Friday, April 22, 2011

The Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity Conference

I recently attended the Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity Conference, sponsored by NYU, the Jewish Women’s Archive, Brandeis University, and the Spencer Foundation. Because of Passover shopping and maternal colonoscopy conflicts, I was only able to attend two sessions on the second day of the conference: Jewish Feminism/Feminist Judaism and Jewish Liberation Projects.

Jewish Feminism/Feminist Judaism Arlene Agus, Blu Greenberg, Susan Weidman Schneider, and Susannah Heschel were the panelists, with Chava Weissler as the chair. They discussed how they became involved in Judaism and feminism and what they have accomplished regarding Jewish feminism.

Ms. Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s only child and professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, talked about how Judaism became equivalent to social activism in her eyes due to her father’s actions, and how sexism and Judaism contradict each other.

Ms. Greenberg, creator of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and my absolute icon, discussed how she loved Judaism from a young age, and the feminist movement’s critique of Judaism’s patriarchal tendencies made her dislike feminism at first. When Arlene Agus invited her to the First National Jewish Women’s Conference, she learned many lessons: Jewish women are not on a pedestal, as evidenced by agunah, the lack of women in leadership, language issues, and minimal ritual celebration; the dialectic that exists between men and women; the necessity for full access for women; and many among others.

Ms. Weidman Schneider, a founder of Lilith Magazine, mentioned an Israeli couple at her synagogue that respected girls’ opinions as much as the boys’, which made her think that girls could do anything. After a year spent in Israel, she was riled to merge her Judaism and feminism, and was drawn to create Lilith.

Ms. Agus, who rediscovered Rosh Hodesh and co-created Ezrat Nashim, spoke about how she is related to commentator Rashi and how knowledge of her family’s women makes her feel like she has been passed a torch. She also mentioned how when she was six, her male cousin was allowed to sing Adon Olam (link here) and she wasn’t, so she complained to the rabbi. He wrapped her in his tallit (prayer shawl) which made her feel validated, even though she still was not allowed to lead. She also discussed how it’s hard to have to choose between feminism and Judaism.

When asked about the opposition between Judaism and secularism, Greenberg opined that there is no opposition: the two nurture each other. Weissler felt that the distinctions are blurrier now than they were in the past.

Another audience member asked about current feelings in synagogues towards feminism. Heschel felt that while there are a lot of changes, the attitudes are still too patronizing towards women. Agus maintained that women are included in many more ways than they used to be, and that women scholars are imperative for the movement. Greenberg praised current initiatives being taken by Orthodoxy, like women’s tefillah groups, despite the fact that she acknowledged that we have a long way to go. Weidman Schneider credited feminism with increased participation for all members of the Jewish community.

When asked for a Jewish feminist perspective on secular women’s issues, Agus and Heschel felt that such initiatives have already been taken. Greenberg voiced her disappointment in the past thirty years of work, since Jewish feminists have been in a “small box of fighting” and not been able to push for larger agendas.

Jewish Liberation Projects Aviva Cantor, Maralee Gordon, Rebecca Alpert, and Yavilah McCoy were the panelists, with chair Marya Levenson. The panelists discussed their work regarding creating a friendlier Judaism for every Jew.

Rabbi Gordon, a leader of the Jewish Activist League and Jewish educator, discussed her years living on a Chicago commune and creating a Havurah organization. After seeing several part-time rabbis and feeling she could do a better job, she was ordained in 1996, at age 48.

Ms. Cantor, a creator of Lilith Magazine and extensive researcher of Jewish feminism, explained the necessity of Israel as a homeland for the Jews. As she wrote the only feminist analysis of Jewish history, she discussed men’s role as leaders and women as facilitators in order to protect the Jewish people, which explains men’s resistance to feminism within the religious sphere.

