Monday, August 30, 2004

Ki Tétzé: The rebellious son, the rape victim, the childless widow—some things can be understood only in context

It’s fortunate that the rabbis tempered the law concerning the rebellious son (Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verses 18-21). Good heavens, if teenage rebellion were still a capital crime, the human race would soon cease to exist!

On a more serious note, despite my previous complaint about quotes taken in context, sometimes what the Torah says is incomprehensible out of context. Take the case of the rape victim. The non-betrothed rape victim’s rapist is required to marry her and is never permitted to divorce her (Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verses 26-29). From our modern point of view, this puts the rape victim in the dubious position of having to live with her rapist for the rest of his life. But look back at Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verses 13-21, in which a wife whose parents can’t prove that she was a virgin bride is stoned for playing the harlot. Who else would marry the rape victim, if not the man who’d raped her? In those days, she would have been considered, if you’ll pardon the expression, spoiled goods.

As for the woman whose husband dies childless, nobody asks her whether she wants to marry her late husband’s brother (in order to name their first-born child after the deceased). (See Deuteronomy, chapter 25, verses 5-10.) In context, though, the so-called levirate marriage seems to have been the functional equivalent of life insurance. My impression is that a woman who had a child by her deceased husband would have continued to be supported by her family-by-marriage, assuming that there were still some living males in the family who could have provided such support, whereas a childless widow would have had no visible means of support, and would have had to either return to her father’s family or, possibly, be reduced to depending on charity in various forms, such as gleaning. But you don’t have to take my word for it—just read the Book of Ruth.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Shoftim: Sparing the fruit trees, and little else, part 2

The rabbis’ interpretation of the prohibition against destroying fruit trees us (Deuteronomy, chapter 20, verses 19-20) was to forbid wastefulness. In theory, this is a fine basis for the modern environmental movement. In practice, though, this prohibition is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Once upon a time, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration was marked by the sponsorship of a kiddush for the congregation and, perhaps, a luncheon or dinner for the invited family and friends. How did we get from there to here? Now, there’s a buffet that’s more than sufficient for a meal, followed by the meal, followed by the sort of entertainment that used to be reserved for a wedding.

Simcha inflation” is a serious problem in current Jewish life, in all denominations. A small gathering of friends and family for a brit milah followed by bagels and cream cheese has been replaced by a catered meal. Wedding parties spend literally thousands for flowers alone.

Speaking of pursuing righteousness, I feel a lot more comfortable seeing celebrants spend more on tzedakah and less on a party. I’d like to encourage anyone celebrating a simcha to make a donation to Mazon, a Jewish Response to Hunger (, (National Office1990 S. Bundy Dr., Ste. 260, Los Angeles, CA 90025-5232, phone 310-442-0020, fax 310-442-0030,, or any other Jewish and/or secular charity of your choice.

Shoftim: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof . . . and exceptions to the rule

Here’s a well-known quote from Deuteronomy, chapter 16, verse 20: “Justice, justice shall you follow.” (This can also be translated, “Righteousness, righteousness you will pursue.) This parsha is full of admonitions to deal justly with all, protect the accidental manslaughterer from the family’s revenge, and ensure respect for the unknown dead found between cities. (As atonement for the blood that was shed, the nearest city was to break a calf’s neck. Personally, I feel sorry for the poor calf.) But there was this gaping hole in the pursuit of justice or righteousness—there were those six indigenous peoples who were supposed to be slaughtered wholesale. This was not one of the Jewish people’s finer moments. Anyone who thinks that the Torah is a whitewash job ought to have his/her head examined.

Shoftim: Sparing the fruit trees, and little else

First, this parsha tells us (Deuteronomy, chapter 20, verses 16-18) that our ancestors were commanded to annihilate the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, “so that they will not teach you to do their abominations that they have done to their gods, and so that you will not sin against HaShem.” Then in the very next few verses, (19-20), the Torah commands us not to destroy the fruit trees when we’re laying siege to a city.

