – their as the sefirotic system. Literally meaning
“sphere” or “region,” each sefirah – there
hair, fingernails, womb, are ten in all – represents an emanation
of a different aspect of the Godhead, and
blood. is interconnected with the other sefirot in
myriad ways that the mystics sought to
untangle and elucidate.
Two evil spirits are attached to one The Zohar’s multifaceted presentation
another. The male spirit is fine, the female of the feminine is most conspicuous in
spirit spreads out down several ways and the distinction between two sefirot: Binah
paths, and is attached to the male spirit. (understanding), which stands for the Eve as warrior, from a
Mother; and Malkhut (kingdom), which is the fresco in Villa Carducci
(Soffiano, Italy), by
She dresses herself in finery like an wife and lover, or in some cases the daughter. Andrea del Castagno,
abominable harlot and stands at the If the figure of the Shekhinah marks the c.1450.

HAVRUTA | 65
kabbalistic acceptance of woman as part of descriptions of the relations of Binah with its
the heavenly realm, then the contemplation subordinate sefirot.
of Binah and Malkhut is an attempt to explore The kabbalistic link between childbirth
aspects of the feminine in order to gain and the creation of the world is derived from
deeper understanding of the world. a creative reading of Proverbs 2:3, a verse
In his Sha’arey Orah, Rabbi Joseph conventionally rendered as follows: “If you
Gikatilla identifies Binah with abundance, cry out for insight” – ki im labinah tikrah –
pregnancy and nourishment. He calls it the “and raise your voice for understanding.” The
“Mother,” progenitor of the seven sefirot that kabbalistic reading revocalizes one key word
are situated beneath it in the structure of – a common ploy in rabbinic interpretation of
the Godhead. Other designations of Binah, the Bible – turning im, “if,” into em, “mother,”
according to Gikatilla, include olam ha-hayim producing a new meaning: “For you will call
(world of life); mekor ha-hayim (source of binah, Mother.”
life); Elohim hayim (the living God); and sod As men who considered themselves
ha-hayim (the secret of life). All of these part of a long line of biblical interpreters,
reflect feminine qualities that the kabbalists the members of the Zoharic circle often
identified within the Godhead, and indicate drew on Talmudic teachings. It is therefore
that these men conceived of Binah as the unsurprising that the rabbinic reading of the
ground of the whole of existence. creation of Eve, out of the rib of Adam, also
In this spirit, the authors of the Zohar associates binah with femininity, in a nice
identified this sefirah with the beautiful play on words: “And God built [vayiven, the
imagery of Genesis 2:10: “A river flowed out biblical form of banah] the rib which he took
of Eden to water the garden.” For them, this from Adam into a woman” (Genesis 2:22),
verse was expressive of the notion of divinity shows that the blessed Holy One endowed
as the source of the all-encompassing flow of the woman with more understanding
life, an emanation of the maternal sefirah. As [binah] than the man” (BT Niddah 45b). This
an aspect of the Godhead, Binah is thus the insight apparently eluded the philosopher
power of creation. Indeed, certain kabbalistic Gersonides, though not his kabbalist
traditions perceive the Creation as God’s act contemporaries.
of childbirth. In contrast with the maternal Binah, the
The notion of Binah as a womanly creator sefirah of Malkhut represents God’s partner and
is supported by a linguistic analysis of the lover – the erotic side of the feminine. Malkhut
name. In the Talmud, binah is considered
desires, seduces, pines, yearns, and also envies,
a specific type of wisdom, related to the
suffers rejection, expulsion and banishment.
“ability to surmise one thing from another”
Her relations with the “male” sefirot above her
(BT Shabbat 31a). The kabbalists go a step
(she is the lowest sefirah) are amorous, and
farther, arguing that binah not only denotes
are manifested by waves of attraction and
a cognitive function (discernment), but also
repulsion, union and separation. But Binah
a maternal function (procreation). Gikatilla,
and Malkhut have their own relationship as
in his Sha’arey Orah, observes that “another
well, that of mother and daughter. When
reason why she is called Binah is because she is
Malkhut reveals herself during the pilgrimage
the secret of conceiving sons and daughters.”
to the Temple, Binah, her mother, lends
The author plays upon on the similarity
Malkhut garments and jewelry, as we learn at
between binah and the Hebrew word ben,
the opening of the Zohar (I:1b):
meaning “son” or “offspring.” Indeed, the
The demon Lilith,
rendered by Dante maternal functions of conception, childbirth [A]nd Mother lends Daughter her
Gabriel Rossetti, 1868. and breastfeeding appear in many of the garments, though not adorning her with

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HAVRUTA | 67
Rendering of medieval
demonic figure Hulda
(Holla), by Israeli artist
Yael Ramot, 2006.

her adornments. When does she adorn The characterization of Binah as partaking of
her fittingly? When all males appear Din is pivotal to the kabbalists’ conception of
before her, as is written: “[All your males femininity. Din, through Binah, is not only
shall appear] before the Sovereign, God” associated with justice and punishment, but
(Exodus 23:17). also describes a refining and limiting quality,
The maternal aspects of Binah, however, which discerns the infinity of details that
are only part of the essence of this sefirah. Just constitute the world. Without Din, the world
as importantly, it is identified as possessing would be an undifferentiated influx of divine
elements of harshness and judgment that grace; Binah presides over its allocation to her
belong to the divine quality of Din (law). As subordinate sefirot. The maternal Binah, which
defined in Talmudic writings, Din is the polar represents divine abundance, also disburses it
opposite of divine grace and mercy (Hesed). as appropriate and withholds it if necessary.

