Memoirs of a Frum Feminist (excerpt)

        Hannah Wenger

The following is an excerpt from my book, Memoirs of a Frum Feminist, about a post high school girl who spends a year in Israel studying Torah.

Chapter 10

Sanctify us with Your commandments; Give us a part in Your Torah. –From the Silent Devotion said on the Sabbath

            I’m not a Jew.

            I’m a woman.

Halfway through Exodus I suddenly realized that women are neither included nor addressed when God gives the Torah. The Torah is given to the nation, who is admonished to refrain from touching their wives in preparation. We are not the nation. We are the nation’s wives.

I will not be just a wife. I want to have an existence beyond “daughter of—” or “wife of—.” I want to be part of the nation.

If I am not, if there is no way for me to be Jewish and woman, can I leave? What identity would I have left were I to abandon Judaism? What community?

            I know, I know: it’s not really as misogynistic as it looks. We have two separate roles. Separate but equal. But that’s not, that’s never true. If women only had their own mitzvah... But even woman’s special mitzvah, the ritual around menstruation, starts only when one is married. When one has a man. What if there were a place in Judaism for an unmarried woman? I would be much happier about being a stranger in a man’s minyan if they were also not allowed in ours. If it was truly two different roles. It’s not. It’s a man’s role against a woman’s “other” that Judaism will never truly reconcile into a real position. But we can change the reins of authority—women will learn gemara and become rabbis. We can learn.

            Bang! Rav Stein, the halacha rav (Jewish law teacher), slammed his stout fist onto the table. “Women are obligated in the Sabbath, even though it’s a positive time-bound mitzvah, because the injunctions of guarding and remembering the Sabbath were said in one word. So a woman is obligated to make Kiddush, the blessing over the wine, but usually a man says it for the household.” He pulled a tissue out of his pocket and wiped his forehead. The room was hot, and the heavy sefarim (books) opened before him reflected sunlight onto his dripping face. His voice and the heat had lulled most of us to sleep until he’d pounded on the desk, to wake us up for a crucial lesson about women and Kiddush.

            “Rav Stein, what if the husband comes home from synagogue, and his wife hasn’t prayed the Friday night service?”

            “What if? What’s your question, Yardena?” He began to roll up the cuffs of his sleeves.

            “Well, in that case, hasn’t he already sanctified the Sabbath in his prayers, and so doesn’t his wife have a greater obligation to sanctify over wine?” Lisa opened one eye and cocked a brow at me. Shira sighed petulantly. Dana sat straighter and began to fan herself irritably. Charlotte grinned in my direction. The women were awake.

            “Yeah!” Kayla was enthused by my question. “Most women don’t bother to pray, or have time to what with cooking and getting the kids ready on Friday night. So they should be making Kiddush for the family, right?”

            Dana was up on her mettle in an instant. “Women who say Kiddush are exhibitionists. They’re only doing it because they want the attention, and want to be just as good as men.”

            “Now that would lack ambition,” muttered Lisa.

            “Men never have to validate their motives when they want to do a mitzvah. Why are women always being questioned? I’m sure that’s not part of the equation. What’s the halachic decision?” I appealed to Rav Stein.

            He stared at me a moment, then shrugged. “Please, Yardena. It’s hot. Don’t waste my time.”

            I stared at him, my face flushing in embarrassment. I didn’t mean to waste time. I opened my mouth to apologize for introducing the ridiculous into class, and then caught the expression on Kayla’s face. She was glaring at Rav Stein in undisguised anger. My God, and I had almost apologized! He should be the one to say sorry, after shaming me so. I only wanted to know a perfectly legitimate legal answer, and he’d made me feel that assuming women have an equal place in Jewish law was childishly silly.

            “Psst!” Charlotte leaned over Dana to pass me a paper. It said forget the Whiney-Steiny. You can make Kiddush in my house, any time. –Charlie. I grinned at her in wistful rage, and spent the rest of class doodling dead Rav Steins on my notebook margins.

            We emptied out of class silently. Charlie came straight to my desk in the Beit Midrash, aware that I would want to blow off steam. Kayla joined us, raging.