I have two comments. One is that concerns about assimilation go all the way back to the days of Joshua’s conquest. (So what else is new?) In this case, though, the solution seems more than a bit drastic to me, to say the least.

The other is that I seem to remember having read somewhere, a few years ago, that weapons developers were trying to develop weapons that would kill people but spare the infrastructure. Terrific: The antidote to the firebombing of Dresden and the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to slaughter the population but leave intact all the landmarks for their non-existent descendants. Spare the city and every thing in it, including the fruit trees, but kill the inhabitants. How contemporary. This sounds like the great debate concerning whether it’s possible to spare olive groves and still protect Israelis against terrorists who hide therein.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

No fan of “monkey” business, part 3: Lessons in the Modern Orthodox perspective, and how to disagree respectfully with a rabbi

Since I didn’t have the benefit of a Jewish-day-school education and am still playing catch-up, I’m obviously at a serious disadvantage in discussing matters of halachah/Jewish religious law. Apparently, in traditional Jewish thinking, it’s considered a privilege to maintain one’s tzniut/modesty. On the other hand, the Modern Orthodox writer and commenters on the blog whose URL is shown below don’t see how that’s relevant to reading a ketubah at a wedding ceremony, taking current societal circumstances into account. I strongly recommend that you check out the post dated Thursday, August 12, 2004, “Women, Parrots and Shameful Men,” dealing with Rabbi Schachter’s controversial teshuva/response to a question concerning a woman’s right to read the ketubah/wedding contract aloud at a wedding, from which I quote below:

"Let us go back to the principle first enunciated by R. Lichtenstein, that we used in an earlier post (using his principle in no way insinuates that he would agree with our arguments) – that today's rabbis ought to look at the sociological changes in society as much if not more than the technological changes.

For good or for bad (we will be value neutral post-modernists here) women have given up their right of "tzniut" by taking on positions such as college lecturers, attorneys, doctors and businesswomen. This is true in the modern-Orthodox world as well as in the Haredi world. Haredi women are often more involved in the outside world than Haredi men – I know of a haredi female member of the faculty of Brooklyn College and I am sure she is not the only one. I know of Haredi women attorneys here in Israel. Women are allowed now to argue before a Rabbinic court in Israel – they have rabbinic approval to give up their right of tzniut.

Since this right has already been abrogated - where is the applicability of "kavod ha'tzibbur"? Will R. Shachter not go to a female medical specialist for his children because this act would embarrass the male doctors in the community? Is there anyone around today who would laugh at the community that allowed women to do what is not halachically objectionable and assume that there were no capable men in the community?

I understand when there are Halakhic objections to women participating in religious ceremonies – what I don't understand are the sociological objections. How is it that we can accept our women giving up their tzniut and appearing in classrooms full of men, in courtrooms, in corporate boardrooms, or at medical conferences – but we can't allow them to participate in the most inconsequential (as reading the Ketubah apparently is according to the article) religious activities?"

It’s nice to know that those of us Jewish feminists who take our religion seriously have some friends in the Orthodox community on the men’s side of the mechitzah.

Ulterior motives—not necessarily a bad thing, if they lead to good deeds, but . . .

My rabbi is getting on my nerves. He’s telling us repeatedly that we earn merit for our deceased relatives and ourselves by donating to tzedakah/charity. Whatever happened to giving tzedakah just because it’s a mitzvah/commandment and/or a maaseh tov/good deed? Whatever happened to doing the right thing lishma, for its own sake? Why does it always have to be to earn brownie points from the One Upstairs?

I suppose we have the Torah to blame. Look at the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, for example: We’re promised rain in its proper season if we obey HaShem’s laws (and threatened with drought if we don’t). And, speaking of our relatives, both versions of the Aseret HaDibrot/Ten Commandments (Sh’mot Yitro, Exodus chapter 20, verse 12; and Devarim Va-etchanan, Deuteronomy chapter 5, verse 16) promise us long life for honoring our parents. The Torah certainly seems to indicate that HaShem thought we needed the carrot-and-stick approach. I guess the Jewish people have gotten used to operating on the incentive plan.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Re-eh: Permission to enjoy (later disputed?)

