“Sometimes doctors have to break things before they heal them,” Meredith Grey recently said in one of her famous Grey’s Anatomy voiceovers. I wasn’t actually watching the show, but just passing through a room where someone else was watching. The words sort of seeped into my subconscious, the way so much of the Jewish prayer does when you are listening absentmindedly to someone else reading the words.
“Sometimes,” she continued (trigger warning: graphic content ahead), “if a broken bone did not set right, we have to break it again and reset it.” Ouch. Seriously, ouch.
Once I got over my squeamishness, I realized that this metaphor really speaks to me. Actually, I think it describes me. And perhaps also much of the world.
I am broken. I have been broken by flawed ideas that seek to own me, by people who were supposed to love me, by societies and communities that treat people like me as objects rather than as human. I have been broken by words and by deeds, by individuals and by groups, by others and ultimately by myself.
But now, I am the one who has done the breaking.
I broke out, I broke free, I broke norms, I broke conventions, I broke expectations, I broke rules established by others, I broke down ideas that are wrong, I broke gender constructs, and I finally broke through.
My decision to become a Reform rabbi is about all of this. It is about breaking what was already broken in order to create something that is healthy and healing.
I thought about this around yesterday’s Torah portion as well, Noach. This is a story about a great being (God) who created a great thing (The World) and then broke it all (via flood) in order to start again. Ouch.
Reading this, you can’t help but wonder why God thought that this was the only option. Did he really have to break the entire world? Wasn’t there any good in it?
I guess God knows, as Meredith Grey knows, that sometimes there is no way to fix something other than to start all over.
I think about this regarding the world we are living in now. We are living in such a broken place. The election of Trump was the act of such wanton destruction. His election broke so much. It broke hope, it broke integrity, it broke belief in humanity, it broke compassion, it broke decency, it broke honesty, it broke care, it broke logic, it broke truth, it broke progress, it broke bridges, it broke connections, it broke cooperation, it broke generosity, and it broke the movement towards creating a better world. We are all experiencing the impacts of that breaking on a regular basis.
And there is so much that is breaking that he allows to continue to break. Floods. Fires. Hurricanes. Mass shootings. One after another, breaking, breaking, breaking.
And he does this actively and on purpose, not just by neglect or stupidity. Trump seeks to continue breaking everything that he can. He is trying to break...
Let me start by saying that I’m a fan. I think you’re a fine actress and a powerful activist for issues that I care strongly about – women’s lives, parenting, and Judaism, among others. I’ve been following your social media work (more than Big Bang Theory, to be honest), and I know that you have some important ideas to share with the world, and I deeply admire your courage, your intelligence and your willingness to use your platform to make a difference in the world. So please take my comments in that context.
As someone who has written hundreds of articles and three books on hot-button topics, I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a lot of hate. But I also know that every once in a while, there are lessons in there. Not all pushback is vicious. Some of it helps us examine our own ideas and find where we can do better.
Like many other people, I read your New York Times editorial on Harvey Weinstein with great interest, which quickly turned to dismay. I wanted to learn more about your experiences with body commentary in Hollywood. But the way you conflated issues did not work.
It sounded like you were saying that since you were always so cruelly typecast as the “ugly” and therefore asexual one, that this somehow protected you from sexual assault. It sounded like you concluded that since you embraced that “ugly asexual geek” label, that you are outside this whole dynamic of sexual abuse.
I have a feeling, though, as someone who sometimes says things that come out wrong, that maybe you didn’t mean to say it that way. From your online response, I think I understood that you weren’t trying to say that women who dress a certain way deserve to be sexually assaulted. I think maybe you were trying to offer another angle on how sexual abuse works in Hollywood. Maybe you were trying to paint a different picture of the way women’s lives, careers and self-concept are so often molded by powerful men or dumb commentators with a following.
You did not say it in these words, but I would like to suggest that you are a victim of Hollywood’s sexual abuse problem, too.
You were a girl with an acting career who was told she was ugly. You were, I might add, a smart, talented, and very cute girl (I loved you in Blossom, by the way) whose face was nitpicked by every jo-shmo in the industry. And that left you with many scars. You still carry them with you. You still think that the only part you can safely play is ugly geek, even though you are still smart, talented and, by the way, beautiful.
That is also a story of sexual abuse, and it is one that we need to hear.
