Strange Thoughts- A new take on Loving the Stranger

Crossposted at Jewschool

When newspaper style guides started adopting “they ” and “their” as singular, gender-neutral pronouns a friend told me, “I get why this should be done. It is the right thing to do. But it is going to be really hard for me to switch. It is not going to just roll off my tongue.” His words reminded me of someone who was on a rabbi search committee who was interviewing a female rabbis for the first time who confided, “I know I should give these women a fair shake, but it is not how I grew up. When I close my eyes and picture a rabbi, I see a beard and hear a man’s voice. If I do this I will be going against my gut feeling and not just now but for years when I will see them on the bimah”. Both these people made a significant effort to adjust their own thoughts and words and what go against what felt “natural”, to do what was difficult and unfamiliar because they wanted to bring forward a more just world.

During the Passover season we hear a lot about the biblical verses commanding us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-3 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19). These verses have been used for generations to underline our Jewish obligation to care for the oppressed and marginalized and to advocate for refugees and immigrants.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses how these verses refers not only to our actions but to our words, thoughts and emotions. He writes that God wants us to “fight the hatred in our hearts,”  as our inclination at first is not to love the stranger, but to fear or hate them.

Extending this metaphorical reading of these verses suggests that it is not just “strange” people that we need to accept despite our prejudices, but to create positive change we need to embrace unfamiliar ideas and habits of mind. For justice to proceed, we must allow in thoughts that are unfamiliar and ways of talking and acting that at first seem strange to us.

The ethicist Moses Pava writes that the commandment to love the stranger “challenges the very notion of a static and unchanging community” because it asks us to continually broaden our notion of community, which also forces us to “to transcend our current conceptions of who ‘we’ are.” He observes that to love the stranger we must transgress the status quo. Since the commandment is one that we are always obliged to do, it means we cannot allow ourselves to be comfortable once we have  alleviated one form of oppression, but once comfortable with our new reality, push ourselves through uncomfortable ways yet again.

Just as every year the haggadah tells us we must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt and were personally redeemed from oppression, so every year we must push ourselves out of our comfort zones  and try to embrace new and “strange” habits of mind and thoughts. We cannot rely on what was once difficult and brave for us  but is now part of our regular internal conversation or behavior.

It is not enough to have stood with civil rights protests 50 years ago if  your community is not supporting Black Lives Matter today. If 30 years ago you began including the matriarchs in your prayers, it may be time to stretch to something like female God language, which might make you feel as uncomfortable now as you did then. If 20 years ago you instituted having men involved in clearing up and washing the seder dishes, it is time to examine the cleaning, shopping, cooking and meal-planning. If you once championed inclusion at your JCC by having ramps and accessible washrooms, it is time to turn your eye to access to programming. Loving the stranger means stretching to new and previously uncomfortable places. For the child of the stranger becomes a native-born and the strange new words that we stumble through with brave intention but slower speech flow easily off the tongues of our children.

 

Posted in Inclusion, Judaism and Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Whores and harems: Sexual Politics and the Book of Esther‏

Like most Jewish feminists, I remember that time of coming of age when I stopped begging to dress up as queen Esther for Purim and started to cheer for Vashti and her independence. I thought that was a simple and sufficiently feminist reaction to the Book of Esther. Recently I watched the recent satirical(‪The Jews Are Coming – Esther and Mordecai, Channel 1)  

 from Israel, which basically asks, “Isn’t Esther a whore? “. It notes how Esther exchanges sexual favours for political ones. The idea of Esther as a prostitute is more nuanced than is portrayed in short sketch. She is the king’s wife when she asks for favours and is in a society that is totally dominated by men so there is not much free choice. But the sketch was so funny because there is real truth in it and I found it hard to dismiss outright. This twinge of discomfort prompted me to  take another critical look at the original text of the Megillah. When I did I found cheering for Vashti is no longer enough for me. Join me in a tour of the Megillah text through a feminist lens.