This parsha/weekly Torah reading tells us that we should rejoice upon bringing a sacrifice to the Bet haMikdash/Holy Temple and eating it, and that we have permission to eat and enjoy meat even when we can’t bring it to the Bet haMikdash to sacrifice it. It also tells us to rejoice in our festival of Sukkot. Biblical Judaism doesn’t have a problem with permissible pleasure.

How did we get from there to “all this world is a narrow bridge, and the essential is not to be afraid at all?” (I hope that’s a reasonably correct translation of “Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal.”) Granted that centuries of prosecution may have had something to do with that, but I think the problem may have begun before the prosecution.

The local Jewish paper recently printed a commentary expressing appreciation for the bit of balance that the rabbis put into our lives by instituting the semi-mourning periods of Sefirat haOmer (Sefirah) in the spring and the “Drei Vachen”/”Three Weeks” (leading up to and including Tisha B’Av) in the summer. Personally, I have a completely different theory.

Based on absolutely no research whatsoever, but strictly on a hunch and on what little I know about West Asian and European pagan religions, I have a strong suspicion that the prohibition against almost all weddings during Sefirah had less to do with mourning for the victims of a supposed plague among Torah students and more to do with preventing us from participating in spring fertility rituals. And I find it hard to believe that the rabbis didn't put a damper on our fun and games right smack in the middle of summer for a similar reason. Sometimes I think the rabbanim/rabbis had, and have, less faith in our ability to behave ourselves that the Torah did.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Liturgical unity—pros, cons, and compromises

After several years of being a completely non-practicing Jew, I became a baalat teshuvah—of sorts—when I was in my mid-twenties, returning to Judaism not as an Orthodox Jew, but as a member of a synagogue with ties to both the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. So the first prayer book from which I really learned to davven as an adult was the original Reconstructionist prayer book.

The Reconstructionist prayer book was based on the Conservative prayer book, in terms of structure, but had some major changes in wording, based on differences in belief. (For example, there was no mention of the concept of the chosen people.) The advantage of davvenning with it was that the prayers were consistent with my beliefs. The disadvantage was that I couldn’t go down the street and davven in another shul comfortably because I didn’t know all the prayers, which was the then-rabbi’s complaint, as well.

By the time I was in my late twenties, I had become sufficiently fed up with my ignorance to do something about it: Over the course of about six months, I taught myself to pray from an Orthodox siddur/prayer book. (Learning the weekday Amidah prayer was the most difficult, as I had to learn the 13 or so brachot/blessings that aren’t included in the Amidah of Shabbat/Sabbath.) The day I walked into an Orthodox synagogue and was able to figure out which prayer the chazzan/cantor was chanting without being told the page number, I was proud as punch.

But davvenning from an Orthodox siddur has its drawbacks for a religious radical like me. I decided to take my then-rabbi’s advice and think of the “sacrifice” readings as quotations recited out of respect for the past. But the female-free, or, occasionally, outright sexist language was another matter.

So I compromised. Using the Birnbaum Orthodox siddur—you can use any Orthodox siddur that cites chapter and verse for all biblical quotations—I tried to differentiate biblical quotes from rabbinic compositions. Having done so, I established a personal rule: I davven any biblical quote exactly as written, but rabbinic compositions, such as the Amidah, are fair game for editing. I add the Mothers, and, where the wording speaks of sons, the daughters, as well. I maintain liturgical unity by using an Orthodox (or, in my own shul, a Conservative) prayer book. Unless I choose to mention it, nobody knows that I'm also maintaining my own integrity by playing with the wording of the prayers therein.


Ekev: The problem with taking things in context

[Unrelated but important information: The good folks at Blogger Support have informed me that “Currently, there is no way to customize the number of 'Previous Posts' that appear. The default is 10 posts.” To see my posts “So glad you could join us: An egalitarian mom and her toddler are cordially invited to stay home,” and “A discussion of the Book of Job,” please scroll down past the last listed post. Thank you. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program. :) ]

Well, here’s a parsha just chock full of wonderful quotes, and I can’t comment on any of them.

