I’ve been reading ‘Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism‘. Never before has a book on feminism spoken to me in quite this way. Here are some thoughts inspired by the content.
When you’re nestled at the intersection of several different communities, none of which quite match your spiritual beliefs and practices, members of each naturally try to define you. It’s an aspect of human nature that is difficult to resist. I judge, you judge; we all judge. And yet, in order to live together in peace, it’s important not to let this tendency become negative labeling.
I live in a fairly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and I’m truly blessed with lovely neighbors/friends. I don’t believe in pigeonholing people. I believe in ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and ahavat olam (love of the world/love eternal) whatever the beliefs of the people in my life. A religion that doesn’t believe in loving one’s neighbor is one I’d never be a part of. So I hope it goes without saying that if someone feels antagonized by what I write here, as opposed to being better informed about my take on things, I haven’t done my job.
I used to be frum as well. Nowadays, I wear tallit and tefillin, and of course, a kippah, when I pray. I am a feminist, which is pretty typical among my friends and colleagues. In fact, it’s taken for granted. I’m pretty average and unremarkable as far as third-wave feminists go, with a belief in full equality between women and men. I married a man who also considers himself to be a feminist, and who helped put forward the case for full egalitarianism at his Conservative synagogue years back.
However, I have little doubt that for some, I’m seen as a radical feminist who doesn’t conform to accepted halakhic standards. In certain Orthodox contexts, some believe that it is better for someone to be a secular Jew than to be a practicing liberal Jew, because at least secular Jews are ignorant of Jewish law and there is some possibility of them becoming Orthodox once introduced to the right religious authority.
And that’s fine, because I really understand where they’re coming from. I can accept this, and continue to like and respect those who don’t believe/practice as I do, as long as they are polite to me. Mutual respect is what it’s all about. When I say that some of my closest friends are frum, I’m not being glib.
The views of what women are or are not allowed to do or wear, however, are fairly entrenched in the Orthodox world. And of course it is currently forbidden for a woman to wear tallit or tefillin. I say “currently” because there are halakhic permissions and historical precedents for women wearing these prayer garments based on a woman’s choice. (Tosafot, Rambam/Maimonides, Moses Isserles, who approved tallit, though not tefillin, Rabbenu Tam, and the Rashba, as well as permissions based on King Saul’s daughter Michal having worn tefillin, including the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 96a.)
As well, exemption does not imply prohibition of the performance of a mitzvah. Often, these ‘prohibitions’ are simply community standards that have evolved over time. In fact, there are other time-bound, positive mitzvot that women have been allowed to adopt, such as taking the lulav and etrog on Sukkot.
One common non-egalitarian response to women who choose egalitarian practice is the claim that they’re trying to be like men. Another common response is that women were designed to focus on the internal world and the home, and that tallit and tefillin are not their mitzvot to assume. Somehow, this entire complex of de facto communal ‘prohibition’ and exegetic appeal to the proper roles of women has ended up turning the adoption of beautiful mitzvot with historical precedents and rabbinic permissions in Judaism into a ‘disgrace’ to the community. This is because of a custom (not a law) known as kavod ha’tzibbur — that is, the importance of preserving the honour of the congregation.
But to me, as for nearly every one of the authors in ‘Yentl’s Revenge’, far from being a disgrace or a way of trying to emulate men, my connection with the Divine is enhanced by tallit and tefillin. It’s as simple as that. Feeling the tallit over me, and the tefillin straps binding me, my usual ‘in my own head’ tendencies are replaced with a reminder that I am connected to the Divine, and grounded in the Earth. I thank goodness that my communities and the rabbis I follow fully allow this practice, and that the principle of kavod ha’tzibbur does not apply to me. It goes without saying that I would not be so foolish as to wear tallit or tefillin in an Orthodox synagogue. My aim isn’t to challenge Orthodoxy, but simply to connect to Divinity in my own way.
Now, in the secular world, things are quite different. In that world, I’m seen as a religious Jew, because I keep a kosher kitchen, pray, and wear tallit and tefillin.
Which just goes to show how relative perception is, doesn’t it?
But the truth is — and this is what I particularly appreciated about the book — nowadays, spirituality need not be limited to one little package — Orthodox, secular, liberal, etc. It’s all very procrustean.
My own practice is syncretic — that is, I incorporate other beliefs and practices that work for me. And apparently, so do many other Jewish women out there. The third-wave feminist label is a bit silly, but the truth is that if we as women don’t claim our authority and power by asserting the rights gained not too long ago, we will lose them. And fundamentalism is gaining a foothold again.