Rabbi Alpert, one of the first female Reconstructionist rabbis, discussed her journey as a homosexual feminist woman rabbi in the 1970s to now. She credited the Second Wave for the increased access women have to the clergy, despite the fact that many of her contemporaries don’t see the connection.

Yavilah McCoy, the founder of Ayecha, is an African-American Jew who is active in promoting awareness of multicultural Jews. She discussed Jewish perceptions of race and how to pursue inclusion for Jews of color in the predominantly white Jewish community. She mentioned the need for more African-Americans in Jewish leadership and more widespread understanding of Jews of color.

When asked why Jews can tend to racism, Meredith Tax, another panelist at the conference, and McCoy felt that racism isn’t in any way a Jewish trait, but just something the predominantly white Jewish community swallowed. Cantor blamed inaction on the community’s part for racism within the Jewish community.

Levenson summed up the session by explaining that all Jewish feminists challenged boundaries, and Gordon added that Jews are not fulfilling their legacy if they don’t fight back.

All in all, I really enjoyed the conference, even though I was only able to attend a couple sessions. I loved being able to hear some of my idols speak about a topic so near and dear to my heart. May there be more opportunities for Jewish feminists to get together and discuss the good things in life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Feminist Passover Thoughts

Ah, Passover. I’ve always had mixed emotions about Passover. On one hand, there’s weeks of obsessive cleaning before the holiday comes, then eight days' worth of constant synagogue attendance and no good food. (Seriously. You’d think after 4,000 years someone would have figured out how to make better Passover food.) On the other hand, it’s a holiday I was always able to relate to, as it features several strong women characters, and it has a fascinating story behind it.

The first women in the Passover story are Shifra and Puah, the midwives that refused to listen to Pharaoh and kill all the Jewish baby boys. There are several different opinions as to their true identities. One commentator identifies them as Jochebed and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister; another feels that Shifra was indeed Jochebed, but that Puah was Elisheba, Aaron’s wife. Other commentaries feel that they were just random women, one opinion even saying that the two were Egyptian rather than Jewish. Whoever they were, they were amazingly strong: they could have easily been killed for their rebellion against the Pharaoh’s orders. To celebrate these amazing women, Brandeis University established the Shifra and Puah award in the 1970s for people who fought injustice. Not only did they save the children’s physical bodies, but they also nourished their souls, passing on Judaism to the next generation. They teach us an important lesson: without one half of the Jewish nation active, we cannot continue, whether that half is male or female.

Jochebed, Moses’ mother, is another important figure. Since the Egyptians wanted to kill all the Jewish baby boys, they tracked the pregnancies of all the Jewish women to ensure no infant boy would live. She gave birth earlier than expected. Taking advantage of the gift from God, she put Moses in a basket on the Nile and prayed that he would fall into good hands. We must learn from Jochebed that when God hands us an opportunity, we must use it to the fullest extent possible.

Pharaoh’s daughter, named Batya, was the one who found Moses in the Nile. There is an opinion that she was walking by the Nile in order to dip herself in the Nile as a mikvah (ritual bath), the last part of the conversion process. When she found Moses and saw he was circumcised, she knew he was a Jew. Because of her recent conversion, she knew it was God’s will that she adopt him, despite the fact that her father was an anti-Semite that wanted to destroy the Jews. Because she saved his life, and by extension the Jewish people, she is one of the nine people that entered the World to Come alive. From Batya we see that no matter how bad our family is, we must pursue what we perceive is the right way to go.

