Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Relentless Way History Repeats

When I was in graduate school, studying Jewish history, we learned about the lacrimonious theory of Jewish history - the idea that Jewish history is basically a millennia-long tradition of persecution.

This perspective, most closely associated with Kevin MacDonald, a controversial professor of psychology at California State University, ignores the miracles, the achievements and the glories of Jewish history in favor of the oppressions, expulsions and massacres of Jews throughout the ages.

I mention this because I have been thinking about Jewish history quite a lot lately. I've been thinking about it because I feel very much like I'm living through it. Of course, in a very real sense, we are always living through history. What we consider our daily lives today will someday be taught as history to the generations that follow us.

But the burden of history today is much heavier today. The sense that we are reliving the history of European Jewry in the 1930s is much stronger, more palpable.

In the early 1930s, when the Nazis took over in Germany, approximately 38,000 German Jews (about 7% of the Jewish population) emigrated, primarily to neighboring European countries. Sadly, many of them were later rounded up when the Nazis took over those countries as well.

Today, we watch antisemitic acts, acts of terror and death, on a very frequent basis. In January, four Jews were killed in a kosher grocery store in Paris. This morning, there is news of an attack in a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark. These are just two incidents in a swirl of deadly antisemitism rising in Europe. The echo of the 1930s reverberates loudly.

It's an eerie feeling, living my daily life - writing for clients, buying groceries, having dinner with friends, doing laundry, making food for Shabbat - and knowing that the Jews are, once again, being targeted for death, just because we are Jews.

Most of my life, at least in this lifetime, I lived in a protected sphere of relatively mild antisemitism. Decades ago, a friend from middle school accused me of being "such a Jew" because I reminded her about money she owed me. That's probably the worst incident of antisemitism I experienced personally.

Now, Jewish families in Europe (and in other parts of the world) are reassessing their lives and are considering the wisdom of staying put versus up and leaving. I'm grateful that I am already in Israel. I'm grateful that I don't have to agonize over whether to stay and fight or cut my losses and split.

I am profoundly aware that we are living in times when Jews are once again being forced to ask themselves difficult questions. The conversations that happened around kitchen tables in Berlin and in Frankfurt am Main, in Hamburg, in Breslau and in small towns throughout Germany in 1933 are happening again, this time in Paris and in London and in Baltimore and in New York.

Has the time come, yet again, to leave?

For those brave Jews who collect their worldly possessions and leave with dignity before things get much worse, and for the Jews who refuse to leave, and for the Jews who deny that there is anything to be overly concerned about, and for the Jews who have already left and resettled in the Holy Land... for all of us, may this be, finally, the very last time Jews have to leave anywhere.

May this be the final shifting of the Jewish population as we await geula together in Israel.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Courage of Olim

In case you don't read the Times of Israel, click here to read my latest post. I discuss how humbling it is to be an immigrant lacking the skills necessary to communicate in Hebrew.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 3 (of 3?)

This is Part 3 of a blog-based conversation between me and dear friend and fellow blogger Ruti Eastman who challenged me to articulate what I think a Jewish woman's spiritual path looks like. You know, if it isn't going to include shul and all that.

I'd like to acknowledge at the outset that there are Torah-observant Jewish women who are happy with their roles. Not subjugated happy. Genuinely happy. That may even be the majority of Jewish women.

But I'll be honest. I'm tired of hearing all about a woman's spiritual path being defined primarily by her family and her home. I'm not tired of hearing about it because it's unimportant. I'm tired of hearing about it because it's incomplete.

Because here's the rub.

Not all Torah-observant Jewish women have husbands. Or children. Or even homes of their own. Or they did at some point but don't anymore. Or they don't yet, but hope to some day. How is a woman supposed to express herself as a soul if she lacks a husband, a child, a kitchen, a home?

My personal situation is blessed. I have a husband (a rabbi even) and, thank God, a healthy marriage. Though empty-nesters now, I have raised children. I have had my own home (and my own kitchen) for at least 30 years. I don't love my family and my home any less than other Torah-observant Jewish women do. But a marriage, a family and a home, as much as I love these precious things, was never enough for me. Not when I was building a career, not when I pursue intellectual goals and definitely not when I want to grow closer to Hashem.