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Talking a Good Game men, the kabbalists returned home to women


of flesh and blood: their mothers, sisters,
For the kabbalists, Binah endows the world wives and daughters. The question of how
with form: the emanation that it receives from these women informed the mystical works
the higher sefirah of Hokhmah takes shape of the Zoharic circle is most fascinating, and
within her. This helps explain the kabbalistic unresolved. Quite plausibly, the women who
association of the two feminine sefirot with breastfed and raised their children, cooked,
the organs of language and speech - Malkhut cleaned and ran their households, also served
with the mouth, and Binah with the tongue. as the muses for such mythical figures as the
In midrashic and medieval Jewish writings, omniscient Matronita, the discerning and
women’s verbal skills are often stereotyped Biti Roi,
fecund Binah, or even the terrifying demonic
as gossip and chatter. The Zohar, however, a fellow at the
seductress with the sharpened sword.
chooses to emphasize, regarding women’s use Shalom Hartman
Historical evidence is too scanty to allow Institute, is a doctoral
of language, the ability to describe abstract us to determine whether such fanciful candidate at Bar-Ilan
entities and to differentiate one thing from imagery also reflected a more lenient University. A veteran
another. approach to patriarchal norms within the lecturer in Jewish
family and community. Bold literary visions philosophy, Kabbalah
In midrashic and medieval do not necessarily translate into practical and Hasidism, Biti
changes in cultural or economic life, or has taught at such
Jewish writings, women’s psychological adjustments in the day-to-day institutes as Drisha,
YCT Rabbinical
verbal skills are often world. Therefore, one must treat with caution
any claims that that the kabbalists were the School and Stern

stereotyped as gossip and


College. She is a
precursors of contemporary feminism.
former Jerusalem

chatter. One must treat with


Fellow at the
Mandel Institute
for Educational
Furthermore, in the Jewish tradition, the caution any claims that Leadership.
world was created through speech. In rabbinic
midrashim, and in the ancient mystical text that the kabbalists
Sefer Yetzira (“Book of Creation”), the world
is created by ten divine statements. For
were the precursors of
the medieval kabbalists, Binah’s procreative contemporary feminism.
and discerning attributes and Malkhut’s
association with the mouth converge in olam During the next golden age of Kabbalah, in
hadibur, “the realm of speech.” In addition to 16th century Safed, the Zoharic tradition was
its divine connotations, this “realm of speech” further elaborated and enriched. Shabbat
was also the mundane domain in which the hymns such as Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz’s Lecha
kabbalists lived and worked, spending most Dodi depicted the holy day as queen and bride.
of their time talking to one another as they The leader of the Safed kabbalists, Rabbi Isaac
studied Torah and endeavored to decipher Luria (the “Ari”), established a custom whereby
the secrets of its language. a man would kiss the hand of his mother at
But since women were barred from joining the hour that Shabbat began, as a symbolic
in such lofty activities, it is rather ironic that greeting of the Shekhinah. Such a gesture,
abstract feminine entities were designated reflecting respect for real women and their
to define the essence of kabbalists’ daily mystical counterpart, provides one charming
practice. After a hard day of contemplating example of how kabbalists wove their abstract
the feminine aspect of the divinity with other ideas into the fabric of daily life.

HAVRUTA | 69
Who is In and
Who is Out
The Two Voices of Ruth

A small ancient book captures both the spirit of feminism and the
durability of patriarchal tradition

A brief, pastoral literary work is tucked among the books of the biblical
canon. It has no bloody battles, no immoral commands, no zealotry or
hatred. It is a much-loved little book, about which Rabbi Zeira said in the
Midrash: “This megillah tells us nothing of purity or impurity, of prohibition
or permission. For what purpose, then, was it written? To teach how great is
the reward of those who do deeds of kindness.” Its name: Megillat Ruth, the
Book (or “Scroll”) of Ruth.

{ By ORIT AVNERY

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Who is In and Who is Out /// Orit Avnery

