Friday, January 6, 2012

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.

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