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Archive for the ‘Pluralism’ Category

Every post I write is about something that happened a week or two before. This one (it’ll be brief) is about attending Shabbat services at Shira Hadashah, a self-proclaimed “Orthodox, feminist congregation in Jerusalem.” I had a great experience there–out of all the Orthodox services I have attended, it was by far the one I found to be most meaningful.

What makes Shira Hadashah special (in addition to the fact that so many people there seemed to have amazing voices) is the way that they incorporate women into the service. Women and men pray on separate sides of a mechitza, with the bima in the center of two equally sized prayer spaces–allowing both men and women access to the bima. Women lead “optional” parts of the service, like Kabbalat and Pesukei Dezimra, which are parts that Orthodox Judaism halachically permits them to lead. In addition, women say Kaddish, are called to the Torah, read Torah, and say Kiddush.

Shira Hadashah is not a place I’d want to pray every day–I want to pray in a place where women can lead everything, and are seen as having equal obligations as men. However, my views will never line up with those of Orthodox Judaism, and I don’t think that they need to–there’s room for many different strains of Judaism out there. Because of this, I very much appreciate and admire the way that Shira Hadashah blends peoples’ desires both to observe Orthodox Halacha and create a community based on principles of gender equality and inclusion. Praying at Shira Hadashah, I felt like I was surrounded by a group of thinking and caring people who are trying to create a Judaism that blends tradition with their modern values.

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The first step is to put women in positions of leadership, but the second step that is so crucial yet often not taken is to recognize those women for their influence on society, to give them the credit that they have not gotten for centuries. This is an easy step to miss because many people believe that the positions are enough, that the actions they bring are enough to keep unrest at bay. This is not true because the sheer existence of powerful women must be acknowledged so that other women know that such power and leadership is possible.

That is why The Forward put together this list of fifty influential women rabbis. They said,
We decided to select 50 of the most influential women rabbis in America, plus five in Israel, for this inaugural Sisterhood 50 list. These women span generations and the denominational spectrum; they are pulpit rabbis, teachers, academics, pastoral caregivers and organizational leaders. All of them have made it their life’s work to put Jewish values into action — and, as a result, are changing lives in and beyond their communities. This alphabetical list contains a lot of “firsts,” which is evidence of just how much ground there’s been to break in recent years.
Most importantly, to accredit these pioneering women, find out who they are and how they’re transforming Judaism, and spread that knowledge. Do so here.

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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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Name: Sophia Henriquez

Age: 16

Place of Birth: New York City

Neighborhood: New York City

Denomination: Reform

Race: Caucasian

Ethnicity: Hispanic

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Student

“So, who are you interviewing next?”

“Sophia Henriquez from Peer Leadership,” I answered.

“But I thought your project was about Jewish feminism,” my mom replied, her face scrunching into a contortion of confusion that accompanies assumptions proven incorrect.

My mother is not the only one who responded like this when I mentioned that Sophia was my next interviewee. With a common Hispanic last name and a self-identified Latina, she is not the most likely Jew and that makes her a fighter for her religious identity, someone who goes the extra mile to prove to people that she is, in fact, Jewish not in spite of but in conjunction with her last name.

Sophia is not only Jewish, but Christian as well. She has grown up embracing diversity. After going to camp with her when we were younger, we have reunited in the Peer Leadership classroom, a place where high school juniors and seniors are taught to acknowledge differences and use them to construct individual identity. I knew she would be an ideal candidate for this project when she said during a lesson on family identity that what she loves most are the traditions her family has created, traditions that stem from a fusion of practices generally thought to run parallel, but to never intersect. This is precisely the beauty of the Henriquez interfaith and interracial household: it proves that this intersection is possible and that Judaism has a place in it.

I meet Sophia in the Senior Inquiry classroom. There are teachers bickering in the background and the din makes her assert her responses just like she asserts her unique and occasionally unaccepted identity. As with many young Jewish women, the first example that comes to mind when I ask Sophia to describe her religious upbringing is her Bat Mitzvah. The least genetically Jewish of all the women in her immediate family, she and her sister were actually the first ones to have Bat Mitzvahs.