 

Vashti and the possibly nude dancing

My first encounter with the text of the Megillah was in fifth grade. Our formidable Israeli teacher started off our study by saying, “You think you know what the story of Purim is all about! All you know is the baby version. This year we are going read directly from the Book of Esther.” It was in this class that we got to find out what eunuchs and harems really were and why it was suitable for one to guard the other. Things got exciting in the first chapter, when we learned the midrash that when the king asked Vashti to appear “with her royal crown on to show the people and the princes her beauty because she she was beautiful to look at”, he meant with ONLY the royal crown on her head. In other words, she was asked to appear nude in front of  dignitaries and a crowd. When our teacher described this there were audible gasps from the class.

 

Vashti vs. the Patriarchy

My class was equally shocked when we discovered why her refusal was such a problem for the king. He and his advisors were afraid that the news would travel that the queen had disobeyed the king’s order and women would now women see their husbands in a new light and also refuse to obey their every command. Princesses might now disobey their princes. Those princes, who ruled the states that made up the empire would be mad. So to stave off this possible horrible turn of events, the princes ask the king to banish Vashti and replace her with someone “better” and also to issue a royal decree that all wives must obey all husbands. Just to make sure that everyone understood this, they had the decree translated into all the local languages and published everywhere in the empire. Reading this today it seems like a bunch of SNL writers got together and tried to write a sketch that was the most over-the-top, cheesiest version of the caveman-style patriarchy possible.

I know we make noise every time Haman’s name is mentioned, but when I read these verses on wives obeying their husbands absolutely, I always wonder why no one in the congregation wants to blot them out with noise. We boo Haman and his plan for genocide 54 times. Can’t we boo misogyny even once?

 

Esther and the Harem

My daughter’s books on Purim talk about how Esther was modest and didn’t try to use her beauty to get Ahasuerus’s attention. The kids’ books also portray their relationship as a companionable married couple.  These are great messages but also a real misrepresentation of the story. Esther spends a year in the virgin harem house getting ready for her one night with the king after which she is sent to the non-virgin harem house which she can only leave (ever) when called for by name. This does not change when the king likes her better than all the women and makes her queen. Nor does he get rid of either of the harem houses at this point. Somehow that part is not in the kids’ books.

When Mordecai tells Esther that she must ask the king to save her people she reminds him that anyone who goes to talk to the king with out being specifically invited is killed unless he signals otherwise. She mentions she not seen the king in a month. Then when she enters the king’s room and he sees her in her “royal attire”, she is pleasing in his eyes, so he lets her enter and not be killed. This does not sound like a relationship that is built on anything but superficial appearance and sex appeal. Certainly in companionate, love-based marriage we do not risk death by entering our spouse’s room, we do not have to earn an audience by making sure our appearance is pleasing and we generally  converse more than on a monthly basis. If anything she reminds me of a “honeypot” female spy who works for a government getting state secrets by seducing officials of the other side. They are not glamorous James Bond style spies. They serve their countries,  but not in a way that we would aspire to.

 

Why the King wants to Kill Haman

After Esther reveals she is Jewish and asks the king to save her and reverse Haman’s decree, the king takes a moment and leaves the “feast of wine” to head out to the palace garden. At this moment, no decision has been made at all to save the Jews and no decision has been made at all to punish Haman or what kind of punishment that might be. Haman stays to plead for mercy from Esther.  The king returns from the garden to find that Haman has “fallen on the bed that Esther was on”. Shocked he says,  “Is he also going to ravish the queen while I am in the house?”. It is then that the king decides Haman should die. When my class heard this, there were no gasps from aghast tweens, just a shocked silence. Did the teacher mean what we thought she meant? Did Ahasuerus decide to kill Haman at least in part because he thought Haman made the moves on his woman? With a modern adult eye, what is more shocking the easily wounded male ego that drives decisions of state or the treatment of Esther as a sexual object who is the property of a man?

