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Archive for the ‘Jewish Law’ Category

This post is cross-posted at JWA

This weekend has been very exciting for me–the synagogue that my family belongs to is hosting Sara Hurwitz as a guest speaker. For those of you haven’t heard of her: after studying for seven years at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, she was given the title of “maharat” by Rabbi Avi Weiss (an Orthodox rabbi) in March 2009, and deemed a spiritual and halachic leader. Few people understood that maharat meant spiritual and halachic leader, and so Rabbi Weiss changed her title to rabba. However, the Rabbinic Council of America, a group of mainly modern Orthodox American rabbis, considered expelling Weiss from their group because of the similarities between the word “rabba” and “rabbi,” and so Weiss changed her title back to maharat. And that’s where we stand today—Hurwitz is now the head of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women to become spiritual and halachic leaders in their communities. Hurwitz is also a full member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where she teaches, officiates at life cycle events and advises congregants on halachic issues.

You can probably see why I was so excited to meet her.

Last night, after dinner, Rabba (she still refers to herself as a rabba, and I’m certainly not one to object) Hurwitz invited the congregation to join her in a Talmudic case study of Yalta. Who is Yalta, you might ask? Great question–most of the congregation had never even heard of her (we’d only heard of the treaty). Yalta is a woman mentioned in various parts of the Talmud, known as being the wife of Rabbi Nachman, a famous rabbi, as well as the daughter of the exilarch (who is essentially the secular leader of the Jewish community). Hurwitz taught and analyzed with us three stories that mention Yalta, and then led us in discussion of the implications of her role as a female in the Jewish community.

The first source discussed the fact that Yalta was known to be carried on alanki on Shabbat, something that is usually prohibited (as it is seen as work). The source suggested that perhaps she was allowed to do so because she was needed quickly by someone in the community (a known exception to the rule), implying that she played a significant role in the community and had some kind of authority. Not such a small accomplishment for a woman living in Talmudic times.

The second source described a guest, Rabbi Ulla, coming to dinner at Rabbi Nachman’s house and refusing to pass a cup that had been blessed to Yalta after Nachman requested he do so. Instead, he cited a verse saying that “the fruit of a woman’s body is blessed from the fruit of a man’s body”. Enraged, Yalta stormed away from the table and broke four hundred jars of wine in her cellar. Nachman turned to Ulla and asked him, once again, to give her the juice, which he refused, and then she retorted that “gossip comes from pedlars and vermin from rags.” No one was exactly sure what that last line meant. However, the story itself involves some interesting symbolism: the line that Ulla quotes treats women like a vessel that must be blessed (and fertilized) by a man. In breaking four hundred bottles of wine, Yalta (quite dramatically) shows Ulla the necessity of a vessel–without the vessel holding in the wine, nothing can be contained, just as without a woman, man cannot reproduce. Hurwitz acknowledged the excess in Yalta’s actions, but also emphasized the powerful message that she sent.

The final source we discussed was one that I found to be particularly relevant to Hurwitz’s own struggle as a Jewish woman authority. The source discussed an instance where Yalta brought a sample of her menstrual fluids to Rabbi Bar Hana to judge if it was “clean,” meaning that her period was over, or “unclean.” He said that it was unclean, and so she turned to Rabbi Isaac (they were apparently in the Beit Midrash, or house of study), who initially agreed with Rabbi Bar Hana. However, she told Rabbi Isaac that on every other occasion, Rabbi Bar Hana had ruled such blood clean, and that only on that day did he rule in unclean because he had something in his eye, and so Rabbi Isaac finally ruled it clean. The source then goes into a discussion of when you can believe a woman on her menstrual fluids, which is a weird and interesting discussion for another time. What Hurwitz emphasized was that Yalta clearly knew that her blood was clean, but she chose to go to the rabbis anyway to ask if it was clean–and only then did she argue her point. She tried to challenge authority without trying to ignore it–she wanted to bring about change from within the system.