(Please excuse my translations, which are usually part Hertz, part JPS, and part my own.)

How can I comment on “The human does not live by bread alone” (lo al ha-lechem l’vado yichyeh ha-adam, chap. 8, verse 2) without dealing with the rest of the verse? [Note: “Adam” means “the human”—“ish” means “man.”] "And He afflicted you, and made you suffer hunger, and fed you with manna, which you did not know, and which your ancestors did not know, in order to ensure that you would know that the human does not live by bread alone, but by every thing that proceeds from the mouth of HaShem does the human live.” I don’t particularly care for the notion that G-d would go out of G-d’s way to make us suffer just to teach us a lesson. (See my previous post on the Book of Job.) There’s also the problem that, as someone still under the influence of a former rabbi who was a Reconstructionist, I have rather unorthodox, and unOrthodox, views on the concept of G-d that complicate my interpretation of the phrase “everything that proceeds from the mouth of HaShem.”

Here’s another beauty (chapter 8, verses 7-10) (JPS translation): “For the L-rd your G-d is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and lakes issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and of honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. (Hertz translation, slightly modernized>) And you will eat and be satisfied, and bless the L-rd your G-d for the good land that He has given you.” It’s a great passage, listing the Seven Species of food for which the Land of Israel is traditionally thought to be reknowned, and containing, as well, the halachic/religious-law basis of birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals), which reminds us not to take our good fortune for granted. But considering the current political context of the “matzav”/”situation” in the land in question, this passage is almost as depressing as it is inspiring.

Chapter 10, verse 19: “And you will love the stranger/foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt,” sounds good in theory, but in practice, it’s a lot more complicated. My son has some unkind things to say about our ancestors, biblical and modern, driving out the locals to make room for us, which is certainly in stark contradiction to the aforementioned biblical quote. The problem is that there’s no such thing as “A land without a people for a people without a land,” and there wasn’t one back in the time of Yehoshua/Joshua, either. How do we balance our own people’s needs against the requirement to love other peoples?

Then, of course, there’s the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (chapter 11, verses 13-21), which a former rabbi used to describe as a great example of “meteorological Judaism.” As I said, I’m far from traditional in my beliefs, and I’m disinclined to accept the notion that anything I do can affect the weather. (I davven the second paragraph of the Sh'ma anyway, out of respect for our ancestors and for the sake of Jewish liturgical unity.)

This parsha is full of great quotes, as stated, but . . .


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

No fan of “monkey” business, part 2—Missing the point

The letters to the editor concerning Rabbi Schachter’s implied comparison of women to parrots or monkeys have been published. Some letter-writers complained that the author of the article failed to mention that exaggerated language is typical of a Talmudic discussion and is not intended to be taken literally.

They have a point, but they also miss the point. The authors of the United States Constitution gave only a partial vote to slaves, if memory serves me correctly. Yet anyone who suggested that their descendants should continue to have only a partial vote per person would be labeled a racist. Perhaps it was considered acceptable hundreds of years ago to compare a person or idea to an animal in jest, but does that make it perfectly acceptable to do the same to half the Jewish people in the twenty-first century?

There’s a problem inherent in a religion based on the premise that every rabbinic ruling that passes the test of careful scrutiny by other rabbis was given to Moses on Sinai. How, exactly, does one disagree publicly with a rabbi without calling down upon oneself the opprobrium of the Torah community, as happened to this article’s author? I’ve recently become acquainted with the term “da-at Torah” (which seems to indicate extensive knowledge of halacha/Jewish law) and with what appears to me to be an understanding that one does not disagree with someone who possesses said “daat Torah.” Is this the Jewish version of papal infallibility?

One letter-writer asked from what posek (decisor of halachah/Jewish law) the article’s author got permission to do a “hatchet job” on Rabbi Schachter. Leaving aside the question of whether or not the article constituted a “hatchet job,” the idea that an individual should have to ask anyone’s permission to do his/her job distresses me greatly. Does one need authorization even to have an opinion? In the weekday service, we thank HaShem for having given us intelligence (chonen ha-daat). What’s the point of praising HaShem for the gift of brains if we need permission to use them?

