Monday, March 28, 2016

Who desires long life

It's a Chabad custom to read tehillim daily, and one of the chapters a person typically reads is their age + 1. So, for me, that's Chapter 34. A few days ago, in the Hayom Yom, a daily snippet of chassidus, it mentioned a passage from Gemara, and I had a thought.

In the Talmud, in Nidah 30b, it says that before a child is born, they are made to swear an oath, "be a tzadik and not a rasha." The acceptance of this oath is a condition for life. Incidentally, this passage (which goes on) forms a main discussion in the Tanya. 

However, in Tehillim, Ch. 34, King David writes:

"Who is the man who desires long life...? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Keep away from evil and do good."

In Nidah, it says "be a tzadik", in other words, do good, and then "not a rasha", don't do bad. But in Tehillim, the order appears reversed, "keep away from evil", and then "do good".

It would seem that to enter the world (birth), one must take an oath to do good, and also not to do bad. Yet, to stay in the world (long life), one must not do bad, and also do good.

How to explain this?

An unborn child is completely innocent - a tzadik. So the oath the unborn child takes is, I will continue to be a tzadik, and won't do bad things.

King David is not talking to a tzadik, but to a human being who has fallen and who knows this; who is afraid their life will be cut short in retribution for their deeds. What are they to do? So he tells them: You want to keep living? Stop your nonsense, and then do something good with the life you're given.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Whipped Religious Jewish Man

I'm still a bit tipsy from the Purim party I just got back from, but I wanted to post this ASAP. It's an article in Ami Magazine, a kind of Time or Newsweek for the frum (observant Jewish) world. The article appears on page 36 of the February 29th issue, and is entitled "Outfit Outrage: Hundreds Unite Against Purim Costumes". Here we go, quoting from beginning to end, because I doubt Ami Magazine publishes online, and I'm too lazy to look, being half fershnukered on mashka (alcohol) and all:
In a united effort, hundreds of emotional avreichim [scholars], balebatim [laypeople], and lay leaders came together for what they deemed as a historic event. At the event, held in the grand Atlantis Regency Ballroom, hundreds of people signed the historic petition forming the Vaad Neged Tachposes Purim, the group against wearing costumes on Purim. 
"We are not against Purim costumes in general," explains lay leader Shmaryahu Shain. "We are against the new practice of married men, talmidei chachamim [Torah scholars], having to degrade themselves by dressing up in silly costumes and going along with the immature 'themes' concept that has pervaded the holy Yom Tov [good/holy day] of Purim these days. This is the problem in a nutshell. You have hundreds of bochurim [young guys] who work hard their whole lives to become ehrlich [pious] and serious bnei Torah [children of Torah]. Suddenly, they get married and all that gets thrown out the window come Purim time. Young women who are otherwise respectful of their husbands suddenly expect them to belittle themselves by dressing up in childish costumes that degrade who they are as talmidei chachamim and Yidden [Jews]. How can someone go to learn the next day in kollel [institution of Jewish learning] after dressing up like a clown, a cowboy, a mime, a pirate, or any other childish character? It ruins his self-esteem and degrades him in front of his wife and children and, more importantly, his friends."
The evening began with a short inspiring speech from Rav Chaim Leiter, rav [Rabbi] of East Milford, New Jersey, who spoke about how the Bais Yaakovs [religious schools for girls, literally mean "House of Jacob"] have to do a better job of educating the girls to respect their husbands and not to subjugate them to the childish act of dressing up. "The costumes cause significant rifts in shalom bayis [peace in the home]," explained Rav Neemus. "The men are embarrassed and belittled and cannot face their friends after Purim due to sheer humiliation. Can a man really go to learn [Torah] the next day after he davened Mincha [prayed afternoon prayers] in clown makeup?" 
"It affects our pnimiyus [the inner/inward/essence], who we are as human beings," said one attendee, Yitzchok Fromowitz. "Last year on Purim, after dressing up like a character from a children's story, I got drunk on cherry Heering and chocolate liquor, a vaiberish mashkeh [umm... heh, "feminine" alcohol, it's like a secular man getting drunk on hard lemonade, kind of a joke between guys]! How embarrassing! Every year I am mikayem 'ad d'lo yada' [until he "cannot distinguish" between Haman and Mordechai, the villain and hero of Purim, which is the religious obligation] on wine and beer and this year I was drinking pina colada! In addition, this year my wife wants to dress up as Mordechai and Esther; can you imagine? Only little kids do that. I just hope she wants me to dress up like Mordechai; if not, I'm in real trouble."
I promised to quote the entire article, but I can no longer handle the ridiculousness. This article is apparently not one big Purim joke; it's totally serious. It's about a bunch of grown men meeting together without their wives knowing - one might call it an anonymous support group - trying to gather the mutual courage to beg their wives to stop dressing them up in stupid children's costumes for Purim. They end the meeting resolved to distribute their petition in religious schools and on the walls in religious neighborhoods (that way they don't have to face their wives directly!). The picture attached with this article is of a frum Jew looking at a pink full body bunny costume. Presumably, his wife gave him the choice of either the pink bunny suit, or Supergirl. Whoever still claims that observant Jewish men oppress Jewish women have NO IDEA, NOOOO IDEEEAAA what actually goes on in the observant Jewish community. "Ami" is a serious magazine of the frum world, and this isn't a Purim spoof. No idea. None.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim: A Hidden Message