And that, I think, is Hurwitz’s thinly veiled metaphor for herself. In listening and talking to Hurwitz this weekend (she was nice enough to answer a few of my questions after speaking), it became clear to me that while she is very much trying to challenge traditional authority and pave the way for women to take on new and important roles in Orthodox Judaism, she also has a deep and unwavering respect for Orthodox Judaism and its traditional system. I asked her last night if she had ever considered going to a place like the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she would not have to deal with the complaints of the RCA, etc, and she responded that she never had–that she feels at home in the Orthodox world, and that it is important to her to bring about change while working within the framework of the system that is in place. Even though I find myself more comfortable outside the Orthodox realm and within a less traditional sphere, I have a lot of respect for her commitment to being both an Orthodox Jew and a female authority and leader. Learning with her this weekend was great, not just because I discovered Yalta, who was quite the rebel, but also because I had the opportunity to see a room full of Modern Orthodox Jews engaged by an intelligent, educated woman on Halachic issues–a site that I don’t see too often, but that could hopefully become commonplace in the next decade or two.

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This Thursday a document called “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” written by a group of three Orthodox rabbis and signed by Orthodox rabbis, educators, mental health professionals, and communal leaders, was released into the blogosphere. It lays out a set of principles on how to address the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish world, an issue that Orthodox Judaism is struggling and grappling with today.

Somehow, the document manages to balance a very hard Orthodox stance on homosexuality with an emphasis on the importance of respect for homosexual people. Personally, I think it is important that the first principle is this:

All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot). Every Jew is obligated to fulfill the entire range of mitzvot between person and person in relation to persons who are homosexual or have feelings of same sex attraction. Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.

It sets the tone for a set of principles that seems to me to be based around the idea that no matter what one’s view on homosexuality is, homosexuals are people, and all people deserve respect and dignity—an important thing to remember, especially in the Orthodox world, where homophobic attitudes abound and homosexuals struggle for life with the fact that who they are by nature goes against what they have been taught. (A side note, kind of: Rabbi Blau, one of the creators of the document, moderated a panel on the issue of being gay in the Orthodox community at Yeshiva University a couple of years ago.)

But again, the document does take a hard stance: it says that heterosexual marriage is “the ideal model and sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression”; that all male and female same-sex sexual interactions are prohibited; that because an “entire congregation must be fully comfortable with having that person serve as its representative,” homosexuals most likely cannot serve in many religious offices; and that Judaism “cannot give its blessing and imprimatur to Jewish religious same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings, and halakhic values proscribe individuals and communities from encouraging practices that grant religious legitimacy to gay marriage and couplehood.” These statements make it clear that the people signing the document are not interested in compromising on the idea that the Torah prohibits homosexual relations.

Even so (and I know I’m going back and forth here, but I think that is the point), many of those very statements are qualified to show the empathy and compassion that the signers want other people to exhibit. For example, immediately after saying that homosexual relations are prohibited it says: “But it is critical to emphasize that halakha only prohibits homosexual acts; it does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” I think that this line is a very important one because it provides legitimacy to homosexuals and their feelings, something that should not be overlooked, as in many communities homosexuals are pushed towards therapy treatments to try and push them towards becoming heterosexuals. In fact, this document addresses those therapies and affirms homosexual people’s rights to refuse to undergo those treatments, something that I personally find to show compassion and acceptance.

Update (7/26/10): However, there are still many problems with the document: namely, that it seems to be somewhat of an apology for the current Jewish laws rather than a tangible idea for the future. Rather than discussing the biblical prohibition and dealing with it, the statement just takes it as it currently is and apologizes for it. Yes, creating a document like this is a very difficult and precarious thing to do in the Orthodox world, and I do think that this is a step in the right direction by emphasizing sensitivity and caring towards all human beings. However, I wrote this update after thinking about it and realizing that I’m not sure that is enough: I’m not sure that Orthodoxy will ever allow homosexual marriage or condone homosexual relations because of the prohibition in the Torah, but I’m also not sure if not allowing it can continue in the world we live in indefinitely. I think that given the fact that this seems progressive for the Orthodox community, this is definitely a positive document and is definitely a good way to get discussions generated about how the Orthodox community should deal with homosexuality (the growing list of Rabbis is a good sign), but I do not think that this is the final word on the issue.

What do you think? I’m really not sure, in case you couldn’t tell, so I would love to hear comments on this.

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My stepmother just sent me this note from NIF (the New Israel Fund), an organization that is near and dear to her heart. What separates NIF from other US-based groups dealing with Israel is its focus on domestic issues, which are often overlooked in light of Israel’s international political symbolism. Domestic issues all around the world are in large part comprised of issues of women’s rights, which, as we know quite well, intersect with marriage rights.