Rabbi Zeira’s overall impression has been husband,” and he dies. Her two sons marry
confirmed and embellished by many Moabite women, and then also die; and “the
generations of scholars and teachers. It woman was left without her two sons and
is echoed annually by pulpit rabbis on the without her husband.” Before, she was “his
holiday Shavuot, when this megillah is read in wife;” now he is “her husband.”
the synagogue. Yet the pleasant, cozy nature The very first voices to be heard are those
of the Book of Ruth masks its contradictions of women: the Jewish woman Naomi and
and complexities, which derive from ancient her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and
Moab and Bethlehem and continue to Orpah. Throughout the megillah, women are
resonate in Jewish life. at the center of conversation, as speakers
and as subjects; indeed women are present
Can the fringes of Jewish in every scene of the story. When Naomi
tries to persuade her sons’ widows to
society become a part of return to their Moabite families, she uses
an unusual expression: “Turn back, each of
the center? you to her mother’s house,” as opposed to
the more commonplace “father’s house.” The
The Book of Ruth tells the story of a wording underscores the idea that at a time
marginal character, and deals with an of grief, a woman needs a supportive female
important question: Can the fringes of environment. Only there can the widows
Jewish society become a part of the center? regain their strength and rebuild their lives.
Ruth, a childless, non-Jewish widow, arrives
in Bethlehem from her native Moab. Her
travels are over, but a new, more difficult Throughout the megillah,
journey begins: one that crosses boundaries
of gender, nationality and religion. On all
women are at the center
these topics, the Book of Ruth does not deliver of conversation, as
a single, clear-cut opinion. It may be argued,
in fact, that the text of this megillah offers the speakers and as subjects.
reader two different paths of interpretation,
each buttressed by a selective analysis of the All through the Book of Ruth, women are
material. Let us consider these in turn. portrayed as active and decisive, taking the
initiative, able to set goals and achieve them.
The Harmony of Women Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing-floor
The first option is to see the Book of Ruth (goren in Hebrew), albeit with the caution of
from a feminist, somewhat subversive a conservative older woman: “And he will tell
perspective, in which the gentile woman you what you are to do.” Whereas Ruth, a
wins in the end and is accepted by Jewish spirited young woman with a will of her own,
society. Indeed the world of women and turns to Boaz and tells him explicitly what to
female solidarity are at the center of the do: “Spread your robe over your handmaid,
story. When Naomi’s husband and two sons for you are a redeeming kinsman.” Boaz,
die, what at first seemed like a story about aroused by the assertive woman who stands
men quickly and decisively shifts into a story before him, readily complies and goes one
about women. The first verse of the book better: “I will do for you whatever you
introduces “a man of Bethlehem ... he and his ask.” The narrative even contains a hint of
wife and his two sons.” But two verses later, mockery: The manly Boaz is a leader in his
the man, Elimelech, is identified as “Naomi’s community, and commands respect as a

HAVRUTA | 71
farmer and man of wealth. Now, he falls This creative interpretation of Torah
into the web of a young woman, ready to do law is compounded by a greater subversion:
everything according to her wishes. apparent disregard for the rules governing
Boaz was a kinsman of Ruth’s dead membership in the Jewish people – who is in
husband, and Naomi sends Ruth to the goren and who is out. The Torah, after all, forbids
in the hope that the resultant intimacy will marriage with Moabites:
Naomi, Ruth and Orpah,
by William Blake, 1795.
end up in marriage, and in the preservation An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter
of her son’s stake in the lands of Bethlehem, into the congregation of the Lord; to their
as well as her own family connection with tenth generation shall they not enter into
Ruth. According to the Torah, the brother of the congregation of the Lord forever;
a man who dies childless is required to take because they met you not with bread and
the man’s widow for a wife, to continue his with water in the way, when you came out
family line. (This practice, known as levirate of Egypt; and because they hired against
marriage, is called yibbum in Hebrew.) Boaz you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of
is not a brother, but Naomi and Ruth adapt Mesopotamia, to curse you. (Deuteronomy
the law to their own purposes. 23:4-5)

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This rationale for the prohibition surely the rest of the people bless the marriage of
does not apply in the case of Ruth, who proved Boaz and Ruth, the foreigner who is now at
by her actions that she had not maintained the center of family and history.
the hostile tradition of her people vis-à-vis In the biblical stories of Lot and his
the Israelites. Thus, according to the Book of daughters and of Judah and his daughter-in-
Ruth, what happens in practice overrides the law Tamar, sexual transgression, initiated by
formal stricture of Deuteronomy. strong women, is a source of tribal and even
What is more, the marriage of Boaz and human continuity. Here, Ruth breaks protocol
Ruth creates not only a personal family and takes risks, as if in the knowledge that
dynasty but a national one, the house of only such a move will assure the continuance
David, their great-grandson. Ruth the of Jewish history. Sometimes, these stories
Moabite moves from the margin to the center, teach us, it is necessary to step outside the
and enters the national pantheon. This is law in order to maintain the tradition.
perhaps the true greatness of this megillah: More than anything, the Book of Ruth
the recognition that mingling with the Other, describes a friendship between two women
even members of a hostile group, may be the unlike any other in the Bible. Ruth’s
foundation of growth and continuity. The motives – compassion, loyalty, and love –
Book of Ruth is willing to base the Davidic never appear elsewhere in a relationship
monarchy on an act of deviance that flouts between women. Again and again, women
the rules – indeed a law intended to protect are portrayed as competitive and jealous.
the continuity of the community. Cases of female rivalry are the biblical norm:
The megillah describes a process of Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Hannah
transition – from the outside to the inside, and Peninah, and even the two prostitutes
from foreignness to acceptance – and who appear with the baby in front of King
Ruth clearly represents the essence of the Solomon. The Book of Ruth provides an
foreigner. In general, the Bible stresses the alternative model. True, Ruth and Naomi
physical beauty of its heroines, but in Ruth’s are not sharing a man, but they could, after
case, her looks are never described. It does all, represent conflicting interests. The older
not matter if she was pretty or not. She is woman wants to preserve the memory of her
a faceless heroine, liberated of gender, freed husband and son; the younger wants a family
from the patriarchal male gaze. of her own. Yet there is harmony between
Ruth has come a long way. When she them, and they take care of one another.
arrived in Bethlehem together with her
mother-in-law, it was Naomi who was the
center of local attention. But by the end of The Book of Ruth
the megillah, the city elders allow her to enter
the town gate, ritualizing her entry into the
describes a friendship
community. Until now, she has been on the between two women
outside: on the road with Naomi, gleaning in
the field of Boaz, leaving the city for the goren. unlike any other in the
Only in the fourth chapter, in the scene of the
“redemption” of the inheritance, at the town
Bible.
gate, is she permitted to enter the house of
Boaz. The gate is a symbolic locus of social The biblical text uses the verb davkah in
definition: the elders sit as gatekeepers, Ruth 1:14: “Ruth held fast to her,” i.e. Naomi.
determining who is in and who is out. At the More commonly, that same Hebrew verb
climactic moment of the story, the elders and applies to man and woman, as in Genesis