 

The Truth about Purim

While Esther was still very much a hero for risking death to save her people, it is a kind of narrow, constrained heroism I don’t dream of for my daughters. If they are old enough to hear the “real story and not the baby version”, then kids are old enough to be taught about what women’s place was in the world of the Megillah, and what it is today and how while a lot of things have changed, not enough have. Just like there are still people who hate irrationally and destroy nations to advance their political power and egomania like Haman, there are still plenty of people who think that “every man should rule his house”. (There may be some overlap in those two groups). Our kids need to hear these troubling parts too, and to hear our unequivocal reaction.

Let’s hope our daughters get to thrive in positive ways, neither by opting out or leaving an oppressive culture like Vashti nor by doing what they can through sexual appeal within an oppressive culture that devalues them, like Esther. Let’s hope if they influence rulers it is because they are themselves politicians not because they are sexual partners of them. Let’s hope if they want to protest the patriarchy, they have more options than ending up banished. Let’s hope they read the Megillah and find its misogyny hilariously distant from anything they experience in real life.

Posted in Feminism and Jewish Ritual & Practice, Feminist Parenting, Jewish Feminism & Media, Jewish Humour | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Stay Away From the R.C.A.- (to the tune of Y.M.C.A. by the Village People)

For some reason my funny posts usually  get more attention than my serious ones.

Since people liked it so much here is:

Stay Away From the R.C.A.- (to the tune of Y.M.C.A. by the Village People)

Stay away from the R.C.A.

Woman, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, woman, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, woman, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.

Woman, there are places you can go.
I said, woman, where they count what you know.
You can study there, and serve the Divine
There are many ways you can shine

Just stay away from the R.C.A.
Just stay away from the R.C.A.

They have everything for only men to enjoy;
They are just for the boys …

Just stay away from the R.C.A.
Just stay away from the R.C.A.

You can get ordained, you can teach Torah,
you can learn Gemorah.

Woman, are you listening to me?
I said, woman, what do you want to be?

I said, woman, you can make real your dreams.
But you got to know this one thing!

Woman, put your self-doubt on a shelf.
I said, woman, be  proud of yourself.
Just stay away from the R.C.A.
Yeshivat Maharat can help you today.

Just stay away from the R.C.A.
Just stay away from the R.C.A.

They have everything for only men to enjoy,
They are just for the boys …

Just stay away from the R.C.A.
Just stay away from the R.C.A.

You can get yourself smicha, you deserve ordination.
Hear the call of your vocation…

Woman, I was once in your shoes.
I said, I was down and out with the blues.
I felt no man cared if I were alive.
They wouldn’t even let me drive…

That’s when JOFA came up to me,
And said, woman, take a walk up the street.
Fighting for women’s rights is where it’s at.
Be like a daughter of  Zelophechad

Just stay away from the R.C.A.
Just stay away from the R.C.A.

They have everything for only men to enjoy,
They are just for the boys …

 Misogyny…you’ll find it at the R.C.A.

Woman, woman, there’s no need to feel down.
Woman, woman, get yourself off the ground.

Misogyny…you’ll find it at the R.C.A.

Woman, woman, there’s no need to feel down.
Woman, woman, get yourself off the ground.

Misogyny…you’ll find it at the R.C.A.

Woman, woman, are you listening to me?
Woman, woman, what do you wanna be?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Recon Rabbis and non-Jewish spouses

I have been mulling over this the issue of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College  accepting rabbis with non-Jewish spouses for  a year and have many long discussions with friends and family (some Reconstructionists,  some rabbis, some both and some neither) and I am still not really sure what the correct view is. Here are my thoughts, with more questions than answers.

The issue of rabbis and non-Jewish spouses  raises a number of questions. The obvious one is what do we expect from rabbis in terms of their personal lives. But it also gets at what we think of marriage roles. And, though no one who has discussed it has mentioned it,  it also brings up we mean by non-Jewish.

Here are my thoughts on all three aspects, Rabbi, Spouse and Non-Jewish, with a feminist lens.