Before reading on, it would be helpful to have a basic grasp of the Purim story.

I read something very interesting the other day about Vashti. If you remember, she was Queen to King 
Achashverosh, ruler of Persia. After getting drunk during a big feast, the King bragged about her unparalleled beauty and was challenged to prove it, so he called her to appear naked for his guests. She refused, and was killed for it.

Some years ago, I read a post on a progressive Jewish blog which praised Vashti as a feminist who sacrificed her life for her dignity, and extolled her as an example to Jewish women. This reasoning bothered me very much, as it didn't seem consistent with the text. Then again, why would the megillah speak of her at all? It could have just started with, "and 
Achashverosh needed a wife, so he ordered all the beautiful women to appear..." Presumably, we're supposed to learn a lesson from Vashti, since she's in the story, but is feminine honor the lesson? What an odd way to promote feminism, with the death of the heroine.
So, just the other day I happened to come upon a discussion about this very issue. From Gemara, we discover a few things about Vashti that aren't in the megillah. For one, we learn she's the grand-daughter of King Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple and had a special hate for the Jews. In an indirect way, we also find out she inherited this hatred from her grandfather. You see, she knew that Jews can not perform certain types of labor on Shabbat. So it was precisely on Shabbat that she would torment Jewish children (young girls, according to Talmud, Megillah 12) by forcing them to undress - stripping them of their dignity - and perform all sorts of demeaning tasks.
When the King called for her, Vashti replied indignantly, "Is the Queen to be sent for like a common slave, a mere servant girl?" Perhaps Vashti would have acceded the King's request at any other time, but on this day, she had special reason to feel indignant, though feminine dignity was furthest from her mind. For this day, the last day of the feast, the day of her execution, was the very day on which Vashti herself had often delighted in degrading Jewish girls under threat of death - Shabbat.
Purim is a holiday of mystery and concealment. The text of the megillah hides many secrets, including the name of G-d, who is not directly mentioned at all - itself unusual for a Jewish text about faith and deliverance from evil. In the world of Achashverosh, much as in our world today, G-d, Himself, is hidden. The characters plot and scheme, make various plans, thinking themselves masters of their fate. On the surface, the story of Purim would seem to affirm the narrative that only by the labor of Jewish hands was salvation achieved. If Mordechai hadn't... and if Esther wouldn't... and if the Jewish people didn't...
Likewise, in our own time and place, we are consumed with managing our worldly affairs, with controlling the direction of our lives and writing our own destiny. As for G-d? Look here, buddy, religion is all good and well; it's relaxing and traditional, fun for the kids, but let's get real. Where is G-d? Will G-d put food on the table? Will G-d place a roof over our heads? G-d is seemingly nowhere to be found. If we want something done, we need to roll up our sleeves and get it done.

Yet, no matter how hard we work to stay in control, regardless of how diligently we delay the day on which our fates our wrenched from our hands, finally the unexpected happens. When that day comes that we finally lose control, our best laid plans count for nothing. Disaster looms. Look here, buddy, this is the real world, not a fantasy, not a fairy tale where G-d comes to right the wrongs and avert tragedy. This is the harsh, bitter world where men cut their teeth on each other's bones. And G-d is nowhere to be found. Is there no hope? We fear. Is there no justice? We tremble.