HAVRUTA | 73
2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father child-bearer. Ruth, in the end, turns her
and his mother, and shall cleave [v’davak] to back on her own heritage in order to carry
his wife; and they shall be one flesh.” Just forth her husband’s name. She serves as
as a man moves from his biological family to an example of a woman who is loyal, first
his wife, so too does Ruth leave her parents and foremost, to her husband – a willing
and cling to her mother-in-law Naomi. It is a participant in the male-centered story that
female bond, based on love and responsibility, gives power and honor to men, and lists only
caring and belonging. fathers and male children in the account of
Generally, the relationships of biblical the family saga.
woman are mediated by men. The Book Yes, Ruth is industrious and proactive,
of Ruth asks: how do daughter-in-law and as we have seen. Yet the erotic scene at the
mother-in-law relate to each other after threshing-floor conforms to a patriarchal
the son has died? Are they like mother and picture of woman as seductress. Moreover,
daughter? Or is it more like a marriage? It is it is not this encounter that carries weight;
an independent tie that exists beyond men, it is the scene at the city gate, where ten men
beyond women’s roles in a patriarchal society. (and only men) decide who may enter the
When Ruth’s son is born, Naomi takes him community, that really matters. Only now
to her bosom, and the neighborhood women may Boaz and Ruth be legally married in the
give him his name, Obed. The closing scene eyes of the male-dominated collective.
of the megillah is all about women. The new
baby is not related to Mahlon, Ruth’s late
husband. The child ties the women together, The erotic scene at the
Ruth and Naomi, and brings them both a gift threshing-floor conforms
of new life.
to a patriarchal picture of
A Son has been Born to Naomi
woman as seductress.
This comforting, liberal and feminist reading,
however, is not the only interpretation
available. The text of Ruth also undermines
these conclusions, and presents women In the process, women are turned from
and foreigners as utterly marginal to the actors into objects. Ruth, who initiated
normative patriarchal system. The book the whole process, becomes the object of
begins as a man’s story – “and a man of contractual acquisition, handed over to Boaz
Bethlehem of Judah went to sojourn in the in the same fashion that he acquires the lands
country of Moab” – and ends with the lineage of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. Boaz’s
of men: “Now these are the generations words “to the elders and all the people” clearly
of Peretz ...” The very last verse suggests summarize the transaction, and support a
that the entire justification of this megillah patriarchal reading of the whole story:
derives from the birth of David, as if the You are witnesses this day, that I have
women in the story are supporting players bought all that was Elimelech’s and all that
in a male drama. The women may have been was Kilion’s and Mahlon’s from the hand
instrumental in solving a family problem, of Naomi. And also Ruth the Moabite, the
but their activity is but a subplot, behind the wife of Mahlon, have I bought to be my
scenes of the main narrative. wife, to restore the name of the dead to his
Indeed, the women too seem to see inheritance, so that the name of the dead
“The Gleaners,” Bible
illustration by Gustave themselves as part of a patriarchal system. shall not be cut off from among his brothers,
Doré (1832-1883). Naomi’s agenda focuses on woman’s role as and from the gate of his place. (Ruth 4:9-10)