Rabbi

What do we expect from rabbis? Though none of the current discussions mention it explicitly, this is a discussion mainly about pulpit rabbis. Most of the concerns voiced on allowing non-Jewish spouse in the rabbinate are less of an issue to varying degrees for  rabbis who are primarily academics, or heads of social justice organizations,or  for those involved in days schools, youth groups, retirement communities, camps, or in hospital, military  or prison chaplaincies.

Jane Eisner writes what she expects in an editorial in the Forward, “After all, we don’t expect rabbis — even rabbis in liberal (read: much less strict) denominations — to pray only sporadically. To go to synagogue just three times a year. To be more interested in tennis than Talmud. We don’t expect rabbis to consider Israel just another country to visit when London and Paris get too expensive.”

What I think Eisner is trying to say is that we expect rabbis to live a deep, immersive Jewish life, that involves daily reflection (if not prayer), continued study and spiritual practices that permeate their experience and provide a lens for other activities, even in their personal life, even in their “spare time”. We expect that from that deeply immersive and reflective life they will offer inspiration, wisdom and guidance to other Jews who may or may not also be living that kind of immersive life.

Is this a reasonable expectation? How all-encompassing or immersive should any job be?

Is a spouse necessary for that kind of immersive life? The numerous single rabbis throughout history attest to the fact that a spouse is not required. But  being a rabbi, especially a pulpit rabbi is a tough, stressful, demanding and often lonely job. Unfortunately, while a rabbi is expected to support and serve a community, communities do not always support their rabbis. Would a like-minded companion who could share the struggle with tradition, the festivals, the reflections and many parts of the  journey help ? Undeniably. Would a spouse who was supportive but not really interested in the spiritual journey part be helpful? Absolutely. Would a spouse who was living a deeply immersive spiritual life but in a different religion make it harder? Without Question. Impossible? I do not know.

Ben Bernstein in a response in the Forward argues that people seek the rabbinate to confer legitimacy on their view or way of being Jewish and that permitting intermarried rabbis sends the message that being inter-married is a legitimate way of being Jewish. He suggest that this is what has, in part, motivated female and LGBT rabbinical students in the past; to be taken seriously by mainstream Jewish institutions they need ordination. I know numerous female and LGBT rabbis and I don’t think that this was their primary motivation for seeking the rabbinate ( for the most part I think they wanted to serve and lead the community as rabbis, but recognition was probably a secondary motivator). Moreover, I am sadly not sure how much ordination helps. Mainstream Jewish establishments still treat women and LGBT rabbis as less legitimate.

Spouse

People have equated this issue with the previous issues of admitting women and LGBT people to the rabbinate. While there  are some parallels, I think they are not the same. First off, I think people have no choice in their status as female or LGBT.  Though in literature  love  is described as an undeniable force, we do in fact choose our spouses. I will go out on a limb and say that our choice of spouse, of a life partner, to some degree reflects that values and qualities that we hold dear. How many potential RRC students would consider someone they suspected was racist? homophobic? or even (being realistic here- no intention to offend)  a Republican?

What is the role of a spouse in a person’s job anyway? This is where shifting societal views due to an increase in women’s rights comes in. Not too many decades ago, even in the secular world women were expected to support their husbands career by showing up to events, sometimes with children in tow, for planning and creating social events that forwarded career goals, for fundraising, and for talking to their husband’s clients. In the Jewish world we expected even more. The rabbi’s wife was supposed to host the students, the stragglers  and the lonely for shabbat meals, make matches, visit the sick, prepare brides for marriage, counsel married couples, help run the Hebrew school and numerous shul events, advise on kashrut and recipes, organize the women to cook for events and raise money for tzedakah.