Vashti, Queen of Persia, was put to death on Shabbat, the day of her perverse delight at the suffering of others. And her executioner? None other than the lowest of the King's advisers, Memuchan, but soon to be the highest, renamed as Haman. What a plot-twist! A tormentor of Jewish children, slain on the day of their torment, by their would be mass-murderer, himself later hanged on his own gallows. The remarkable irony of it all; the 
unlikely convergence of happy coincidence - each villain earning the justice of their particular demise.

Purim is neither a fantasy nor fairy tale; It relates a world as real and brutal as ours, where G-d, too, is seemingly nowhere to be found. Like ours, it is a world where injustices multiply and disasters loom; where our best efforts are rendered useless and we are made helpless, stripped down to our fear, trembling. 
In such a world, a real world, relates the megillah, a world just like ours, still justice is done, salvation comes and evil is merely an instrument wielded for its own destruction. If even such things are possible, then what sense does it make to fear anything? As we say in the final prayer of each service, three times a day, al tirah... do not fear! The hidden message of Purim, it seems to me, is a guarantee, even in the depths of concealment, the bitterness of exile, the hopeless moments in our lives, that G-d is with us.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Glimpse of Life

I've just recovered some of my older writings from a dying laptop. This seems as good a place as any to preserve them for posterity, and in perpetuity. Memory is so fickle a thing; I actually discover things about myself in these pieces that I've long forgotten, but must remember. I'll time-stagger the publications so as not to dump them all at once. Some of this is actually not too bad, and the rest is atrocious - you've been warned.

A Glimpse of Life

            In life, we have every opportunity to look back on our lives – to question the path we have chosen, to agonize over blunders, to remember all that was and never will be – yet rarely do we approach such an effort with unqualified zeal or methodical erudition. The past is what it should be - past. Coerced, the mind surveys its labyrinth of dreams and memories, laboring to detach reality from fiction. It is the fiction we are left with, a sop of smells and sounds and images dislodged to quiet our despair and inoculate our future. In this lies our survival, for the past bleeds our faith, and the future drains our hope.
            The first sound I remember is the wind rushing past; the first sight – a coat of fur pressing my cheek, my uncle opening a taxi door, the one who held me rushing inside. The wind, you see, I would have caught a cold. I was born in a maternity hospital in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. Improbable, I know, yet I seem convinced that I remember the day I left, or parts of it, that is. Perhaps it was a dream, but better that it be the way I like it - memory. I was a studious, excelling child. I knew my classmates before I knew to wipe; this, too, I soon learned, for cleanliness is a hallmark of civility, and civility trumps truth. My childhood was swept along in a sweet haze, a warm embrace of curious, self-righteous naiveté from which I've yet to recover. Oh, sure, I did the things that all kids do, and did them no worse than did you, or he, or she. Never has there ever been a time so pure, nor heart so sated, as in those first few years of life. A flash remains, a fuzzy memory, when all that's left for one to see is me, today.
            I found myself at the Sheremetevo Airport in Moscow in late fall of ninety one, sleeping, propped up against some suitcases – the remnants of our past lives. Three days hence, I would be celebrating my ninth birthday in freedom, having already banished the childhood from my psyche with a glee I now find short-sighted. Education followed; a decade's worth of standards and the known to all curriculum. Years spent with my head in the water, literally, burning myself up to race the clock against another. How apt a metaphor that is, for those years, how precise, uncanny! Not still perfection, mind you, but the perfect solitude of a kind – of mind and thought. I reveled in thought, dissecting inputs and calculating output; it would take time to internalize this process of reflection and contemplation. My every movement was awkward, contrived, conspicuous; I would learn to harness my body to complement the social environment – social reflexology, one might say.
            I was betrayed to learn how shoddy this world is, how tenuous its foundations, how incompetent its tenants, how disjointed its procedures; I learned so at my first real job. A remnant of my youth, perhaps, yet I did not grasp, before, that only people – living flesh, malleable and prone to emotional instability – held the key to labor and completion of tasks, the functioning of civilization. I had thought that all was run as the ticking of a clock – methodical and precise, input and output. How rudely awakened I was to discover that sticky human nature, wetware they call it, and not ideas (read "ideals") – clear, concise and mechanical in their certitude – would determine the course of events in my life, as in all lives. Unacceptable, unavoidable, and years gone by I still feel pain from this. How it hurt me the first time that logic ran a brick wall of emotion and lost! How I reeled from this defeat – that I could never explain, that they would never understand. What horror that is, to be alone, with ideas that failed, and not have recourse.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Settlements