Does that make me so out of the ordinary? I know so many women like me that I forget that not everyone's itch is so difficult to scratch.

During the course of this blog conversation, I've begun to articulate a paradigm, a new way of amplifying Judaism. This paradigm explicitly articulates multiple ways a Torah-observant woman can reach toward the Infinite, throughout all the stages of her lifetime.

First, some underlying assumptions: The most well-known, the most widely recognized Jewish rituals are generally in the male domain. What women do is often internal. Even our rituals in the physical world are often done privately. So it may seem like we're not doing much at all.

It occurs to me that defining the Jewish woman's role is tricky in the same way that defining what ought to happen at a Bat Mitzvah is tricky. For boys, the Bar Mitzvah, for the most part, is fairly well scripted. But a Bat Mitzvah can be recognized with a very wide array of events. Even for our own daughters, we did very different things because they are different people. We had leeway with daughters that I believe we would not have had with sons.

Hineni moochanah u'm'zumenet. Now I'm ready. I'm proposing this conceptual model as a way of illuminating the spiritual path of a Jewish woman, of answering the question, "What does a Jewish woman actually do?"

You might recognize it as a variation of bein adam lechavero and bein adam lamakom with one major difference. Beneath each category are some of the spiritual activities open to Jewish women. The lists are meant to be illustrative, not comprehensive.

(Acknowledging that this path is not open to all women at all times.)
  • Number One is definitely giving birth. Granted it's not exclusively Jewish. And my soul wishes that Judaism offered some kind of ritual for a woman to honor the moment of birth, the moment when one body becomes two (or more). Nevertheless, there is no denying the raw spiritual power of conceiving, nurturing and bringing forth life.
  • Raising children and teaching them about Hashem
  • Teaching Torah to your children
  • Making/taking challah
  • Lighting Shabbat and Yom Tov candles
  • Taharat HaMishpacha
  • Shalom Bayit - growing and working on self in order to contribute to a peaceful marriage
  • Carrying responsibility for shaping the individual family members into a unit 
  • Chesed - general neighborly kindnesses as well as contributing time and/or money to organizations that specialize in acts of chesed
  • Derech eretz - the requirement to treat other people with respect and honor
  • Hachnasat orchim - bringing guests into the home
  • Bikur cholim - visiting the ill
  • Praying for the welfare of others
  • Giving tzedaka (charity)
  • Avoiding lashon hara (gossip and hurtful speech)
  • Facilitating the spiritual growth of others, bringing them closer to Hashem
  • Building community
  • Learning Torah 
  • Hitbodedut - ongoing, private conversation with Hashem
  • Emunah - strengthening her belief that everything comes from Hashem
  • Anticipating geula - actively, not passively, waiting for Redemption
  • Hakarat HaTov - the absolute discipline of noticing and acknowledging Hashem's many kindnesses throughout the day 
  • Loving Hashem
  • Tefillah - in whatever form prayer works for the individual woman
  • Singing and dancing to Jewish music
  • Simcha - serving God with happiness
This model is a paradigm in development. I share it with the belief that we could strengthen a lot of Jewish women and bring them closer to God and to Torah if we spoke more openly about, if we placed more value, as a community, on the many ways that a Jewish woman can actively express the spiritual power of her soul.

How I wish someone had explained Judaism to me like this when I was a newbie.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 2

This is the next installment of a blogging experiment. My delightful friend for decades and fellow blogger Ruti Eastman and I are having a blog-based conversation about how, in the absence of many of the rituals and accoutrements that accompany Jewish men through their lives, Torah observant Jewish women express ourselves spiritually .

In my first installment, I wrote about being finished with shul and, to a large degree, with formal prayers in the siddur that were written with the assumption that the person praying is male. I asked for women to share how "we, as Jewish women, nurture our souls... what we actually do. How we invite the sacred into our lives. How we talk to God. How we live as spiritual beings without the accoutrements that surround Jewish men. How we experience the holy. What things we say, read, think, believe, study and touch that define our Jewish lives."