Now that we understand that care-taking and careers need to be accessible to and performed by all genders, it seems these expectations of the rabbi’s spouse should no longer apply. Such expectations would surely deny the spouse’s right to his or her own high-intensity career. As society, though we take a long time to let go of these ideas. And while it is no longer expected for a spouse to set up social events that promote their mate’s career, we often do  expect showing up once or twice a year at parties and events. In the Jewish world, we are even slower to let go of  what were once gender-based ideas of what we expect from a rabbi’s spouse. A testament to these expectations is that to this day only a minority of  senior (or only) rabbis of large congregations, male or female, have  a spouse who works full-time. (This not a scientific study; just an observation)

Whether fair and appropriate or not I think many congregations expect the rabbi’s spouse and children (if any) to show up at shul regularly (but not weekly), to attend major events in the shul, to get to know the members or socialize at least while they are in the building and to accept occasional  dinner invitations from member families for Shabbat and holidays.

Think of the following scenarios that assume that a rabbi has a spouse and children and think how your current congregation would react and then take a moment to judge if  if that reaction is really fair and in keeping with your ideas of how much one owes to one’s spouse’s job:

  • The rabbi’s spouse and children never attend shul or come only on high holidays. They are simply not interested in religion.
  • The rabbi’s children and spouse attend are active in a congregation of a different denomination of Judaism. They come occasionally but celebrate life cycle events and participate in major social events in the other congregation.
  • The rabbi’s spouse and children attend shul but also frequently attend services of another religion.
  • The rabbi’s spouse and children do not attend shul but are very active in the services of another religion and actively and daily practice this other religion in their home.

Whether or not a congregation’s expectations of family involvement are fair or realistic they are part of the landscape of the rabbinate that must be negotiated.

Those expectations and the desire for a rabbi to lead an immersive Jewish life makes having a non-Jewish spouse who is actively engaged elsewhere unquestionably more difficult.  I view it as similar to spouse’s nature/ other spouse’s job or calling conflicts like those below:

  • One spouse wants to run for political office or be a successful musician or TV personality and the other craves privacy and couple downtime every week.
  • One spouse wants to be an ER doctor or a midwife or a police detective or a social worker in a shelter for victims of domestic violence and one craves reliable, predictable contact and family time without interruption.

For some couples these might be difficult but solvable problems, for some they might be insurmountable. But it would be foolish to ignore the potential conflicts and difficulties.

 

Non-Jewish

Every defender of this policy talks about the wonderful involvement of numerous non-Jewish spouses in raising Jewish children, being lay leaders and committee people in shuls, being highly involved in the social justice activities of a shul or graciously making space for Judaism in their homes. They are far  more dedicated and involved than some Jews who have no interest and do nothing.

Personally I know a lot of these non-Jews. They prepare their kids for bar and bat mitzvah lessons and make the numerous arrangements for the day. They send their kids to day schools. They keep kosher kitchens or  prepare full seder meals and bake challah. They light the chanukiah even when their spouse is away and make Purim costumes. They are active in shul committees and activities. They volunteer extensively for Jewish-based justice agencies. Some are interested in Judaism, some are not. Many are atheists or agnostics. But one thing they all have in common (at least the ones I know) is that they rarely, if ever, set foot in non-Jewish place of worship, except as guests for life cycle events. The vast majority of these supportive, involved non-Jews are not actively involved in another religion. Most of them are content with Christmas and Easter dinners being celebrated with their parents or relatives and not in the couple’s home. (If they are from non-Christian homes, then my wildly unscientific sample says they are even less likely to observe non-Jewish holidays). Excluding people who marry people like this seems like a mistake.

Those opposed to this policy bring up the scenario of the non-Jewish spouse who actively practices another religion bringing non-Jewish prayers, holidays and practices into the weekly or daily routine of the household and sharing this practice, knowledge and belief with the couple’s children. They ask how can you have a Jewish family life when your spouse and children say daily prayers to a different god and fill the house with symbols and festivals of another religion and refuse to join you in the observance of Judaism.

And therein lies the problem. The non-Jews described by the proponents and the non-Jews described by the opponents  are not the same non-Jews.

Ignoring this difference makes this discussion more confusing than it has to be.

