A Short Word or Two on Women in Judaism

Posted by on May 5, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

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On May 3, I was invited to share a very short lesson on Women in Judaism at the San Geronimo Valley’s spring Interfaith Forum. This is what I shared amongst a group of Sufi, Catholic and Presbyterian representatives.


Women in Judaism…Such an enormous topic. So little time.


If we were to take the Hebrew Bible literally—which I don’t—we would think that patriarchy was founded the moment when Eve offered Adam the apple. But the Bible was written or took place when patriarchy was already embedded firmly in the culture. This makes it easier—for me, at least—to think that the writers were reflecting the reality, rather than creating it.


At the same time, it is important to notice that the Bible is laden with #MeToo moments—Abraham pimps out Sarah twice to save his skin (Gen. 12:10-20 and 20:1-18), but God steps in to save her purity, and then Isaac does the same to his wife, Rebekah (Gen. 26:1-16). Talk about family cycles.


Indeed, I saw a t-shirt this Purim—the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Book of Esther, when Queen Esther foils a genocide—that says simply–#MeToo, and is signed by Vashti. She was Esther’s predecessor, who was ordered by the king to appear before him and his fellow courtiers wearing her diadem—and presumably nothing else (Esther 1:10-12). She refused. And was deposed—because, according to the king’s advisors, her act of rebellion would lead to rebellion of all wives against their husbands, and we can’t have that, now, can we?


But then we also can balance these instances with the daughters of Zelofhad. They appear in the Book of Numbers (27), the fourth book of the Bible. They come before Moses and the leaders of the tribes and request inheritance rights, since their father died and they have no brothers. Women were not allowed to inherit up to that moment. I always imagine them to be small women, dressed modestly, and very respectful, asking for—not demanding—what they think should be theirs. Moses is flummoxed and takes the matter to God, who sides with the sisters. And so the laws of inheritance are changed right there in the Torah itself. For an immutable, unchangeable tradition, this is pretty remarkable.


Then there are the prophetesses and judges—Miriam and Deborah…and Ruth, the grandmother of King David, the foremothers. But about only ten percent of the named people in our canon are women (although many unnamed women—Mrs. Noah, Samson’s mother, Jepthah’s daughter, Pharaoh’s daughter—play important roles).


Because, after all, the default human in the Hebrew bible was assuredly male.


Then we move onto the commentary of the Bible—our Talmud, the compendium of Jewish wisdom that concluded around 500 CE. It contains stories and laws. Many of the laws restrict women—indeed, for many laws, women are grouped in a class that includes slaves and children, somewhat reducing our agency. Many could be seen as protective. Many not.


As Professor Judith Hauptman states in her book, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice,

“[T]he rabbis upheld patriarchy as the preordained mode of social organization, as dictated by the Torah…They neither achieved equality for women nor even sought it. But of critical importance, they began to introduce numerous, significant, and occasionally bold corrective measures to ameliorate the lot of women.” (p. 4)


Our texts and stories and behaviors are surely ambivalent. Let me tell you one of my favorite stories (BT Sanhedrin 39a):


An apostate once came before Rabban Gamliel—one of the leaders of the Jewish community in the early first century CE—he appears in the Passover haggadah where we read “Rabban Gamliel used to say, ‘Whoever has not explained the three symbols…’”. The apostate claimed, “Your God is a thief. He stole a rib from Adam, when he was asleep.” Rabban Gamliel’s daughter (another unnamed woman) told her father, “I’ve got this.” And she then began to act as if a calamity had occurred and asked that a policeman be summoned, long before we could call 911. When asked what had happened, she explained that thieves had broken into her apartment the night before and had taken her silver goblet but left a gold one in its stead. The apostate then chimed in, “But how can you call that theft if they left you, in place of what they took, something of greater value? Would that such thieves come upon us often!” “Exactly,” she responded to him, “That’s what happened with Adam’s rib. Something of greater value was given: a woman to help him.”


Ms. Gamliel was not a handmaiden born to wait on a man, but a self-confident, intelligent and aristocratic woman. This too is part of the ongoing contradiction of Jewish ambivalence toward women.


But on the other hand, there is this, which seems also relevant in this Age of #MeToo: the men who wrote these laws and stories were aware of their own limits—how likely they were to be aroused by women to behave in inappropriate ways. But rather than emulate Ulysses, who tied himself to the ship’s mast to avoid falling prey to the Sirens, the sages of the Talmud put the responsibility on women—dress modestly, cover everything, and then do not sing in front of men. Rather than take responsibility for their own behavior, they placed it on women. Not a shining moment.


