Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An “experiential Jew” contemplates “sensory deprivation”

My husband recently came up with a rather interesting description for my approach to Judaism: He dubbed me an "experiential Jew."

I'm not sure that that's exactly the correct term, but I know what he means.

Here's part of my own comment, originally posted at The Jewish Connection, in response to the question, "Why is Judaism Relevant to You?" (Please excuse me. One of the hazards of blogging, in my experience, is that I tend to repeat and/or quote myself. That's largely because I put a lot of thought into my posts and comments. So why start from scratch every time I'm discussing the same subject? I can only hope that I don't get too boring in the long run, assuming that I'm not boring already.) "For me, Judaism is tradition and poetry, a "dance" around the synagogue with a lulav and etrog in my hands. For me, Judaism is beauty, a sukkah open to the sky, reminding us to be grateful for what we have. . . . For me, Judaism is song, an opportunity to raise our voices in joy. For me, Judaism is blessing, putting our hands on the heads of our children, hoping that they will follow in the ways of our ancestors and inherit all that I have just mentioned."

I've heard this described as the "smells and bells" approach to religion, and while the "bells" thing is more appropriate to Christianity, the "smells" bit fits havdalah pretty well.

What my husband was trying to say was that I come to Judaism through what I experience, that is, through the senses.

(His own approach is more intellectual--he's far more studious than I. When I see a page of text that's two lines of "original" text followed and/or surrounded by two pages of commentary, my eyes tend to glaze over. He has no problem reading commentaries, albeit in English.)

I wonder whether that's one of the reasons why I, personally find the traditional role of women in Judaism limiting: From my own personal perspective, most of the "smells and bells" seem to be on the other side of the mechitza.

In an Orthodox environment:

The men get to wear the ritual garments—tallit and tefillin, kippah, and, in some communities, a kittel at the Seder.

The men get to handle the ritual objects—the sefer Torah (scroll) with its binder, simla ("dress", cover, or the hard case used in some Sefardi and/or B'nei Edot haMizrach congregations), choshen (breastplate), yad ("hand," pointer); the kiddush cup, spice box, havdalah candle. (The lucky ones with good "chops" get to blow the shofar, too.)

The men pray on Sukkot morning (except on Shabbat) with lulav and etrog in hand. Women may or may not take the lulav and etrog (and may or may not make the brachah over them), probably depending on one's community. The men eat in the Sukkah; whether or not the women do so probably also depends on one's community.

The men get to sing in public without repercussions. (Anyone who's been reading this blog for more than a few months has already read, ad nauseum, my opinion on "kol isha," the prohibition against a man hearing a woman singing, observed [to varying degrees] by many within the Orthodox community. For readers who came aboard after February 26, 2006, here are the links.)

The men get to dance with the sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) on Simchat Torah, while, in many Orthodox communities, the women simply watch, as if Rejoicing in the Law (Simchat Torah) were a spectator sport.

And there, folks, is the crux of the problem, from my own personal perspective.

I can’t accept a Judaism that treats me as a spectator.

What's there for us? We women have three mitzvot, commandments, specific to us. Challah—technically, that means tearing off a piece of dough the size of an olive and burning it in the oven so that it can't be eaten, because that's what used to go to the Kohanim/priests. Mikveh—going to a ritual bath after one's "monthly" so that one can be ritually clean to resume having marital relations with one's husband. And candle lighting/hadlakat nerot/bentching lecht on Sabbath and Festival evenings 18 minutes before sundown.

We have no ritual garments that are identifiably Jewish to the outside world—only among knowledgeable Jews is the wearing of a wig a sign of Jewish identity. And only married women cover their heads, in traditional circles. Muslim women and nuns wear clothing that’s at least as modest as that of most Orthodox Jewish single women, so it’s not as if tzniut, modesty, is an exclusively Jewish identity-marker.

Depending on the community, we rarely get anywhere near a sefer Torah. We are forbidden to blow the shofar, to the best of my knowledge. We may or may not take a lulav and etrog and/or eat in a sukkah. There are questions concerning whether a woman may sing in the presence of a man, and, if so, what type of music. And how many Orthodox synagogues let the women dance anywhere near the sifrei Torah (scrolls) on Simchat Torah, assuming that there's even enough room (or, in the case of a balcony, enough flat floor space) in the women's section for dancing?

If I understand correctly, the operating premise of an Orthodox woman's observance seems to be that her relationship to Hashem is more internal. ("Kol k'vodah bat melech p'nimah, All the glory of the king's daughter is within." [Psalm 45, verse 18 (March 6, 2010, 11:48 PM correction--verse 14)]). That doesn't work for someone whose Judaism is more "experiential" than, er, you should pardon the expression, "faith-based." My Judaism is very much based on what I can see, hear, and touch. Put a mechitza in front of my eyes and between me and the sefer Torah, and tell me that, if I must sing, I'd best do it quietly, and half of my Judaism goes up in smoke.



Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ah, you must be the famous "anon #2" of "How I ruined my own Shabbos" fame. Not to mention the fellow who persuaded me to stop complaining and just go davven elsewhere. Thanks, and welcome back!

"The depth of the emotions that this post reveals tells me one thing clearly: you are not Orthodox." Every time I contemplate becoming Orthodox because "the people in our shuls are not observant, or not interested, or not knowledgeable," I am reminded, by the good folks at Ansche Chesed (I've been davvening with whichever minyan happens to be meeting in the chapel that Shabbat, be it the West Side Minyan or Minyan Rimonim) that "at least they will respect you as an equal." To me, that's no small consideration. Others may be content with the separate roles of men and women in traditional Judaism, but I have never been able to accept what I personally perceive as serious restrictions imposed on women within traditional Judaism, and I can't imagine that I ever will be.

I confess to being both flattered and a bit overwhelmed by your statement that "The future of the Conservative movement is people like you." That's both heady and a heavy responsibility. Do you think that there are enough committed Conservative Jews to prove the pessimists wrong and keep this movement alive and well?

Thu Jun 22, 12:21:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

So your hope is to see a growing contingent of of small synagogues and/or chavurot (fellowships), with community religious schools, within the Conservative movement. Personally, I like the idea.

Ansche Chesed is actually an interesting combination of old and new models. When I first moved to NYC, AC was a dying German-Jewish synagogue. Then the West Side Minyan started renting a room there, followed by Minyan M'at. Eventually, the various minyanim--there may have been more than 2, by then--realizing that the building in which they were renting space was falling down all around them, cut a deal with the congregation: If you let us onto the Board and make every service in the building completely egalitarian, we'll join the synagogue and fix the place up. The minyanim were as good as their word--the place is now gorgeous, and is even getting a new paint job in the sanctuary over the summer. It's an interesting model, rather like the New York City public school system's recent penchant for taking old school buildings and establishing several totally different schools on the same premises. That's a possibility for some of the "1950's" buildings--split the facilities among 2 or more minyanim, and give the rest of the space to a Schechter Day School and community afternoon Hebrew School, leaving a room available that's big enough for simchas, school plays, graduations, and the like.

I don't know how well this idea will catch on. So many people are used to having professionals do the Jewish stuff--leining, teaching, etc.--for them, rather than being responsible for everything themselves, even with professionals to guide them. (There's also the major detail that smaller synagogues would mean smaller salaries for rabbis, cantors, etc.) But I hope that are enough "participatory" Jews to enable us to carve out a niche for ourselves.

Thu Jun 22, 09:17:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I'd love to add you and your wife to my mailing list. If you don't mind, please drop me a line.

Fri Jun 23, 05:59:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Argh. I wish I could remember the conversation more fully that I had with someone in LA about the major (and obvious) flaw in how most people look at men vs. women's roles in Orthodox Judaism.

The primary point to start is that the emphasis people place on the synagogue is not at all a proper Jewish perspective, but rather a Christian one. Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not center itself in the church or synagogue but the home and daily life. Notice how the idea of a minyan is purely Rabbinic in source (unless you count meraglim, which is one of the reasons WHY we have a minyan, to make up for it). That's simply NOT the focus of Judaism. The focus is improving how we live our lives (or something :) ), and to that extent men and women were assigned roles that make more sense.

This is where my memory gets shakier than it already is, so... yeah. Please e-mail me if you respond, because it's hard for me to follow up threads the next couple of weeks. Thanks!

Sun Jun 25, 03:30:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ezzie said, "the emphasis people place on the synagogue is not at all a proper Jewish perspective, but rather a Christian one. Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not center itself in the church or synagogue but the home and daily life." Funny you should say that--my last rabbi (Conservative) said pretty much the same thing. He once told me that many Conservative Jews tend to put a lot of emphasis on prayer because that was the main part of Judaism that many Conservative Jews still observe.

There is certainly a lot of truth to what both you and he said. But that doesn't obviate the fact that, *even in the home,* the division of labor seems to be that, most of the time, the men get the "smells and bells" and the women get the babies. Women *still* have not one single garment that's unequivocally Jewish. We *still,* according to many, are not permitted to lead our own sons in kiddush after they become Bar Mitzvah even when, as has been known to happen occasionally (presumably especially in the homes of widows and divorcees), we were the ones who taught them kiddush in the first place. Nor, in almost all Orthodox circles, are we permitted to lead Birkat haMazon (Grace After Meals) when there are men present. And priority seating for meals in the Sukkah goes to the men even when, as is often the case, it's the women who do all the cooking.

"The focus is improving how we live our lives . . . " Yet, when we have a garment that comes with specific instructions to look at it as a reminder to observe the mitzvot (commandments) and not go astray after temptation, the *men* get to follow the directions by looking at their tzitzit--and the women get to look at thin air.

Unfortunately, I can't figure out where (possibly in a comment on my own blog) I read this, but the story was told about an Orthodox woman who went to an Orthodox rabbi to ask whether she could wear a tallit. He gave her one with damaged tzitzit to wear, and asked her to come back to him after several days to tell him how wearing the tallit made her feel. She reported, if memory serves me correctly, that wearing the tallit made her feel closer to G-d. The rabbi then forbade her to wear a tallit on the grounds that, since the tzitzit were pasul (not fit for proper use) and did not fulfill the requirements of Jewish law, her wish to wear a tallit was not sincere. In my opinion, he missed the point. Granted that, from a purely halachic perspective, wearing a pasul tallit did not enable her to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment, which, in this case, is to wear fringes on the corners of one's garments). *However,* she was *right* in feeling that wearing a tallit brought her closer to G-d. What it came down to, from *her* perspective, was that, for the first time in her life, *she was wearing a garment specifically intended for Jewish prayer.*

I've been wearing a tallit every Shabbat (Sabbath) and Yom Tov (holiday) morning (working up to weekdays--not there yet) since I was roughly 24 years old. I'm now 57. I can tell you, from over 30 years of personal experience, that it makes no difference whether I'm praying at home or in synagogue--wearing a specifically Jewish garment specifically designed for prayer really *does* enhance my feeling of being at prayer. And it *does* upset me that, in the summer, I have to be very careful to keep my jacket on in the office until my tefillin-strap marks fade to invisibility, lest I get weird looks from the "black-hats" (right-wing Orthodox Jews) for the crime of fulfilling the words of the Sh'ma.

You said, "the focus of Judaism. . . . is improving how we live our lives . . . " Yet, even with ritual garments the entire purpose of which is to help us focus on the mitzvot (commandments)and not to let temptation lead us astray, the "reminders" are restricted to men. How is this *lack* of a reminder supposed to help us Jewish women improve how we live our lives?

[Not to worry, Ezzie--as soon as I post this, I'm going to copy it directly into an e-mail to you, as requested.]

Sun Jun 25, 06:27:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If any of you folks ever find yourselves in Berkeley, CA, stop by Congregation Netivot Shalom. You'll like us (egalitarian, participatory, lay-led)...

One shul at a time, the world is changing.

Mon Jun 26, 01:59:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Anonymous commenter, thanks for the tip.
I'll keep that in mind for my next westward trip.

Tue Jun 27, 01:31:00 AM 2006  

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