Check out this release from NIF:

This Sunday, for the second year in a row, NIF is sponsoring a wedding. It’s Tu B’Av, Israel’s Valentine’s Day, and like most Jewish weddings in Israel there will be flowers, dancing and a chuppah. But unlike most weddings in Israel, this one will be a Jewish alternative ceremony, joining the lives of two young people without the assistance or interference of Israel’s Orthodox-only Chief Rabbinate.

In Israel, the only way to have a legally recognized wedding is to have an Orthodox ceremony, and the only way to have an Orthodox ceremony is to meet the ever-harsher requirements of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.  Yulia and Stas, the bride and groom, are choosing a public ceremony in Tel Aviv to help raise awareness about the need for a civil marriage alternative in Israel.

By sundown on Sunday, Yulia and Stas will have had a Jewish wedding, but not one recognized by the laws of the State of Israel. Like many couples who wish to avoid the involvement of the Orthodox rabbinate in their wedding, Yulia and Stas will have to get married outside of Israel in order for their union to be legally recognized in their own country.

The need for a civil wedding option in Israel was driven home dramatically during the last few weeks, as emotions have flared in Israel and throughout the diaspora over the Rotem bill legislation introduced into the Knesset that, if passed, will grant the ultra-Orthodox an iron monopoly on conversion and on who is a Jew.

It’s one thing to get married in the United States, where a marriage does not have to involve religion and where the core issue at hand is denial of same-sex marriages. In Israel, there is another issue that falls under the umbrella of marriage equality: denominational representation. The ultra-Orthodox rabbinate controls marriage laws in Israel where there is not an option for a justice of the peace AND there is no such thing as a marriage that is not performed by an Orthodox rabbi in observance of very specific halakha.

The scary part is that many of these ultra-Orthodox rituals and observances go against the beliefs of the majority of the population. A marriage, an act that is supposed to create a union of two identities, ends up contradicting the beliefs of the two people who are united.

So take action now and contact Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to recognize all forms of Judaism as valid.

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I just got back from Boulder, Colorado where I stayed for my cousin’s wedding. To be honest, I’m not a big wedding person. Many people assume that is because my parents are divorced and that is probably part of it, but I see the inequality associated with the ritual, its institutionalization and the commercialism that has boomed in accordance with an event that is supposed to be about love rather than exclusion and magazines. Cynicism is great when it allows me to think outside of the box and to create alternatives to rituals I deem discriminatory, but it’s not so great when it puts up a wall between me and appreciating a ceremony that is so much bigger than myself.

While one wedding did not get me to change my personal views on marriage, I did learn to appreciate the beauty of my cousin and his wife displaying their love and sharing it with family and close friends. And it was beautiful. The ceremony was at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, the chuppah outside overlooking an expanse so wide that it just feels Jewish in the faith sense of the term.

The rabbi (my second cousin) was upfront about the fact that this would not be a “traditional” wedding. By that, he meant that it would be egalitarian, featuring men and women equally and, in this case, within the boundaries of most Jewish laws. The ceremony began with circling. Traditionally, the bride circles the groom seven times, but in their wedding, my cousin also circled his beloved, creating a union based in equality. Then, when the Ketubah (marriage contract) was signed, they had four witnesses rather than the required two. They had four because it is mandated that there be two male witnesses, but female witnesses do not traditionally count. The happy couple made certain to have equal representation on both sides.

This was only the second wedding I’ve been to (the first being my dad and stepmom’s who were married by the same rabbi as in this one) and it made me feel safe in both Judaism and in my family, like I was not part of something that would be considered exclusive. That is a wonderful feeling and one that should be the basis of a union rooted in law, religion, and love.

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I literally just put down On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and I felt an overwhelming urge to blog about it. I’ve been reading it for the past week or two, and it’s completely unique from any other piece of Jewish feminist literature I have read. Unlike a lot of pieces I have read, Blu Greenberg, the author, is not willing to simply write off Halacha as outdated and sexist and replace it with newer ideas without reason, but is also unwilling to give up on the idea that equality for men and women is an inherent Jewish value. I’m probably going to write a couple of posts on various topics that she writes about because there is just so much to say.

