Sunday, March 05, 2017

Letter to My Daughter - Thoughts on Jewish Feminism

Dearest Zehara,

When you were born we made a huge catered party because we wanted to be sure that it was clear that our celebration of the birth of a girl was no less joyous and exciting than the celebration we held for the birth of your brother just a few years previously. We were honestly thrilled to be blessed with you, even though, judging by your fussiness, you weren’t as thrilled to be joining us.

Zehara, we never intended to educate you any differently than we educated your brothers. Our hope was that you would grow up exactly as you are today - a young woman who is naturally a feminist, confident but not self conscious or pretentious in her feminism. You are proud of being a Jewish woman, you were in awe of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, you love studying Torah and keeping the mitzvot, but you don’t feel the need to “protest” against the voices in the Orthodox community who think that your religious life is less important than that of a boy.

When you became a Bat Mitzvah, you insisted that accommodations be made so that you would be able to eat breakfast after davening, not before. Your insistence was a gentle one but you did not compromise your principles one iota. The school was wrong for offering breakfast after davening only in the seventh grade, when the boys become Bar Mitzvah, and not in sixth grade, when the girls become Benot Mitzvah.

The administration of the school made a weak attempt to talk you out of your position, mentioning that some rabbis hold that women are allowed to eat before Shaharit, or that, according to some, women don’t really have to pray Shemoneh Esreh at all. But you correctly responded that this made no sense, because men and women have exactly the same prayer obligations. You were having none of it, and you won. That is my ZZ.

When the idea of you reading the Megillah was suggested, you did not worry about the social or political implications of having a woman perform this mitzvah publicly. You didn’t think of it as controversial - of course a girl can read the Megillah according to halakha, she is equally included in the mitzvah, so what need was there for any further discussion? Neither did you try to show off or ruffle the feathers of those who may be uncomfortable with it. You just accepted the challenge and started studying.

Your identity as a Jew and your identity as a woman are not in conflict with one another. They are beautifully integrated within you, like the many strands of a havdala candle combine together to produce a single, sacred flame that cuts the darkness effortlessly. You have always had the ability to continue forward with confidence, trusting Hashem implicitly, and He has always been there for you, illuminating the path ahead.

In our society, we often hear talk of the “glass ceiling”. The glass ceiling refers to the idea that there is an invisible barrier that prevents women from rising too high or achieving too much in their chosen fields. We can’t see this barrier because it is not a physical ceiling. It is a cultural barrier, a concept, a limit on how much our society believes it is “OK” for a woman to succeed before the men feel threatened. When a woman reaches great heights, our society, without even thinking, naturally places obstacles in her path and attempts to stop her from advancing any further.

Zehara, if ever a glass ceiling was above your head, you’ve shattered it and you haven’t even noticed. You’ve followed your dreams with positivity and determination and have never ceased soaring heavenward. Nothing has stopped you yet, and I don’t believe anything will in the future, because Hashem is with you. And the reason he is with you is because, in your heart and mind, you’ve always been with Him.

We will never forget the time you submitted artwork for the Montgomery County Water Authority contest. The prize was one hundred dollars and the honor of having your drawing featured on one of the pages of that year’s calendar. Thousands of students from dozens of schools participated in the contest, but this did not matter to you - you were already planning what you would do with the money.

I did not want to discourage you or detract from your boundless optimism, but I felt obligated to remind you that there were thousands of participants, and that you might not actually win. You ignored this inconvenient detail and proceeded on the assumption that you would win. And, as we all know, you turned out to be right. Win you did. Again.

Then there was the time that I was earnestly seeking an alternative to the rabbinate. I wanted to stop working as a shul rabbi and seek some other form of employment, some other career. You were not happy about this; for some unknown reason, you wanted me to remain a shul rabbi. You insisted on it. Well, once again, your prayer was answered, and I wound up the rabbi not of one, but of two shuls at the same time! Thanks a lot, ZZ.

Zehara, now that you are a woman, I would like to share with you just a small part of the story of how I became a so-called Jewish feminist. After all, in most ways, I am very traditional, religiously and otherwise. I’m even a bit old fashioned. How did I wind up a vocal advocate for women’s learning, committed to equal educational opportunities for boys and girls?

The truth is that I did not always think this way. There was a time that I accepted the more traditional view about women, a view that suggests that their Torah learning should be more limited than the boys’ and is not as important. I imagine that if you had grown up with a father that believed those things, if you had been raised in a household with the previous version of me, you would have had a very different experience!

Obviously, today, I am very, very far from that traditional view. In fact, I reject that view. I’m not going to provide you with a detailed map of the path I have traveled or a catalogue of the choices I have made and the consequences I have endured as a result. And I’m not going to use this as an opportunity to offer you a full, comprehensive picture of all that I feel and think about how the role of women in Judaism should be understood. But I would like to tell you about how and why I began the process of changing my perspective and moving away from the old fashioned one. 