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HAVRUTA | 75
The fourth and last chapter of this slender Conservative Subversion
book brings us back into the light of day,
the real world of social relations based on Where does this leave us? The megillah
gender, nationality and status. It is thus not presents a subversive female story, yet
surprising that Ruth retires to the sidelines it is wrapped in a standard patriarchal
and Boaz takes center stage. It is he, not she, package. Ruth the outsider enters
who receives the blessing of the elders. Nor Bethlehem and marries Boaz, but by the
is her name explicitly mentioned: “The Lord end her voice is silenced. At the start, she
make the woman that has come into your speaks, acts and initiates, only to become
house like Rachel and like Leah, who both the object of a business transaction, with
built the house of Israel.” The absence of her her child attributed to Naomi. The Torah
name, in a story about the perpetuation of law of levirate marriage is adapted with
names, is doubly significant. Her role is to flexibility, yet rigid patriarchal structures
carry the seed of Boaz – and her identity, in continue intact. And the Moabite origin of
the end, is unimportant. the House of David, bold and trangressive
Consider, too, the birth of Ruth’s male though it may be, is enclosed within a
child. Naomi takes the baby to her breast, and conventional narrative of a dynasty of
it is she who is blessed by the other women: Jewish males.
“Blessed be the Lord, which has not left you
this day without a redeemer, that his name
The megillah presents
may be famous in Israel ... A son has been
born to Naomi.” By displacing the birth onto
a subversive female
Naomi, the women emphasize its significance
story, yet it is wrapped
for the tribe of Judah, and even suggest that
Ruth cannot be fully trusted to give the boy a
proper Jewish upbringing. in a standard patriarchal
Ruth’s identity, in the end, package.
is unimportant.
This doubleness, in my view, is the right
way to read Ruth. Neither the feminist nor
One comes away with the impression
that at the end of the megillah that bears the patriarchal interpretation will do on
her name, Ruth is divested of her needs and its own, for the text itself is polyphonic,
her individuality. Throughout, all the local speaking in more than a single voice. David
characters, from the “servants who was set Biale, in Eros and the Jews, has it right when
over the reapers” in the fields of Boaz to the he says that the Book of Ruth “at once
elders at the gate, regard Ruth coldly, as a reinforces and subverts patriarchy,” though
Moabite. Boaz, who accepts and embraces her, not many other scholars have taken this
is the exception who proves the rule. Overall, point of view. Readers who acknowledge
the community of Bethlehem considers Ruth the mixed messages of the text, and are
to be a surrogate mother, a womb for hire. willing to absorb them all, are best able
Until her child is born, she is of no interest to construct a full picture of the complex
to the local women, and even after the birth, reality they reflect.
she is shunted aside in favor of Naomi, one of The Book of Ruth, it is generally held,
their own. And Naomi, too, is but a secondary was written in the 4th or 5th century
player in the narrative of patriarchal lineage. BCE, in the period of the return from

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Zion following the Babylonian captivity. within the Jewish people. It is as if two
The megillah reflects a fierce and painful schools of thought sat down together to
polemic that was central to Jewish life in write the same story, from different points
that era, on a subject that remains difficult of view: one in support of accepting foreign
in our own time: intermarriage. women, and the other opposed. Thus the
The Jewish communities in the Land of Book of Ruth is the embodiment of the
Israel in those days were then composed polemic itself, not an argument for one
of three groups: Jews who had remained position or the other.
behind and were not exiled to Babylon; Beyond that, the book is a literary work
Jews who returned from exile; and non- that touches in many subtle ways upon Orit Avnery,
Jews who accompanied the returning exiles such enduring issues as one’s relation to a fellow at the
– many of them gentile women married to the other – to those who are different, Shalom Hartman
Israelites. Tensions were high, as evidenced marginal, foreign, alien. Its chosen heroine Institute, is
by the order of Ezra the priestly scribe that is as foreign as they come – a Moabite – and completing her
Jewish men must “put away” and “separate its center, Bethlehem, is the home territory doctorate in Bible
from” their “alien” or “foreign” women of the Israelite monarchy. The peaceful studies at Bar-Ilan
University. Orit
(Ezra 10), and also the disturbing scene Megillat Ruth is a potentially explosive
lectures at a variety
described in Nehemiah 13: text, precisely because it does not judge of venues, including
which of its voices is more compelling, or Pelech High School
Also in those days I saw Jews who had
require the reader to do so. It does not say and Midreshet
married women of Ashdod, of Ammon,
that all foreign women should be accepted: Lindenbaum.
and of Moab; and half their children
Ruth is portrayed as an exceptional person
spoke in the language of Ashdod, and
with unique qualities. On the other hand,
could not speak the language of Judah,
the text does not call for barring the door
but according to the language of each
to all those who are different from “us.” All
people. And I quarreled with them, and
in all, it tells the story of a Moabite woman
cursed them, and struck some of them,
who not only joined the people of Israel,
and pulled off their hair, and made them
but became a central figure in its royal
swear by God, saying, “You shall not
dynasty.
give your daughters to their sons, nor
When both sides see themselves as
take their daughters for your sons, or for
partners in the same polyphonic story,
yourselves.”
it may be simultaneously told as a tale
of radical subversion and one of classic
The Book of Ruth conservatism, with each side balancing the
other. The main point is that both sides of
constitutes a frank the controversy have a stake in the national
story, and each recognizes the other as
composite of conflicting integral to the big picture. Only then can
voices within the Jewish they begin to find a sensitive, cautious
solution that both preserves the traditional
people. system and enables it, at the same time, to
meet the challenges of changing times. A
solution that gives fresh meaning to the
Considered in this context, it would prescription of Rabbi Zeira: “To teach how
seem that the Book of Ruth constitutes great is the reward of those who do deeds
a frank composite of conflicting voices of kindness.”