Moses’ sister Miriam is one of the most well-known women of Tanakh (the Jewish Bible). After Pharaoh declared that all the Jewish boys should be killed, Amram, her father, divorced Jochebed, since he didn’t want her to give birth to a son destined to die. Miriam criticized him, saying that his decree was harsher than Pharaoh’s: he was stopping the birth of girls, too! Because of her words, Amram and Jochebed remarried, conceiving Moses. Commentators say that she was as young as five when she said this to her father, a spiritual giant and leader of the generation. Once Moses was born, she watched him as he floated in his basket along the Nile. When she saw that Batya took him, she brought her mother to the palace, and Jochebed offered to be Moses’ wet nurse. Opinions differ as to whether Batya knew Jochebed was his biological mother or not. We hear nothing about Miriam until the Jews are freed from Egypt, and Moses begins singing the Song of the Sea. Miriam sang a parallel song for the women. Virtually every commentator has a different opinion as to how exactly Moses’ and Miriam’s songs worked. For example, one says that Moses sang a line and then Miriam repeated it for the women, and another opines that Moses sang the entire song, and then Miriam repeated it for the women. To celebrate this strong woman, many feminists put a Cup of Miriam on the Seder table. Miriam’s entire life shows us that women must be included in Judaism to the same extent that men are.

The fact that women are so involved in the Passover story shows us that women must be just as involved in the Seder and the holiday in general. We must participate in the retelling of the Jews’ redemption from Egypt, we must question, we must listen to the answers. If we don’t, then what has the feminist movement done? If we’re not as active as the men at the Seder table, if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities given to us, don’t follow the right path, and don’t push for continued inclusion, we are not continuing the legacy of the women of Passover. It is our inheritance. We must accept it with all of our hearts. If we don’t, we are lost.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Deborah, Jael, and Sisera's Mother

I was privileged to hear Elie Wiesel, the famed Holocaust survivor and author of Night, speak. His topic of discussion was Deborah, a strong woman judge who saved the Jewish people in ancient Israel. Of the sixteen judges that served in pre-monarchic Israel, only Deborah was female. She was also a prophet, one of seven women prophets recorded in Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), that communicated directly with God.

The Text Her story is recorded in Judges 4 and 5. After the Jews sinned, God sent Canaan to subjugate them as punishment: Jabin was the king, Sisera the army general. After the Jews asked for forgiveness, God sent Deborah to save them, telling her to command Barak, the Israeli army general, to fight against Sisera, as he would win. Barak requested that she come with him, and she did. The Jews won the battle. Sisera fled to the tent of Jael, who killed him by nailing a tent peg into his temple. As a result, the Jews were able to become autonomous again. Judges 5 is the Song of Deborah, describing the war and its outcome in poetic form. At the end, Deborah mentions Sisera’s mother, waiting for a son that will never come home. After Deborah’s victory, there was peace for 40 years.

The Commentary: Deborah According to Jewish law, women cannot serve as witnesses (yet) and therefore cannot be judges (yet) because their emotions may overcome their reason, leading to wrong judgment. (I don’t make up the news, I just report it.) Commentators question why Deborah was able to judge. The text says that she was a prophet, and therefore delivered justice through prophecy rather than personal opinion. Additionally, rather than giving a straight answer to a question regarding Jewish law, she would state all of the laws she knew regarding the issue, thereby giving an answer. (This is one way current women rule on Jewish law, something similar to what Rachel Kohl Finegold does.)

As with most of the other judges, little is known about her personal life; all it says is she was “the wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4). Lappidoth literally means torches, which give light. As Wiesel mentioned, he is sometimes identified as Barak, the Israeli army general; his name means lightning, which also provides light.

Wiesel shared the Talmud’s opinion that Lappidoth was ignorant of Judaism. In order to make him closer to God, Deborah asked him to deliver wicks to the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Deborah’s plan to make him more spiritual worked, as he came to make his own wicks. This is indicative of how she ruled the Jews of the era: she encouraged them to work on themselves, inspiring them to want a better relationship with God. This is part of the reason the Jews chose her to be the judge, rather than another prophet that lived at the time, Phineas. I find the opinion that Lappidoth was an "ignoramus," in Wiesel's words, hard to swallow. Clearly, Deborah was extremely close to God - why would she have married someone on a lower spiritual level than she was? To me, this shows a deeply-rooted fear of strong women: she scared away all the men on her level, the only one that would take her was an idiot! Whether it's true or not, it still stands that Deborah inspired rather than enforced people to keep Judaism.

