Don’t embarrass important men. Don’t ruin things – for others, for yourself. And anyway, maybe what you think you experienced didn’t really happen. Maybe you’re just making it up. Let’s move on. There is important work to do, important issues to discuss. Let’s not waste time on these trivial matters. On your personal agenda. Enough with that.
The sexual assault allegations against high profile men that have been coming to light – Weinstein, Ailes, Cosby, Trump, etc etc etc – have been shedding light on some of the many ways in which our society uses, silences, and shames women. Women are too frequently seen as sex objects or servile – no matter how talented, smart or accomplished we are. When we speak up, we are often not believed. We need sixty other women to say the same thing before our stories are taken seriously. And when we do speak, we are often encouraged to stay silent for the sake of the project, the business, the community, the greater good, whatever. Anything but our own needs and our own well-being.
But these dynamics are hardly new. I am discovering as I reopen the centuries-old Talmudic tomes that form the basis of Jewish and arguably Judeo-Christian thought, that the subsuming of women’s needs and desires is an old practice. We have been thrown under the bus for a very long time.
This week, I read a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud about spirituality that I was keenly interested in. I am a lifelong student of comparative religion, and this passage, which discusses the character traits of the person deemed most fit to communicate with God, addresses topics that are often on my mind. What does it mean to be a spiritual being? What concepts of leading a good life or being a good person are universal? I suppose I am searching for an understanding of humanity that crosses cultural boundaries. This text speaks to that, so I was engaged.
And then came the bit about women, and I stopped short.
The passage (JT Taanit 1;4) brings a series of anecdotes about practice of fasting for rain. When there was a drought in ancient Israel, the religious leadership would call for fasting in order to speak to God – first individuals would fast, and then if things didn’t improve, the entire public would fast. So the Talmud asks the question: Who are those righteous individuals who can speak to God and get the job done? The answers are given via a series of stories with men who are deemed to have qualities of righteousness, and some of these answers are surprising.
The first story is about a man who refused a request for money because the funds in question had been set aside for tithes. The rabbis were so impressed with his commitment to charity that they said, “You should pray for rain.” That is nice and makes sense. It is about generosity, honesty and integrity, considered here to be the basis of...
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...