For this first post, I want to write about what Greenberg has to say about women’s exemption from positive time-bound commandments, and the implication of that exemption on their observance of Judaism and role in the community, specifically with prayer. She explains that there is a principle in Judaism that every commandment that must be preformed within a specific time frame is not binding on women, such as daytime commandments or commandments that must be performed at a certain hour. There is no rationale mentioned for this exemption in the Talmud, but many scholars have tried to explain the meaning of the exemption. She cites several theories.

The first, a fourteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are in the subservient position, women should not be bound to commandments at a specific time because it might prevent them from serving their husbands. The second, a nineteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are actually superior to men, they do not need to observe the commandments because they have a special fervor and love for God that men do not have because of their special role, raising a family. The third is a thirteenth century theory that says that like children and slaves, women do not have the mental control to observe the commandments, and the fourth is a twentieth century theory that says that women do not need the commandments because they are naturally more in tune to the passing of time because of their biological clocks, and do not need the commandments to remind them of it like men do. The fifth and final one is a twentieth century theory created by Saul Berman. He says that the commandments from which women are exempted are mainly ones that would lead them into the public eye: lack of status in a Minyan, not being allowed to be called to the Torah, not being allowed to be witnesses in Jewish courts, etc. If you mix all these theories together, the reason for the exemption probably has to do with a desire for women to be able to perform their domestic duties, as well as desire for women to maintain their roles inside the home and outside of the public eye.

She then goes onto explain how because for years women have not been obligated to pray in a Minyan (a group of at least ten) because of this exemption, doing so has become a mainly male thing. While personal prayer is seen as an important thing, praying in a larger group is regarded in Judaism as the better option—people are encouraged to pray in a Minyan rather than by themselves, to the point where there are certain prayers that can only be said in a Minyan. And women, because they are not required, end up losing out on that. She says,

And what about the spiral effect of release? Without actually assuming full and equal responsibility, will it ever be possible to have full and equal access—especially in a system that defines access in terms of responsibility? Can a woman ever hope to qualify for religious leadership if she has not met equal tests as a layperson? Indeed, is there not an inseverable link between release and restrain, between unaccountability and public invisibility, between ascribed junior status and reduced self-esteem? If we have learned anything at all from feminism, is it not that rights and responsibilities must come together?

I find that quote to be really powerful, because it counters the argument that women should not complain about being exempted from commandments because they can take their own initiative and perform them. It is not as simple as that—exempting an entire sex from something sends a message, whether that message is that these women are not full members of the community, or that they are incapable of fixed responsibility.

I will end this incredibly long post with Greenberg’s suggestion for dealing with the issue of exemption. She suggests that the exemption from time-bound commandment for all women be lifted, and instead only be relevant for women who are raising children (lasting until perhaps Bar/Bat Mitzvah age). She believes that doing so will encourage women to pray throughout their entire lives and turn to prayer as a means of expression, while also making a statement about “the holiness of raising a family,” exhibited by the fact that it can take precedent over other commandments. She also believes that in the long run, women will have to be included in a Minyan in order for them to be seen as full members of a community; she does not criticize the Mechitzah (division between the two sexes), but rather believes that women should be entrusted with the same responsibility that men are, the responsibility to show up for a Minyan and pray.

I love the fact that she ends this chapter, a chapter called “Women and Liturgy,” with an idea for the future but also with an emphasis on the power of Jewish law, Halacha, to influence people’s lives. She describes Halacha as a powerful, beautiful thing, one that binds Jews to laws and customs, but also to an ancient history and tradition. She describes it as a dynamic, fluid system of law that should naturally adapt to include women—she does not try to over-criticize Halacha, but rather work together with it to show how Judaism’s moral code calls for an inclusion of women. And although I personally may not be as observant as Greenberg or in agreement with all of her views, I think that something that we should all strive for is to look at Jewish feminism as a way of bettering Judaism, not as a way of tearing it apart.

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My friend Becca, along with some of her Orthodox Jewish Day School friends/co-tichel cuties created a pretty intense fusion of Lady Gaga and traditional Orthodox concepts (the wearing of the tichel – garb for married women, preparing for Shabbat, and the waiting for the Messiah). This is not a likely combination so that’s probably why it has been getting so much attention in the blogosphere, both positive and negative.