            “It’s not that he thinks women are second-class citizens in Judaism, it’s that he doesn’t even think they’re Jewish!” she burst.

            “Male Judaism and female Judaism are two entirely different religions,” added Charlie.

            “Isn’t it ironic that I feel so much more comfortable as a Jew in America than as a woman in Judaism?” I asked.

            Charlie mock-gasped. “Don’t say that! You must make aliyah! We need you here, to help make babies and increase the Jewish population in the West Bank!”

            “Well you can have my womb, but you can’t have me.” Kayla giggled at that. “Jord, are you saying that all you are is a womb?”

            Charlie liked that. “Emulating Sarah the matriarch herself. What a role model you are.”

            “Ladies, what every Jewish woman needs: A womb of one’s own.” I swept my arm down from my navel, introducing my groin with a flourish. Behind me, Shira gasped, then quickly ducked her head back down to the book she was learning from, eager to escape our bitter invective.

            “I am so frustrated. I am so sick of it all!” Kayla banged her fist down on my desk, and heads flew up around the room. They stared at the three of us, Charlie sitting disrespectfully on the table with the holy books, Kayla pulsing red with anger, myself still clasping my belly as though about to pour forth a stream of babies into the beit midrash. Then, like the sheep they are, they ducked their heads back into their books. Perhaps a more feminist answer than our griping. I grinned. Here was a chance…

            Leaping onto Abby’s empty chair, I surveyed the room from above. I pumped a fist into the air, and stomped my foot so that bowed faces leapt up to my own.

 “I am a Jewish woman! Hath not a Jewish woman eyes?” This was fun. “Hath not a Jewish woman hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affection, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Kayla and Charlie hooted and clapped.

 “How long must we continue, unrepresented and disenfranchised by the learning halls of the times?” Girls were standing, some staring at me avidly, some pretending to ignore me, some laughing in their books. I decided to make it serious.

“I am sick of entering a supposedly co-ed beit midrash and having male eyes bore into me for a surprised moment, then zoom away from the danger zone. I am sick of hearing snide remarks about ritual impurity when a woman touches a Torah. I am sick of being given male permission to make Kiddush or have a mezumenet (communal blessing after meals) instead of simply claiming my right as a Jew!” Dana grabbed Dina by the wrist and they fled from the beit midrash. I continued, undaunted.

“We should not have to defend our performances of ritual—they are not revolution against our religion, but celebration of it! We should not have to struggle to learn Gemara, to find proper teachers and proper encouragement, when anybody with a penis is pushed into understanding of how the Jewish legal system works and given authority through control of the text, whether they want it or not!” Lisa was punctuating each of my points with an “amen!” now. The Israelis in the room were whispering quickly, seeking translations from anyone who spoke both languages.

“Why has tradition kept women so distant from any of the learning that would give them the authority to claim Judaism?”

“Why not become Reform? They’re egalitarian,” sang out Shira.

“Aha!” I leaped upon the point. “Because, and herein lies the rub, that if one leaves tradition one forfeits access to the texts which allow one to challenge tradition's male ideology because it is easiest to access halachic texts in the Orthodox world, which is frustrating because it is only in the Orthodox world that women are denied access to texts!” Shira was following me dizzily.

“Which sort of makes me wonder why we try in the first place except that since we know that, with all that we have learned, there are so many things that we can do to change Judaism into something most wonderful that it feels so wrong to leave it when” –I ticked the points off on my fingers—“A) it offers so much when one forgets about the dim-witted sexist misogynistic patriarchy and B) one is so certain that is pure male societal construct and not really direct from God anyways, and God is probably pretty mad that it exists and is sending all those evil misogynistic rabbis straight to their idea of hell as soon as they arrive at the pearly gates (they are stuck in a women's minyan 24/7, complete with kippot and beautifully-voiced cantor) so that they can boil in the purgatory of their ideas and emerge, after a purifying catharsis, into the sweet air of a true community of spiritual beings who love not only the God they imagine sanctions their own every action, but also, funnily enough, each other!”