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Hashirim asher l’Shlomo—An intro to Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi

The president of our shul was kind enough to lend me a copy of Musica Judaica: Journal of the American Society for Jewish Music, Volume XV (5761/2000-2001) containing a review of Don Harrán’s Salamone Rossi: Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua. According to Harrán, Rossi composed 150 secular works in Italian (for three to five voices) and 129 instrumental works. But what’s of the greatest interest to me is his musical publication Hashirim asher l’Shlomo, a collection of 33 Hebrew settings, among them 17 psalms, five piyyutim (such as Adon Olam, Ein Kelokenu, and Yigdal), two versions of Kadish Shalem, the prayer Hashkivenu, “and the wedding ode Lemi ehpots (‘one of the first examples of a Hebrew wedding cantata’ and ‘perhaps one of the most sacred items in the collection.’” To the best of my knowledge, Rossi was one of the first composers of Jewish multi-part choral music—and remains one of the finest.

As a choir member in our old shul, I had the privilege of singing four Rossi compositions—a four-part Bar’chu, a four-part Hal’luyah (Hal’li Nafshi, Psalm 146), and both four- and eight-part versions of Adon Olam. They were among the most difficult pieces I ever learned—and also among the most beautiful. I hear Rossi’s music in my head whenever I davven the Pesuké d’Zimra (Verses of Song/Introductory Prayers), since Hal’li Nafshi is right after Ashré.

Here's a nod of respect from one Salamone to another.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Va-etchanan: “. . . ein od mil’vado”—On religious intolerance

“Atah horeit la-da-at ki HaShem hu haKelokim, ein od mil’vado.”
("To you it was shown, that you might know that HaShem, He is G-d, there is none else beside Him.” Deuteronomy, chapter 4, verse 35)

“Shema, Yisrael, HaShem kelokeinu, HaShem echad.”
("Hear, Israel, HaShem is our G-d, HaShem is one." Deuteronomy 6:4)

Two voices speak to us from last Shabbat’s parsha (weekly reading). The first says that there’s only one god, HaShem, period. The second says that HaShem is our god, and that he’s one. A long-ago rabbi of ours asserted that biblical Judaism was a henotheistic religion, meaning that our biblical ancestors believed that B’nai Yisrael had only one god, but that other peoples had other gods.

Obviously, monotheism won the battle against henotheism in Judaism. The results are not necessarily encouraging. If ours is the only god, then we can’t use wine that may have been used in the rituals of other religions—or hair [for making wigs] that may have been cut off as part of “idolatrous” worship. But if our Torah says that our god is the only god, what happens when another religion (or two) comes along and co-opts and reinterprets our Torah, claiming that their god is the only god? Judaism invented religious intolerance, and we Jews have been paying the price for centuries.

Responsibilities without rights

Monday, February 16, 2004

So our beloved president springs it on the Board of Directors that, with our usual weekday morning minyan leader moving to senior housing out of state, our cantor living in the ‘burbs except on weekends, my husband often unavailable, especially during his busy season, our part-time rabbi not contractually obligated even to attend minyan, much less to read Torah, and our only other qualified Torah reader generally unavailable in the morning due to his work schedule, I'm the only one left standing. Assuming that I understood the board's vote correctly, whenever there's no qualified man available, any qualified woman may read Torah at a weekday morning service. For the moment, I'm the only qualified woman. (I hope to change that.) This puts me in the rather interesting position of being allowed to read the Torah but not being allowed to have an aliyah. I'm not quite sure whether I should feel honored or insulted. Or is that honored or exploited? Or "all of the above?"

This congregation has always been far more concerned with getting their money's worth than with encouraging learning—"Why should he read when we're paying someone to do it?" Well, now that there's no professional available, there's almost no one else who knows how. The irony is that the three of us congregants who have this skill all learned it elsewhere—my husband and me from our twenty-some years membership in an egalitarian and participatory congregation, and the other gent from being a native Hebrew speaker. Now, they'll be stuck with me occasionally, whether they like it or not. I might also add that, without another qualified Torah reader present, the minyan will also be without a qualified gabbai to assist and correct me. And, when I don’t have sufficient advance notice to prepare—I ain’t that good—the minyan will just have to put up with me reading from a book instead of from the scroll.

Though it wasn't discussed at the board meeting, it's likely that I'll also end up leading services on days when the cantor, the rabbi, and the hubby are not available, for pretty much the same reason—who else knows how? Let's not even discuss the halachic (Jewish religious law) issue of whether someone who, according to a more traditional interpretation, is not obligated to pray (a female) can "substitute" for someone else who is obligated to pray (a male) by leading prayers—I don't think any other congregant either knows or cares.

. . .

Thursday, April 29, 2004

I'm now in the rather interesting position of having served as both baalat tefillah (prayer leader) and baalat koreh (Torah reader) in a shul that won't give women aliyot. I'd love to see our traditionalist members try to explain that one to the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Va-etchanan: Shabbat, take 2—The Torah throws a (dinosaur) bone to the Evolutionists :)

Last Shabbat (Shabbat Nachamu), we read the second version of Aseret HaDibrot/the Ten Commandments. In version # 2 of the commandment concerning the Sabbath, there’s absolutely no mention of HaShem having created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Instead, we’re told that, through Shabbat observance, we’ll remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. With that kind of logic, not even a paleontologist has a good excuse to opt out :).

My Life as a Misfit

I have this problem—I’m an egalitarian, tallit-and-tefillin-wearing female Jew davvening (praying) in a traditional congregation. I sometimes think that half the members of the local Conservative shul still find it hard to believe that the Conservative movement has been ordaining women for something like 20 years. There are still members of the shul—many of them women, oddly enough—who resent my attitude and/or think I’m divisive. I guess the best I can say is that, now that I've been a member of the shul for over 20 years, at least I’m considered an inside agitator. But I can still see the steam coming out of some people’s ears every time the subject of women’s participation in the service comes up. The simple fact of the matter is that I’ll never feel completely at home in this synagogue.

Recently, I realized that I have another problem with the shul, as well. It’s finally dawned on me that all my years of membership in an egalitarian Conservative synagogue and in a now-defunct local chavurah have had an influence on my attitude of which I was not aware, and that this attitude also contributes to making me feel like an outsider at our synagogue. Several years ago, a former rabbi heard through the grapevine that I’d led havdalah (with the cantor’s permission) in his absence, and told me that I wasn’t allowed to do that. I was quite taken aback, since I’m specifically asked him, several weeks prior to that, whether women could lead havdalah for men, and he’d said that we could. The problem, he explained, was that leading havdalah in synagogue was the cantor’s “chazakah,” meaning, I gather, an honor reserved for a specific individual. In other words, the public performance of most rituals was reserved for the professionals.

This attitude is exactly the opposite of that encouraged by our former synagogue and the Chavurah movement. In our chavurah, as in most chavurot, whatever happened only happened because we did it all ourselves. At our former synagogue, there were roughly twice as many members who could chant a haftarah as there are at our current synagogue, and there were about half a dozen people who leined (chanted) Torah on a regular basis. In my opinion, based on my own experience, an insistence on the clergy’s chazakah actively discourages congregants from participating in the service. But there, again, I’m in the minority. The members of our current synagogue are perfectly content to treat the Torah reading and the chanting of the haftarah as spectator sports.

A Wig and a Prayer

Orthodox women have recently been informed by their rabbis that they’ve been committing unwitting acts of idolatry by wearing wigs made from hair cut off as offerings to Hindu gods. In my opinion, it’s a no-win situation—either they commit avodah zarah (idolatry) by using the Hindu hair, or they violate the law of “bal tashchit” (which I think translates roughly as not being wasteful) by not using the Hindu hair.

Personally, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that it’s perfectly permissible for a married Orthodox woman, prohibited from showing her hair in public for reasons of tzniut (modesty), to cover her own hair with someone else’s. What’s the point? Either you cover your hair or you don’t. (Let’s not get into the frummer-than-thou contest concerning how much of one’s hair should be covered, or we’ll be here all day.)

There’s also the identification-mark issue: Orthodox men can’t “pass”—unless you consider wearing a hat instead of a kippah on a 90-degree day a sufficient disguise—so why should Orthodox women insist on having the option?

Speaking as a non-Orthodox Jew, I can’t understand why a woman’s hair should be considered so immodest, in this day and age, that it has to be covered. Sure, it was considered a disgrace for a married woman (unmarried, too?) to uncover her hair in public in biblical times. But that was 2,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. I’ve been told on good (Rabbinic) authority that a minhag (custom), once established for several generations, becomes halachah (a law). Is there no room for modernization in Orthodox Judaism?

“Little House on the Prairie”

The last thing I ever would have expected to find in a city with a large Jewish population was that we would be raising a Jewish child with almost no local support. Not only did the older members of the shul make us feel thoroughly unwelcome, but, worse yet, there wasn’t one single synagogue family with kids anywhere near our kid’s age that was even as observant as we are. Absolutely NO ONE ELSE’S Hebrew-School-aged child came to synagogue on a regular basis unless there was Junior Congregation, and, often, not even then. The result was that our son became convinced that shul was a place for old people, and he absolutely hated it, and still does. He also became convinced that his dear old mom and dad were a pair of religious fanatics, which would be hilariously ironic, considering our level of observance, if it weren’t so upsetting. What evidence did he have to the contrary? Weren’t we the only parents who attended shul almost every Shabbat and Yom Tov? Weren’t we the only parents who bought a lulav and etrog every Sukkot? Nobody else gave a damn.

To our fellow and sister Hebrew School parents, Hebrew School wasn’t school, and Judaism wasn’t a way of life. Hebrew School was just another extracurricular activity, no more important than piano lessons or soccer practice. And being Jewish just meant that when you went, you went to synagogue rather than to church. Who cared if that was only three days a year?

If ever I had a good reason for being sorry that I didn’t listen to my husband and move to an area with more committed Jews when our son was born, finding ourselves “solo practitioners” among the Hebrew School parents was certainly it. Right now, our son is exploring Eastern religions and philosophies. At his age, I did my own rebelling, so I’m not that worried right now. But, if he’s still calling himself a Buddhist in ten years, I suppose I’ll have myself and this whole damned neighborhood to blame.

No fan of “monkey” business

Recently, our local Jewish newspaper printed a distressing article about Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh (head of) Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), *allegedly* the rabbinical seminary of Modern Orthodox Judaism. As a posek (decisor of halachah/Jewish religious law), he was asked whether a woman is permitted to read the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) at a wedding. He’s reported to have replied that “even if a parrot or a monkey would read the ketubah, the marriage would be 100 percent valid. . . . Yes, a monkey could also read the ketubbah.” That it never occurred to him that Jewish women might feel insulted by his choice of words is astounding. I would have expected a rabbi to understand the basic concept of derech eretz (common courtesy and consideration). If this is Rabbi Schachter's idea of leading by example, I pity the Orthodox.

So glad you could join us: An egalitarian mom & her toddler are cordially invited to stay home

When we first moved to our current neighborhood, we were royally unwelcomed to the local Conservative synagogue. For years, I got little more than grief from many of the other congregants. For openers, I got the fish-eyed stare from traditionalists who’d never seen a woman wear a tallit before. The Sunday morning “minyannaires” didn’t take too kindly to having me show up instead of my husband, since they wouldn’t count me for a minyan. At first, I told them that, if they refused to count me, they had no one but themselves to blame if they couldn’t get a minyan. But, after a few years of this, I got tired of the grief they were giving me, and just stopped going. (I started going again after the kid became Bar Mitzvah, since I figured I had no more excuses to stay home.)