I think this mixture of feedback is due to a general confusion of the purpose of the video. Three Orthodox Jewish high school students translating Jewish ritual into Gaga – is this a parody? Are they making fun of Orthodox Judaism? Or are they portraying their lives/futures through this witty medium?

Renee at The Sisterhood questions, “Well, it may be kosher, but it’s not so innocent. The sexual overtones — not to mention some of the lyrics — in this video caused me to be pretty sure that this is all a satire. … Right?”

The confusion is understandable, but these girls deserve a chance to explain their project for themselves. So, I asked Becca for the story behind Tichel Cuties and here are her answers:

Why did you and your friends create this music video? What is its purpose?

My friends and I were suffering from the boredom that comes along with being second-semester seniors (at least two of us were, the other girl is a sophomore), and we decided that we would turn our love for Lady Gaga into a project. We already had the line “ra ra roll the challah,” but I can’t quite remember where the line came from. Once we had that first line, the project just took off.

What message are you trying to convey?

Our main point was to have some fun with traditional Jewish concepts – like tichels (hair coverings) and mashiach (the Jewish redemption). To be honest, the video is a bit of a spoof – poking some fun at the Jewish world – but it is all in good fun.

What are the contradictions present in the project?

Well, firstly, none of us are married, yet we are wearing hair coverings, which is required of married Jewish women. Also, as many angry youtube watchers pointed out, we are breaking the Jewish law of Kol Isha, which says that a man cannot hear the voice of a woman. Although many people keep this law to different degrees, many men would be opposed to girls singing in a video. This was funny because in our religiously themed video, we were breaking laws, according to some.

What does this say about Orthodoxy? Young Orthodox Jewish women?

I think that the reactions of some ultra-orthodox Jews show the negative side of Orthodoxy–that sometimes with extreme religiousness comes a lack of ability to accept others. The fact that many orthodox people openly disliked our videos reveals their closed-mindedness. It’s very upsetting to hear that people accuse us of breaking laws, when they are breaking the most important law: Loving your neighbor as you love yourself. This is why we consider ourselves to be modern-orthodox–we are not afraid to have fun with old cultures and to blend them with fads in popular culture.

What reactions do you hope people will have?

I hope that people can get some laughs from the video. Of course, I find it quite exciting when people get angry about the video and call us “indecent,” but it would be nice to have a generally positive reaction.

Because I heard it from the source, but also because I’m a fan of subversive ways to express Judaism for women, I’m a fan of this video. And who’s calling these young Jewish women “indecent?” I think that what they’re doing – triggering a reaction from people whose cultures are often seen as outdated using contemporary culture is pretty genius to me.

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AP’s this week—so this post will be short, for the sake of my mental health and/or time.

I thought that as somewhat of a response to Shira’s post (see below), I’d share this quote from Shlomo Carlebach, an influential 20th century rabbi/songwriter who believed in reaching out to uninvolved Jews in order to bring them back to Judaism. Maybe you’ve heard some of his songs. Either way, these are his words:

“In order to keep Yiddishkeit alive, we desperately need synagogues that do not give aliyot to women and we also desperately need synagogues that do give aliyot to women.”

The quote resonates with me, beyond the issue of giving aliyot (basically, allowing women to say a blessing before the Torah) in synagogues. I believe that it applies to the issue of women rabbis, as well. I believe that women should have the right to be Rabbis. However, I also believe that communities have the right to not have women Rabbis. Judaism does not all need to be the same: the reason we have denominations is because people believe different things. And while within the Modern Orthodox community, down the road, there may be a need to allow women to become Rabbis or Rabbas, I believe that there will always be a part of Judaism, even if a small part, that will continue to not have women Rabbis.

And I don’t believe that this is a problem. Jews are different, and just because I personally would be fine with having a woman Rabbi does not mean that all people would. So people choose their synagogues based on where they fit in the best. This is not to say that movements as a whole should not be grappling with the changing roles of women in Judaism—they should, especially when faced with a growing Modern Orthodox female population interested in taking on leadership roles.

But what’s important to remember when going about these changes is that people can have different beliefs and still all be considered Jews. And that there are some women who want to belong to communities without female Rabbis because that is where they feel most comfortable. They do not believe that it is discrimination, but rather tradition. And while many people feel otherwise, people should be allowed to believe what they want to believe. That being said, many people (myself included) do believe that there are many reasons for increasing women’s roles in Judaism in order to keep up with the times.

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