Charlie burst into laughter and applause. It took Kayla a minute, and then she got there too.

“Where is the peer pressure to attend minyan and learn leining (Torah chanting)?” Rabbi West entered the beit midrash, followed by Dana and Dina. The ratters. “Where are the teachers who push women to study as hard as they push men?” Several of the girls around the room stood for a brief moment, in respectful acknowledgement of Rav West’s entrance.

“Why do we not stand for our female teachers? They have as great a knowledge as the male, and they have struggled against far greater odds. Why, I ask you, why? God in heaven, why?” I flung my arms upward in eloquent performance of religious quest.

“Thank you, Jordana,” said Rav West gently. “Please, I would like to speak with you a moment.” My skirt flared as I jumped from my chair, giddy with the joy of finally speaking my mind. I was already slightly ashamed, and yet curious as to what tone Rav West would take.

We sat in his office, and he pursed his long skinny fingers into a steeple beneath his beard.

“So, being a Jewish woman bothers you.”

I nodded my assent. “I think I have made that sufficiently clear, yes.” I tried a slight smile, aware that now that I was done with my rant, the emotion that had been thundering through me might pour out in a deluge of tears if he took away either my boiling rage or my lightweight defense of wit.

“Please, let’s talk about it, if you’d like.” 

“I, I don’t know that I left much to talk about. I think I covered a lot of the basics.”

“You resent Judaism’s treatment of you as a woman.”

“Yes. No.” The tears were starting to come. I tried an unobtrusive wipe of my sleeve, but the tears kept leaking. “A lot of the time.”

He pushed a box of tissues across the desk towards me. I wondered if they’d ever been used to comfort a girl who felt rejected by her religion because she was a girl. Probably most girls who came in here cried that they’d never find a groom or that they just weren’t achieving a spiritual connection with God.

“Jordana, what were you thinking when you came to Israel? What were some of your plans, your hopes about what the year would provide?”

“To, to l-learn.” I could sense the first-grade stutter in my words, and quickly tried to flush it out. “To figure out if I believe in God-God. To decide if I want to stay Jewish. If I want to just be J-Jewish, or really commit to it and put my energy into-to it. And then if make, making aliyah is the best way to do that.” I hiccupped. Rav West seemed to take it as an encouraging sign.

“Have you figured any of that out? Is there anything about Judaism that you love?”

“I love… I l-love the feeling when the beit midrash is full and we’re all hunched over our books and arguing with each other and the air is charged with this tremendous energy, like we’re not just learning, we’re creating learning.” I was done with tears now and felt the serenity of a good cleansing cry. “I love the love that the people in this land bear for the land, the way land and p-people merge together in some sort of vast web of purposeful and loving love. I love the dynamic energy that comes out of a group of young women who are all studying together, working out life together, singing and hiking and living together. I like the weight of the books on my desk. The intensity of a girl praying at a bus stop. The toddling two-year-olds whose very birth means something, means a frenetic building of this nation into something great.”

He stared at me a moment. “Go back to the beit midrash, Jordana. If at any time you’d like to talk to me, feel free. Now go study.”

I went, and stood not upon the order of my going.

 

The beit midrash was empty when I returned to it. No doubt the women had all taken me at my word, realized that Judaism held no place for them to learn, and ran off, leaving goodbye letters taped to their desks.

Hah.

            They were at the special evening lecture, given by a woman who had driven in to speak at one of the Ein Zvi synagogues on the topic of modesty for women.

I perched on my chair, my knees tucked up under me. I flipped through some of Rav Jake’s philosophy notes, slid open my Gemara a moment, and tried piling all of my different Chumash commentaries on top of each other. What I really need, I thought, was something that would speak to my soul.

I kicked my naot sandals off and slid barefoot to the bookshelf. Right at eye-level was the book I was looking for, the one that held Ethics of Our Fathers. I could use some ethics right now.

“Be deliberate in judgment.” I spoke the words out loud, hearing them reverberate through the beit midrash with all the force of the prophets echoing through it. I most definitely am not deliberate enough. I should work on that.