The verse also says that “she would sit under the date palm of Deborah” (Judges 4:5). The words “of Deborah” seem superfluous - if Deborah is sitting underneath it, of course it’s her date palm! As I mentioned in another post, there was a previous Deborah: the wet nurse of Rebecca. Rebecca’s son Jacob buried her “below Beit El” (Gen 35:6); Deborah’s date palm was “between Ramah and Beit El on Mount Ephraim,” probably the same place the original Deborah was buried. Some commentators even feel that the wet nurse’s soul was reincarnated in the judge’s body.

When Deborah told Barak to attack the Canaanites, he said, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you do not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8). It seems odd that he would insist on Deborah’s attendance on the battlefront, especially after Deborah told him that his victory will be attributed to a woman as a result (Judges 4:9). To me, this shows an early example of a feminist man: Barak didn’t mind that he and Deborah would get joint credit. Barak understood that society is not complete unless both men and women are included. As a result, he wanted Deborah with him at the battle.

The Commentary: Jael Jael is also a strong woman. Little is known about her personal life, too; she is just identified as a wife, of Heber the Kenite. She might not have even been Jewish. It’s possible that she was a convert from Jethro’s family (Heber was another of Jethro’s names). I have heard opinions that say that she too was a judge. Wiesel mentioned the possibility that Jael knew Sisera beforehand, as the text itself says that “There was peace between Jabin, king of Hazor, and the House of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17), and she did invite him into her tent.

Sisera asked her for water; however, she gave him milk. One reason for this may have been that dairy induces sleepiness (a fact that Judith knew well), and Jael wanted to put Sisera to sleep. Once he was out, she took a tent peg and drove it through his temple. Her choice of a tent peg seems odd. I have heard the opinion that she chose it because weapons are men’s tools. Wouldn’t she have had knives, which aren’t specifically men’s tools, around the house, though? I think that she panicked, saw a sharp tent peg, and decided to use that to kill him.

Wiesel mentioned a commentary that says that “between [Jael’s] legs [Sisera] knelt, he fell, he lay” (Judges 5:27) in the Song of Deborah means that Sisera raped Jael. (Some even say that the famed Rabbi Akiva was among their descendants.) If this is true, she was probably in a state of shock, and just wanted to get rid of her attacker as fast as possible, explaining the tent peg.

The Commentary: Sisera’s Mother Another character that fascinates me is Sisera’s mother. Deborah describes the worry she felt for her son in the Song, sitting at the window and waiting for him to come home. The text uses two different terms for window: hahalon and ha’esnav. According to the Zohar, hahalon refers to a regular window, and ha’esnav is a mirror used for astrology. Ha’esnav has the same Gematria (numerical value) as Mashiah (Messiah). She may have seen our generation, the one preceding Mashiah, and repented for her and her son’s sins. It is even said that the 100 blasts of the shofar that we all hear every Rosh HaShanah, a time of repentance, represent her 100 cries for forgiveness.

Three strong women are featured in these two short chapters of Judges. It is imperative that we follow their examples: encouraging the people around us to explore their connections to God while building our own relationships with the Creator, pursuing leadership roles within Judaism, acting strong in the face of adversity, asking forgiveness for our misdeeds.

I dub Deborah, Jael, and Sisera’s nameless mother into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shining Stars of Davida: Debbie Wasserman Schultz

There are many men and women currently in Congress who are champions of feminism, protecting women’s rights as much as they can. One of those people is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was currently named the chairperson of the Democratic National Committee.