With the entry of Yair Lapid, a popular Israeli journalist and TV personality, into politics, there's been growing talk of fresh elections in Israel. Naturally, the left/center-left opposition to the present center-right/right governing coalition has been working overtime to stoke the fires of voter dissent, discontent and despair in order to unseat the present Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And while it's too early to tell whether his coalition really will fall, it may be worthwhile to take a look back and examine Netanyahu's performance over these past three years in power.

First, let's consider the Netanyahu's handling of the settlement issue, which has so defined his term, with implications for Israel's domestic politics and international posture.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Promoting Healing Between Jews

A friend is writing an article for a prestigious publication about the recent flare-up over the segregation of women in the public space in a few Haredi neighborhoods in Israel. His main point is that while Judaism has strict guidelines on separation of men and women, these injunctions are internal - meant to guide individual action, not shape policy in the public sphere. His focus on individual action is key, because the Jewish faith places considerable emphasis on freedom of choice. Any government-enforced limitations on women in public which go beyond common sense (e.g. the restroom) or an individual's private choice, he goes on to say, to paraphrase, have no grounding in Jewish law (halacha) and constitute unbearable coercion tilting towards oppression. He asked me for my comments before publishing. It just so happens that I've been thinking about this very issue. My response to him is posted in full, as I feel it may be of some use to myself and others in how we think and write about such topics. Please excuse the more informal context of an email. Discussion is welcome, as always.

When you write such articles, keep in mind that you are an observant Jew, writing for an audience of mostly non-Jews, or non-observant Jews, about what they already perceive to be "ultra-radical-extremist-orthodox" Jews. Make sure you understand the intent of your written work, and how it will be perceived by the audience. I am confident you are not writing this with an antagonistic frame of mind. You're trying to explain to your audience that gender segregation in the secular, public space is not supported in Jewish law. What you're also doing, though, however unintentially, is feeding ammunition into your audience's existing animosity towards those they already fear and consider alien.

Think of it like this: Certainly the haredim in Israel who subscribe to gender segregation on the sidewalks and buses believe they are acting in accordance with Jewish law. Maybe they're wrong, but they believe themselves to be acting consistent with Jewish law. They won't read your article, and no one is actually engaging and challenging them on why they believe that public gender segregation is Torah-authentic.

Now you come along, and tell the secular Jews and non-Jews that actually the haredim are NOT acting consistent with Jewish law. By the way, it's a classic anti-semitic trope that Jews are not acting consisted with Jewish law (they're not being "good Jews", they way "G-d wants them to be"), and therefore deserve punishment. The issue is very similar: in the mind of the seculars, you're creating a license to punish the haredim, because "they're not even observing their own laws properly!"

We now have two communities who are sure that the other is breaking Jewish law, who already fear each other, and are inclined to physically force that change on the other, while resisting it themselves. Do you see what I'm saying? You didn't intend this, but you're actually contributing to the conflict and division.

None of what you said is wrong, so far as my limited knowledge goes. But as a chassid of the Rebbe, more is expected of you. You have to find a way to heal division between Jews, not to strengthen it. It's fine to highlight that the haredim are not acting within the normative frame of Jewish law. But you can't just stop here, leaving it to the imagination of scared, fearful seculars how to "solve this problem", because their solution will be to oppress and punish the haredim, to dehumanize and ridicule them.

It's not a simple issue. You have to think about it. How can you promote connection and healing between Jews?

If you were to ask my opinion, I would say that there are meta-halachic issues involved here. Removing women from the public square is not consistent with observant Judaism as I have experienced it through Chabad, or for that matter the other orthodox and chassidic streams in America. We have to ask, why is there no gender segregation in Brooklyn, but there is in Bet Shemesh (or wherever)?

