Rosh Hashanah prayers, as depicted in the 18th century // Copyright Wikimedia Commons
My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2002 and the holiday began just a few surreal hours after I stood at his open grave. The shiva — the seven-day period of formal mourning — was cancelled to usher in the New Year. With a truncated shiva behind me, I debuted as a congregational mourner on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Arguably, the busiest day of the year in the synagogue, I stood up in front of 800 people to recite the Kaddish — effectively a love song to God whom I felt didn’t deserve my adoration.
The feminist, poet and liturgist Marcia Falk had a similar experience. In 1978, her father Abraham Abbey Falk died midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and her grieving was cut short by the advent of the Day of Atonement. After three days of shiva, Falk braced herself to mourn in a crowded synagogue. But the public face she tried to show faded away when she was confronted with the somber, terrifying words of the Un’taneh Tokef. The thousand year-old prayer, written by an unknown author in Northern Europe, is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy.
In a recent presentation at Brandeis University sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Falk noted that her ambivalent relationship with the Un’taneh Tokef was the inspiration for her latest book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, And Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.. “The Un’taneh Tokef” she said, “is a listing, a repentance. The message it conveyed to me, five days after losing my father, was that if he had been a pious, righteous and repentant man the decree would have been averted and he would not be dead. No one actually believed that, but nonetheless the words were hurtful and unhelpful.”
There is a rumor going around that Orthodox feminists are just Conservative Jews in disguise, or perhaps in denial.
I’ve heard this idea in many settings. I was at a dinner last year honoring Jewish feminists when a woman at my table — a Conservative rabbi and prolific writer whom I greatly admire — reproached me. “Why do all you Orthodox feminists think that what you’re doing is so amazing?” she demanded. “The women in the Conservative movement have been fighting these battles for 40 years. You are just barely catching up.” Last month, my dear friend Hillary Gordon echoed similar sentiments in a blog post she wrote about my recent book event in Jerusalem. “Why can’t the Orthodox recognize that other women have come before them and fought the same fight?” she asks. “Why is it that because it was done by Conservative or Reform Jewish women it is not legitimate according to the Orthodox?” Almost the exact same line appeared a couple of weeks ago in the comment section of Frimet Goldberger’s blog post about Orthodox feminists. Frimet dared to write that Conservative Judaism is not an option for her, to which a commenter replied, “Do I detect some judgementalism in those words?? ….Is there a suggestion here that the Conservative observance of Shabbat is less ‘full’ or somewhat deficient from the more authentic Orthodox one??”
Editor’s Note: This article is a response to Avital Chizhik’s article which called for Orthodox feminism to seek to open the minds of women, not just to emulate the ritual practice of men.
(Ha’aretz) — Dear Ms. Chizhik,
I - a high-school student - write to you from a community in which your proposals for “real empowerment” have already been implemented.
In the Modern Orthodox day schools I have attended all my life, I have been “educated for the sake of education and not simply vocation.” I have been “taught to hold [myself] with dignity and confidence, encouraged to speak and build and succeed, entrusted with the best of secular knowledge, history, literature, sciences, politics.” I am a religious woman who “speaks proper English and Hebrew, and identifie[s] as [a] citizen of a greater society.” I have, because of my education, become “tolerant and unafraid of the outside,” and I “turn to the world with an unwavering confidence in [my] own faith and strength.”
Historian Melissa R. Klapper recently won a National Jewish Book Award for “Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940.” In the book, Klapper, a professor of history at Rowan University in New Jersey, shows us that decades before Steinem and Friedan became households names, Jewish feminists were already working to make the United States a fairer, more just society.
The Sisterhood recently spoke with Prof. Klapper about the birth control battles of the 1870s, the Jewish push for suffrage, why peace was once considered a women’s issue and the Jewish women activists you really should know about.
THE SISTERHOOD: Why did you decide to write this book?
PROF. KLAPPER: From my early days as a graduate student in American women’s history, I was disturbed by the near absence of Jewish women from the larger narratives of American women’s lives and history, with the possible exception of the labor movement. Even historians who acknowledged the outsize role American Jewish women played in second-wave feminism didn’t seem to have much interest in the earlier activism of American Jewish women. So I thought it would be interesting to explore their participation in the great women’s social movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and to make the case that both the American Jewish community and first-wave feminism were transformed by Jewish women’s activism.
Move over Mommy Wars, breastfeeding wars and other categories of intra-feminist warfare. The selfie wars have arrived. Soon after “selfie” — a picture one takes of oneself — was proclaimed word of the year, the debate over the value of selfies began.
Erin Gloria Ryan caused a furor when she wrote at Jezebel that selfies concern her:
Retaking a photo 12 times until your chin looks right is in no way analogous to asking your boss for a raise. Nor is it the sort of self-promotion that results in anything but a young woman reinforcing the socially-engrained notion that the most valuable thing she has to offer the world is her looks.
There are so many stories in the news emerging from the Orthodox community about boys in the religious community — literally from here to Australia — that it’s hard to keep track. Ben Hirsch, director of Survivors for Justice, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for Orthodox sex abuse victims, has recently been quoted as saying that over 50 percent of Orthodox boys are victims. “It has almost become a rite of passage,” he said.