Obviously people change and grow and someone’s religious identity at  the time of marriage or at the time their spouse is thinking of applying to rabbinical school may be different five or ten years later. But that is true of all applicants and spouses and the decision being considered is based on a static point in time.

Options

Basically, I think having a pulpit position, given the demands of the job, the fair or unfair congregational expectations and the immersive nature of the job while having a non-Jewish spouse who is actively involved in another religion is very difficult. I am not ready to say it is impossible or that some really together, super-mature people might make it work. It is however something that would make and extremely tough job a lot harder.

Would it have been useful to say yes to non-Jewish spouses who agreed to have a Jewish home (however the couple defined it) and raise their kids as Jews, but no to non-Jewish spouses who actively practice another religion in the home  (or are clergy in one) and do not agree to raise their children as Jews?  A Conservative rabbi has proposed ( and then withdrawn) the idea of allowing intermarriage of couples (not of rabbis- this is Conservative) who promise to raise their kids as Jews. Other ex- Conservative rabbis make the conditions of intermarriage a Jewish home and Jewish children (if there are any).

Would something like that not have worked here? Did the RRC feel that it would involve too much prying and evaluation? Or that it was unfair? A pointless half-step? I cannot tell from their statement.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Inclusion, Jewish Feminism & Media, Liberal Judaism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Religious rights don’t justify discrimination

My Canadian Take on the “Can’t sit next to Women on a Plane” Issue.

From the Toronto Star

 

What has been a recurring problem in the U.S. has now reached Canada.

In the U.S. Orthodox Jewish men have caused numerous delays and turmoil on flights by insisting women switch seats so the men can avoid sitting next to them. On a recent Porter flight from New Jersey to Toronto, a woman was asked by an airline attendant to switch seats to accommodate an Orthodox Jewish man who did not want to sit next to her for religious reasons but did not ask her directly.

The men in these cases present their cause as a simple request (or a demand) for religious accommodation. The women who are asked or pressured by the men and sometimes by airline attendants to move see the situation as discrimination based on sex and feel their rights are violated. Both religious accommodation and freedom from discrimination based on sex are integral values that define our view of ourselves as a nation.

As an observant Jew, I see the importance of accommodation. As a feminist, I cannot abide someone regarding gender as a reason to reject a seatmate on a plane. How can these seemingly conflicting values be resolved?

Read the rest here

Posted in Jewish Feminism & Media, Liberal Judaism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s not about the extra mitzvot: Mansplaining the Morning Blessings

In Orthodox prayerbooks, a traditional daily morning blessing specifically thanks God for “not making me woman.” It is a part of a trio of prayers expressing gratitude for what we are not. The other two members of the trio are thanking God for “not making me a slave” and for “not making me a non-Jew”.  These blessings remain only in Orthodox prayerbooks, (at least in the negative “who has not made”  formulations) all other denominations having gotten rid of them for various reasons.

I have heard numerous well-intentioned men (and a some women like  Mrs. Leah Kohn  and Kressel’s Korner ) explain that the  blessing for not having been made a women is not a negative reflection on women, which the simple or pshat reading would tell, you but in fact is gratitude for the additional mitzvot/ obligations that a man has, but which a woman is exempted  from due to her duties to her husband and children.   These explanations sometimes refer to this blessing’s place in the trio as part of the explanation. Slaves and non-Jews have fewer mitzvot as well and the man saying these blessings is simply grateful for his greater obligations to God. Women’s fewer obligations are explained because women serve God differently through their child-rearing and household  duties. The claims is that intention of the prayer’s authors was never that women were lesser beings, only different.

Those who defend the contemporary use of this prayer  also frequently suggest that this formulation has been “the traditional” and only  formulation since the time of the Talmud.