If it's not a matter of law and custom, then it must be a sociological issue. Why are some of the haredim acting like this? Why are they creating these new restrictions? What are they trying to protect themselves and their communities from?

When you consider the fear and anxiety that must exist to have moved the haredim to impose this change in the public sphere... in other words, their segregation of women is an attempt to exert control where they feel they have lost control. For them, the world is spinning out of control, and they're trying to stop it, to force it to stand still. So then "enlightened" Jews like you and me pair up with the seculars and start attacking them for it. They're not going to intellectually engage with us. They're frightened people desperately holding on with clenched fists. For them, the survival of Judaism is at stake because the barbarians (that's us) are at the gate.

Just think about this for a bit. How do you educate secular Jews about these issues without feeding them ammunition for a culture war? How do you contribute to easing the fears of the haredim, to helping them unclench their fists and showing them they can lead full Jewish lives without trying to impose control over their environment. Because this segregation of women in public is not the end. For people who feel they've lost control... segregated sidewalks are just the beginning. It doesn't solve anything; it don't really give them back control. So they are already thinking of the next restriction, the next way to exert control over their lives, which are spinning out of control faster and faster.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Necessary Exclusivity of Male Jewish Ritual

This post is third in a series on Jewish Men, Women, Ritual and Spirituality. You can read a summary of earlier articles in this series, and visit them directly, by following the previous link. This is strongly encouraged.

There is an entire flip-side to the issue of Jewish women increasingly taking up traditionally male Jewish ritual which never gets addressed. It relates to the frail egos of men. Women don’t really get this, but we men feel inferior to women. It’s true. Actually, we don't just feel it, we are inferior to women! Some, included among them my loyal readers, may take issue with this statement. However, the Torah, Talmud and commentaries are quite clear about the respective spiritual position of men and women. I'll briefly paraphrase a few points to give you an idea - it is not an exhaustive list by any means, and each point could be expounded upon at length:

  1. In the order of creation, women were created after men. G-d created the world from lowest to highest importance: space, time, inanimate matter, plants, fish, birds, beasts, man, woman, shabbat. As woman comes later in creation, she is considered closer to G-d's mind, to perfection, because everything created earlier is primarily a foundation for what came later. 
  2. When men were created, G-d said "it is not good that you are alone..." When women are created, G-d looks at creation and says, "it is very good".
  3. Women were actually created by a different process from men. Men were formed. Women were built - the Hebrew word for build has the same consonants as the word binah, which means understanding. From this we learn that women have greater spiritual intuition/understanding/intelligence than men.
  4. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are considered greater prophets than their husbands - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  5. The Jewish people survived Egypt only on account of the women, for several reasons. Go read your Chumash with Rashi for more.
  6. Women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai.
  7. The men were afraid to conquer the Land of Israel but the women encouraged them, and so on.
  8. And I almost forgot, women are able to give birth to life. In this they resemble G-d more than men do.

I'm only summarizing here, as there is a lot of material on this subject. Of course, men and women are complimentary - they're designed to work together, and men have important duties to perform also. But from the standpoint of spirituality, in Jewish tradition, women are considered elevated to men.This is primarily why they are not obligated in time-bound commandments. Men need to be kept busy. They have set times for prayer and follow very specific rules. They are goal oriented. They need to complete a series of tasks to feel good. If you leave them alone they might start looking at the cows and the clouds and rape camels or something. Women can be trusted to pray whenever they want, for however long they want. They don't need to be constantly monitored with a series of tasks like men. This is why they are not obligated in the time-bound commandments.

Now, Victor, you may say, what you've said is all good and well, but let's get real here. All this is a sweet veneer for a patriarchal faith that oppresses women under cover of exalting them. In truth, one could say, there is no practical expression, no proof to the claim that Jewish women are spiritually superior to men. Aha! You've got me... almost. The proof exists, but to find it and understand it requires a certain level of self-introspection and maturity.

The real proof that men really do feel inferior to women is that we like to do things that are "for men only".  Men love the ego-healing camaraderie of brotherhood, because it's the one place we feel we aren't judged relative to women! By creating our “in” club, from which women are excluded, we create a preferential hierarchy – we elevate ourselves over others, artificially. In truth, we’re merely compensating for our inherent (i.e. built in, and out of our control) sense of inferiority as compared to women. Boys-only clubs are our way of psychologically leveling the playing field. If we men can’t give birth to human life, to give an analogy, then you women can’t play golf on our course.