Many women and girls have every minutia of their appearance commented on, mocked, or gossiped about ad nauseum....
I have been getting so many notes from women, from across the Jewish world, about my decision to become a Reform rabbi. Even though I know that this is really hard for Orthodox feminists, who are constantly trying to prove that they are Orthodox and not Reform, I have also been receiving a lot of camraderie along with mourning. The note that I am sharing here is in that category, too. But I have decided to share it because this story she writes about humiliating women happened YESTERDAY. In 2017. It is still okay to literally ask women to leave, to roll over, to abandon her own needs and spiritual practices, because men come first. We need to air these stories.
"Hi Elana. Mazal tov on your choice, I truly wanted to reach out and tell you this story, because I finally understand your choice. When you first announced it, I admit that I was sad. I wasn't disappointed in you, I totally supported you doing what worked best for you. I just felt my heart break that this would be used against Orthodox feminists, who would say 'See? A little feminism and you leave the Torah' and tighten restrictions more. But then my friend, an Orthodox Jewish woman with kids, was humiliated today, with her husband being told to ask her to leave [the sukkah] (my friend was sitting right there, but no one spoke to her) because women and children do not have a 'chiyyuv' [obligation] and men who have that chiyyuv might need the seats. Even though there were other empty seats, it was offensive my friend was taking up seats that in the minds of some rightfully 'belonged' to men, men who weren’t in the restaurant or who might not even exist."
And it hit me. It finally hit me why you left. It's because intelligent men who learn plenty blatt Gemara [page of talmud] can decide my friend and her beautiful children are not really people, and don't deserve basic courtesy. They're just...appendages to be stored away at the convenience of men who aren't even there. My friend's Judaism isn't as vital as a potential male's Judaism, she should be considering men and making herself smaller so she doesn't take up room. In what world is 'Reform' more problematic than advocating women be so invisible that they sacrifice for potential men? The cudgel is there, no matter what we do. Those advocating the silencing of women will silence even modestly dressed Orthodox women for eating in public. You're just saying 'I won't take it anymore.' Good for you."
When i say "compassion first", this is what I mean. A world in which it is considered "okay" to humiliate women because of how a particular man reads halakha, that is not a world built on compassion. It is not a world that is built in the Divine image. And it is not Torah.
One Friday night in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem 10 years ago, a woman was standing in the back of the sanctuary rocking her hips, soothing her fussy baby. A man walked up to her. She thought to herself, maybe he is coming to welcome me. Instead, he leaned into her and said, “If your baby is making noise, you need to leave the sanctuary.” She left – and never went back.
Exchanges like this have taken place in countless congregations around the world. It is one of the myriad of scenes in which women are made to feel unwelcome. The question is, how are women responding?
In researching this article, the women I spoke to all said that synagogue was once important to them, but that now they are without a congregation to call home. They live in Israel, North America and the UK and are between their twenties to their sixties. They are predominantly Orthodox, but not exclusively. They dropped out of synagogue for a variety of reasons, each of which presents its own biting critique of Jewish communal practices.
“The rabbi noticed I wasn’t there,” reports Aviva, a 40-year-old mother of three from the United Kingdom who stopped going to services two years ago. “He said, ‘We missed you’, but never actually asked the question about ‘why’. I was dying for him to ask. But he never did.”
Consider “Nadia” (name changed at her request, as are those of the other women I interviewed). ) On the Friday night that she led the Kabbalat Shabbat services in her “partnership minyan,” (an Orthodox service that separates the sexes but allows women to lead certain parts of the service). She made a one-word change to the song “Lecha Dodi.” Instead of using the word “ba’alah” (literally, “her owner”) to designate “husband,” she used the word “isha” (literally “her man), a word that is used in many feminist spaces in order to avoid the connotation that women are property. As a result of this change to the liturgy, one man in her shul was incensed. He started circulating around the men’s section in fury, trying to rile people up. Unsuccessful, he simply went to the podium and announced, “This woman does not represent the community. We are not Conservative.” Nobody reacted or told him to stop. Nobody said that it wasn’t his place or his role to speak on behalf of “The Community.” And not one person in the synagogue approached Nadia to apologize for her being humiliated this way. Nadia never returned to the congregation, and nobody seemed to care. The man who humiliated her stayed for many years, and was given many honors. Life went on without her.
