“God Bless Trump!” read the placards and signs all over Jerusalem. A three-story poster in this exuberant praise of the current American president hangs a few meters from my son’s dorm room in the center of town. He can barely sleep because of the flashiness of it. I can barely sleep because of the implications of it.
A year in to this reality, I still cannot believe that this man is the president. He is not only a compulsive liar, narcissist, and bully, he is also an admitted sexual assailant. Knowing that sixty million Americans so easily dismissed his behavior towards women in favor of whatever it is that they saw in him has made me extremely distrustful of my compatriots. When I meet people that voted for him or support him – and that incredibly includes people whom I consider friends – I am always uneasy and actually hurt that the sexual assault of women means so little to them, that so many other things were more important than women’s trauma. This remains very hard.
This new development, however, in which many coreligionists think he is the Messiah because he declared Jerusalem the capital, has added a new layer to my psychic angst. They actually think he is a gift from God. The pussy-grabber-in-chief has now been elevated in status among certain Jews because he has taken a unilateral decision about Jerusalem that sets him squarely on the side of the most right-wing members of the tribe, no matter what the implications of this decision may be.
We know that for many Jews, a politician’s worth is based entirely on his or her allegiance to right-wing ideas about Israel, which is why Trump received such a strong vote among Orthodox Jewish Americans. Only Israel matters. Still, when I witness the “Only Israel matters” approach to politics in the Trump context, I am reminded once again of how little women are valued in the Jewish community. So many of my coreligionists continue to throw women under the bus. Our needs as a woman are unimportant compared to the perceived needs of Israel.
Read more: https://forward.com/scribe/391358/to-only-israel-voters-women-dont-seem-to-matter/...
Politics in Israel reached a new low this week when ultra-Orthodox lawmakers were so desperate to pass a bill that they tried to drag grieving Knesset member Yehuda Glick from alongside his wife’s fresh grave in order to vote in the Knesset. The bill in question would ban supermarkets from remaining open on Shabbat. I suppose even though Jewish law says that Shabbat does not trump saving a life, according to these MKs, Shabbat trumps shiva. Or maybe, in the eyes of some misguided leaders, controlling religion in Israel trumps all.
The Supermarket bill says that municipalities will not be allowed to keep stores open on Shabbat unless they have express approval from the Interior Minister – who is currently ultra-Orthodox Shas and former inmate MK Aryeh Deri. Although there was some debate about gas stations and convenience stores, the bill passed its first reading this week as is.
It is well-known that the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel controls quite a bit of life for the rest of Israel. All matters of marriage, divorce and conversion require the approval of the rabbinic courts, which are controlled by ultra-Orthodox parties. Although some independent moderate-Orthodox groups have certain approval for conversions, they must be approved by the same Shas-controlled Interior Ministry. In other words, when it comes to Jewish identity and personal status, ultra-Orthodox politicians already have the final say.
What is perhaps less well-known, however, is how religious rules control Sabbath observance. Due to pressure from religious parties, there is no public transport in most cities in Israel, making it impossible for many people to get around on their only real day off. This means that non-car-owners who work hard all week, or kids who come home from the army or from university, for example, and want to get together with their friends or go to the beach have no real way to do this. And non-Jews in Israel – whether citizens, visiting tourists, or long-term volunteers – are completely stuck on Shabbat. For many of them, Shabbat in Israel is a form of lock-down.
This supermarket bill makes Shabbat even worse. It constitutes one more nail in the coffin of what we might call a normal weekend. Tellingly, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the mayor of Eilat – a town whose economy is based 90% on weekend tourism – said that his city will be “completely doomed” if this bill passes.
“The coalition, led by Deri, is making a mockery of us – the free public in Israel.” wrote MK Michal Rosin on her Facebook page. “Nobody is asking to open up stores in [the ultra-Orthodox towns of] Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim. We will not impose our lifestyle on anyone. By contrast, the haredi parties and Jewish Home, with the embarrassing support of Likud and Kulanu, are ready to throw the free majority in Israel under the bus time and again.”
Yisrael Beytenu, the Russian party led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman that has a very secular base even though it sits...