These stories are all gruesome and painful, and they all have in common that they took place in Jewish religious institutions, the alleged assailants protected by adult men in positions of power.
The Orthodox community is relatively new at dealing with the issue of sexual abuse of boys. The community at large isn’t even that experienced at addressing sexual abuse in general, and yet for male victims, the obstacles to healing and justice are compounded. For men and boys, in addition to the physical and emotional pains of sexual violence, there are also difficult layers of shame, fear of being labeled a homosexual, feelings of being deemed effeminate, and an overall confusion and discomfort around the question of how rape happens to men. And in all these cases in which the perpetrator is a man in authority — religious authority no less — the attacks can leave the victim with severe and long-term trust issues.
Abstinence-only education doesn’t achieve its intended goal: preventing pregnancy. The American states with the highest teen pregnancy rates employ abstinence-only education in their schools. And while abstinence-only lessons by definition don’t include the efficacy of various birth control methods, leaving students without basic knowledge, they also often shame young women, too. In particularly heinous examples, sexually active women are compared to chewed-up pieces of gum cups with spit in them, or flowers with the petals torn off.
Fortunately, some young people don’t take the claptrap that the abstinence peddlers, well, peddle. In the midst of the Boston Marathon horror, you may have missed the amazing story of Katelyn Campbell, a young student leader who stood up to the bullies at her West Virginia school.
A young woman from a strict Orthodox family clashes with her father, leaves home and finds a home of sorts in the “Movement” — first the New Left of the 1960s, then the explosion of radical feminism out of that group’s fed-up female contingent. Her forward-thinking writing and organizing electrifies this new “wave” of feminism, but after infighting and teardowns within its ranks, she finds herself exiled and suffering from mental illness — and despite comrades’ efforts to intervene (efforts that are successful for a time), she ends up dying alone.
Pioneering feminist Shulamith Firestone’s life, as chronicled by Susan Faludi in a compelling New Yorker piece, reads like the outline of a tragic 20th century novel, an inside-out “American Pastoral” where the radical woman is the put-upon, misunderstood genius of a heroine and the domineering, “straight” male figures the ruiners of her life.
For this heroine in particular, the personal was disturbingly political. Firestone’s abuse and control at the hands of the men in her religious family led her to theorize that the family unit itself was an extension of the brutal class oppression that another brilliant Jew, Karl Marx, described, with women and children as the kept-down proletariat.
On Monday, 10 women were detained for participating in prayers while reading from the Torah and wearing religious garments at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There are many wrongs in this event, but unfortunately, it will probably happen again until a major change occurs.
Israel is by definition a Democratic Jewish state. Ever since it was determined as such in 1948, the Orthodox rabbinates have held a lot of power. As a case in point, marriage and divorce can only be legal if performed by the official rabbinate of Israel. This means that some parts of the law discriminates against women. For example, if a husband dies before he and his wife have brought any children into the world, his brother must marry the widow — unless she approaches the rabbinate of Israel and requests a “Halitsa” ceremony. This biblical rule still exists in 2013.
I was born and raised in Israel, and unfortunately this means that although I disagree with the Orthodox rules that apply to all Israelis, I have learned to live with them. When it is my time to be married, I must take part in Orthodox ceremonies I do not agree with, such as the Mikveh, being “purchased” by my husband through a Ketubah, and more. This harsh reality cannot be changed, and I have reluctantly learned to accept it. But what I still cannot live with are the small things some very dark people with lots of power believe they are allowed to do.
If ever there was proof positive that a once-marginal feminist Jewish ritual is now mainstream, this is it: The latest Pottery Barn catalog touts a new seder plate — holding an orange.
The modern, leaf-themed Passover tabletop accouterment has seven compartments. In addition to spaces for the ritual re-telling’s traditional symbols, there’s a leaf meant to hold an orange, which is also featured in the catalog photo.
Including an orange on the seder plate dates back to the early 1980s, according to the innovation’s creator, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
As she relates, adding an orange grew out of her experience visiting Oberlin College, where she encountered a student-written feminist hagaddah. That hagaddah suggested putting a crust of bread — prohibited, of course, during the chametz-free festival — to express solidarity with lesbians and gay men after a rebbetzin had said, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Heschel decided, the following year, to put an orange on her family’s seder plate.
I had a jarring conversation with a young woman last week. In a discussion about the challenges women face in Orthodoxy, she turned to me with a cheeky smile and declared, “I am not a feminist.”
She described her perceptions of Shira Hadasha, the pioneering partnership synagogue in Jerusalem where men and women share certain roles in leading services and reading from Torah, mechitzah [partition] and all.
“I went there once and I was not impressed with the women,” she said, by way of explaining her aversion to feminism. “I came on time, but the other women came whenever they felt like it. They just weren’t committed. That’s why I’m not a feminist – because the women are not serious.”
“Serious” and “committed” are of course euphemisms for “Orthodox.” The ones who may come late to shul are “the feminists,” and obviously not Orthodox.
I’ve heard this argument before. The idea that women must be more ritually punctilious than the Chief Rabbi in order to “deserve” equal rights has been echoed in many corners of Orthodoxy – even in some feminist circles.