Saturday, October 14, 2006

Out of the Loop

There were quite a few interesting things in this week's Makor Rishon (the only conservative newspaper in Israel), but I wanted to comment on one particularly.

Michal Vosner writes a regular column called "A Woman's Eye" and this week she wrote about her feelings about Simchat Torah (the Jewish holiday marking the end and beginning of the cycle of Torah readings every week). She wrote that she feels somewhat "out of the loop" as a woman watching from the sidelines as the men dance joyously on the other side of the mechitza (the physical separation between the men's and women's side of an Orthodox synagogue). She said that there are women who dance, but not as much or as intensely as the men, and she came to some conclusions as to why this is so.

Vosner claims that the reason that she feels out of the loop is because she has never been called up to the Torah herself, or held the Torah in the front of the synagogue as part of the Sabbath services, which is only done by men in Orthodox synagogues. She reported that when she once took part in a woman's service and she heard women called up to the Torah, it was so moving that it made her cry.

I wouldn't presume to argue with someone else's feelings, which everyone has a right to have. But I read the article with a huge inward sigh, and felt the need to comment on it, because I fear that it props up the old and worn stereotype that Orthodox Jewish women are somehow marginalized in their own religion.

Vosner accurately depicts what happens in a lot of synagogues - many women dance a bit (although the teenage girls in my yishuv dance as much as the men do) and watch the men and children from the sides. There is something to the fact that the joy is somewhat more intense on the men's side - but it is not because of the reasons that she enumerates. I thought about what she said about physically holding the Torah, and being called up for an aliyah (yes, the same word we use to describe moving "up" to Israel is used for going "up" to read the Torah in the synagogue). It is customary for a person who is called up to make a donation to the synagogue afterwards. Since this non-feminist, like my mother and grandmother before me, is the one who is in charge of the finances in the house - I know exactly how many times a year my husband is called up (because I make sure they get our check). In our settlement of a bit less than two hundred families, it comes out to maybe three or four times a year. My husband may take out the Torah from the ark perhaps once a year. This "physical closeness" to the Torah scroll of maybe once every three months is not what gives my husband the edge in his joy on this holiday.

What makes the difference in his feelings about the holiday is the actual learning of the Torah that he does. The closest thing that I can compare it to is the difference in joy when you dance at your sibling's wedding, and when you dance at the wedding of your co-worker's child - the feelings are stronger in the first case than in the second because your relationship is much closer. The feelings that men have about the Torah itself are stronger than some women's feelings, because they have a closer relationship to it intellectually - they learn it on a daily basis (ideally). Some learn full time, some get up while it is dark and learn for an hour before praying the morning service and dashing off to work, and some make time at the end of a busy day. All of this doesn't mean that a woman is kept back, though. The real kicker is, is that in this day and age, a woman has the choice to do exactly the same thing.

It is true that before the time of the Beis Yaakov movement, a woman's access to Torah learning was limited. But for almost a hundred years a woman's ability to learn the Tanach (Bible) in an organized setting is a given. In the last twenty years or so, a woman's ability to learn the other Jewish texts usually studied excluslively by men - namely the Talmud - has also expanded considerably. In America many high schools teach women Talmud, and in Israel there are places (MaTan is one example) where women learn Talmud full time.

So it is true that Orthodox Jewish women do not partake in some of the public rituals in the synagogue. But you know what? Some men are excluded from some public rituals too. Men whose fathers are Kohanim (Jewish "priests", who at one time performed the ritual sacrifices in the Temple) can go up to the front of the synagogue and bless the congregation. Men whose fathers are not Kohanim cannot do this. I am sure that there are a lot of men who think that it would be cool to put a tallit (prayer robe) over their heads and do a Spock number with their fingers - but if they weren't born into the right family they don't have the privilege. This doesn't ruin their feelings about praying, because they know that this specific ritual is not the main event.

Orthodox women are not marginalized in Judaism. We partake, if we choose to, in the intellectual sphere of Torah learning. If we are serious about our religion then we also work on our personal character traits, and we pray seriously and develop our relationship to G-d. The few public ritual practices that we are excluded from are just minor "walk ons". The juicy roles are ours to perform - if we so desire.


Blogger Ways of Zion said...

Thank you for your insight. I found it helpful to read. I started reading you blog when we found out we were travelling to Israel. I was wondering if you (as a mother) could tell me some places that would be great for us to take our children to. The oldest is three and we also have a babe (1 1/2). Ofcourse we want to do EVERYTHING but only have three weeks and are concious that with the children that simply cannot be done.

Thank you!

3:02 AM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger aliyah06 said...

Hmmm...I grew up with a lot of extremely negative stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism's treatment of women--all of which I was very happy to find out were just that - stereotypes. I'm sure customs differ from place to place, but the only two Orthodox synagogues I've ever belonged to had women who danced with the Torah with as much ruach as the men....and yes, the teens danced the most enthusiastically but that's because they have all that adolescent energy....

One syngague was in California and the other is a small shul up the street from us in Jerusalem...and we danced and stomped with the same energy as the guys on the other side of the mehitzah!

10:33 AM, October 15, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

Mother of Israel - welcome to my blog. If you are willing to strap your kids into baby carriers that you wear on your back you can go anywhere! People in Israel are very patient with little kids - a lot more so than in America. The only place that you may not want to take them is to Yad Vashem - not appropriate for little ones and the noise that they may make. Many of the museums here have special children's wings with hands-on activities. If you have any specific questions I would be happy to answer you.

aliyah06 - I'm glad you found a great synagogue - sometimes it takes time to find one that is a "good fit".

10:13 AM, October 16, 2006  
Blogger Don Radlauer said...


Vaguely Sinister Wife and I were part of the security team at Saturday night's Simchat Torah "do" in Alfei Menashe - which included one or two busfuls of people from Shiloh as well as locals. V.S.W. and I were posted at the top of the amphitheater, which gave us an excellent view of both the men's and women's sections.

Having seen the whole thing from this exalted viewpoint, I can confidently attest that not only was there plenty of dancing on the women's side of the mechitza, but the women (actually, most of them seemed to be teenagers) danced more enthusiastically and much better than the men did. 'Course, they didn't have to worry about (A) carrying, or (B) dropping Torah scrolls; but I think it was more than that: they were simply better dancers.

Sadly, as we were in uniform, V.S.W. and I didn't get to dance.

1:01 PM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Please ignore this comment; I'm testing out CoComment to see if I can get it to track this comment thread even though it's a type that CoComment normally has trouble with.


4:06 PM, October 17, 2006  
Blogger westbankmama said...

Don - the teenage girls with their energy are part of the reason why the "older" women don't dance so much! You can't even dream of keeping up for more than a few minutes at a time!

8:54 AM, October 18, 2006  
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