Wasserman Schultz was born in Queens, New York to a Jewish family, growing up on Long Island. She got her BA and MA, both in political science, from the University of Florida at Gainesville. In 1988, as she was getting her MA, she served as an aide for Peter Deutsch, who was in the Florida State House of Representatives, later serving in Congress as a Floridian Representative for over a decade. When he left the state House seat, he suggested that Wasserman Schultz run in his stead. She won the primary election with 53% of the vote, going on to beat the Republican candidate. She was the youngest woman (26) to serve as a legislator in Florida. She served for eight years (1993-2001), only leaving because of term limits. She then was elected to the Florida State Senate for two terms.

As she served in Florida State Congress, she pushed for many liberal reforms, including several dealing with women’s rights, seniors’ rights, children’s rights, and animal welfare, like a law requiring the same prices for men and women at dry cleaners.

In 2004, she won (and still holds) a US House of Representatives seat from Florida. She was chosen as the Chief Deputy Whip (the assistant to the whip), the fourth woman to do so. As US Representative, she was vehemently opposed to congressional involvement in the Terry Schiavo case. She is also pro-Israel, pro-choice, pro-gun rights, and pro-gay rights.

She is also very involved in the Jewish community, even swearing into office on a Tanakh (Jewish Bible). Wasserman Schultz and Arlen Specter, a senator, were extremely active in getting May declared as Jewish American Heritage Month, modeled after commemorations like Women’s History Month and Black History Month. Her motivation in creating Jewish American Heritage Month was to raise awareness of the Holocaust to the new generation, and to bring a more widespread understanding of Jews, their culture, and traditions in order to end anti-Semitism. She also helped create the National Jewish Democratic Council, was on the board of the American Jewish Congress, and is active in Hadassah.

In 2008, she supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, even helping her campaign. When Obama won the primary, she gave him her backing, as she was extremely anti-Palin. Also in 2008, Wasserman Schultz went through several surgeries related to breast cancer, while still serving as Representative. Ever since, she has been active in increasing awareness for the importance of breast cancer screenings. She is also strongly aware of the need for sisterhood; as a good friend of Gabrielle Giffords, Wasserman Schultz was with Giffords when she opened her eyes for the first time after the shooting.

On April 5, 2011, VP Biden announced that Wasserman Schultz was chosen to be the 52nd Chairperson of the Democratic National Convention. She is the third woman to serve in that position, the first in fifteen years.

The name Debbie is a nickname for Deborah. Deborah was a judge and prophet in ancient Israel, the only recorded woman to serve as such. (Expect a post about her at some point in the near future.) Deborah was strong, a pioneering woman who blended femininity and leadership. Deborah, the Wet Nurse of Rebecca (and the first Shining Star of Davida!) was another biblical Deborah. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has truly continued the legacies of these two strong women. May she continue to rise.

I dub Debbie Wasserman Schultz into the Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make us feminists proud.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Some Feminist Musings on Hop

I recently saw the movie Hop (free advanced preview tickets!!), which was fun, considering the last time I was at the movies was to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (I know, it’s pathetic.) Before I say anything else, I want to say that Hop was hilarious and adorable, full of fuzzy bunnies and fluffy cotton tails, and I really enjoyed it.

(SPOILER ALERT) The movie is about E.B. (Russell Brand), a teenaged rabbit that wants to be a drummer but has to become the next Easter Bunny. He runs from Easter Island to Hollywood, where he meets Fred O’Hare (James Marsden) and moves in with him as he pursues a career. On Easter Island, Carlos (Hank Azaria), the Easter Bunny’s second-in-command, wants to take E.B.’s place as the next Easter Bunny, but revolts when he is not allowed to. Meanwhile, the Easter Bunny’s secret service, the Pink Berets, think that Fred killed E.B. and take him to Easter Island amid the rebellion. When E.B. finds Fred gone, he goes to Easter Island and finds Fred and his father imprisoned. Fred and E.B. stop Carlos and end up becoming co-Easter Bunnies.

While I really loved the movie, there were a few things that irked me about it.