And this still persists today. In the Orthodox world, men and women sit apart during services because men cannot be subject to Kol Isha, the voice of women, because, well, who knows what the men would do? It’s the same thinking that makes rape victims responsible of their own rape because of what they might have been wearing. To be clear, it’s not okay.


It’s the same thinking that has prevented the Orthodox movement from allowing women to be cantors, the people who lead the congregation in prayer with their singing.


Now that I’ve leapt ahead to modern times, I want to give you a few dates and a last story…First, the first girl to become a Bat Mitzvah—after centuries of boys’ Bar Mitzvahs—was in 1921, Judith Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. When I became Bat Mitzvah 50 years ago, we were still not allowed to read from the Torah itself, and the ceremony was on Friday night rather than Saturday morning. Now the training is the same for both boys and girls, except in the Orthodox community.


Although a few women became privately ordained rabbis—fewer than the fingers on one hand, the first woman to be ordained by a seminary was Sally Preisand at the Hebrew Union College of the Reform Movement in 1972, 48 years ago. She was not the first woman to attend a rabbinic seminary—in 1902 Harriet Szold, a scholar and translator of Jewish texts was admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinic seminary, as long as she agreed NOT to seek rabbinic ordination. Szold later helped to found Hadassah, a women’s organization that helped found the State of Israel, and helped found important research hospitals.


Sally Preisand’s ordination set off a revolution in the Jewish world. Two years later, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi. In 1985, 13 years after Preisand, Amy Eilberg became the first Conservative woman rabbi. In 2009, Sara Hurwitz became the first American Orthodox woman rabbi, although without the same name, and with quite an uproar. Now, the percentage of women in seminaries hovers around 50%, depending on the seminary, although we have a long way to go before half of all rabbis are women. Not surprisingly, as women have become rabbis, we have seen more Jewish rituals that reflect women’s experience: miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, divorce, menopause. We have seen rabbis fall off a pedestal from the representative of God to a more collaborative model of teaching and ritual.


Since then, the Women of Reform Judaism published the first Women’s Torah Commentary.


But none of this was easy. So here is my concluding story:


Do you know the story of the orange on the seder plate?


When I was first becoming involved in adult Judaism, in my 40s, I joined Rodef Sholom and helped to write the first haggadah for the first women’s seder there—I think in 1993. The next year, someone told us about the orange…The story went that when women were first coming to the rabbinate, Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, spoke about this change at a congregation in Florida, the land of oranges. A man rose, red with wroth, from the audience and said that “A woman belongs on the bima as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate!!!” And thus, feminists began to put oranges on our seder plates.


And then, years later, we learned the real story, straight from Professor Heschel herself. She told us that years before she had been invited to attend a lesbian seder at Oberlin College. At that seder, the women had placed bread on their seder, to represent their rejection and alienation from mainstream Jewish life. Heschel appreciated their concern, and at the same time, could not abide the bread, because bread on Passover basically transgresses our basic rules. So she replaced it with an orange, which holds the seeds of its own renewal within it, and has the added benefit of being able to spit them out. She also repurposed their description to embrace all those who feel that they are outside the tent—alienated, forgotten—LGBTQ, widows, people with disabilities, and women…


Heschel also pointed out that the final indignity was that her words were taken and put in the mouth of a man.


None of this was easy.


Professor Elana Stein Hain, in a webinar from the Shalom Hartman Institute, explains that we have three ways we can deal with patriarchy in our tradition:

  • We can affirm it—that male privilege is how social organization is meant, as the rabbis of the Talmud did. I say no.
  • We can flat out reject it and say we are not bound by it. I say, not quite.
  • Or we can reinterpret—engage in a conversation with the texts about issues that matter to us.


She encourages that we use both a midrashic approach, that reinterpretation of the texts to see between the lines: what was Sarah thinking when her husband asked her to join the Pharaoh’s harem? What was going on for Vashti? We can bring our perspective to the stories. And we can call on the women who are present in our texts. They may only be 10 percent of the named characters, but they offer strong role models.


And finally we can redefine the default human being from male to human…


May the #MeToo movement push us forward to a place where human is the default for human as long as humans walk the earth.


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