These are not stories of cloistered Hassidic women breaking free with great drama. These are educated, modern women who quietly slip away from a communal life in which they feel unwelcome or unwanted. A mid-life rebellion may not even look like one. These quiet, private rebellions—which result from experiences around gender...
My decision to become a reform rabbi is apparently newsworthy. It was reported in a whole bunch of Jewish papers -- Forward, Times of Israel, JTA, Ejewishphilanthropy, and a few others. Most of these articles covered the story from the angle of Orthodox feminism to Reform, as in the Forward headline, "Former Orthodox Feminist Leader Now Studying To Be Reform Rabbi". It sounds like I'm a former KGB agent defecting. Like a vegan suddenly becoming a spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Like a Mac user buying a PC. Shocking!
This has a lot to do with the way Reform is presented in Orthodoxy. It is that enemy thing. Indeed, one Orthdoox woman who is trying to arrange a Simchat Torah celebration for women in her synagogue told me that her rabbi opposes women even holding the Torah because if women start doing that, they will become Reform. I said, I feel like I've become the cautionary tale. First women want to be part of the synagogue ritual, and then what? OMG they may decide to become a RABBI!
Of course it isn't that way. Putting aside for a moment the gender double standard -- that is, men who want to be more engaged are celebrated while women are feared -- this whole attitude to the movements is misguided at best.
For one thing, the way that Reform is presented in Orthodox discourse is wrong. Reform isn't the enemy of Judaism, or even the enemy of halakha. Reform is, as I keep saying, the big tent. It is also the movement that places compassion first. Neither of these negates Torah. They are completely legitimate and beautiful ways to interpret Torah.
Moreover, if an Orthodox woman is disillusioned by her religious practice and is already marginalized and slipping away from communal life, then I would say it is much better for her to decide to take an active role in Reform Judaism than to walk away entirely. This decision is my way to step inside the community -- deep inside, as it were, completely enmeshed -- rather than, say, become Buddhist, or just a completely disconnected Jew.
Miriam Shaviv, in a pained and honest response to my news, wrote about her own feelings of being disengaged from her community. In her oped in The Jewish Chronicle, she wrote that reading my news felt like ,"watching a caged bird fly the coop." She added that "part of me was jealous", because after 20 years of fightihng for a greater role for women in synagogue, she feels "the same tiredness" that I expressed. She wrote:
"When even the smallest issue is an ongoing, uphill battle, it wears you down.Every time a rabbi tells you, 'Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but no, it’s 10 years too early'… Every time you hear, 'Yes, it’s halachically allowed, but my Board won’t let me'… Every time you arrive at shul to discover that the women’s section isn’t open… Every time a shul Board member makes a misogynistic comment… Every time the...
Ever since I embarked on studies to become a Reform rabbi, I have been inundated with comments and questions about halakha, or Jewish law. “What about halakha?!” is how the challenge usually goes. “So, you don’t care about halakha at all!” And often it’s followed up with an “I told you so. “You never cared about halakha!” And sometimes that particularly nasty reprimand. “You see, Orthodox feminists don’t care about halakha.” Or as one woman wrote to me this week, “Orthodoxy is the only authentic Judaism because we are the only ones who follow halakha.” Like that.
I’ve been thinking about this topic of halakha, even as I fend off these micro-attacks. Although my decision to become a Reform rabbi is not a reflection of a desire to change my personal observances of halakha, this topic seems to be the centerpiece of challenges to my decision. The (wrong) assumption is that Reform Jews have zero relationship with halakha, and that commitment is not a thing in this world. Despite the fact that I keep pointing out that my Reform rabbi mentors like Rabbi Rachel Adler and Rabbi Alona Lisitsa are deeply engaged in halakhic discourse and practice, the fact is that I want to change this conversation altogether. I am not particularly interested in discussing halakhic practice – mine or anyone else’s. This is exactly the point. I want to stop making law the primary discussion about Judaism. I want to talk about Judaism as a spiritual practice rather than as a collection of rules and laws.
This holiday of Sukkot that we are currently celebrating strikes me as a particularly clear example of how this constant reading of Judaism as halakha instead of spirituality can be misleading and dangerous.
Sukkot is unique for a variety of reasons – not only the strange branches we carry around and the bamboo-covered huts we sit in, but also the way the Torah says, “v’samachta b’chagecha “And you shall be happy on your festival” My children were reminded that Sukkot is the only time we are told to be happy, when a well-meaning relative called on the holiday eve to say, “Don’t forget to be happy on Sukkot! It’s a commandment!”