The most common reactions I got were from women who suggested that maybe I'll be happier praying exclusively with women, or finding a partnership minyan or just concentrating on Hashem and not thinking about the limitations of the ezrat nashim while I'm in shul.

I feel unheard.

Whenever I write about these issues, I hear from people who react, in predictable ways, to the questions Jewish women like me raise about our tradition. People sniff anything that smacks of feminism and jump in with their reactions to the issue of the role of women in Judaism. I've been having those conversations since 1988.

It's old ground. I'm don't mean to sound hostile. I am genuinely tired of people counseling me about how to fit in better with normative Judaism.

Normative Torah observant Judaism is broken when it comes to Jewish women. It's skewed so heavily toward the masculine that the feminine has trouble being recognized, let alone valued.

What I want now is a new conversation.

To be completely fair, we did get two responses on point.

One woman told us her spiritual energies are deeply connected to learning and teaching Torah. Another said that she concentrates on "compassionate outreach to cholim" and Spiritual Healing. 
That's what we're looking for here. How do we recognize the spiritual acts of Jewish women?

I know there are women who have it. Women who are surrounded by their own flavor of holiness. Who are completely content in their relationship with God, who have no need for shul, for daf yomi shiurim, for the whole male package.

But their voices are whispers.

Ruti and I are on a mission to locate, capture and amplify those voices. We want to empower Jewish women - converts, ba'alot teshuva, FFBs  as well as the not yet religious - with a positive articulation of the spiritual lives of Torah observant Jewish women.

Ruti recently sent me an essay by Rabbi Aron Moss of Sydney Australia in which he says, "Men have stronger bodies, women have stronger souls." He also writes, "Women are more soulful than men. While men may excel in physical prowess, women are far ahead when it comes to spiritual strength. Women are more sensitive to matters of the soul, more receptive to ideas of faith, more drawn to the divine than men. The feminine soul has an openness to the abstract and a grasp of the intangible that a male soul can only yearn for."

Very poetically expressed, Rabbi Moss. But it doesn't answer the question.

What do Jewish women DO to express all that spiritual power that rabbis tell us we have? How do the souls of Jewish women manifest in the world? How do we name, so that we can recognize, when a Jewish woman is engaged in a spiritual act? Further, there is tremendous valuing of the rituals of Jewish men. How do we create a culture where Jewish women's spiritual lives are clearly identified and also valued? What does it look like, sound like, feel like when a Jewish woman is expressing herself in the spiritual realm?

This is our quest.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Spiritual Balm for a Jewish Woman's Soul - Part 1

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. 
   - Muriel Rukeyser

If you're a Jewish woman who is completely content with your place in the Jewish world, my words are not intended for you.

But if you are a Torah-observant Jewish woman and there is a restlessness in your soul, a sense that things are not as they should be in your Jewish life, I am speaking to you.

I have written many times about things in the Orthodox world that infuriate me as a Jewish woman - the tendency to use collective language when referring exclusively to Jewish men, excluding women entirely, the subconscious misogyny that has otherwise progressive men making decisions that negatively impact women, the absolute disrespect of women evidenced in the women's sections of many synagogues, feeling marginalized on Simchat Torah and more.

These are all things that needed to be said, so I said them. But I am tired of saying them. I am tired of being hurt by these things. It is wearisome to be angry for decades. My soul needs something positive to rest on.

I was so often offended by what I experienced in so many Orthodox shuls over such a long period of time (e.g. having to enter through a small door in the back instead of using the main doors, not being able to see when the aron kodesh was open, not being able to kiss the Sefer Torah, not being able to dance and sing without worrying that some man was going to feel it was his right to silence me, not being able to hear the davening, not being able to see the Sefer Torah when it was raised during hagbaha, being completely disregarded in the delivery of the drasha, inferior seating, etc. etc.)  that it became all but impossible for me to pray inside a shul.