Before I comment on the “it’s just more obligations” argument, here is a brief history if these blessings. Most of this timeline comes from My People’s Prayer Book: Birkhot hashachar (morning blessings) By Lawrence A. Hoffman and Three Blessings b

  • 3rd century B.C.E. A prayer, attributed to Socrates, expresses gratitude for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not barbarian. The Zoroastrians had a similar prayer.
  • 200 C.E. Jewish version appears in Talmud (Menahot 43b). The trio of blessings   was unconnected with the dawn blessings /birkhot ha-shahar, which is their current location in the siddur. The rest of the dawn blessings are in a different place- Talmud (Berakhot 60b)
  • 750-825 C.E. The trio makes its way into the dawn blessings /birkhot ha-shahar in Sefer Halakhot Gedolot (“Book of Major Laws”)
  • 13th century : Due to Christian scrutiny, Jews alter the text of “who has not made me a non-Jew” substituting  less direct words (like “Samarian”), phrasing it in the positive as “Who has made me a Jew,” or omitting the blessing.
  • 13-14 centuries- Because many Jews are servants they either replaced the word slave with “boor” or “beast” or removed that  blessing.
  •  14th century – An  alternative form for women to say is established: “Who has made me according to His will,” in the  code of Jacob bar Asher. (Men still say the original blessing.)
  • 14th century- The Rome Machzor replaces “who has not made me a non-Jew” with “who has made me an Israelite”
  • 14th-15th   century – In Southern Europe women say “who made me a women and not a man” (1478, 1480, siddur copied by Abraham  Farisol in Ferrera ), or  “Who did not make me a man”or “Who made me a woman.” See photo.
  • 18th- early 19th centuries- Non-Jew is changed to Nokri/foreigner  in many  Liberal (Reform) books and some in Orthodox ones.
  • 1850s-The Reform movement issued a prayerbook with the blessing “Who has created me to worship Him” for both men and women.
  • 1872- No Reform prayerbooks have “who has not made me a slave”.
  • 1873-The Positive-Historical influenced prayerbook (precursor of Conservative) omits all three original blessings and replaces them with “Who has made me an Israelite”
  • 1895- The “woman” and “non-Jew ” blessings are removed from the Reform siddur
  • early 20th century – The blessing “For making me as God wished”, which became the main Orthodox option for women, appeared as a selection in smaller type in the main prayerbook with “women say” printed above it.
  • 1945- The  Reconstructionist  prayerbook has  with all three blessings in the positive: made me free, made me a Jew and made me in God’s image.
  • 1946- The Conservative prayerbook has  with all three blessings in the positive. From this point forward the negative forms appear only in Orthodox prayerbooks.
  • 2000s- Orthodox prayerbooks have “For making me as God wished” presented side-by-side with “for not making me woman”.

All that history was to just demonstrate that the blessings have been changing since they were introduced.  So change is neither forbidden nor inconsistent with what was done by Jews in the past. Moreover in terms of non-Orthodox Judaism, the change away from all three blessings  in their original forms has been around for 70 years.

So when we have a compelling reason,  that a basic reading of the blessing is offensive to women, and  change this blessing, we are not that different than the Jews who came before us.

And how compelling is the reason? Let’s look at the point that men had more mitzvoth/obligations than women and they had different duties but were still equal in the eyes of the authors of the prayer . What reasons are given for these fewer obligations for  women? The medieval commentator Abu Dirham explains is that a woman is a servant of two masters: her husband and God. To spare a woman the dilemma that might occur if her husband commanded her to do something while she was supposed to be fulfilling a divine commandment, God graciously bows out, relinquishing the claim on her time. This explanation also appears in the Shulchan Aruch/Code of Laws. Later on  and even today we see explanations that suggest that women are inherently closer to God because of their “spiritual” nature and thus do not require extra mitzvot, and at the same time are less subject to temptations or less grounded in their bodies and thus need fewer mitzvot to make them closer to God.

