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There is a story told about Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the founder of Chabad known as the Ba’al HaTanya.) One day, as he sat learning in his room, he heard the cries of an infant from a few rooms away. The Ba’al HaTanya interrupted his learning, got up and walked past his grandson in the next room, Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (known as the Tzemach Tzedek), who was so intent on his own learning that he didn’t respond to the baby’s screams. The Ba’al HaTanya went and picked up and rocked the infant back to sleep. After the baby was quiet, the Ba’al HaTanya reprimanded his grandson, saying that one who allowed learning to take precedence over the scream of an infant had missed the point of everything that he was learning.
What then, are we to learn from the centuries of pain that Jewish men have ignored – the pain of their wives and daughters, who have been excluded from Jewish ritual and, until very recently, Jewish learning? What do we infer about the spiritual and emotional distress of the Jewish woman, who appears in Jewish religious text as “the other”, the problem to be solved, and the exception to be ruled upon, rather than as a person in her own right?
Throughout the centuries of male-centric Jewish stories and rulings in which Jewish women make appearances as objects of discussion rather than as people, the pain of women’s exclusion comes through. It comes through in the discussions of what rituals Jewish women may participate in. It comes through in the discussion of the chained woman, the agunah. It comes through in the discussion of whether women may put on tefillin, and whether they are included in the obligation to hear the shofar or sit in the sukkah.
The rabbis of this generation would have you believe that Jewish women’s yearning to be full participants in Judaism is a new phenomenon, one that appears only in the modern era in response to the contamination of outside secular influences such as feminism. But if that were true, why are there so many questions throughout our rich halachic literature about what women are allowed to do? Why do women make such frequent appearances in Jewish text and discussion?
We have copies of tefillot that Jewish women wrote themselves and tried to preserve and pass down in the face of their exclusion from Jewish ritual worship, as the result of their desperate need to have some formal religious connection with their Creator. Yet that ancient and ongoing pain, that cry, that response to exclusion and rejection and distance, goes unheard, and even if heard, deemed unworthy of response. For centuries, that baby has been allowed to cry in the cradle unattended, as the men go about “their business.”
The truth is that we, Jewish women, let it be so. We allowed our pain to stand unresolved for centuries. Until finally we demanded that our daughters receive Jewish education and knowledge just as our sons do, that our daughters be allowed access to Jewish text and learning just as our sons are.
Now the rabbis who resisted that sea change have been proved correct, and their deepest fears have come true: Now, Jewish women are coming to demand something else.
Rabbis, gentlemen, rabbotai, my brothers and my friends, we Jewish women are coming to tell you: We. Withdraw. Our. Consent. We do not consent to being excluded from Jewish ritual and practice. We demand to be considered as full Jews, as full members of your congregations, your yeshivot. We demand full access to the texts and learning of our own religion, of our own heritage, of our portion handed directly to us by Hashem. With no go-betweens, with no barriers. With no men allowed to tell us what we may and may not do in our relationship with HKB”H. We, who stood next to you at Sinai, we who said with you naaseh v’nishmah, we stand today and say that heritage, that portion, is just as much ours as it is yours. You may no longer keep us from it with the excuse that God wants it that way, or that it is in our own best interest, or even that it is in your best interest. You do not own the Torah. If God had wanted women to access the Torah only through men as gatekeepers, He would have established that in the Torah. Yet, words in which God requires Jewish women to acquiesce as a gender to any rule other than His – are conspicuously absent.
We are shamed when you publicly thank God for not making you like us. We are shamed when our talmidot chachamot may not receive aliyot, are barred from giving divrei torah, and are barred from teaching and and learning with you. We experience pain. We are no longer willing for our cries to be ignored. We no longer agree to be left in the other room while our fathers, our brothers, our husbands and friends go about their business in the face of our pain.