She describes her mother’s influence, “My mom wasn’t a force on [my sister and I having Bat Mitzvahs] because she didn’t have one herself and neither did my grandmother so it was very individual for my sister and I because it was always a question of where we belonged.”

Sophia is a representative of what happens when you choose religion and religious practices. She puts choice back into religion and tradition. She took the initiative in having a Bat Mitzvah. This initiation is the most mature step to take in a ceremony that has the intention of a coming of age.

Just as she defined her desire to have a Bat Mitzvah, she defines other rituals on her own terms. Flexibility with Judaism is vital for this reform Jew from Stuyvesant Town. Her take on religion is beautiful and modern, containing elements of acceptance and comfort. As someone who is a part of two religions, she is able to take Judaism into a greater context.

(more…)

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For a class I am taking on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I have been reading “Peace and Love and Compromise” in Israel, Palestine and Peace by Amos Oz. And I think it’s fascinating—not just because of what it has to say about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but because so much of what he has to say can be applied other parts of life.

He starts out by quoting Genesis 13, 8-9: “Let there be no conflict between me and you or between my hersmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Behold, the land is before you, please part from me. If you go left I will turn right, and if you turn right I will go left.” He goes on to say that the quote explains what peace has to be like in the real world: sometimes in order to be on good terms with someone else, people need to define their respective places because we, as humans, are not perfect and cannot always get along when forced together. In his essay, he applies this lesson to the Israelis and Palestinians, arguing that they need to set boundaries between themselves in order to make peace.

But I think this applies to more than just Israelis and Palestinians. I think we can apply it to Judaism, too. There comes to a point where denominations in Judaism simply will not agree, from issues of how to interpret Halacha to issues of modernity versus tradition, etc. And that’s okay, that’s human, and what we need to do is accept those differences by metaphorically dividing up our space. People don’t have to agree to coexist.

Another quote that I love, on the nature of his writing:

I have said on several occasions that whenver I find that I agree with myself one hundred per cent, I don’t write a story—I write an angry article telling my government what to do, sometimes telling it where to go (not that it listens). But if I find more than just one argument in me, more than just one voice, it sometimes happens that the different voices develop into characters then I know that I am pregnant with a story. I write stories precisely when I can step into several antagonistic claims, diverse moral stances, conflicting emotional positions.

I’m not going to compare my writing with Amos Oz’s, because he’s incredible. But what I will say is this: I certainly know how he feels. A lot of times writing on this blog, I come out not really knowing what I think, mainly because I end up arguing for contradicting things. And that’s because different parts of me believe different things, and because I’ve started to realize that unlike in a debate, physically writing down what is “right” is very hard. Just like he talks about in his essay, it’s easy to choose between black and white, but “the real moral challenge is to distinguish between different shades of grey.” And that’s what a lot of the issues facing Judaism today—issues about how people see themselves fitting into both the modern world and the world of Jewish tradition—are: grey.

If you can, I’d recommend reading his book of essays. It’s amazing political stuff written in the artful language of a poet.

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This is cross-posted at JWA.

I walk into what is undoubtedly the most beautiful house on campus. Its simplicity allows for the exuberance of the people within it to shine. The rabbi opens the door, a young father of twins, all smiles and joking about having to convince me to attend the university even though my mind was already made up. I follow my friend Tobah, a Conservative Jew who has yet to skip a week of coming to the multi-denominational Havurah, into the living-room-turned-synagogue. We squeeze onto a couch with a sisterhood of freshmen and sophomores who make up the majority of the Kabbalat Shabbat crowd.

The singing begins immediately and I can hear the feminine voices of women who will become my peers high above the few tenors in the room. I notice that the prayer book was published by the university’s Havurah itself, the liturgy and the interpretation unique to the school’s liberal arts academic philosophy. There is a feminist Amidah, as well as stories for each of the matriarchs that accompany those of the patriarchs. This book takes away all the excuses I have used to not pray. As the service continues, I realize that it could not be any other way.

Read the rest here.

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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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