I paused a moment at Shimon Hatzaddik’s righteous words, positing loving kindness as one of the three pillars of the world. Interesting that the Torah was a second pillar. One would think that loving kindness was to be found inside Torah. Maybe they were just covering their bases. I thought of all that Rav Bar-Or had taught about how the mitzvoth of the Torah actually instruct in social action, and squirmed in appreciation of the beauty of my religion.

“Sit in the dust at the feet of Sages and drink in their words.” What an antiquated idea. Well… I pictured a Shabbat afternoon I had recently spent at Rachel Bar-Or’s house, when Abby and Lisa and I sat on the floor of her living room, listening to her expound on the weekly Torah section and dandling her children on our laps. I suppose this really has some insight.

“Let your house be open and let the poor be members of your house.” Amen! “And do not talk much with women.” What? “This was said about one’s own wife; how much more about the wife of one’s neighbor. He who talks too much with women brings evil on himself and neglects the study of Torah.”

I stopped reading, stunned. Here was the famous verse of which I had heard much, and yet never before confronted in the text. The boys in my class used to quote it gleefully whenever they wanted to flaunt our other-ness. I felt as though I had been running full-tilt and suddenly slammed into a cold wall. Perhaps glass ceiling should have a new meaning, I mused. Ironic that my learning Torah leads me to discover that the Torah views me as… as what? The rabbis could never have supposed that a woman would study this text, because else why would they write that speaking with women causes neglect of Torah study? Unless it simply means one’s spouse?

No. No apologetics. Judaism is learning. I had been learning, had been studying my religion in good faith, and suddenly stumbled upon something that threw it back in my face. How can I take seriously texts that don’t take me seriously?

Come on, Jord. Build yourself a bridge, and get over it. Don’t just reject a text because in one place it bothers you. You love what you’ve read so far of Pirkei Avot. You can’t retreat from this and then say it rejects you; not only is that weak, but it would leave learning in the hands of men and simply perpetuate the problem. Don’t cower before this. Learn it, swallow it, put it somewhere in your understanding of Judaism and move on.

            And if I don’t want to play the martyr to Judaism’s misogyny? If I say “yes, that’s all very nice, but I quit”? I can go elsewhere, where I will not be so painfully and suddenly lacerated by sexism without warning.

I wonder what the guys think about this now that they’re mature and studying constantly. I know that they used it mockingly previously: I have a carefully cultivated deafness, a painful, welling-up-in-my-throat dumbness that I have learned to use when they mention it. Will I need it after they return from yeshiva?

I called Jason, my buddy from home. He’s here studying in yeshiva this year. He was abrupt with me. He told me it was the evening learning session and asked if he could call me back. When I told him it was a learning question, he excused himself to his learning partner: “it’s a friend who needs help with his Torah studies,” and then I heard the background noise hush as he exited his beit midrash and took me outside, where he wouldn’t have to pretend that he was speaking to a boy.

“I was reading Pirkei Avot, and I got to the part that warns against extending conversation with a woman.” I paused.

“And?” Could he really not know what I wanted to ask?

“And, well, do you believe that?”

“Well, there are a lot of different opinions about it. Some commentators say it means specifically a woman one is looking at in a lewd—“

“Okay, I know, but I mean, when you study that text, when you just buzz through it on a bus ride without the commentaries, what do you think about it?”

“It’s from a long time ago. It’s ancient societal—”

“The Bible’s older. But you believe every word of that, don’t you?”

“You have to relax about this.”

“Well, the thing is, either you believe this, or you don’t. And if you don’t that means that the entire system of Torah, all that the rabbis wrote and taught, comes under a serious doubt-filled scrutiny, and so either you believe the Torah, or you believe that women cause men to bring evil on themselves and neglect their Torah study.”

“Jordana, you really hate Judaism, don’t you?”

“I don’t hate Judaism. Judaism hates me.” I slammed my cell down, fighting the urge to toss it out the window. Speaking with men, both those who were alive today and those who only communicated to me through texts, was causing me evil, and interrupting my Torah study. I took a book by Nechama Leibowitz off the shelf and began to learn.

 


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