For centuries, we have stood by you and lived as your fellow Jews. We have brought you into the world. We have cooked and cleaned and shopped and supported you. We have raised you and loved you and cared for you. We have lived with you, and we have died with you. We too have been beaten, starved, and killed, alongside you. We have shared in the dignity, the love, the joy, and the pain of being Jewish through the centuries. And we have waited patiently down through the centuries for you to notice that we, too, are people. With brains. With intellectual capacity. With religious feeling and needs and philosophy in our own right. Our patience, and your ability to squander the invaluable resource of our full partnership with you, are at an end.
Many of our sisters and woman friends have no desire to increase their participation. They are happy in their ancient role of support, of caregiver. They worship Hashem through making beautiful challot, their happy and clean children, and their role in taking care of you and participating in a community vicariously through you. We fully support their right to do so – that is their right as human beings. Just as it is the right of many men who also want nothing to do with formal Jewish ritual. Just like our brothers, fathers, and friends who stand outside shul happily talking while others daven. Just like the many worthy men who don’t learn, and don’t daven with a minyan on a regular basis, but support Jewish institutions with the money they earn, send their children for Jewish education, and live a completely observant Jewish lifestyle. There are many men for whom the trappings and obligations of regular shul worship, of full ritual participation, do not speak to them. Even if these men don’t regularly put on tefillin, don’t learn, and don’t usually daven, we don’t strip them of their right to do so or suggest they are anything less than full Jews.
So too we support those women who are happier outside of shul, who want nothing more than what they have. We are proud of them, and they are part of us. Their lack of wanting to fully participate in formal learning or synagogue ritual does not take away our right to do so, does not give men the right to say that if some women prefer to stay home, then none of us can be full Jews.
We reject your right to question the motivation of Jewish women as a basis for deciding if you will allow us to participate fully in our own religion, in the way that we choose. Your obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt is not related to the gender of the person in question.
It’s not up to you to grant or deny us access to our own tefillot, our own traditions, based on your interpretation of whether we are worthy. We are worthy, or not, as you are.
We live this religion with you. We want to preserve it, maintain it, hand it down to our children healthy, intact, thriving, and whole. We too are scared about the challenges thrown down before us by the modern world, which pulls so many of our children away from our traditions. We want to face those challenges with you, alongside you, struggling with the same texts, and worrying about the same issues.
We are not the same as you. We do not demand that we be treated the same as men. Judaism has an ancient tradition of gender distinction that it is dangerous and foolhardy to simply discard. We have a right to be part of the process of working out how to best honor our traditions while allowing women full access to Jewish learning and ritual. We are not objects for you to make those decisions without us. We have brains, neshamot, and care just as deeply for our religious tradition and heritage as you do. It is ours just as much as it is yours. We are not the exception. We are not the other. We are you. And we have a stake and a voice that we no longer give you permission to ignore.
There is yet another famous crying baby story. Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, was once on his way to shul Erev Yom Kippur, when he walked past a house with a screaming baby in it. He assumed (correctly) that the baby’s mother must have gone to shul for Kol Nidrei, and he went into the house to tend to the baby. His community was not willing to start Kol Nidrei without their rav, so they waited, patient but concerned, for his appearance. Finally the mother of the baby grew concerned about the amount of time she had left her hopefully sleeping infant, and went home to check on the baby – only to find Rabbi Salanter taking care of him. We are again told this story to marvel at the kindness and greatness of the rabbi. But what about the pain of the mother, who wanted so desperately to go to shul for Kol Nidre that she left her sleeping infant at home?
We are not objects in your story. We do not exist for you to be able to tell stories to each other about how wonderful and compassionate you are. We are real people. We too want to go to shul on Yom Kippur. Our pain is just as real as that of the infants you are so wonderful for not ignoring. It is just as worthy of response. You may not continue to worship and learn as if our pain is not there, as if our cries are unworthy of response.
Jewish women are allowed to count toward a minyan under one circumstance, and one circumstance only, in their lifecycle – in the case of martyrdom, when a Jewish woman has to publicly give her life rather than renounce her faith, she counts as a full Jew. Rabbis, brothers, husbands, and friends, we thank you for the privilege and honor of dying as a full Jew, of dying to honor the words of our holy Torah. But we would rather live by them.