In an absolute sense, it doesn't seem healthy, and that's precisely right. It’s a reality of imbalance at the core of our being that we men feel a need to redress; enter the boys-only club. When denied it, we will create it in whatever way we can. G-d, as the One responsible for creating us, understands us perfectly. He gave men the mitzvah of tefillin (among others) to heal our bruised egos, to allow us to compensate for our deficiency in a healthy way. If He hadn’t done that, we might have invented our own compensatory mechanisms for our inferiority complex – say, beating women as a matter of course, G-d forbid. (Certainly, that would explain the evolution of other cultures.) And we, well, we like that kind of special attention from G-d. It helps us forget that, you know, (*gulp) women are better.

I’m joking around a little, but this is a serious issue. The consequences of taking away the “boys-club” from Jewish men in divine service are consistently bad, and increasingly studied, if not entirely understood.

So, while the cover of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Winter 2011-2012, features a beautiful photograph of two women, their arms wrapped in tefillin, holding hands, the very first editorial, on page 8, by Rabbi Charles Simon, starts off like this, "There have been numerous articles and discussions about the growing disappearance of Jewish men from today's synogogue life." He then offers nothing, nothing even remotely approaching a dress-down of the problem, much less its rectification. The connection, obvious to me, between the front cover and the first editorial, goes entirely unremarked.

Nor is the problem limited to Conservative Jewry, according to the Hadassah-Braindeis Institute:
A new study published by The Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute finds that as the liberal Jewish community empowers its women, its men appear to be losing interest in their Jewishness. 
According to a report in JTA, which published parts of the study, "outside the Orthodox world, men are becoming less and less engaged in every aspect of Jewish life, from the home to the synagogue to communal organizations. Numerous studies show that fewer boys than girls go to non-Orthodox youth groups, religious schools or summer camps, fewer go into the rabbinate and cantorate, and fewer serve on synagogue or federation committees.
In the words of Sylvia Barack Fishman, later on in the study:
Today American Jewish boys and men have fewer connections to Jews and Judaism than girls and women in almost every venue and in every age, from school age children through the adult years. The descent of male interest is evident not only in domestic Judaism, as expected, but also in public Judaism, religious leadership, and secular ethnic attachments.
That terrible sound you hear is fifty years of feminist theory, which did so much to break the filthy iron cage used to enslave women for millenia, now rudderless, running roughshod over the spiritual health of Jewish men. Because once the boys-club of divine service is broken, once the spiritual tools G-d created for men to preserve their self-worth and dignity were misappropriated, there is no longer a reason for men to stay.

This requires some sensitivity and maturity on your part to understand what I’m trying to express: I’m not arguing for keeping women from Jewish ritual to which they are entitled, just so that men can feel better about themselves. But if a ritual, such as tefillin, was designed specifically for the spiritual health of men, and part of its usefulness is that men are obligated in it (made feel special), and women are not obligated in it, we should consider what could happen to the spiritual health of Jewish men, what is happening, when Jewish women insist they are also obligated in it.

Or, to really break this down, do Jewish women care enough about Jewish men to give them a spiritual space they can call their own?

Jewish Men, Women, Ritual and Spirituality

I am ready to present the third installment in a series examining a growing trend among women within some streams of Judaism to take on traditionally male Jewish ritual practices. However, before doing so, I thought it would be helpful to take a look back and summarize, to the extent possible, what was written in the first two posts. This is only a summary intended to refresh minds; I encourage you to read the earlier posts in full to get at my intent and message in its entirety.

Feminine Spirituality and the Role of Ritual first broached the discussion, describing "the male-driven glorification, exotification and, indeed, fetishization of Jewish ritual, to the point where, somewhat absurdly, Jewish women feel unjustly deprived of it." "Clearly," I wrote, attempts by men to strong-arm women out of male Jewish ritual are part of a "brilliant strategy to ensure that Jewish women will demand participation in Jewish ritual." I then implied that long before Jewish men begin instructing women how they should "be", we need to devote serious effort to educating men how to speak to women.