Let’s think about this for a moment. What does it mean to command someone – yourself or others – to be happy? Does that even work? Can one be commanded to be happy? And is that even a good idea? Should we really stop everything we feel and be happy – especially times like today, when we are surrounded by mindless massacres, death-inviting hurricanes, and dark clouds of ignorance and bigotry from our so-called leaders? Is happiness-nomatter-what even the right way to live?
Clearly the Torah is saying that at least once a year we should take a moment to stop everything and allow joy. That in itself is a very potent stand. The Torah knows that life can be crappy and hard. And it is telling us that once in a...
Fourteen years ago this week, I gave birth. My beautiful daughter, Meital, arrived into the world two days before Rosh Hashana, the holiday marking the creation of the earth. It gave me a whole new perspective on births, birthdays, and beginnings (as I wrote back then) . The Talmud teaches that every human being is an entire world. I brought an entire world into life, just like God did 5778 years ago, or so the Jewish tradition tells us. I tell my daughter that she arrived on the earth’s birthday, and that she is a birthday present for the world.
The idea of God birthing the world on Rosh Hashana evokes a particularly woman-centric image. This is quite the relief in a tradition drenched with male-centric imagery. In our prayers, God is likened to a father, to a king, and to a slavemaster. The standard Orthodox prayerbooks continue the patriarchy by referencing God of our forefathers and ignoring our foremothers. The traditional blessing addresses God as male -- "barukh ata adonai".
(Of course, there are no gender-neutral pronouns in Hebrew, so many people argue that the male form is actually a reference to all genders. But that doesn’t really work. After all, if male is really everyone, when is male just male? It’s tempting to make convenient distinctions when we don’t want to admit how much patriarchy has constructed our religion. But the argument that when we say “men” we mean “everyone” doesn’t really hold water. At least not for people who are not men.)
My point is that despite the whole kings-and-fathers theme of Rosh Hashana, there possibly remains a certain echo of “feminine” themes in the liturgy. One of the main locations of this theme is in the text we read after the sounding of the shofar: Hayom harat olam. This is loosely translated as, Today is the birth of the world. That is the imagery that I hung on to when my daughter was born. It felt beautiful, special, and profoundly relevant to my life experience.
Last week at Hebrew Union College, I listened to a class by Dr. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel that expounded on this theme. A scholar researching the connections between myth, Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, and gender, Dr. Kaniel taught us a text from the Zohar that, she argued, demonstrated a rabbinic intention to invite a feminine manifestation of the divine into the high holiday liturgy. The text described a rabbinic discussion about how the ten sephirot , or energies of God, include some “feminine” aspects and some are “masculine” aspects. The rabbis in the text were struggling with the balance between these “masculine” and “feminine” aspects – with God as the avenger (male) versus God as the embracer (female). Dr. Kaniel argued that the rabbis were trying to make room for the so-called feminine aspects, something which can be viewed as radical. She said that this reading helped her personally come to terms with the festival, in that it enabled her to view the experience as a rabbinic...
This morning in class, I think I was dreaming about Tevye. I was listening to Rabbi Uri Kroizer teaching us melodies of Selichot, the traditional prayers about repentance that Jews recite this time of year, and I could swear Tevye was somewhere in the room, spreading his energy around. It may have been when Rabbi Kroizer, with his bellyful, honey-sweet voice and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish liturgy, offered us the significance of oys and ays.
“The oy”, he said, “is a powerful sound, coming from deep down, and when done right, it reaches straight up to heaven,” he said, the light glowing from his eyes. It is a primeval sound, coming straight from the aches of the heart, asking God to take our sadness, he said. He was teaching us the melody of a classic piece of the High Holiday liturgy, “Sab’enu”. He did not only teach us the music. He also instructed us on how to do a proper “kvetch”, to access the meaning of the “oy”.
“Think about something that has been missing for your this year,” he said, “something that you long for.” That “oy” is a moment of conveying that longing, of reaching out to God and asking to fill that gap. Plus, he said, “When you are upset about something, often you can feel yourself stopping to breathe,” he said. "The 'oy' is there like a pounding on the chest, to get your breath going again.”
