“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...
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...