We returned to the subject in the much delayed Jewish Ritual, Feminine Spirituality and Tefillin, where the focus shifted from the general to the practical - the mitzvah of tefillin, and the growing propensity of some women to incorporate it in their spiritual service. I opened with a halachic framework which, while seeming to discourage women from wrapping tefillin, certainly does not forbid it. Seeing as how, from the standpoint of Jewish law, there's seemingly little harm in women wearing tefillin, this should act to deescalate the discussion and help inoculate us from the counterproductive rhetoric of certain, self-appointed zealots.

We then moved on to thinking of tefillin as a spiritual tool of divine service; a tool created (by the Creator) with an end-user in mind - this being a Jewish man. However, as we've learned (see above), trying to prevent the misappropriation of this tool by forbidding women to use it is the the one certain way to ensure they do so. What, then, is a Jewish man to do? "Whenever a Jewish woman wants to wear tefillin," I wrote, "the first thing an observant Jewish man should do is immediately give her a pair of tefillin, without a second’s delay, and show her how to use them. The more determined she is, the more quickly he should submit, because this isn't about denying women a precious instrument of divine service."

First fetishizing male Jewish ritual, and then excluding women from it, is how we've arrived at this sorry state of affairs. This is nothing less than a failure of male and female spiritual education, and men are most to blame. It is only natural that women would seek to emulate the only model for connecting with the sacred they are exposed to, and all the more so when this model is glorified above all else by their fathers, brothers and communal leaders. What is needed is an education for both men and women as to their important but different spiritual roles in divine service. Women must be empowered to understand their vast potential, even as men take a more honest appraisal of their own, more limited but still important, even vital role.

I am certainly not qualified to instruct Jewish women. What I can do is share the perspective of a Jewish man, with whatever honesty and self-introspection I can muster, and ask for understanding from Jewish women. In that capacity, I present the next, third installment in this series - The Necessary Exclusivity of Male Jewish Ritual.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jewish Ritual, Feminine Spirituality and Tefillin

Jewish women from a variety of streams within Judaism are showing ever greater interest in what have traditionally been considered male Jewish rituals. Their interest is often met with Jewish male disapproval, at times vehement, and rarely thoughtfully presented. It's fair to say that something of a generation-driven feminist-inspired push-back against what are perceived to be patriarchally-determined, arbitrary religious roles is involved. However, while on the surface this issue may resemble the righteous and long struggle for female equality in such areas as suffrage and the workplace, when it comes to Jewish religious practice, a more nuanced understanding is required.

I first addressed this subject around year ago, in Feminine Spirituality and the role of Ritual. There, I notably compared male Jewish ritual to a carpool for dialysis patients and, perhaps more substantively, considered the male-driven glorification, exotification and, indeed, fetishization of Jewish ritual, to the point where, somewhat absurdly, Jewish women feel unjustly deprived of it.

In this, my first blog post from a three month plus hiatus, I'd like to delve once more into this subject. This time around, we'll consider a particular ritual - the wrapping of tefillin. This discussion will be fairly useless if you either don't know what tefillin are, or don't care. So, either learn the basics, or have a nice day. Those with little to no understanding of Jewish faith or customs may find the following material challenging. However, by sticking with me, and using Wikipedia liberally, you may yet think today - always an exciting prospect ;) Plunging right in, then.

To begin, where is it forbidden for women to wear tefillin? There are conflicting rulings by the Rema (who discouraged it) and Gra (who forbade it) but the halacha merely says that women are exempt (Mishnah Berachot 3:3, Orach Chaim 38:3). On the other hand, it’s a time-bound mitzvah tailored (by the Creator) to bolster male connectivity with the divine. So, from a spiritual perspective, it’s something of a misappropriation from the designated intent of the act. It’s like a man wearing women’s underwear; I mean, he could (not really, under halacha, which forbids cross-dressing, but follow the analogy), but they weren’t designed with him in mind.

However, whereas some misappropriations of the tools G-d gave us are actually harmful, in a spiritual sense (like having sex out of wedlock), what’s really the downside to a woman wearing tefillin? The issue seems quite trivial and (the very few) Jewish men who blow this issue out of proportion have a high hill to climb to appear neither silly nor brutish. In my admittedly unscholarly opinion, the worst that can happen is that, by wearing tefillin, a woman is depriving herself of a far greater potential for spiritual action and fulfillment, desensitizing herself to the level of a man. That’s my best dramatic spin on the deal. Oh well, how tragic for her, but my life goes on and everyone else’s should too.