I gave my first session in Talmud this week at HUC, in my Introduction to Talmud class with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa. Even though I have learned this passage many times over the years, I read it with new eyes. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Rabbi Eliezer was a difficult guy. He lived albeit 1800 years ago, but the Talmud recalls his personality with such vividness that we can easily recognize the type – you know, the one who does not let up no matter what, the one who is constantly screaming about the same issue and you all just want him to go away. We can feel in the text how much his colleagues and peers found him to be an annoying stickler. So much so that they excommunicated him. They ousted him, and they ruined his life, taking away everything that was dear to him – even as they knew that he was right about, well, everything. Can you imagine? He may have been right, but he was very much alone. His wife was so worried about his depressed state following all this that she would not let him recite the prayer of supplication (tachanun) that requires bending over. He was so down that she was afraid he would never get up. That is how affected he was by the fact that his colleagues refused to see things his way.
The story goes like this. According to the text in tractate Baba Metzia (59a), there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and, well, everyone else, about the purity of a certain oven. According to the majority of the rabbis, this oven – called tanur shel achnai, or “The serpent’s oven” – lost its purity when it broke. Rabbi Eliezer says that even though it is broken, it was put back together with sand and should be treated as pure as every other oven. That entire debate takes exactly one line of the Talmud.
But then something happens. Something strange, mysterious, wild and crazy-making. Rabbi Eliezer does not take no for an answer. He continues to argue. He brings up every proof he knows. The other rabbis refuse to concede. He looks around. “If I am right,” he says. “This carob tree will prove it!” The carob tree jumps 100 meters (amot, actually). Some say 400 meters.
The rabbis didn’t flinch. “We don’t bring proofs from carob,” they said.
“If I am right, let this aqueduct prove it,” he said. The aqueduct quickly complied, and began flowing backwards.
The rabbis were like, meh. “We don’t bring proofs from aqueducts,” they sneered.
Rabbi Eliezer was getting frustrated with his impenetrable peers. “If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it,” he said. The walls started coming down, and only the intervention of Rabbi Joshua stopped them from landing on the entire study population. Legend has it that the walls stayed half-up, like the leaning tower of Pisa, till this day.
And yet, despite all these supernatural...
As the world continues to shake with revelations of sexual abuse in the most high-profile corridors of power and the #MeToo realization that it is nearly impossible to find a woman who has not been affected by sexual harassment, some members of Jewish communal leadership seem to be living in a cave.
I knew this was true. Still, it’s shocking to meet this reality head on. When I learned this week that the 92nd Street Y is advertising admitted sexual predator Ari Shavit as their keynote speaker to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, it became unambiguously clear that the insulated, powerful, and tone-deaf Jewish boys’ club is still running the show, to the detriment of women and all victims of sexual assault.On the most basic level, this decision ignores women as consumers. The idea that women and sexual assault victims would be horrified by this choice apparently did not occur to the organizers. That we would never come to an event like this doesn’t seem to matter. Whoever the victims of sexual abuse are – women and men alike – we are irrelevant. We are not even considered as potential attendees. It is a stunning dismissal of victims from the community.
It reminds me of how every time I click on a link on a browser that pops open a window for call girls, I face the reality not only of the commodification of women’s bodies but also of the default assumption that all consumers are at least perceived to be men. In fact, the dominant assumption in so many areas of business and communal life is not only that a typical consumer is male, but that he is a heterosexual male who has no problem with the sexual objectification of women.
It seems that these same dark forces controlling my internet browser are also making decisions at the 92Y. All they see is men, particularly ones who have no problem with sexual abuse.
Read more: https://forward.com/opinion/390179/seriously-92y-you-might-be-ready-for-ari-shavits-come-back-but-we-arent/...
I was ambushed yesterday. And it left me shuddering. And it gave me a deeply distressing glimpse into the workings of the Jewish boys’ club. The ambush had a very pretty mask. And it is terrifying.
A guy asked me for a meeting for networking. He had all the trappings of being a Nice Guy – he had an easy smile, gentle voice, clean cut appearance, beard and knitted kippah, and a generous use of flattery. I should have recognized this. He did all the classic, effective getting-to-know-you stuff: He said he knows my work, he has read my research, he is a Reform rabbi and studied at HUC and is interested in my current experiences there, he knows my husband, his wife knows my husband, and wouldn’t it be great to connect. It all sounded so normal. I said I don’t have a lot of time these days, so he suggested coming to my school and meeting me during my tight one-hour lunch break. I said okay.
