Archive for April, 2010

This just in and sparking serious conversations on listservs and blogs galore – the Rabbinic Council of America, after their 51st annual conference, issued a press release on the status of women in Orthodox Jewish life:

1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim [members] have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.2) We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness – halakhah[Jewish law], hashkafah[Jewish thought], tradition and historical memory.

3) In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education.  As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah, yir’at Shamayim[fear of Heaven], and dikduk be-mitzvot[scrupulous observance of commandments].

I’m a little confused. How does the Rabbinical Council of America transmit Judaism “in all its depth” when they do not transmit the title of rabbi or the training that creates the process of becoming one to women? When the future of Judaism depends on more members of the community actively practicing Judaism, it would make sense to make it accessible everyone who wants to learn. If women are already receiving “advanced women’s Torah education” (question: how is this different from advanced men’s Torah education?), what should stop them from becoming rabbis? Furthermore, how can they contribute to this “ever-broadening” and “ever-deepening” well of Judaism if they are not given the training, title, or pulpit to do so?

Bottom line: this portion of the press release seems extremely unproductive. Nothing new is being said in terms of women in Orthodoxy. As the discrimination continues so does the inaction to end it. Yes, there are halakhic reasons, but as for those, I ask: Who created halakha? Male rabbis. Would halakha be different had women participated in its binding structure? Absolutely. Were they able to? No. That is why I am writing this post. It’s time to include women in positions of leadership across the denominations so that – one day – Judaism becomes inclusive and empowering to all who desire the power rather than exclusive and male-centric.


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Mikveh Madness

This post is cross-posted at JWA.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about niddah, or the laws having to do with a women’s monthly immersion in the mikveh (this is what happens when you run a Jewish blog—you read a lot of random things). I am no expert on this issue—far from it—but I think it’s a really interesting topic, and something that more women should be aware of, especially in light of the battle over mikvaot that is going on in some communities in Israel right now. So here are the basic, traditional rules: a woman is supposed to abstain from sex and any physical contact throughout her period and for seven days after, until she has immersed herself in a mikveh. The reason for the immersion is so that she will no longer be tameh, which is loosely translated as “impure,” but that many believe is really meant to convey a lack of wholeness without the heavy negative connotations of impurity. In addition, the mikveh is, traditionally, intended for married women.

The mikveh presents many challenges for a woman living in the modern world, even among more traditional communities. First, the issue of whether or not an unmarried woman can go to the mikveh—what do observant women do who are having sex outside of marriage? In an article on The Sisterhood on the issue, Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, a Conservative Rabbi in Israel, estimates that approximately one third of Orthodox women who are having sex outside of marriage use the mikveh each month. However, In Israel, there are many times when women who are not married are barred from using a mikveh. So what should such women do?

Read on here!

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The main article in Time magazine this week is in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the FDA approval of the Pill. I don’t usually read Time, so I was happy to discover it and read the somewhat surprising things it has to say about birth control. Many people attribute the advent of the birth control with the rise of a sexual revolution and increased promiscuity, but the article argues that there was no such revolution: in the 1960s, people seeking the Pill were required to be married, and by 1953, way before the Pill was approved by the FDA, half of the women studied in the Kinsey Report had sex out of marriage.

So what did the Pill do? They took away an excuse for employers not to hire women, as women would no longer be expected to need to quit for having a baby. It went hand in hand with Title IX in ’72, which banned discrimination in education:

The Pill played a role, argues Harvard economist Goldin, in persuading colleges and graduate schools not to reject female applicants on the assumption that they would just wind up getting pregnant and dropping out. After 1970, as states lowered the age of majority and young people were granted more rights, college and graduate students had easier access to contraception. From 1970 to ’80, Goldin notes, women went from comprising 10% of first-year law students to 36% and from 4% of business-school students to 28%. “I’ve taken a lot of grief by people who insist the Pill had nothing to do with this, it’s all the women’s movement,” she says. But her research showed the connection between the point at which different states allowed access to the Pill and the progress women in those states made.

The Pill did, and has done, a lot for women—opening the door to control over their bodies and procreation. And yes, there are still a lot of problems with it, namely the fact that 63% of young men and women say that they know little or nothing about birth control pills. Education about contraception is clearly lacking, but at least the Pill is there.

So what does Judaism say about the Pill? Traditionally, Judaism encourages sex, but only inside of a marriage. Not only this, but in Judaism it is a Mitzvah to procreate and to have children, and a sin to “waste seed.” So where does contraception come in, in light of this?

More liberal and modern aspects of Judaism allow contraception in all forms. Traditional groups stress that having a baby should not be pushed off altogether, but that contraception may be used when pregnancy or childbirth might harm the mother, to limit the number of children in a family for the sake of the family, or to space out having children. The methods that are generally approved of are the Pill, sometimes the diaphragm, and the IUD, because they do not involve “wasting sperm” like the condom would. There’s also a story of a woman being allowed to drink a potion to make her infertile, which is the precedent in Judaism for the Pill.