In this discussion, I am disregarding ritual tefillin-wearing from scholarly tefillin-wearing, if it can be called that. In other words, a fully-observant and knowledgeable Jewish woman learning about tefillin and wearing them for a time in that context is different from a Jewish woman assuming the mitzvah of tefillin as hers to perform. There might be no downside to her doing so, but in the same way, what exactly is the upside, from a spiritual perspective? More importantly, what is her spiritual opportunity cost to wearing tefillin?

There are some few exceptions. People bring up Rashi’s daughters wrapping tefillin (although there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence for it). There have been other examples throughout history, both ancient and recent, for which there is evidence. At the same time, none of the women who we know, in fact, wore tefillin, were running around promoting female tefillin use; it was a private matter. Tefillin at their essence are a spiritual tool designed for men. If a gaon, tzadik or rebbe (in the traditional sense, not a graduate of Chicago University’s Jewish Studies program – no disrespect implied) ever privately advised a woman in a specific circumstance to use that tool, to affect a particular effect in her spiritual life, without broadcasting this to the world, it wouldn’t shock me. If a G-d fearing, learned woman (Jewish Studies majors are, again, excluded, from the “learned” adjective, not necessarily the “G-d fearing” – no disrespect implied) chooses to use this tool for some unusual reason, fully understanding the implications, who is anyone else to argue? But in the main this is a tool designed and deployed for the spiritual service of men.

Nevertheless, I recognize that there exist women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. Some would call this outcome a lack of proper education, understanding or the result of a spiritual identity built on non-normative premises and foundations. Personally, and I mean personally, I think it reeks of the worst sort of misogyny that men, who are spiritually lower, have so inculcated in women a reverence for men, that women think doing as men do is the path to their spiritual aliyah. See my previous article on the subject for more development of that vein.

Going back to the notion of tefillin as a tool, consider the purpose of that tool, and equate it with something more tangible… say, crutches. G-d gave men spiritual crutches because they couldn’t walk on their own. Women are perfectly healthy; they don’t need crutches. However, because women see that G-d paid more attention to the men in this regard (the way a doctor pays more attention to the sick than the healthy), they equate crutches with greater connection to the divine. So, you’ve got perfectly healthy women demanding to walk around in crutches. Who knows, maybe someone who thinks their legs are broken really might need crutches as much as someone whose legs actually are broken. It’s a curious thing to watch, and some may call it insanity, that healthy people should walk around in crutches. As I said, my life goes on.

I accept that there are women who feel a strong need to wear tefillin. What’s more, and more importantly, I accept that many of these women feel their need to wear tefillin has real justification. This means that anything I or anyone else tells them to dissuade them from wearing tefillin will feed into a self-reinforcing narrative of resistance, and will probably have the opposite effect – i.e. “denying” them tefillin only increases the perceived holiness and necessity of tefillin, etc. Perhaps in the time of the Rema (who urged that women be discouraged from wearing tefillin), Rabbinical authority commanded sufficient weight as to be respected without question. Today, putting up walls in the path of determined people is taken as a challenge to be surmounted at all costs and is consequently more likely to start a brush-fire than put one out.

In summation, here is my suggestion for responsible action on the part of Jewish men faced with this issue. Whenever a Jewish woman wants to wear tefillin, the first thing an observant Jewish man should do is immediately give her a pair of tefillin, without a second’s delay, and show her how to use them. The more determined she is, the more quickly he should submit, because this isn't about denying women a precious instrument of divine service. And after she's done the deed, he should do what he can to engage her in that very necessary conversation about crutches, and how a supremely healthy and powerful spiritual being like her really doesn’t need them. (But whenever she feels she does, she can borrow his.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hidden Camera: Anti-Arab/Muslim Racism in Israel

We've all heard how terribly racist Israeli Jews are towards Arabs. The following, explosive video, unmasks the true face of Zionist Apartheid. Forward to all your Mondoweiss-reading friends with the tagling: "Israeli Racism: The truth is worse than you ever imagined." That way they're sure to watch the whole video, waiting for the truth as they know it to reveal itself.

On My Bookshelf