Family Matters

Judaism: A Woman’s Story

Last Shabbat, March 9th, CBI held a special Shabbat service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of Women of the Wall. The service was led, start to finish, by CBI’s incredible women. The d’var Torah was presented by Julie Sherman. Here is what she had to say:

This weekend we are marking the 30th anniversary of the Women of the Wall. Women of the Wall (Neshot HaKotel) is a multi-denominational Jewish feminist organization whose goal is to secure the rights of women to pray at the Kotel, in a manner that includes singing, reading aloud from the Torah and wearing tallit, tefillin and kippah. They go to the Wall every Rosh Chodesh.

Neshot HaKotel got its start in March, 1988 at the 1st International Jewish Feminist Conference, held in Jerusalem. My mom was at that conference. When she came back, she spoke of all of the amazing Jewish women she met there, from all over the world. She spoke of meeting a woman from Yemen who described the women’s seder her family held each year on the second day of Pesach.

Everyone would arrive at the seder with a backpack, that they hung on the backs of their chairs, to show that they were ready to start on the exodus. This second seder was led by the women of the family, from the women’s perspective. Different questions were asked as if the women were contemplating this crazy exodus idea:

“So did you hear what Moshe wants us to do? He wants us to gather everything and follow him into the desert. What about Chaiyah who is supposed to get married next week? What about Miri who is about to give birth? What are we supposed to do about them?”

This description always excited me, because it turns the seder into a ritual with women and women’s concerns at the center of the experience.

My mom also told us about the woman who made the announcement that a group of women from the conference was planning to take a Torah and go and pray at the wall. As they were discussing what they were going to do, an Orthodox woman said that she was worried that they were doing it for the wrong reasons—to simply provoke or publicize their cause instead of acting on convictions that came from a deep spiritual place.

My mom’s response was that although she was not a particularly religious person, she was doing it for her daughters. They went around the circle and other women present were doing it for other reasons. My mom walked with the group to the Wall and prayed there with them. She was always very proud of the fact that she was there that first time.

I have been a feminist all my life, certainly from the age of 10 onward. I was raised in a Reform synagogue in Berkeley, Ca., so you would imagine that it would be a very progressive place. That may be true now, but it wasn’t always so. I remember when I was 9 in 1969 or so, my mom and dad coming home from Friday night services and my mom telling me that I could wear pants to temple now, because Rachel Cohen had. So the next week I wore my (probably hideous) yellow pants suit to services and earned a reprimand from the Rabbi. Not quite there yet, apparently.

Things did get better. Though I did not wear or receive a tallit at my Bat Mitzvah in 1972 (girls and women just did not wear them at that time), we did read from and touch the Torah. My sister and I wore crocheted shawls to mimic a tallit but it did not even occur to us to question why we could not wear a real one. By 1976, just four years later, it had become more common for women to wear a tallit, at least within the Reform movement.

Rabbi Laura Geller, who, in 1975, became the third woman Rabbi to be ordained in the Reform movement, has written about a formative experience she had during her second year of rabbinical school, when a teacher said that, “There is no important moment in the lifetime of a Jew for which there is no blessing.”

Rabbi Geller started thinking about that statement and realized that, as a woman, it was simply not true. There were no “official” blessings to mark the onset of menses in a girl’s life, nor to mark the onset of menopause. This realization led Rabbi Geller to begin her work on women’s spirituality within Judaism, to create prayers and rituals to mark the important moments in the lifetime of a Jewish woman.

There are also no specific prayers or rituals for dealing with a miscarriage, as my sister realized, when she had one. She followed in Rabbi Geller’s footsteps and created prayers and a ritual to help her and others get through that experience. For many years afterward, women, often strangers, would call her asking for the prayers and the ritual to help them get through the same experience.

Women of the Wall got its start 15 years after the first women Rabbis were ordained in the Reform movement, and just three years after Amy Ellberg became the first woman to be ordained in the Conservative movement.

What Women of the Wall, Laura Geller and the first wave of women Rabbis, the women at that first Jewish Feminist conference, my sister and I wanted, and continue to strive for, is simply to bring women and women’s experience out from the shadows and edges of Jewish liturgy and bring them into the center to share that space with the other 50% of the population. I am not even tackling the fact that we now have come to realize that there are more than two genders in this world, something that Judaism understood centuries ago (did you know that there are six genders described in the Talmud?) but that is the subject of a different drash.

So how do you do this, bring women and women’s presence into the center of the ritual experience? Partially by creating new inclusive prayers and rituals, Like Marcia Falk did in her extraordinary Book of Blessings, where she rewrote the beginning of many prayers, for example, instead of Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam (Blessed are you, God, King of the world) she wrote Barchu et eyn hachayim ( let us bless the source of life), but also by making sure women are present in the actual narrative.

When I was in graduate school to become a teacher, I learned how to write objectives, something that is integral to any curriculum, and answers the question: What is the student going to learn from this lesson? I made a point, when writing these objectives, never to use the word “he.” I always wrote “heorshe” as one word, or “s/he.” This was sometimes seen as radical even in 1985. Now I would write “heorsheorthey.” I persisted in doing that because language is an important part of presence. If you rarely see a woman’s name or pronoun and you are a girl, you may grow up thinking girls and women, like you, are not welcome or do not count in the classroom, the world at large and in the spiritual life of your own religion.

You may or may not have heard of something called the Bechdel Test, usually applied to movies and books.

The Bechdel Test is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For.

Unfortunately, most of the Tanakh, with the possible exception of the book of Ruth, would not pass the Bechdel test. Which is why we have to create Midrash to fill out the story. And a number of women have written collections of midrash trying to address just this problem.

In this shul we have the custom that whomever is leading prayers can either put the Matriarchs into the Avot prayer, or not. Many congregations, that are similar to ours, name the Matriarchs automatically. Rabbi Justin believes that there are other prayers that are better suited to being altered, but for some reason that has not happened yet.  Rabbi Justin also believes that just naming the Matriarchs in a prayer gives the impression that other changes are happening as well, and it is a mirage that might make one think that there is no more work to be done.

From my experience, as a woman, obviously just naming the Matriarchs in a given prayer is not enough, but not naming them makes a statement as well. Hearing and saying their names every time you pray is powerful. Adding the Matriarchs’ names may be only a symbol, but it is an important symbol. Daily recitation of the Mothers is a huge step on the path to bringing women into the center and showing that all our collective experiences are needed to tell our story.

We need to hear the women’s stories of the exodus, as well as Moshe’s story and Aaron’s story.  Abraham’s experience of Hashem is different from Isaac’s is different from Jacob’s. But it is also different from Sarah’s experience of Hashem, is different from Rivka’s is different from Rachel’s is different from Leah’s. All of those experiences are what make up the totality of the Jewish experience. It is time that our prayers and rituals represent that totality.

There is a lot work to be done; work that will honor and support the vision of Women of the Wall, women being able to sing, chant Torah, wear tallitot and kipot, and lay tefillin in public at one of the most meaningful sites in our religion.  Maybe that work begins here, in our shul, with the regular recitation of the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah in one of our most important prayers.  And from hearing those names every time that prayer is recited, who knows what might happen next.

Notes:  The Book of Blessings, New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival, by Marcia Falk, published by HarperCollins, 1996.

Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook, edited by Ellen M Umansky and Dianne Ashton, from the chapter by Laura Geller, Encountering the Divine Presence, page 256.

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