While women, non-Jews and slaves had fewer mitzvot to fulfill, they were also of much lower status and women and slaves had very few, if any, rights as people.  The authors of the Talmud saw none of these categories, non-Jews, women or slaves as their equals but all as lesser beings. The Talmud asks, when discussing this trio of  blessings why the category slave does not just cover women as well:

What form should the morning blessings take?..who has not made me a slave..Isn’t a slave to equivalent to a woman?”(Menachot 43b)

Rashi explains this passage:

For a woman is to her husband as a slave is to his master

There is  a direct connection between this lack of status, being seen as lesser beings and the lack of obligations.  Mitzvot were and are seen as good things to have and being exempt from them to serve the needs of others (husband, and children)  is  not an equal exchange. We are taught all over rabbinic literature that the opportunity to perform additional mitzvot is something to be sought after and the performing mitzvot is our principal way of interacting with and serving God. Nechama Leibowitz wrote that mitzvot elevate “daily, egoistic activities to the level of divine service”.  So, the idea that women have fewer mitzvot, but are still equal but just different  (less likely to sin, more “spiritual) does not mesh well with this basic principle of rabbinic Judaism.

Moreover in the culture of the time and (to a far lesser extent in ours), the freedom of Talmudic men  to study Torah and pray three times a day was because their women or slaves  were taking care of all the menial housework and all the difficult parts of  childrearing for them. Women without rights suffered horribly throughout history, this time period included (however advanced the rabbis may have been on some issues). One example of the numerous way lower status and had real consequences in the lives of women is that  a rape victim had to marry her rapist and could not innate divorce. Another is that a father could marry his daughter to a person she despised while she was still a minor.

There is an inherent connection  between  fewer mitzvot and the associated real suffering of women through lack of human rights and lower status. Ignoring this connection is trying to decouple inherently linked concepts that have been connected by the rabbis right from the introduction and discussion of this blessing in the Talmud  onward.

This attempted decoupling reminds me of this article (The “Southern Belle” Is a Racist Fiction) and many like it which delineate why  glorifying Southern Culture without connecting it to slavery is wrong.

And the Belles of today do exactly that—if you bring up sl*very, they’ll point to all the nice parts about the Old South. The architecture, the parties, the sipping of cool drinks on warm porches. Oh, the fields? Those fields are just for growing delicious strawberries and tomatoes for folks to enjoy. Nothing more……Unfortunately for the nostalgics, the Old South is synonymous with the Antebellum south, which in turn is synonymous with the slave economy. Bu-bu-but tradition! Sorry. Your tradition was someone else’s nightmare. Pining for those days, even if you’re too detached from national history to realize it, is pining for the comforts of whiteness when black people were property.

I am in no way saying that the two situations: women’s lack of personhood throughout  the majority of Jewish history and slavery in America, are equivalent.  What is problematic in both cases is putting one’s own comfort and desire for tradition above the fact that those traditions were inherently linked to the suffering of others.

Men’s extra obligations in rabbinic Judaism were based on and enabled by women’s oppression. It is wrong  to preserve and glorify a time when women were basically property and eminent, educated men were unashamed to compare women to slaves, (even if the comparison was not 100% literal.) If your tradition was someone else’s nightmare, then it needs to changed.

 

 

 

Posted in Feminism and Jewish Ritual & Practice, Feminist Parenting, Liberal Judaism, Liturgy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Othering of Tzedaka in Jewish Education

PENNY IN THE PUSHKA
Penny in the pushka,
Penny in the pot,
We give tzedakah right before Shabbat.
Counting all the pennies, nickels, quarters, too
It’s fun to help each other,
It’s what we ought to do.
One for the family without enough to eat,
One for the poor folks that live down the street,
One for the little girl who learns in special ways,
And one for Israel and that is why we say…..

 

The problem with the song is that the ones we are helping are always framed as “the other,” (even if it is not the case in reality). We, the singers of the song, the teachers, the students in the class, are the “Givers,” who help the poor, those with special needs or those who do not have enough to eat. The idea that the children in our schools, or their families or neighbours may be those who are poor, who may not have enough to eat, who have complex needs or mental illness is never brought up in the context of Tzedakah in the classroom.

read the rest of my post here http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-othering-of-tzedaka-in-jewish-education/

 

Posted in Day School tuition, Judaism and Social Justice | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments