Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 6, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

Forgive us, our Parent, for we have erred; pardon us, our Ruler, for we have willfully sinned; for You pardon and forgive. Blessed are You, God, the gracious One Who pardons abundantly.

סְלַח לָֽנוּ, אָבִֽינוּ, כִּי חָטָֽאנוּ, מְחַל לָֽנוּ, מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, כִּי פָשָֽׁעְנוּ, כִּי אֵל טוֹב וְסַלָּח אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלֹֽחַ

In the seventh brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, named Selicha, we ask God for forgiveness for all of the wrongs we committed. When saying this brakha, a person should try to have as much kavana (strong meaning) as possible, because it’s the ultimate act of chutzpah to ask for forgiveness and not even mean it.

All of us do bad things by accident and on purpose. I know that at least I don't pride myself on this, and I try my best to avoid doing things I know is wrong. However, it’s a fact of life that really cannot be avoided: everyone messes up, even with the best of intentions.

In Judaism, there is a concept of midah k’neged midah, a deed for a deed, sort of like karma: what goes around comes around. If a person does something right, he or she will be rewarded in an according way, either in this world or the next. When Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt, he took good care of his family and made sure they had enough food and other provisions, so his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, received land portions in Israel as a reward. People are also punished by midah k’neged midah. Sarah mistreated Hagar (the Egyptian slave that she gave as a concubine to Abraham) because she was jealous that she was able to conceive and give birth when she was not; as a result, Hagar fled. Commentators say that she was punished when the Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians generations later.

For those of us involved in the feminist movement, we definitely don’t want the sins we’ve committed to hold back the progress that could be made in the feminist and Jewish feminist worlds! As we say this brakha, we should pray that all of our sins are forgiven, and that we learn how to avoid doing them in the future. That way, the feminist movement will not be negatively affected. As Rabba Sara Hurwitz said at the JOFA conference session A Rabbi by Any Other Name, “The sky’s the limit. This is just the beginning of the women of the Jewish community impacting Judaism.”

Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, still a day of Chol HaMoed, or the Intermediate Days of the holiday. Tomorrow is Shemini Atzeret, the unofficial eighth day of Sukkot, and the day following that is Simhat Torah, when we finish the weekly reading of Torah portions and start at the beginning again. Hag sam'eah!

Monday, September 27, 2010

ANTM and Orthodox Judaism

Since I’ve lost any hopes of spare time with this blog and all my other extracurricular projects, the only TV shows I really follow anymore are American Idol and Glee, and even those I watch while at the computer or doing homework. Sadly, I have had to abandon regularly watching America’s Next Top Model (ANTM), stuck with watching the reruns on Oxygen. Yes, I know - a feminist? Watching ANTM? It's kind of my dirty little secret. I started watching way before I really identified with feminism, and it's a bad habit at this point. I know the modeling industry objectifies women so much and makes women bodies, not people, and ANTM is just a way to bring that horrible mindset to the masses, but it really is a fun show to watch. Whatever the case, I’ve had to stop watching it due to lack of time. As a result, it was only when I saw the article on JWA when I learned that a self-identified Orthodox teenager was a contestant.

As seen in the above video clip, Esther Petrack, an 18-year-old from Brookline, MA, identifies herself as a Modern Orthodox Jew. When she was introduced to Tyra Banks, runway coach J. Alexander, and photo shoot director Jay Manuel, Tyra asked her, “Do you honor the Sabbath?” Esther replied, “I do,” and then explained the general rules of Shabbat (Sabbath). When Tyra said, “No days off,” and Jay asked her, “What would you do?”, Esther replied, “I would do it.” When being interviewed alone, she said, “I’m at a point in my life where I’m figuring things out. I’m gonna try to do as much as I can religious-wise, but I did kinda draw my line in the sand when I auditioned for this.”

This girl interests me, I think because I’m torn between blacklisting her and praising her. On one hand, she’s almost bragging about her heritage, saying how she was born in Jerusalem and is a Modern Orthodox Jew; on the other hand, she’s saying that she’s willing to put her modeling career before her religion. It’s definitely a no-no. No truly Orthodox Jew would ever be willing to break Shabbat (Sabbath). While she may technically be able to not directly violate Shabbat while modeling on Friday nights and Saturdays (and even that would be very hard), working is a no-no in general. She’s also obviously not keeping tzniut (modesty in dress), considering she modeled in her underwear for the judges, and will most definitely have to model in clothing that you definitely wouldn't find in Borough Park. She may be keeping kosher in the house, though - I haven’t seen her eating anything yet, so I have to give her benefit of the doubt.

Honestly, my biggest criticism of Esther is for calling herself Orthodox. I’m Femidox (feminist Orthodox), a sect of Modern Orthodoxy, and I can say that anyone who is really Orthodox, modern or not, would not violate Shabbat. I know too little of Conservative and Reform Judaism to say whether she belongs in either, but she shouldn’t identify with a sect that she does not really adhere to. She’s trying to figure things out in life; I understand that. I’m doing that, too. But if I ever decide that Shabbat isn’t for me, I’m not going to be calling myself Orthodox. It just gives Judaism a bad smell to it - "Oh, those Jews, they're all look-at-how-religious-I-am, but as soon as there's money or fame in the equation they're willing to do anything."

All in all, I find Esther an interesting person. Do I support her action in willing to violate Shabbat to model? No. But I have to give her kudos for being proud of being Jewish, and for wanting to try to adhere to Judaism as much as she can. We all should practice what we’re comfortable with and shouldn’t feel pressured into practicing anything we don’t agree with or understand. So all in all, I look forward to seeing Esther continue on ANTM.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 5, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

Bring us back, our Parent, to Your Torah, and bring us near, our Ruler, to Your service, and influence us to return in perfect repentance before You. Blessed are you, God, Who desires repentance.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ אָבִֽינוּ לְתוֹרָתֶֽךָ, וְקָרְבֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתֶֽךָ, וְהַחֲזִירֵֽנוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה שְׁלֵמָה לְפָנֶֽיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הָרוֹצֶה בִּתְשׁוּבָה

In the sixth brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, called Teshuva, we are asking to be given the ability to use our knowledge to become closer to God. An angel teaches babies in the womb all of the Torah, but when the babies are born the knowledge is forgotten. We say this brakha to ask for God to return us to that state of knowledge and Torah, to acquire God’s message again, to that state of perfection.

Most religions are infamous for not being good to their women. Judaism is definitely reputed as sexist. Torah Judaism is, however, inherently feminist. God would not create one part of the human species to be the dominator and the other part as the dominated. Talmud Judaism, however, can be honestly described as not-so feminist. At the 2010 JOFA conference, I heard Avital Campbell Hochstein speak at the session titled Women in Midrash: Inclusion and Exclusion of Women. Ms. Campbell Hochstein discussed several examples of women’s exclusion in the Midrash, then explained that the laws’ basis was societal, not religious. The men who wrote the commentaries lived in medieval Jewish communities, a time and place not exactly known for being pro-feminist. When women are excluded from the law, it’s rooted in societal norms; when women are included, it’s because of religious obligations that the rabbis could not deny.

In summation, the Torah is not sexist; the rabbis, however, living in sexist mores, could not help but impose some such attitudes into their writings (Gemara, Mishna, etc.). Because of them, Judaism is wrongly known as a sexist religion. Judaism loves its women, but people misunderstand that. I did, for quite some time. I did not leave Judaism because I was still under my mother’s roof and would never dishonor her religion and the religion of her mothers while living in her home. I am fortunate that I began understanding Judaism’s true stance towards women while still observant. Many women are not as lucky as I am, and leave Judaism because of the inability to take the sexism. I don’t blame these women; I was thinking of being one of them for a while. I am just dismayed that the Jewish community does not educate their children better, and that while so much effort has been made to keep people from going Off the Derekh (aka OTD, off the path), few efforts have been made to fix the reasons why people, especially women, go OTD.

When I say this brakha, I pray that all the people who have left Judaism, especially the women (and men) who left because of the misogynistic attitudes they felt Judaism exhibited, realize how accepting and feminist Judaism really is and come back to the religion. All of us Jewish feminists should pray for our sisters in need.

Tonight is the beginning of Sukkot, the holiday commemorating the sukkot, or temporary huts, that the Jews lived in during the forty years they wandered in the desert after they were freed from Egypt. Have a beautiful Sukkot!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Star of Davida on Feminists for Choice!

I recently had the honor of being interviewed for the site Feminists For Choice. Read the interview below or check out the original here!

Feminist Conversations is a weekly column at Feminists For Choice. We interview feminist activists from across the interwebs to find out what feminism means to them. Today we’re talking to Talia bat Pessi bat Feige bat Ita bat Gittel, who blogs over at Star of Davida. Talia describes herself as a loudmouth, opinionated teenage Femidox (feminist Orthodox) Jew with a love of unadulterated Judaism, a fascination with her people’s historical women, and way too much time on her hands. She can’t wait to get out of school and into the real world, where she hopes to become a labor lawyer specializing in workplace discrimination and sexual harassment to help out her sisters in need.

1. How long have you been blogging, and what was your inspiration for starting the Star of Davida website?

I’ve been blogging since July 2010. I followed several feminist blogs for a really long time before that, and my writing was even featured on some of the pretty big ones, but it wasn’t enough for me – I needed a forum where I could rant about feminism. After playing with several titles and layouts, I settled on Star of Davida and the current design and began ranting.

2. When did you first call yourself a feminist, and what contributed to your decision?

I began actively calling myself a feminist last summer, when I was going into my freshperson year of high school. I had written several papers in middle school about the suffrage movement, and while I agreed with the First Wave wholeheartedly, it was hard to strongly identify with it, as women have had the right to vote for almost a century. Last summer I wrote a paper about Second-Wave Feminism, whose goals are still unmet, and that’s when I really found my calling.

3. What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism to me is all about giving women choices – the choice to be a doctor or teacher, the choice to keep an unexpected pregnancy or to terminate it, the choice to be a rabbi or layperson. It means that I can decide what I want to do with my life and not be held back or discouraged simply because I have ovaries.

4. Your series about women in prayer is really interesting. I like how you reclaim prayer as a woman-centered spiritual practice. Why is this such an important issue to you?

The Jews’ weapon is the mouth rather than physical artillery, and so Jews pray to God for help before reacting to a situation. As a result, prayer is an integral part of Judaism, and no Jew can reach full success without appealing to God for assistance. The male rabbis in power have been influenced by the sexist secular mores for centuries, and made women exempt from praying as often as men do (once a day vs. three times a day), effectively taking their connection to God away. Without God on their side, Jewish women have remained powerless facing the sexism that surrounded them. It is imperative for Jewish women to reclaim prayer and our connection to God, since without it, we will never reach true equality.

5. What advice would you give other women who are trying to reconcile their faith and feminism?

There are so many ways to make feminism mesh with faith. It can get hard and seem futile at times, but nobody has to choose between God and feminism – it is so easy to combine the two. There are religious feminist organizations for every denomination, and religious feminists are getting more rights every day. Never lose hope, and always remember that you have God on your side.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Jews Survive

This has nothing to do with feminism or anything like that, but I have to share this experience.

I volunteer at my synagogue’s children’s service, which I began attending when I was three. (It’s really quite ironic that as a rule, I dislike children.) A couple weeks ago on Shabbat (Sabbath), we had a smaller group of kids, and one of the mothers asked if her daughter could lead the group in the Shema prayer.

Shema is considered one of the most important prayers in Judaism, as it states the defining belief of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” In transliterated Hebrew, the sentence is read, “Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elokeinu Ado-nai Ehad.” As the line is said, one is supposed to cover his or her eyes so as to solely focus on God. The prayer is supposed to be said twice a day, during Shaharit (morning prayers) and before going to sleep, either during Ma’ariv (evening prayers) or directly before bed. Parents will often recite it with their young children before they put them to sleep.

The woman who leads the group welcomed the girl to recite the first line of Shema. The girl happens to be an extremely sweet, adorable girl. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a four-year-old with as much sparkle as she has. She put her right hand over her eyes and her high-pitched four-year-old voice rang out the Shema, “Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elokeinu Ado-nai Ehad.”

I have never been so touched by something like this. It was just so sweet; a four-year-old girl able to recite the prayer that connects her to her religion, to the generations of Jews in the past. It reminded me of a Holocaust story I once heard. Many Jewish parents put their children into convents to save them from concentration camp and certain death. While their children were saved, many parents did not survive. Rabbi Eliezer Silver wanted to claim the orphaned Jewish children from the convents that saved them, and went to a monastery in Alsace-Lorraine. The priest denied that Jewish children were there, so Silver had to prove the children’s Jewish identities. That night, he walked through the children’s dormitories singing the Shema. The Jewish children recognized the words their parents had sung to them at night before they went to sleep and Silver was able to bring them to safety in America.

I guess it just makes me happy to see that Jewish children can continue to read the Shema. My mother’s family had been rich in Hungary; then the Holocaust came, and we were decimated. A skeleton of the family survived. Most immigrated to America. My grandmother Feige bat Ita felt that the biggest revenge she could take against Hitler was to have children, to show him that his mission to annihilate the Jews has failed: Jewish children live. She relished that she could send her children to Jewish schools, and that they remained observant Jews. I know that she would have been kvelling if she had seen this adorable little pony-tailed four-year-old saying the Shema in a room full of Jewish children.

Tonight Yom Kippur begins. Yom Kippur, the culmination of the High Holy Days and the holiest date on the Jewish calendar, is when Jews fast and pray for forgiveness from God. Gemar chatima tova (may you be inscribed in the book of life) and have a meaningful fast!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Shining Stars of Davida: Abigail

The Text After Samuel died, David was still on the run from Saul, who wanted to kill him. He asked Nabal, a rich Calebite, for provisions, but was refused. David prepared to kill out Nabal's household for the disrespect. Nabal’s wife Abigail heard of David’s intentions, prepared a lot of food, and begged him to spare her family. He agreed and went away with the provisions. When she came home, Nabal was drunk. She waited until morning to tell him about the huge amount she gave away. When she did, he had a heart attack and died. David then proposed to Abigail, who accepted.

The Commentary Commentators tell us more about Nabal and Abigail. Nabal was “difficult and an evildoer” (I Sam 25:3) who refused to give charity; his name even means fool in Hebrew. When Samuel died and the country was in mourning, Nabal made a festive sheep-shearing party. Abigail was Nabal’s polar opposite. The name Abigail means fountain of joy in Hebrew, and was considered “intelligent and beautiful” (I Sam 25:3). She is counted as one of the four most beautiful women and as one of the seven female prophets mentioned in Tanakh (Jewish Bible).

Abigail rode to intercept David on a donkey, not an easy thing to do in a dress. As a result, the dress got twisted up and her thigh was exposed. Because she was uncovered, she descended on the opposite side of the mountain from David. When she saw him, she dismounted and asked him whether she was pure or not due to her period. When he told her that menstrual blood can only be judged in daylight, she asked him how he couldn’t judge menstrual blood, but could judge Nabal’s blood. When he replied that Nabal had rebelled against his kingship, Abigail countered that Saul was still on the throne. David had nothing to say to Abigail’s impeccable logic and spared the family.

Abigail was so beautiful that commentators go so far to say that the thought of her made men weak in the knees. David had seen her thigh as she dismounted (apparently a big turn-on back then), and wanted to have sex with her. Abigail refused. Commentators explain that when she told him, “[Do not let] this be a stumbling block…for my lord” (I Sam 25:31), she was referring to having sex with her, not Nabal’s possible death (as would be assumed from reading the text straight). David controlled himself and said, “Blessed are you, who has restrained me from coming to bloodshed” (I Sam 25:33). He used the Hebrew plural of bloodshed, which commentators say refer to Nabal’s life and having sex with Abigail while she was still impure from her period.

As she convinced David to spare her family and simultaneously fended off his sexual advances, she was still able to prepare for the future. She ended the sentence, “[Do not let] this be a stumbling block…for my lord” with “May God act beneficently towards my lord, and may you remember your maidservant” (I Sam 25:31). In modern terms, she was saying, “I can’t have sex with you now, since I’m married and impure anyway, but once you’re king, keep me in mind, okay?”

So not only was Abigail beautiful, she was brilliant and great at multitasking. In contrast, Nabal was a cruel, obese (the amount of food that Abigail gave to David’s camp, enough to hold them all over for a while, was just one meal for Nabal), a real piece of work. What were they doing together?

My Teacher’s Lesson One of my teachers had an explanation for this. “Abigail got nothing from her husband,” she said. “He was an evildoer and cruel, but she was still a good wife to him. This teaches us that what someone invests in marriage should not reflect what they get back, but that each party should invest 100% no matter how their spouse acts. Abigail had all reasons to be miserable. But she was always happy because her attitude was that if God put her there, she could grow from the experience, and she was happy as long as she was growing spiritually.”

Even just recording my teacher’s words make me ill. So a woman should just grin and bear it? If a woman has a Nabal for a husband, she should just smile and be happy even if she’s really miserable because she’s “growing spiritually”?

My teacher then adds, as an afterthought, “Unless there’s abuse. That’s different.”

The Real Lesson No. No it’s not. It is 100% absolutely NOT different. A man who’s a piece of garbage, who treats his wife like a sex object and maid and acts like Nabal, disgusting, a failure, a deceiver, a fool, surly, mean, even if there’s no physical or sexual abuse, that’s not something anyone should have to live with every day. Judaism HAS divorce laws. God knows that some marriages are mistakes, and gives both parties a way to get out of an unhappy relationship. If a woman is not happy with her spouse, she can still sue for divorce; she does not have to be a martyr and deal with it. Bless Abigail for dealing with Nabal for so many years. But women do not have to follow her example and stay in a loveless marriage just because.

But my teacher didn’t even follow through with her own explanation. Abigail was brilliant. Nabal had probably suffered at least one heart attack in his life due to his obesity, and he was extremely cheap. She waited to tell Nabal what had happened until the next morning, when he was no doubt extremely hungover. He suffered from a heart attack due to the shock and died. Could Abigail have expected such an outcome? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that she did. She knew she was planning on a life with David. So, in effect, she got rid of Nabal and got David instead. To me, that’s not passively dealing with a bad husband; that’s being proactive about it.

So don’t listen to my teacher. Don’t deal with a husband you’re not happy with. Don’t wait for a king to come and sweep you off your feet like Abigail, though: get a divorce instead. God made humankind to serve the Creator. The only way we can properly serve God is to be happy. Keep yourself satisfied.

I dub Abigail an inductee to Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 4, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can be easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

You graciously endow humankind with wisdom and teach insight to a frail mortal. Endow us graciously from Yourself with wisdom, insight, and discernment. Blessed are You, God, gracious Giver of wisdom.

אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּֽעַת, וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנוֹשׁ בִּינָה. חָנֵּֽנוּ מֵאִתְּךָ חָכְמָה בִּינָה וָדָֽעַת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, חוֹנֵן הַדָּֽעַת

The fourth brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, called Bina or Da’at, is the first brakha asking God to grant a request, or bakasha. Our first appeal is for intellect because without knowledge, there’s no such thing as Judaism. Judaism depends on learning passed down from parent to child; ignorance is inexcusable. In this brakha we are attributing our success to God and asking God for help to understand in the future.

Feminism is a horribly misunderstood movement. When I tell people I’m a feminist, the first thing out of their mouth usually is, “So you hate men, right?” or “No, you're a lesbian?” The media has vilified feminists ever since men came back from World War II and shaped the country to what they craved overseas, a cozy domestic life with women in the home and 2.5 children playing in the backyard. Feminists have been labeled as castrating man-hating lesbian bra-burners ever since. People simply don’t understand feminism and have no desire to learn, simply absorbing the horrible messages the media propagates about the women’s movement and those who follow it.

When I say this brakha, I pray for my own success in school and learning, that I will remember any knowledge I come across and will be able to integrate it into my life (and do well on tests!). I also pray that the women and men who do not understand the secular and Jewish women’s rights movement begin to identify with it. I would hazard a guess at saying that most people are truly feminists; i.e., they believe that sex should not determine someone's place in the world. People just don't like labeling themselves as feminists. I've noticed that many people in the Jewish community may actually be feminists, but are terrified to admit it for fear of being branded as such. (There are also a lot of people who aren't feminist and believe that women should be defined by their biological role - let's not defend every person who doesn't describe him or herself as a feminist.) Judaism is a fluid religion that is accepting and tolerant of all, and the Torah is the document that backs it all up. The Torah loves women and wants us to be equal. We cannot attain that nirvana until everyone realizes it, though.

Tonight Rosh HaShanah begins, marking the beginning of the Jewish new year. May 5771 yield positive results for the feminist movement, and may all those women and men who call themselves feminists have good fortune in their fight for equal rights!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Women and Last Names

I was watching TV and saw a commercial for Chase Quick Deposit. The concept is pretty cool: you take a picture on your phone of both sides of a check, and it gets deposited. The commercial shows a couple who just got married using Quick Deposit on their wedding gifts. “Mr. and Mrs. Walker? Why did she write a check for my parents?” the husband asks. They both laugh and enter matrimonial bliss together.

This commercial really irks me. I understand that most women abandon their maiden names - the Lucy Stone League says 90% of newlywed women a year - but that still leaves 10% of women who don’t. Why should the woman in the commercial be assumed to take his last name?

I suppose I have my eighth grade Torah teacher to blame for my sensitivity to women and last names. We learned the book of Deuteronomy with her, and 29:19 says, “God will not be willing to forgive [an idolater; as punishment] God will erase their name from under the heavens.” Our teacher then had us write a composition about our Hebrew names and their meaning. My essay was pretty great, and she gave me a check-plus-plus, but the name I wrote about was all wrong. I wrote about the Hebrew name that my parents gave me at birth. However, my legal name was always Talia, and I always went by it. I recently discovered that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said that if someone has others call them by a different name for thirty days, the new name is his or her official name in Jewish law. So I became Talia. I was thrilled. I had been looking for a way to change it for ages.

But this post isn’t about my name; it’s about women taking their husbands’ names upon marriage. As virtually said above, it’s not something I support.

Is the feminist movement about choices? Yes! Of course! It’s all about women feeling comfortable as women. (See my previous blog post about women and leg shaving.) But there are some things that no woman should feel comfortable doing. “There are certain rights of women that do have to be absolute….No one can condone any practice of any society that…denies [women’s] personhood,” Betty Friedan wrote in her autobiography Life So Far. She was discussing the chador and its feminist implications, but it can also apply to women and name change at marriage. A woman taking her husband’s name denies her personhood. It says that she is unimportant, that her name, her history, is not important. Her name is erased “from under the heavens.”