HAVRUTA | 77
Afikoman /// Old Texts for New Times

“Without Regard
to Gender”
A Halachic Treatise by
the First Woman Rabbi

T he name Regina Jonas is not well known, though it


should be.  Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas, as she preferred
to be called, received her rabbinical ordination in Berlin
in 1935: she was the first woman rabbi.  The second was
Sally Priesand, who was famously ordained 37 years later
at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

{ By LAURA MAJOR

78 | Summer 2010
“Without Regard to Gender” /// Laura Major

Jonas died in Auschwitz in 1944. It was institutions of the community.” But as rabbis
only after the Berlin Wall fell in 1991, began to flee abroad with the worsening
and previously inaccessible archives Nazi persecution and men were taken to
suddenly became available, that she concentration camps, Jonas, who refused
Jonas was fully returned to history.  Her to leave Germany, found herself filling a gap
ordination certificate, her contract with in Berlin synagogues. As the situation for
the Berlin Jewish community, newspaper Jews deteriorated, Jonas too had to perform
articles by and about her, photos, and forced labor in a factory, where she continued
personal correspondence all shed light on to preach and lift the spirits of those that
this intriguing character and establish came to listen.
her historical status as the first female In 1942 Jonas was deported to
rabbi.  These materials form the basis of Theresienstadt, the Nazi’s “model” ghetto.
an excellent biography, Fraulein Rabbiner There she met the psychoanalyst Viktor
Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, by Frankl, the future Auschwitz survivor and
Elisa Klapheck, a German-born scholar now acclaimed author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
serving as rabbi of the Egalitarian Minyan of Frankl, who was in charge of “psychic
Frankfurt am Main hygiene” at the camp, appointed Jonas to
Regina Jonas, born in Berlin in 1902, receive new trainloads of Jews and comfort
originally became a teacher, as was common the shocked and frightened passengers. She
for young women. Soon enough, striving worked indefatigably until, in October 1944,
higher, she enrolled in the Hochschule für die she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz.
Wissenschaft des Judentums, Berlin’s Academy Before her deportation to Theresienstadt,
for the Science of Judaism, an academic Jonas had placed her documents in the care
seminary for liberal rabbis and educators. of the Berlin Jewish community. These files,
A traditionalist, Jonas did not completely which collected dust for fifty years, include
identify with the liberal stream of Judaism, Jonas’s halachic treatise, a few highlights of
but knew that the Orthodox rabbinical which are discussed below.*
seminaries were closed to her. She graduated
in 1930, having completed the same course Jonas did not completely
of study as her male colleagues and written a
halachic treatise entitled “Can Women Serve
identify with the liberal
as Rabbis?” But it was not until 1935 – just stream of Judaism, but
after the Nazi Nuremburg Laws had revoked
her rights as a Jew – that she received knew the Orthodox
ordination, privately, from Max Dienemann,
the liberal rabbi of Frankfurt am Main.
rabbinical seminaries
Her acceptance as a rabbi was certainly were closed to her.
not immediate or universal, and she
struggled to find a pulpit position in Berlin.
Quite surprisingly, Berlin’s Orthodox rabbi, In this treatise, Jonas searches traditional
Felix Singermann, not only addressed her sources for reasons why a woman can hold
as Rabbinerin, but also sent her a letter religious office. While the Reform movement
expressing his “deeply felt congratulations” at abandoned the binding nature of halacha in
the “good news.” In 1937 she was contracted order to allow innovation – which eventually
by the Berlin Jewish Community to serve as
* The full text of “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” appears in Elisa Klapheck,
a teacher with academic qualifications and to Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi (Jossey-Bass/John
“provide rabbinic pastoral care in the social Wiley & Sons, 2004.) Translated from the German by Toby Axelrod.

HAVRUTA | 79
included the ordination of women – Jonas Regina Jonas, “Can Women Serve
supports no such rejection. She uses biblical
and rabbinic texts to prove why women’s
as Rabbis?”
participation in public life is permissible Jonas’s treatise is structured around the
and desirable. She is thus a forerunner of duties of a rabbi. She begins by listing nine
contemporary Orthodox women who now such obligations:
seek ways to reconcile women’s public and
liturgical roles with Jewish law. 1. The rabbi must be well versed in the
most important Jewish writings of both a
She is a forerunner of spiritual and secular nature, particularly
the Torah shebichtav [written Torah] and
contemporary Orthodox Torah sheba’al peh [Oral Torah].
women who now seek 2. He must teach others, both children and

ways to reconcile women’s adults.


3. He must be active as a preacher in the
public and liturgical roles synagogue and in addition must deliver

with Jewish law. religious addresses for funerals, weddings


and bar mitzvahs.
4. He must fulfill actively the requirements
Then as now, this was a controversial for marriages and for the get [divorce
stance, as evidenced by an editorial decree], chalitza [the ceremony in which
published in 1931 on the “women’s page” of a shoe is removed, symbolically freeing a
the liberal journal Israelitisches Familienblatt brother-in-law from marrying his deceased
in response to a lecture delivered by Jonas on brother’s widow], and the acceptance of
the ordination of women: gerim [converts].
One may say: neither we nor many 5. He must make halachic decisions,
valuable rabbis keep the tradition anyway pasken.
– why then should we be especially
prevented from ordaining women as 6. He should deliver talks outside the
rabbis, if we want and think we must do synagogue to arouse interest in Jewish
so. But one can not say: women as rabbis subjects among the Jewish community.
– that is in the spirit of the Talmud and 7. He should be available to help
Torah. congregants with personal matters related
Jonas bowed neither to the criticism to any distress of their soul.
from the liberal stream nor the Orthodox 8. He must work for social welfare, for
community. As she wrote in an article (also youth welfare, and for general communal
for the “women’s page”) of the Central-Verein welfare, as well as arbitrate in conflicts
Zeitung in 1938, she believed firmly that: between members.
God has placed abilities and callings in 9. And last but not least, obviously, he
our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus must lead an appropriate lifestyle by
each of us has the duty, whether man or following the religious teachings of
woman, to realize those gifts God has Judaism and fulfilling the tasks given him
given. If you look at things this way, one as leader of the community.
takes woman and man for what they are;
human beings.

80 | Summer 2010
“Without Regard to Gender” /// Laura Major

Jonas sets out to prove that “these tasks


apply to the male rabbi and therefore to the
female rabbi as well.” To that end, she first
surveys the Talmudic attitude to women
as well as biblical examples of how “when
women wished to and were able to express
themselves, no obstacle was placed in their
way as long as their work was valuable and
carried out in a solid way.” Interestingly,
throughout her treatise, she places great
emphasis on the notion of tsni’ut (modesty),
arguing that if women are to assume public
roles, they need to keep the traditional ideal
of modesty intact. On the other hand, she
subtly notes how modesty is sometimes
cynically invoked as an excuse to prevent the
participation of women in public religious
life. She also claims that modesty must be
considered in a cultural context:

[W]omen eagerly assumed religious


responsibility and were active alongside
men in public religious life, despite the
wonderful and ever-true Jewish term
tsni’ut, and the serious demeanor of
women meant that tsni’ut was never
disrespected by them. How wonderful
would it be if today’s women still wished to
keep the values of tsni’ut as already shown
by the quote of Rambam [Maimonides,
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut, 24.12], which
hints at contact between boys and girls
and discusses modest fashion, according
to which it was improper to reveal body
parts. Here, too, the sensibilities of Jewry
have apparently changed, unfortunately,
to the disadvantage of Jewish ideals.
Unfortunately, in strict halachically
observant circles, when these bounds in
particular are overstepped it is not seen as
a transgression against the law, though the
transgression is stated clearly. “God has placed abilities
and callings in our
But when it comes to a relaxing of the hearts”: Memorial
plaque, Berlin, 2001.
religious ban [against women participating
Text by Jonas from the
in public religious life] in the loosest sense Central-Verein Zeitung in
of the word, in which the justification of 1938.

HAVRUTA | 81
Anti-Semitism and Jewish Money /// Stuart Schoffman

restricted women from certain religious


responsibilities and actions, were quite
fitting and earn the highest respect –
however, today, where woman is clearly
present in public life and accomplishes
practical tasks in cooperation with men,
contact has become casual. As a result, her
presence among men, even in a house of
God, is no longer sexually stimulating to
men and certainly not to women. Many
decrees of our sages were withdrawn,
as we earlier have seen; particularly
concerning this kind of tsni’ut, they lose
much of their severity.
To support this argument, Jonas quotes
the book Derech Pikudecha (The Path of
Your Commandments), a commentary on
Torah law by the Hasidic master Rabbi
Zvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov, published
in 1874. The quoted passage displays a
strikingly pragmatic understanding of the
issue at hand:

[I]t must be said that during the time


when the “Keren Yisrael” [glory of Israel]
was in its proper place (that is when all
was well in Yisrael) , and the economic
situation of Israel was excellent, one saw
no woman outside the house, because,
they were not involved in trade. If a
tsni’ut is given, as regarding the religious
man had an opportunity to see a woman
activity of a woman in the service, whereas
it was something special, it seized his
certainly seriousness, good manners, and
thoughts and his heart with fantasies –
pure motivation are guiding her, because
which does not happen anymore; today
most women long for this, it nevertheless is
under the burden of life in the Diaspora
looked upon as a “destruction” of Judaism.
Rabbi Sally Priesand
and the difficulties of earning a living,
at her ordination, How beneficial it could be to have a women work in the trades. It is nothing
Cincinnati, 1972. Photo woman in the rabbinic role to reclaim the special to see women, it is a matter of
courtesy of American lost meaning of tsni’ut by example and being accustomed, it does not excite the
Jewish Archives, Hebrew
Union College-Jewish through teaching. fantasies of a man.
Institute of Religion,
Cincinnati.
In spite of everything, in dealing with Jonas rejected the notion that women
the theme at hand, one must, as is often were intellectually incapable of performing
repeated here, take both the changing rabbinic duties. She responds to Maimonides’
times and the sensibilities of earlier times contention that women cannot learn Torah
into account. In previous days, the decrees “lefi ani’ut da’atan” [because of the poorness
of our sages of blessed memory, which of their intellect]:

82 | Summer 2010
“Without Regard to Gender” /// Laura Major

First of all, if she displays “intellectual She quotes a passage from Berakhot 10a
poorness” or inferior appreciation for that testifies to Beruria’s “talmudic agility
the things to be learned, she cannot be and the delicacy of her soul:”
condemned [for this] . . . Is it any wonder,
given that women were kept so long from
In the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir there
free exercise of their intellectual powers,
lived some thugs who tormented him
that [a woman’s] lack of education resulted
greatly, and Rabbi Meir prayed that they
in her being less able than the man to
should die. Then his wife Beruria said to
follow a subject deeply when confronted
him: “How do you justify this? It is written
with it. Is it any wonder that she remains
(Psalms 104:35), ‘Let sins cease,’ but that
intellectually awkward . . . if her only
does not mean the sinners, only the sins.
occupation were in the home and her
Furthermore, look at the end of the verse,
education only oriented toward family
‘and let the wicked be no more.’ If the sins
matters?! Too often, others directed her
are eradicated, does it mean that there
attention to superficial matters, leaving
are no more evildoers? You should rather
no room for anything more difficult. But
pray for mercy for them, so that they will
as we have seen, nevertheless, important
repent.” From then on he prayed for mercy
women have lifted themselves from the
for them, and they repented.
rest exactly with regard to this. There is
one single remedy for all these deficits One of Jonas’s most inventive arguments
that “cling” to the woman, and that is was her contention that women, as
intellectual education; because the powers housekeepers, were well-suited to the role of
available to humans will atrophy if not pasken, i.e. the making of halachic decisions.
used!
Jonas cites numerous examples of Their entire work as household
learned women in history, focusing “supervisor” is [in effect] pasken. This
particularly on the famous Beruria, wife is possible for in this area she knows
of Rabbi Meir. Talmudic accounts prove something: no one else can represent
Beruria to be intelligent, witty, and her and therefore she had the chance
“showing no tiflut (frivolity) or divrey to demonstrate in practice that she can
hevel (trivial words), as is so often said in summon the requisite understanding and
later discussions about the intelligence seriousness for such matters.
of women.” Jonas was apparently also If she now has a career as a rabbi and must
gifted in wit and humor, yet, like Beruria, make decisions in other areas in which she
disdained frivolity. As evidence of has studied, then nothing revolutionary
Beruria’s erudition, Jonas cites Rabbi has happened. With the seriousness that
Yohanan’s response to a “young disciple” her job entails, she puts into practice
(BT Pesahim 62b): something that women long were allowed
to do in the household, only to a greater
Now if Beruria, the wife of R. Meir and the extent . . . and therefore does not offend
daughter of Hananya ben Teradyon, who Jewish sensibilities. It is written that “one
would learn in a day three hundred rulings relies upon women,” so it is not foreign to
from three hundred myriad rulings, and Judaism if this “support” is broadened from
even she did not succeed in learning it in the narrow, permitted range into a larger
three years, and you say that you want to one of pasken, to which in principle there is
finish it in three months! no objection.

HAVRUTA | 83
Jonas then discusses the matter of The final issue that Jonas tackles
sermons delivered by women. Once again, in depth involves issues of marriage
she addresses the issue of tsni’ut, shifting and divorce. Here, Jonas admits, the
some of the burden to men: challenges are formidable, but they are
not insurmountable. The difficulty mainly
That something such as tsni’ut should stems from the halachic prohibition against
prevent her from preaching is also not women serving as witnesses in a rabbinical
acceptable, for certainly in her dress she court, a beit din. Jonas’s strategy is to
would not be taken in by the “fashionable downplay the rabbi’s role:
frivolity” to which unfortunately the world
of our women today have surrendered, What does the rabbi actually do al pi din
as she must wear the clothing befitting [according to law] in these aforementioned
to her job. Her hair likewise is covered cases? Properly speaking, nothing except
and the appearance of the woman to men for a minor involvement with the get.
during the sermon need not give rise to That he is present at marriages in his
any halachic objections as it can only be a rabbinic capacity and delivers a talk is a
fleeting glimpse, and it is to be expected modern custom that has nothing to do
that a serious man pays attention in a with halacha. Similarly with the get, his
strictly religious mood during the services. presence is not absolutely necessary . . .
Jonas indeed dressed according to the Where is it forbidden that women can be
highest standards of modesty, and also mesader ha-get [one who facilitates a divorce
believed, according to her biographer Elisa decree]? . . . One should not underestimate,
Klapheck, that a woman rabbi should with regard to this procedure in religious life,
remain single and chaste. In the summer particularly with what precedes the delivery
of 1939, however, Jonas fell in love with of the get, that women have a special ability
Rabbi Dr. Joseph Norden, a widower thirty to overcome some of the difficulties that
years her senior. The feelings were mutual, arise through the ill will of one member of a
as evidenced by Norden’s correspondence couple, or even to prevent the divorce.
with Jonas. Klapheck documents their love The concluding words of Jonas’s treatise
affair, but admits that “it is hard to know reflect the passion of her belief and her
how far the relationship went.” Her personal rabbinic mission:
conflicts aside, Jonas was firmly convinced
that women rabbis are a necessity, bringing Finally, the lifestyle of the rabbi is
to the pulpit qualities that men cannot addressed. It goes without saying, but it
deliver: still much must be firmly emphasized, that
only those men and women should devote
Just as both female doctors and teachers themselves to the job of rabbi, teacher,
in time have become a necessity from and custodian of Jewish ideas who are
a psychological standpoint, so has the suffused with Jewish spirit, Jewish self-
female rabbi. There are even some confidence, Jewish morality, purity and
things that women can say to youth, Jewish holiness, who could say, together
which cannot be said by the man in the with the prophet Jeremiah (20:9): “But his
pulpit. Her experiences, her psychological word was in my heart like a burning fire
observations are profoundly different shut up in my bones…”
from those of a man, therefore she has a
different style. I must fight for God.

84 | Summer 2010