It’s weird for me, at least, to have grown up in society where the Pill is so mainstream and condoms are handed out at festivals and concerts, but to be a part of Judaism where there are such limits on what kinds of contraception can be used. And obviously, that’s a very traditional view—Reform Judaism, for instance, encourages people to have babies only when they are good and ready. But still, thinking about it to me is a clash of worlds: the modern world, in which the Pill has changed the way women fit into it, and the traditional religious world, where women’s roles have been somewhat set for generations. And I guess it’s a choice that people make for themselves, choosing the world they see themselves fit into best. And the reason they can make that choice for themselves? Because the Pill is available, accessible, and legal.

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This entry is cross-posted at JWA.

The work of the historian is to not only tell a story, but to tell it in a way that makes it real, vivid, alive, and human for the receiver. I learned this on Monday when I had the privilege of attending the Matrix Awards and hearing Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s acceptance speech. This wisdom instantly struck a chord because it describes exactly why I write and what I want to do with my writing. I want to tell a story that makes someone want to act because when statistics or historical jargon is turned into characters, the process of humanization begins and we start to act.

Here is my revelation from Monday: It is the work of the Jewish feminist to tell a real, vivid, alive, and human story. Why? The lives of Jewish women, while documented in Talmudic footnotes and filed away birth certificates, are not recorded in a way that allows them to be remembered. Judaism is all about storytelling. The Torah – the oldest foundation of Judaism off of which everything else is based – is a book of stories that are beautifully written, intricately woven together, and undoubtedly sexist in a way relevant to the times. We tell stories to remember. What is so enlightened about religion is that it does not matter if what we remember actually happened. What matters is how we remember it and how we share it and let it spread in the creation of tradition, ritual, and community.

Read the rest here.

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The title of this post, minus what’s in the parentheses was my midterm assignment for my Gender Studies class. In recognizing the multiple forms these intersections manifest themselves in, I also had to add in Judaism because it religiously and culturally impacts how I view myself as a White woman.

When I first got this assignment, I had every intention of examining someone else’s experiences with race and gender. This someone would be female and of a minority race, someone who demonstrated the intersection of oppressions, someone whose race had a culture behind the tone of her skin. Then I realized that to choose such a person would be a cop-out and I would miss the opportunity to define myself honestly in racial terms, an assignment I, as a White woman, have never been doled out.

I never thought I had a race. Biologically, I consider myself White (however inaccurate that might be), but culturally? White never seemed to be a race. There are no formalized “White Alliance/Cultural” clubs because the whole world is such. There is no need to speak out on issues facing a White community because the White community tends to be the enforcers of issues facing minority groups. White could not be a race because it is the oppressor, the supremacist group. What I now realize is that the binary of “White” and “of color” is just as unclear and stigmatizing as the gender binary. I can use my knowledge of the gender binary to not only identify and own my Whiteness racially, but I can also use it to disprove stereotypes of privilege and womanhood that such labels have forced on me.

What is said in terms of oppression for the White population can also be echoed for the male side of the gender binary. In that lexicon, male is still considered a gender just like female is even though one is considered the oppressor and the other the oppressed. White is also a race that is accompanied by cultural expectations and when they are not met, members of that racial group are ostracized.

The truth is that my upbringing is not simply comprised of racial and gender identities. My experience living in New York City and as a Jew also play into my experience of humanity. If I were to be defined solely in racial and gendering terms, I would be a WASP living in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, wearing a uniform to my private school, getting inexplicably excited at the site of Tiffany’s, and traveling to Europe over the summer, experiencing a life more akin to Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl than Shira Engel. There is nothing wrong with the stereotypes I have just labeled except that they are not an accurate reflection of who I am.

Put “Jewish” into the equation and I would be living on the Upper West Side, attending a day school where I am taught to not question religious law that dictates women are subordinate, having a Bat Mitzvah for the sake of having a party rather than becoming a woman, and being called a “JAP” (Jewish American Princess) by those who immediately associate Judaism (specifically, Jewish girls) with privilege derived from mooching off others. This too is not who I am.

I live on the Upper East Side and I travel to a school that I chose against my parents’ will so that I could associate with a more diverse group of peers on a daily basis. Rather than get excited at the site of Tiffany’s, I write on the abasement of women by the jewelry advertising industry for feminist blogs. Over the summer, I traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to ally with and learn from a race not my own. I translate Judaism to a movement towards social justice rather than subordination of my gender. Yes, these expectations differ more than slightly, but what remains is a degrading of women regardless of social location, religion, or race.

Ever since I learned to identify stereotypes, I have been taught how to both defy and embrace them of my own free will through feminism. Oppression serves two paradoxical purposes: to divide and to unify. Divisive as it is to separate groups of people who innately have more in common than different into binaries, it also unifies these divided groups through providing commonality in need of a shared strength. Everyone – regardless of race, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, or money – is searching for a cause to back up and a movement to fight for. It is easier to find this as the oppressed rather than as the oppressor. That is why feminism is so appealing to me – I get to share an oppression and a strength with millions of people I do not even know simply because of my gender. It is because of that movement, that victimization-turned-empowerment that I am able to identify with my gender more strongly than I am able to identify with my race.