It gradually dawned on me that I'd had enough trying to accommodate myself to a model of prayer that really didn't work for me. Since so much of my discontent comes from synagogue-related experiences, I stopped going to shul. I am no longer willing to participate in an institution where the secondary nature of my presence is communicated so powerfully. I am no longer willing to be a passive participant, an audience member, in someone else's prayer service.

You're a woman who loves going to shul? Kol HaKavod. I have no issue with your choice. It just wasn't working for me. And, for the most part, I've been content crossing shul attendance off my list of Jewish experiences. But I've had a nagging feeling, a residue, of guilt. Am I being a bad Jew if I don't want to go to shul?

There's more.

I often resent the siddur. That's the truth. There are so many tefillot that were written with the assumption that the person praying is male, that it interferes with my desire to talk to God. In the morning, I am reminded of the importance of showing up to the Beit HaMidrash early. I pray in the merit of the Avot, the forefathers, but never in the merit of the spiritual power of the Imahot, the foremothers. The reference to brit mila in bentsching. Even the Shema, the central prayer of Jewish faith, references the gender-based mitzvot of tzitzit and tefillin. These are just a few examples.

I have a hard time transcending these recurrent reminders that I am not male. While trying mightily to speak to God in the language of the siddur, I find myself constantly needing to reorient my gender identification. I am perpetually alert, scanning the text, asking myself, "Am I going to have to step over my un-maleness to say the words of this prayer?"

A friend for decades and fellow blogger Ruti Eastman refers to the Orthodox shul as a Moose Lodge and the siddur as their manual. In so doing, Ruti intends no disrespect, nor is she minimizing the importance of the synagogue for men as a place of communal prayer. She's using humor to remind me that the Orthodox shul and the siddur are, really and truly, part of the masculine domain. Her humor helps me vanquish the last remnants of Jewish guilt I feel about the fact that shul and the siddur don't nourish my soul.

If I'm crossing shul and the siddur off my list of Jewish activities, what then is the substance of my Jewish spiritual life?

I have long maintained that we tend to confuse the masculine trappings of Jewish worship with Judaism itself. The tools of a Jewish man's observance, including tallis, tefillin, Sefer Torah, siddur, lulav & etrog, gemara, etc., are so concrete, it's easy to identify them as essentially Jewish. And they are. But only for a portion of the Jewish people.

I can understand the actions of the liberal Jewish traditions which have deputized women to be the liturgical equivalents of men. They saw an imbalance and, assuming that communal prayer was a central pillar for all Jews, made it possible for Jewish women to be included.

I get it.

But it's not my solution.

From the ancient words of Aishet Chayil to the controversy surrounding partnership minyanim today, in the Orthodox world, our identities as Jewish women have, in large measure, been publicly defined in contradistinction to Jewish men. We often say what Jewish women don't do, but we fail to emphasize what the spiritual life of an Orthodox Jewish woman actually looks like.

Jewish women are not simply Jewish men, plus or minus a few mitzvot. And whether she is ever a wife and/or a mother, the Jewish female exists as a soul in relationship with her Creator; she needs something more than a husband and children to define her spiritual life. As a community, we have failed at articulating, much less valuing, the range of possible spiritual paths for traditional Jewish women. Lacking much of the paraphernalia that defines Jewish men, the Jewish woman's pathway to God is often so subtle that it completely escapes our notice.

I want to help us notice. I want to write about the ways we, as Jewish women, nurture our souls. I want to write about what we actually do. How we invite the sacred into our lives. How we talk to God. How we live as spiritual beings without the accoutrements that surround Jewish men. How we experience the holy. What things we say, read, think, believe, study and touch that define our Jewish lives.

I want to hear from women for whom articulating the specifics of their spiritual path is effortless, and from women for whom articulating the specifics of their spiritual path is confronting. I can tell you what I do. But I want a follow-up essay to represent a broader spectrum of women's voices.

I invite you to comment below, or to email me at rivkah30 at yahoo dot com to share how you express your soul. With God's help, and with your input, I'll have more to say about distinctively feminine pathways to God.