So if we’ve established that women’s taking their husbands’ names is a sexist behavior, the question arises as to how to avoid said sexist behavior. To me, the easiest solution is to merge the names. Instead of saddling a child with a name like Rosenberger-Silverstein, they can be Rosenstein or Silverberger or Rosensilver. Some names aren’t as easy to merge; Erica Paladino-Sweeney complains that she couldn’t figure out a way to merge her maiden name, Paladino, and her married name, Sweeney. To me, isn’t Palaney a viable option? I think any names can be merged. It avoids the whole Rosenberger-Silverstein issue, and the future issue of a Rosenberger-Silverstein marrying a Horowitz-Spiegelman. I actually knew of a couple where both parties had a hyphenated name, and they merged all four names into one, so I suppose Rosenberger-Silverstein and Horowitz-Spiegelman could become Spirosteiner, or something like that.

Women should of course be able to use their husbands’ names as middle names, keep their middle names as their maiden names, or solely go by their maiden names. The only reason I disagree with this is because then their children go by their father’s name, which just perpetuates the patriarchal system. We have to pave the way for our daughters to have different lives than we did, not just leave them with the same problems that we dealt with.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to end this post off, so I think I’ll leave it to Lucy Stone, one of the first women’s rights crusaders, and the first recorded woman to keep her name after marriage.

“A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers.”

Friday, September 3, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 3, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

You are holy and Your Name is holy, and holy ones praise You every day, forever. Blessed are You, Hashem, the Holy God.

אַתָּה קָדוֹשׁ וְשִׁמְךָ קָדוֹשׁ, וּקְדוֹשִׁים בְּכָל יוֹם יְהַלְלֽוּךָ סֶּֽלָה. כִּי אֵל מֶֽלֶךְ גָּדוֹל וְקָדוֹש אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הָאֵל הַקָּדוֹשׁ

The third brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, usually called Kedushat HaShem, is all about showing how powerless we would be without God, and how holy God is. It says that even the name of God is holy. However, it refers to that Name in the male tense.

The gender of God is an issue that multitudes of feminists, Jewish and Christian, have grappled with. Obviously, God is neither male nor female; God is not a human being. When someone refers to the “hand of God,” it’s an allegory meant only to make the unfathomable concept of God a little easier for us to understand. Hence, when God is referred to as male (or female) it’s only to make us able to understand God better.

While we may understand that God is sexless, the issue of how to refer to God still remains. I used to refer to God as She, but once I realized that God is truly neither male nor female, I didn’t want to box God into a specific gender, so I stopped using pronouns. I use You and other non-gender specific terms, and I word my sentences to avoid using He or She; God is neither.

What still is not solved is the issue of God’s name in prayer. If one wants to pray in English, there are many egalitarian siddurim (prayer books) that remain gender-neutral, but when praying in Hebrew, a gender-specific language, God is always referred to in the male tense. Just as one should keep the Imahot (Matriarchs) in mind when the names of the Avot (Patriarchs) appear, remember when you refer to God as male that God is neither male nor female.

It is said that the first three brakhot (blessings) correspond to the three Avot, so this third brakha corresponds to the third and last Patriarch, Jacob. To the Jewish feminist that will have the Imahot in mind, this brakha is for the wives of Jacobs. He had four: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. While only Rachel and Leah are counted as Matriarchs, Bilhah and Zilpah still mothered four of the twelve tribes, and some commentators believe they were Rachel and Leah’s sisters (an interpretation that Anita Diamant uses in her book The Red Tent, a fictionalization of the life of Dinah).

When you put Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah’s initials together, you get BRZL. Barzel is the Hebrew word for iron. Iron is one of the strongest metals and is used for items of warfare; it is so closely connected with war that the Mizbe'ach Avanim (Altar of Stones) in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) cannot be made of iron, since its purpose is to make peace between God and humankind. Because Jacob’s wives’ initials are BRZL, we know that they were as strong as iron. Iron’s atomic number is 26. God’s name, the Tetragrammaton that cannot be spoken out loud, has a Gematria (numerical value) of 26. These four holy women “equal” 26, the same number that the name of God “equals.” Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Next time you say Shemoneh Esrei, remember that God is truly neither a He nor a She, and keep the wives of Jacob, Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah, the women who were as strong as iron, in mind.