And then, of course, there was the problem of bringing a “vilteh kint” (wild child) into a shul populated largely by retirees who were no longer accustomed to having kids around. The first time we went there, an elderly lady yelled at me because my little wild man kept opening and closing the old-fashioned accordion door of the phone booth, thereby turning the automatic light on and off on Shabbat. All I could say was, “He’s only 17 months old.” It had never occurred to me that Shabbat observance would be expected of a child that young. So, the first thing I learned was that my kid could disturb people even when I took him out of the sanctuary in the hope that he wouldn’t disturb them. (Needless to say, I spent the next few years chasing after him to ensure that he stayed out of that phone booth on Shabbat. Whoever said that *parents* get to rest on the Sabbath?) Despite the fact that I took great pains to haul my son out of the sanctuary whenever he got too noisy, all the older folks wanted me to do was to stay home with him until he was 6. Naturally, I refused. It seemed to me that being kicked out of shul was a dubious reward for having helped perpetuate the Jewish people. I can honestly say that, for the first decade or so that we lived in our current neighborhood, we went to shul not *because* we had a child, but *in spite of* that fact.

An example of what I have in mind: A discussion of the Book of Job

I hope to have serious discussions on Jewish topics on my blog. By way of example, I'm posting a copy of an e-mail that I sent a few years ago, along with replies from some friends (who will remain anonymous). Since we just observed Tisha B'Av, and the Book of Job/Iyov is considered permissible reading for that day, I think this is appropriate.

Subject: So call me an apikoras [heretic]--
Date: Tuesday, June 05, 2001 6:36 PM

I *hate* the Book of Job! I read it as part of USCJ's Perek Yomi, and I didn't like it any better this time than I liked it the first time. So God's an egocentric who thinks nothing of beating the stuffing out of Job just to show off to Satan. Job, for his part, spends most of the book protesting his innocence, only to wimp out when finally given an opportunity to defend himself to God Godself. God basically thumbs his nose at Job's suffering. I find the whole story insufferable. The only thing I get from Iyov is that God's omnipotent and can do whatever God jolly well pleases. Whatever happened to "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly"?

Responses requested.

Response #1:

What's the talmud portion about the recipe for incense? They list an ingredient which has an unpleasant aroma yet must be included on pain of death.

So it is with the book of Job. One of the eternal questions is always "What about when bad things happen to good people?" The answer is, unfortunately, not a lot. Gather round, offer support and be prepared that the sufferer my reject your offer out of the depths of their pain.

Among the blessings of the gift of the Torah is that it gives us the unpleasant book of Job to wrestle with before the inevitable intrusion of those circumstances into our own lives. It's probably as much preparation as you could reasonably expect. It also functions as a reality check against those passages (usually in tillim) "God protects those who revere Him so that none of their bones are broken." (not exact quote) To remind one that that is a hope; not a guarantee. It's also a great paradigm of what happens in the corridors of power. An otherwise benevolent ruler/leader can be induced to torture a faithful subject/employee/dependent by the nagging question put into "The Accuser's" mouth in this version. "Of course he's faithful. You pay him handsomely for it. He's not faithful because he's faithful; but on account of the payola!" Lastly, it punctures all those Calvinist types who argue that the "elect" can be recognized by their success in this world. Or those who say "Believe with me and you will be given "The" great reward." There are no guarantees. In the final analysis God will do what God will do. Our tradition says; your best shot is to behave justly, prepare yourselves and get over it.

Response #2:

Whatever happened to "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly"?

Don't you think that your reaction, asking that question, is exactly the point of the story?

Response #3:

The real question to me is why it was included in the Bible at all, since it's so thoroughly at odds theologically with the rest of it.

Monday, August 02, 2004


Once upon a time, I belonged to a left-wing egalitarian Conservative synagogue, where I was one of a number of women who wore a tallit—and one of the few members who used an Orthodox prayer book (adding the Mothers, of course). Having moved since then, I now belong to a right-wing traditional Conservative synagogue, where I’m almost always the only woman wearing a tallit—and one of the few members who adds the Mothers. I seem destined to be forever…

On the fringe.
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