After ten minutes of smiling and chatting, he uttered a sentence that began, “The real reason I wanted to meet you with such urgency.....” That should have been a red flag. If I have an agenda for a meeting, I put that agenda up front. If someone asks to meet for one reason but actually has a totally different reason, that could be a sign of manipulation. It isn’t always. After all, if someone wants to ask me for something easy and innocuous like a recommendation or an introduction, then it is fine to bring that up at the meeting and not in advance. But if you want something big from another person and want to take their much-needed one free hour for that request, you had better be honest about that.
So what was the urgency?
“I got a call from a colleague I know,” he began, “a man who is concerned because his name appears on a list of men in the Jewish community who are accused of sexual abuse.”
The backstory is this: In one of the groups online dealing with sexual abuse since the #MeToo movement, some people decided to create an anonymous sheet for collecting women’s experiences with sexual abuse in the Jewish community. This initiative came out of the realization that the only reason why the Harvey Weinstein story came out at all was because of a sheet like this in which women were able to post anonymously about their experiences of sexual abuse. Within a matter of days, certain names came up frequently, and then some reporters decided to dig further into those names, which eventually led to the New York Times story. The reason why this was so crucial in that movement is victims are very reluctant to come forward. Their lives were ruined once by their abusers, and coming forward means that they may have their lives ruined once again. Think Anita Hill.
This is not speculation or an exceptional incident. This is...
I’ve been hearing and talking a lot about sexual abuse, like so many other people. And not only from the news, and not only from sharing stories of our lives, but also from reading Genesis. (Yes, I sound like a rabbinical student, don’t I?). What can I say, the Torah portion readings from the past two months have been swamped with stories of sexual impropriety – the pimping of Sara, the incest of Lot’s daughters, the rape of Dina, the using of Tamar by her father-in-law – just as in parallel, hundreds of stories of sexual abuse are being revealed in #MeToo stories. It’s coming at us from all sides. What happened thousands of years ago doesn’t seem that different from what is happening today.
But today, I’m reading a different kind of story. Preparing for the Torah portion that I’m reading tomorrow, I am learning about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. (Or, as Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote in his musical, Joseph , “It’s all there in chapter 39 of Genesis.”) The millionaire’s wife, according to both the Bible and Weber, relentlessly hit on the head servant, Joseph. When he resisted and ran out into the street undressed, she quickly changed the story, framing him for assaulting her. Everyone believed her. Nobody believed him. Her story was understandable, as she is a woman. His was not, because he was a lowly servant. He went to prison. She went on.
It is the first recorded case of woman-instigated sexual harassment in the workplace, from over 3000 years ago, and the narrator is sympathetic to the male victim. How progressive.
The issue of women-instigated sexual abuse remains one of the last taboos in this ugly topic of sexual abuse. I understand why. I am also guilty of putting this topic on the back burner. I’ve done this because so much of sexual abuse has to do with the sexual objectification of women by men. It is part of a larger system in which men have disproportionate power to do this – men hold more positions of power, they often have better jobs and lots more money on the whole than women, as well as intricate formal and informal networks with which to sustain each other, as Harvey Weinstein was so well-kept by men in power all around the world. Injecting the reality that women do this, too, can be too distracting from that narrative. I don’t want to talk about it so much – even though I, too, have also been sexually harassed by a woman; even though so many women I know have been verbally-sexually harassed by women but may not even know it; even though I know all this to be true.
Despite all this, I have refrained from writing about women who abuse because I wanted to give the topic of men abusing women its crucial moment.
It’s having its moment. And so now I think it is time to talk about the women who abuse. As painful as that...
“This is the first time I have ever received a fellowship named for a woman,” Dr. Judith Rosenbaum reflected as she opened her first talk as the Sally Priesand Fellow at Hebrew Union College this week. Dr. Rosenbaum, who is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive as well as a decorated and accomplished Jewish feminist historian, came to HUC to teach about Jewish women, feminism, and her mother. Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the death of her mother, Professor Paula Hyman, a pioneering Jewish feminist who broke many glass ceilings. Dr. Rosenbaum will be speaking on Shabbat about feminism, Judaism, and her mother’s legacy at the HUC synagogue in Jerusalem. And she brought along her 10-year-old daughter, Ma’ayan with her, making the celebration of Jewish girls and women a truly intergenerational project.