This summer when I was in New Orleans, my community-organizing trip consisted of five core organizers and forty volunteers. Four of the five organizers were women. All organizers were White. As a result, many of the volunteers felt jibes at the organizers were legitimate, that calling the women “bitches” when they yelled at us to start canvassing was justified because it could not be called discrimination in light of the jarring racism surrounding us. Almost everyone on the trip would identify as feminist when asked yet feminism superficially seemed irrelevant in the Lower Ninth Ward, where obscenities had racist rather than sexist roots.

I also called the organizers “bitches,” conforming to the mentality that I had to pick a form of discrimination to fight, that I couldn’t do both at once, and it was not until the last day of the trip that the organizers confronted the volunteers about it. These strong White women, born and raised in Park Slope by activist parents, their privilege used to buy books by bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, struck the organizers with a line from a Staceyann Chin poem, “All oppression is connected, you dick.”

This connection of oppressions, of binaries, which are transforming into spectrums, is what allows me to identify as both White and as a feminist, to be a part of socially active groups that permit me to identify as an ally and feminist groups that embrace my desire for gender equality. I can own my White privilege if I use it to work with those less visibly privileged than I am, but I cannot ignore the plethora of identities I have inherited and am acquiring. It is through my interest in feminism that I am able to translate my racial identity into a lexicon of intersectionality.

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Today is Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1948. Israel is 62 years old!

As a part of my school’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, a friend of mine and I led a workshop on sexism, religion, and separation of church and state in Israel, and I thought that I’d share some of what we talked about here. We talked about what Haredim actually are (very religious Jews, among other things), how they can be exempt from army service in order to study in Yeshiva, and how many believe that Halacha should play an important role in determining secular Israeli law. And not only do they believe that, but they have been able to make it partly a reality, as law in Israel concerning marriage, death, and divorce is completely based on religious law. You can’t get a civil marriage in Israel—only a religious one.

The reason that Haredim have been able to grow in influence because of the coalition system in Israel, in which Prime Ministers need to fill a certain number of seats in the Cabinet order to gain power, and so religious parties are included in the coalition. Shas, the Haredi Sephardic and Mizrachi (Eastern) party in Israel, currently has 11 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, which is Israel’s version of Congress. They hold three Cabinet posts, and their leader, Eli Yishai, is Israel’s Foreign Minister.

Now, because Haredi parties have been able to grow in power, they have been able to influence Israeli politics. Remember when Haredi men threw chairs at women at the Western Wall because it’s illegal for women to read Torah and wear Tefillin in front of the Wall? Remember how there are gender-segregated buses running around Israel because some men don’t want to sit next to women? Although Israel does not have an official religion (surprising, right?), clearly Judaism has a say in influencing Israeli law. Separation of church and state cannot exist when the Israeli government has a Ministry of Religious Affairs that pays for Haredi Yeshivot, educational and social services, and religious research and cultural institutions. The government pays people for studying in Yeshiva all day.

So we asked some questions. What do you do when a group of people that are democratically elected ask for some things that seem undemocratic (blatant sexism, for instance)? Israel, as a democratic country, is assumed to ensure freedom of religion for its people, and Supreme Court judges have been quoted saying so—so how can you have freedom of religion in a country that allows its policies to be shaped by religion? Can a democratic state exist without separation of church and state?

No one really had any definite answers, as these are the kinds of questions that people debate for years. But some people said interesting things—that Israel needs to draw a line between people’s freedom of religion in private areas versus public areas, and that perhaps the Israeli coalition system overall will have to be changed because it requires sacrifices that overly large to be made. Personally, I think that Israel needs to make some changes, because there is growing resentment among the modern, secular community in Israel against the Haredi community that many Israelis feel to be a drain on their society. The coalition system puts the government in quite the bind, but the government needs to draw some lines between respecting Haredi beliefs and maintaining democratic principles in Israel.

Also, did you know that during the War of Independence, women served full combat positions in the IDF? After the war they did not, until many years later, but the War was fought equally by men and women. Happy Birthday, Israel!

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Today is Yom HaZikkaron, or Israeli Memorial Day. It is a very emotional day in Israel and for Israelis outside of Israel, because due to the small size of Israel and the mandatory draft, almost everyone knows someone who has died or been injured either in military service or because of a terrorist attack.

And I thought about posting about women in the Israeli military, but then I thought about how I spend so much time arguing about Israel and discussing the political and social situation there, and how today is the one day when I don’t want to discuss or get angry or be provocative. Today is an emotional day, and is a day simply for remembrance, not for divisions among gender lines. And so, in that spirit, I thought I’d share a song that an Israeli middle school girl sang at an assembly today for my entire school  A lot of people, myself included, were surprised at the power that was able to come out of  that little girl’s mouth. Let me just say, it made a lot of people in the audience cry. It was written for a solider that died by his sister,  and even if you don’t read the lyrics (they’re posted on the video) to me, at least, the song just spills with love and compassion and sadness. And that, to me, is what memorializing is about.

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