The beginning of the movie showed portraits of past Easter Bunnies. Every one was male. This kinda bothered me. I mean, why does the Easter Bunny have to be male? Can’t a female bunny deliver chocolate eggs and candy just as well as a male bunny can? (I’m Jewish, so I don’t get any candy Easter time, but still. It would be nice to know that all the Christian kids can have some egalitarianism.)

The Pink Berets, the Easter Bunny’s secret service, were the only three clearly female rabbits in the movie. I absolutely loved the fact that the movie portrayed them as tough ninja-bunnies who could still have a touch of femininity. However, the whole “girls are pink” thing does annoy me to an extent. I also found it a little disturbing that they never talked. What, girls can be tough, as long as they keep their mouths shut?

The antagonist of the movie, Carlos, not only had a Spanish name, but even had an accent. Why did the creators of the movie feel the need to make the character we’re all supposed to hate Hispanic, while giving E.B. and the Easter Bunny British accents? We’re supposed to like people from England, but not Mexico? Hm?

I liked the fact that Fred’s sister was supposed to hold an extremely responsible position, to the point that her boss trusted her to housesit and that she was able to get Fred a job interview. However, at the end of the movie, when Fred showed his family that he was the new Easter Bunny, they complimented the O’Hare matriarch on her cooking. To me, this just enforces all those “women belong in barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen” mindset. Why couldn’t Mr. O’Hare have cooked some of the meal? Why was it taken for granted that Ms. O’Hare would prepare the food? I know this is a small, rather insignificant detail, but still.

Again, I absolutely adored Hop - it was extremely cute, very touching, and the animation was amazing. (Seriously. Those bunnies looked so fuzzy! Especially their cotton tails.) There were, however, some elements that I felt detracted from my complete and total enjoyment of the fluff.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who Woulda Thought It?

I simply adore my rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). She runs the children’s group at my synagogue, which I’ve been attending since I was three. Even after I was supposed to go to the older kids’ group when I turned seven, I stayed with the younger kids’ group with my rebbetzin. Once I got a little older, I started helping her run the group, and now I help as an official volunteer.

When I say she runs the synagogue, I mean that she runs the synagogue. If I enumerated everything she does for the synagogue, you would accuse me of lying - no single human being can do all that in one day. But she does. I don’t get how (I maintain that she’s figured out a way to add a few hours to the day), but she gets it all done somehow r another.

She’s an older woman (her oldest grandchild is only a couple years younger than me), and most Orthodox women of her generation tend to lean towards the concept that men should be breadwinners and women should be domestic angels. I always assumed she was different, though. Her daughters and granddaughters read from the haftarah (selection of Tanakh read in the synagogue) at their banot mitzvah, an unusual thing for Orthodox girls to do, so I figured my rebbetzin was a little more leftist to allow for it. She’s also such a powerful woman in the synagogue: how could a woman so strong be sexist?

Wow, was I in for a surprise. At the lunch the synagogue provides for the children’s group after the services end, my rebbetzin sat at our table and heard me discussing women in Jewish leadership.

“Women’s place is in the home,” she said immediately, and my eyebrows shot up. “When’s the last time you were home?” my mom asked her jokingly. She laughed, probably racking her brain to think back to the last time she was home, since she practically lives in the synagogue, eating most meals there and spending most of her waking hours working on upcoming functions. “I should be,” she replied. “What are you? Phyllis Schlafly?” I asked. (As we all know, Phyllis Schlafly is the famed attorney and lecturer who opposed the ERA and is painfully anti-feminist, supporting women as housewives and mothers…while getting her JD and running all over the country lecturing against feminism.)

I must say, I was really disappointed. I love my rebbetzin, to the point that I consider her my third grandmother. I wasn’t really expecting her to give her support to women rabbis or women in Jewish leadership, but I was surprised that she was so adamant about a woman’s place in the world, especially since she’s pretty liberated herself.

All I can say is that I hope attitudes like hers change over time, that Orthodox people come to realize that expanding women’s roles will benefit the Jewish community at large.