“It is incredible to stand under Rabbi Sally Priesand’s banner,” Dr Rosenbaum told the HUC rabbinical students. “It means that Jewish feminism has really come into its next cycle, the next generation.”
Rabbi Priesand was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in America – in 1972, as part of the Reform movement. For many years everyone thought that she was the first woman ever to be ordained. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, when records and archives opened up, the world learned about Rabbi Regina Jonas, a Jewish woman who was ordained in 1935 Germany. She served rabbinical duties even in Theresienstadt, and she was tragically murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1944.
“The people who knew Regina Jonas’ story did not share it with the world,” Dr. Rosenbaum remarked. “We don’t know why. Her story was almost lost to us.” Scholars discovered a small box that Rabbi Jonas has kept safe, which included many of her writings and sermons, Dr Rosenbaum explained. It was a treasure, without which we may have never truly known about her remarkable achievements.
HUC Dean Rabbi Naamah Kelman, who broke a lot of glass ceilings herself – including becoming the first woman to be ordained as rabbi in Israel – provided more vibrant context about Dr. Rosenbaum’s visit. “Your mother was my mentor,” Rabbi Kelman said about Professor Hyman, who was the first woman dean of the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, first to chair a Judaic Studies department at a major university, possibly the first woman to hold a chair in Judaic Studies, and one of the founders of Ezrat Nashim, one of the first Jewish feminist organizations, in 1971. Then 1973 marked the first ever gathering of some 500 women sponsored by Network, a Jewish Students organization. It was called The Jewish Women’s Conference. "I like to describe it as the Big Bang of Jewish feminism," Rabbi Kelman said. “I was the youngest one there, all of 18 years old. That is where I met some of the most amazing women who become my friends and mentors over the years, like your mother,” she said to Dr. Rosenbaum.
I was preparing for my layning, my turn at chanting the Torah portion, when I stopped short. I could not get the words out. The melody of the chanting, the “trop”, is joyful, uplifting, and in a major key. But I couldn’t do it. Because the words I was chanting in that normal trop were about rape – specifically, the rape of Dina by Shechem, the non-Israelite son of Ham the Hivite.
V’yishkav otah vaye’aneha – And he laid her down and tortured her. (Genesis 24;2)
How do you chant about rape? How do you sing in the normal uplifting tune, as if everything is normal, when the story is about this awful violence against a girl?
One more moment of being a woman entering a man's world, a reminder that everything we know and do, pretty much, was constructed by a male perspective. For thousands of years, when chanting the Torah was the realm of men’s work, these words were chanted just as all other words in the Bible. Because, of course they were.
To be fair, the bible does not exactly condone the rape of Dina. On the contrary, the entire story that follows is about the rage of Dina’s brothers at such an awful thing, the vengeance they sought, and the way they suffered in the long term because of their uncontrolled anger. And while the reader is led to believe initially that their rage was about the fact that Shechem was uncircumcised and therefore impure, we soon realize that this was just a ruse. After all, every man in the town went through circumcision in order to make the rape palatable to the Israelite brothers, but the two of them massacred the entire town anyway. So, it is safe to assume that the brothers were pretty angry about what Shechem did to their sister, and not merely because his penis had a foreskin.
And to be quite honest, part of me is grateful to Shimon and Levi for caring. After all, there are a lot of terrible things that happen to women in the bible that barely get noted. Most of the time, the mistreatment of women is treated as par for the course. Grabbing, silencing, using, abusing, ignoring, marrying off against their wills, covering, punishing, blaming, manipulating, hurting, selling off, and yes, raping women and girls are all in the Bible.Just the culture, the way things were done back then, or something. We read this, we treasure these books, we chant the stories with celebration and fanfare, and move on. So at least here we have this monstrosity of a brutal massacre by brothers who seemed to be genuinely upset about their sister's rape. It’s as chivalrous as it is horrifying.
For the most part, the Jewish tradition reads all these texts with the same tune. A recitation of our history for the purpose of remembering. The good and the bad. But I couldn’t do that this week.
This was a big responsibility for me. I am figuring out...
I watched a captivating little video clip today about a man who has tried out six different religions – a few varieties of Christianity, two types of Islam, Hinduism, and currently Judaism.
It doesn’t matter. All religions are the same.
