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It’s a big moment in our parasha, Shemini, in the middle of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus: after a week of preparation, Moses and Aaron and his eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, are consecrating the Mishkan and the Aaron family are being consecrated as its priests. This may be the moment of a lifetime, or at least since they had the big moment on Sinai.
And then, Nadav and Avihu offer what the Torah calls alien, strange fire, and God zaps them then and there. Of course, pages and pages of commentary have been written to explain it.
Aaron watches his two eldest sons die, consumed by fire, in front of him. And what is his response? Vayidom Aharon—Aaron was silent. His reaction has also been analyzed ad infinitum…indeed, in the new Mussar Commentary to the Torah, the essayist Rabbi Jonathan Kraus notes several rabbinic theories.
But what I’ve always wondered about is – where is his wife, their mother? Surely, this invisible woman, the mother of Nadav and Avihu, must have had feelings about this horrible event…Where is she?
Invisible like so many women we might expect to hear from—Mrs. Noah, taking care of everyone on the Ark…Mrs. Joshua during the meeting of Joshua and Tamar…or even Mrs. Matisyahu, mother of the Maccabees…or even Pharaoh’s daughter, who goes nameless in the Torah.
So many generations of Jewish women silenced…partly because our voices might be too sensuous for men’s ears, like the sirens of Greek mythology. Or the Rabbis didn’t believe we could have anything to say that would be worth hearing. They grouped us with children and slaves in lists of exclusions from mitzvot. And “relieved” us of the burden of time-specific mitzvot because we were tending the children (our WHOLE lives? Really?).
Indeed, it continued for millennia. When my mother died 40 years ago, her three daughters, two nieces, sister, mother, and closest women friends did not count in the minyan, so our Conservative temple in Queens brought in the traveling minyan to say Kaddish. It still infuriates me four decades later.
In my rabbinic period history class in seminary, we read an article by Professor Gail Labovitz about the reason for all these laws: so that the rabbis could study and be taken care of. The article with all its detail broke my heart, because there was no good reason for all these laws, none, not one—and I had come to love our Sages…I needed to reconstruct my love for them and for Jewish teachings.
Obviously, I did. I’m here standing in front of you. I had to remember my joy in reading Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s Deborah, Golda and Me. Pogrebin has been a hero of mine as one of the founders of Ms. Magazine—when I was still in high school. The fact that she struggled with Jewish sexism the same way I did, and found a way through it, brought me back to Judaism in my 30s. As did Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter and Professor of Jewish Studies, who edited On Being a Jewish Feminist. And Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism. I had already learned one could be a feminist and an active Jew, which was mind-blowing and thrilling.
Indeed, on that famous other hand, we have lots to celebrate—all Jews, not just the women. But I DID want to lay out the reality of what it was like for women in our tradition (not so different in other faith traditions or cultures around the world). Just as I think it’s vital for me (and hopefully other white folks) to learn the too often hidden history of Black experience in and contributions to American history, I think it’s important for us to understand women’s experience in Judaism.
Here we are, on the 54th anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah (yikes), the weekend after the one hundredth anniversary of the first ever Bat Mitzvah ceremony, AND 50 years of women in the rabbinate.
See? So much to celebrate!
In biblical times, we had our own proverb: Eshet Chayil, Proverbs 31, describing us as Women of Valor. It’s a piece of sacred text that our husbands are supposed to read to us every shabbat…How many of you women hear it? How many of you mean say it or some version?
A woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far beyond that of rubies. Her husband’s heart trusts in her, and lacks no treasures.
And then it goes on for another 29 verses…
Or imagine sharing Marcia Falk’s reinterpretation of it—something each partner can share: she calls it the Blessing of the Beloved, taken from song of songs:
One partner says, How fine you are, my love, how fine you are.
The other responds: How fine you are, my love, what joy is ours.
And together they say: Of all pleasure, how sweet is the taste of love.
Can you imagine saying THAT as you light your candles and bless your children?
Now we have so many women rabbis that there has been for years a story of the young boy who asks his rabbi if men can be rabbis, too? We are blessed that Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first woman ordained by a seminary 50 years ago, because she made decisions about her life based on what would be good for women, rather than herself, which in turn, was what was good for the Jewish people.
