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.
Amanda Borschel-Dan writes a comprehensive and honest report on the issue of counting women in Jewish prayer.
Here is how she quoted me:
“Not counting as a person standing before God is the deepest offense you can lodge at a person. You know, when some guy starts counting heads and you are standing right there, you literally do not exist. Your body. Your soul. Invisible,” said Jewish feminist writer and researcher Dr. Elana Sztokman, author of “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.”
What do you think about that?
Crossposted from the Lilith Blog
I recently investigated the following question: Does the Bible pass the Bechdel test? You know, this is the test about how pro-women a dramatic production is. The test is simple, and sets an admittedly low bar. In order to pass, the film, show, or play has to have at least two named women as characters, and the two have to talk to one another about something other than a man for more than 30 seconds. I was curious how the Bible fares.
The answer? Out of the 24 books of the Bible, only one book passes: The Book of Ruth. The relationship and conversations between Ruth and her widowed mother-in-law Naomi are the sole example of named women talking to each other about something other than a man. These exchanges are also among the most poignant in the entire Bible, and present such a compelling model of compassion and care that they are credited with initiating the lineage for King David, and hence the Messiah. There is much to adore about the Ruth-Naomi relationship, and women—especially feminists—have been claiming this story as their own for some time. At all my daughters’ bat mitzvah ceremonies, I invoked these passages as examples of what I see as core Jewish values. When Naomi was left destitute in the foreign land of Moab following the deaths of her husband and sons, Ruth dropped everything to stay with her m-in-l. Ruth’s signature declaration of loyalty—“Wherever you go I go; your people are my people and your God is my God”—continues to inspire a vision of love, care and compassion, as well as a deep abiding friendship between women.
I was very surprised to learn that there is a midrash suggesting that the two women were secretly lesbian lovers. I discovered this recently at a phenomenal play, “God’s Girlfriends,” which presents a dramatic, feminist interpretation of three key women’s stories in the Bible; one of which is the Ruth-Naomi story. The play presents these stories—the other two being Sarah and The Concubine on the Hill—entirely from the point of view of the women. This did not strike me as a radical premise, until I realized that the female perspective is completely absent from the Bible.
Certainly women appear in many riveting biblical stories. The story of Sarah is a shallow aside to the narratives of her husband Abraham and their son Isaac, whom she birthed when she was 90 and whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice on the altar for his God. We never really know what her experience of motherhood was like under those circumstances. Similarly, the little-known story of the concubine on the hill is one in which we are told nothing of the woman’s thoughts or feelings. The unnamed concubine decided to leave her husband/master, only to be dragged back home through a contract between her father and her husband. On the way home, they pass through a village in the tribe of Benjamin, where her husband...
Listen to this fabulous podcast about Vashti, the woman who preceded Queen Vashti, by Hannah Turquoise Reich Radio National Australia (spoiler -- I'm in it :-) )
In Canberra, Australia, after I gave a talk at the Jewish community about gender and religion in Israel, I dialogued with the community Rabbi Aron Meltzer (pictured here) about the women in the Jewish community generally. A man in the audience then got up and said, “There is no such thing as Orthodox feminism.” He argued that Orthodoxy and feminism cannot coexist, that any woman who is still Orthodox cannot possibly be feminist, and that only by joining the Reform or Progressive movement will women ever find equality. Community president Yael Cass reminded the guy that even the progressive movement still suffers from sexism and gender inequality. And I pointed out that leaving Orthodoxy is a very painful choice for many women for whom orthodoxy is their whole lives. I also told him that he needed to be nicer to Orthodox women (and possibly women generally – after all, a man telling a woman that he is more feminist than she is, well, that’s already suspect.) I also quoted my friend Dr Susan Weiss who likes to say that we are all compromising with the patriarchy – Orthodox women, Jewish women, women running for president – we are all compromising.
Then a woman named Sarit raised her hand and said that actually she would like to see the Orthodox minyan become more accommodating to women. (The small community holds two services, one Orthodox and one Progressive.) The rabbi said he fully concurred, as others in the audience nodded in agreement. The rabbi talked about having two young daughters and about his concern about their engagement with the services. Another woman disagreed, saying she is very happy to stand in the back and cut the cake for the Kiddush while the men do all the ritual work. But Sarit responded that this kind of disengagement feels wrong for her. The rabbi encouraged the discussion and said that the new structure in planning will have a partition down the middle and will explore other ways to encourage women’s involvement.
I went over to Sarit after the event to congratulate her on speaking out and leading the change. She said, “Oh, I’m not a leader. I’m not going to do that.” I found that surprising and perhaps not surprising, given the kind of Sheryl Sandberg-esque descriptions of women’s lives, especially those who hesitate to ‘lean in’. I told Sarit that she doesn’t have to call herself a leader or any other label, but that she should just keep speaking out about what she wants. She was hesitant.
The next night, my last night in Canberra, I went out to dinner with some of the amazing women of the community, including Yael, Sarit, and others (Anita Shroot, Barbara, Judith Eisner, and Di Hirsch). As this is the country’s capital, the community is composed of extremely intelligent, professional, serious and smart women. Over vegan Vietnamese food, we talked about challenges of dealing with naysayers and haters. I shared some of my experiences with anti-feminist men and...