You can imagine how people of each religion might respond to this. After all, the whole point about being in your religion – for many people, at least – is that you consider it special. How many wars have been fought because people of a certain religion felt the need to prove to the world that theirs is the best, most correct, or only authentic religion? Too many to count. People around the world have, for centuries or millennia, dedicated their lives to the idea that their religion is the True Word of God.
Judaism does this, too. I realize that many Jews will take deep offense at what I am writing here, the notion that Judaism promotes its own specialness no differently than every other religion.
I can hear the shouting already.
How can you say that? How can you put us in the same category as Islam? As Christianity? What kind of blasphemy is that? Jews really ARE different!
Yes, we have been telling ourselves that for a long time. Some of our most important moments are swathed in language that says we are chosen and special.
Friday night Kiddush: Ki vanu bacharta, Because You chose us and made us holy
Blessing on reading the Torah: Asher bacharta banu mikol ha’amim, for choosing us from among all the nations.
The Amidah of the High Holidays and festivals: Ata b’chartanu mikol ha’amim, You chose us from among all the nations
We have ingrained this notion that our religion is special, unique, or better than everyone else’s inside our collective memory and consciousness.
So has Christianity.
So has Islam.
I’m just saying.
So along comes this curious and courageous guy and says something that, to be honest, I have been thinking for a long time. All the religions are the same. We all like to think we are unique, but we are all basically doing the same thing.
And what is it that people in all the different religions are all doing?
He gives an analogy of fingers pointing to the moon that comes from Buddhism: It is as if we are all pointing our fingers, looking for the moon, and instead of finding the moon, we are all obsessed with our own fingers.
He doesn’t say what “the moon” is in the analogy, but I have some thoughts about it. We are looking for spirituality, purpose, meaning, the God within, the reason why we are here, the way we are all connected, the larger spirit beyond our little lives, collective consciousness, our Divine sparks. We are all divine beings and we are trying to hear that divine voice within our minds. We are all looking for this, and religion often brings us closer to that.
Dr. Lea Mazor packs a powerful punch into a tiny frame. This brilliant retired professor of Bible and walking encyclopedia of ancient Israel is teaching us a course in Gender in the Bible, one of my favorite topics. And every week she blows me away all over again with her knowledge, scholarship, and verve. There isn’t an issue that she hasn’t already thought about at length, and there isn’t a verse that she doesn’t have a fabulous personal anecdote about. The first week, when she interrupted her main thesis to share a story about the time she wrote a personal note to Professor Uriel Simon to tell him about the mistakes he had in his book, I made that mistake of saying – my pen furiously glued to my notebook – “Wait, can you please finish your sentence?” She responded, “Of course not!” (Actually, what she said, was, “Ma pit’om”, which literally means “What, suddenly”, but has the effect of a mix between, “No way!” and “Are you kidding me!?”) She did actually, finish her sentence eventually, and we have all learned to follow her along her effervescent stream of consciousness which tends to lead to mind-blowing places. This is a woman with a lot to share, and I don’t want to miss a beat.
Last week, we were exploring the issue of sexuality in Genesis. Big topic, I know. She has a particular thesis that she is demonstrating to us, and it is riveting.
The Israelites – that is, the twelve clans that derived from the family of Jacob – were a relatively small bunch of shepherds surrounded by some big empires of ancient Mesopotamia. The Egyptians, the Sumerians, and the Assyrians were among the massive neighboring cultures that were advancing in areas of technology, engineering, medicine, art, and writing, among other things. Modern-day scholars are still in awe about the things that the Egyptians were able to do. (To this day, nobody knows how they built the pyramids.) And so these little Israelites needed a way to preserve their identity and to maintain their own uniqueness and singularity. They needed to create a narrative for themselves to remind themselves how they were Different. Special. Chosen.
The way the Tanach chooses to relay how different Israelites are from the Other Nations is along one particular thesis: Sexuality. If you read the text closely, even from the beginning of Genesis, the idea that the Israelites’ distinction is based on purer sexual behaviors is clear.
This narrative, Dr. Mazor tells us, is apparent from many texts. For instance, the story of Noach after the flood, in which his son, Ham, and grandson, Canaan, “saw his nakedness” – a euphemism either for rape or castration according to Rav and Shmuel in the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 70a) – pointedly aims to justify why Canaan is destined to be servile to the descendants of Shem. The Israelites will have no choice other than to conquer Canaan and his evil sexual deviance.
The story of...