LISTEN TO RABBI URI KROIZER TEACH HUC RABBINICAL STUDENTS HOW TO DO A PROPER "OY" IN SAB'ENU
Interestingly, the “ay-ay-ay”, on the other hand, serves a different function. It is meant to lift us up in joy. “When the melody is at its low point, it takes your spirit with it. So what do you do? How do you get out from under that?” he asked. The answer, he said, is in “the gradual uplift of the ay-ay-ay.”
“The oy is sad and the ay is happy,” Daliah Shaham, a third-year rabbinical student and musician, told us. “Most of the liturgy has both oys and ays, as we are usually happy and sad in the same breath,” she said, thus explaining so much of the Jewish experience. I felt like I was moving back in time, feeling the aches of my ancestors throughout history
Only I wasn’t back in Europe with my Hassidic Jewish ancestors. I was in Jerusalem, at Hebrew Union College, studying to be a Reform rabbi. .
There is some irony in the fact that I’ve spent my first two weeks of rabbinical school learning ancient liturgy. In joining the Reform movement, my assumption was that I would be moving forward in my practice, leaving some of this behind. And yet, I am finding myself connecting to old traditions – sounds, words, and practices – accessing them in ways that I never have before.
This has been an unexpected pathway into the Reform movement. And it has been exhilarating.
In my 40+ years living in Orthodoxy, I never learned how to lead the High...
Around this time last year, I had an exchange here on FB about head covering which eventually contributed to my feeling that Orthodoxy is a bad place for me as a woman. When I suggested to a woman who had written, "I have been covering my hair for 17 years and hate every minute of it", that perhaps if she hates something that much, she should find a way not to do it, the pushback was fast and furious. From Orthodox women! It wasn't about halakha per se. It was about the idea that I thought we should be able to follow our hearts. "If we all just did what we wanted, who would ever keep Shabbat? Or fast on Yom Kippur?" one woman wrote. "This is not a place for angry outsiders", the original poster wrote. I left the thread, and absorbed the clarity of the message. It's not that going with hair uncovered sends you to the role of "outsider" in Orthodoxy. It's the very notion of allowing yourself to think or feel for yourself.
I told this story to a reporter last week from JTA who called me to ask if she could write about my decision to become a Reform rabbi. You can read some of the rest here.
On my first two days of rabbinical school, I arrived late. Two days in a row, despite starting my day at 5AM to arrive at HUC by 8:30, I failed this most basic task of getting there on time. The first day, I completely miscalculated the traffic, and was cursing myself for half an hour on the 2-kilometer stretch of the 443 from the Pisgat Zeev exit to Ramot. The next day, I left half an hour earlier, and *only* arrived ten minutes late. Only. I spent most of that drive practicing my apology to the head of the school.
I walked in on the first day, towards the end of the tefilla, the morning prayer service, and gave an embarrassed nod to him, Rabbi Ofek Meir, who was sitting in the front row. He smiled gently, with a clear gesture of reassurance. He was smiling and breathing – as opposed to me. I was not smiling and not breathing.
On the second day, walking in earlier in the service when Ofek was smack in the middle of leading a soulful rendition of the Shema blessings using his gifts with the guitar, I stood at the door for a few moments to catch my breath and take it in. There, I began to fully appreciate the extraordinary moment I was in. it wasn’t just the beautiful singing and musical accompaniment that filled the room. It was something deeper, a genuine spiritual intention that was contained in this space. My excitement at the thought of being here for the next four years swelled, and began to overwhelm all else. This is tefilla without any power dynamics mixed in, I thought. This is what it sounds like when there is no coercion, no judgment, no exclusion.
After the tefilla, I walked over to Ofek and tried to apologize again for being late. He wouldn’t hear it. “You come from Modi’in, right?” It was as if he knew what I was going through before I did. He reassured me and said it was really fine. “Fine for you, “ I said, “but not for me.” He smiled. It really was all okay to him.
This entire exchange was completely new for me. What is the word for this? Acceptance. Ah, yes, acceptance. The idea of accepting a person as they are, of accepting myself as I am – such a basic thing, it is often so elusive. Acceptance is not something that the Jewish community often trains itself in. At least not in the places where I have been circulating until now.
I was remembering my first day at work, 19 years ago, at a Jewish communal foundation. It was my first job after completing my Master’s degree in Jewish education. It was also my first attempt at holding down a job with three little children at home under the age of five. I was eager, anxious, and green.
I walked into the front door, on this glorious first day, and greeted the...