Thanks to the women who followed her into the rabbinate, we have new rituals for miscarriages and stillbirths, and divorce—rituals that didn’t exist before women rabbis were there to recognize the need for them. Women have brought a different sensibility to ritualizing daily life. Indeed, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s book, Nurturing the Wow, brings a new look at sparking spirituality into our young children, as does Lisa Miller’s The Spiritual Child.
And we have Debbie Friedman. Debbie’s CDs were the soundtrack to my reentry into Jewish life. My daughter Olya and I listened to them in the car for years. And I was certainly not the only one. I don’t think there is a Jew who does not know her Mi Sheberach.
When she died too early, people all over Judaism, EVERY stream and branch, were touched and grieving. Her music brought all of us together. She almost singlehandedly changed liturgical music, bringing music we could sing together. While it is wonderful to hear cantorial music, xit’s also a joy to sing together, to have that mystical, magical connection that joining voices creates. A lot of that is thanks to Debbie. She had to struggle with heavy criticism that it was “just” folk music, but it sang to people’s hearts. At her funeral, people spoke about how often the music just poured through her, as a conduit for the holy. And she sparked people like Julie Silver, and Craig Taubman and almost everyone who came after her or alongside her.
Many of my favorite teachers—in person or through their writings have been women rabbis and professors. Certainly Susannah Heschel. And Rachel Adler. And Rabbi Anne Brener, whose Mourning to Mitzvah is now a classic text to help people in mourning through their journey.
Another one is Rabbi Judith Hauptman. Her book, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice, shares one of my all-time favorite midrashim from the Talmud, as well as her perspective on it:
An apostate once came before (the famous) Rabban Gamliel, and said, “Your God is a thief. He stole a rib from Adam when he was asleep.” Rabban Gamliel’s daughter (was sitting nearby) told her father, “Let me handle this one,” whereupon she began to act as if a calamity had befallen her and asked to summon a police officer. When asked what had happened, she said that thieves had broken into her room the night before and taken her silver goblet and left a gold one in its place. The apostate then chimed in, “But how can you call that an act of theft if they left you, in place of what they took, something of greater value? Would that such thieves would come upon us often!”
“That’s precisely the point,” she replied.
I would love to end the midrash here, but it continues…
“Was it not to Adam’s benefit that God took his rib and left him in its place a woman as his maidservant? (BT Sanhedrin 39a)
Now, I might object to this as yet another sexist bit of Talmud: the woman in place of rib is there to serve. Hauptman points out that Ms. Gamliel is not a self-effacing maidservant, but a self-confident, intelligent, and aristocratic woman. She is living proof of the opposite of what she says. This, Hauptman continues, reminds us that the Rabbis were ambivalent about women.
Okay, that’s an understatement.
Now we have scholars who read the texts from a different perspective, a woman’s perspective, and the text has different meaning. Now that the prohibition against reading our sacred texts has been lifted, we can ask, as Susannah Heschel teaches, whose interests are being served by a text, not just what the text is saying, but what it is concealing. And that is part of what makes Judaism so exciting today.
And finally, we have Marcia Falk, whose siddur, The Book of Blessings, and other books offer all of us new ways of thinking of God, rather than the Old Man with the long beard sitting on a throne…but as the Wellspring of Life, the Holy Sparks, and other images that permeate our sacred texts—and do not conjure an anthropomorphic deity. (As Maimonides taught us in the Mishneh Torah, all the references to God’s body parts—God’s back, finger, nose, face—are all there because our ancestors couldn’t relate to a God beyond human form.) But I hope we can. We can see God as non-binary even.
It used to be – and still is in Orthodox streams of Judaism —that women can’t sing when men are present—because it would cause them to leave their thoughts of God for more “secular” thoughts. We would not be able to hear Erica leading us in song.
I’ve always wondered why the Rabbis thought they were so weak that they couldn’t control themselves in the face of women’s voices, considering learning self-restraint is a key Jewish practice. If someone has an idea, let’s discuss later. But it reminds me of one of my favorite Golda Meir stories: when there was a serial rapist in Jerusalem, some of the men in government wanted to issue a curfew for women. She told them that instead there should be a curfew on men—as they were the ones causing the problem.
It’s all in perspective…and the more diversity in perspectives we have, the richer our tradition.
So let’s celebrate that women have been rabbis for the lives or most of the lives of many of us, that we have begun to welcome the voices of so many others into our tradition, and we have so many women –rabbis, liturgist, musicians, theologians, professors, and indeed all women—to contribute their unique gifts to our community.