Zehara, in life, we can’t always pinpoint the very moment that the direction of our thinking about a subject began to shift. But I will never forget the day that my mind was opened and my perspective on feminism changed forever. A professor of mine in graduate school was teaching us about the history of education of deaf and mute children.

Did you know that for most of history, it was assumed that people who could not hear or speak were also unable to think or learn? Did you know that children who were deaf and mute were considered mentally retarded and were not given any education at all? Nowadays, we know that even though these children have special challenges, they can still be just as brilliant, thoughtful, and curious as anyone else. They can learn just as well as anyone else. We just have to use different methods of teaching them, methods that don’t involve the listening and talking we usually depend on.

This may not seem earth shattering to you, but to me, at that time, it was. After all, the Mishnah and Gemara, the Halakha, declares that deaf-mutes are not responsible for keeping the mitzvot because they lack intelligence. Our own great Rabbis believed that deaf-mutes were mentally retarded and could not be educated. 

They didn’t think this way because they disliked people with disabilities or wanted to discriminate against them. They thought this way because this was the way that everyone thought back then. This was the “science” of their times, science that continued to be believed, and taught, and followed until just about a hundred years ago.

Our Rabbis knew that people who were mentally retarded could not be expected to keep the mitzvot. They also “knew”, based on the best information available to them, that people who were deaf-mutes were mentally retarded. Through no fault of their own, they made a mistake.

It slowly dawned on me that the Rabbis’ thoughts about women and girls must also have been based on the science of their times. They saw that women were not as intellectually inclined, as academically sophisticated or as curious about the world as men were. They saw that girls behaved more emotionally, more sensitively, more playfully and less seriously and studiously than boys.

They assumed what everyone else at that point in history assumed - that girls naturally had less intelligence than boys, that women were better suited to housework than homework, that the highest goal of a woman should be motherhood rather than Torah knowledge, and that females should be educated differently than males, or not at all.

Our Rabbis cannot be blamed for this error any more than they can be blamed for believing the world was flat or that the sun revolved around the Earth. The holy Sages were not, G-D forbid, misogynists - they did not hate women or disrespect women. On the contrary, they passed many, many laws - laws that became part of the Halakha - in order to protect the rights and dignity of women, to prevent them from being abused or mistreated by the men in their lives or in their communities, to ensure that they would be shielded from any harm.

Women were always treated with respect and reverence in the Jewish world. The Book of Melakhim tells us about how Shelomo Hamelekh, King Solomon, reacted when his mother came to visit him in his palace, “And when Batsheva came to Shelomo to speak with him…the King stood up to greet her, bowed to her, sat down on his throne, and had a throne placed for her. She sat at his right hand.” King Solomon showed the ultimate respect to his mother. He did not accord any less honor to his mother than he would to his father, and neither should we.

The Rabbis knew that women are precious to Hashem and created in His image. However, they believed that women were granted less intellectual ability than men and that they were not capable of achieving the heights in Torah and spirituality that men could. They based their view on what they believed to be scientific observation - the same scientific observation that led Aristotle, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, to believe that women were not equal to men.

But there was another great Greek philosopher with a different opinion: Aristotle’s teacher, the illustrious Plato. Plato taught that men and women were absolutely equal in every way, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. He was ahead of his time, because he realized that appearances can be deceiving. He said that sometimes we need to ignore appearances completely and look beyond the surface in order to discover what is, as you used to say, “for really real.”

It was true that women behaved differently from men. It was true that girls had less serious interests than boys. It was true that the females focused more on food and clothing and relationships than the males did. But this didn’t stem from their inner nature as women or girls. It did not have to be that way. It happened because the girls were raised differently than the boys.

Girls weren’t encouraged by their parents or by their communities to study seriously, to develop their minds, or to think deeply. So they didn’t. Girls were taught how to cook, sew, keep house, and raise children. So they did. But if they had been given the same opportunities as the boys, and had been educated the same way as the boys, then they would have equalled or surpassed the boys in knowledge, sophistication and wisdom.

People mistakenly believed there were real differences of mind and soul between men and women. Great people, including Aristotle and even our Sages, were convinced that women were less intellectually and spiritually capable than men, that educating women would be a waste of time.  But what these thinkers were actually observing were differences in the way men and women were taught, trained, and raised, not differences in how men and women were created.

Plato understood this, and in understanding this he was over 2,000 years ahead of the rest of the human race. Even his own student, Aristotle, couldn’t see what his wise teacher saw. Plato lived in the fifth century BCE, about 2500 years ago. That was about 2300 years before John Stuart Mill, who lived in the 19th century, would begin writing and speaking out about these ideas and insisting that women be given more and better educational opportunities. Today, we know that Plato and John Stuart Mill had it right when almost everyone else had it wrong.

If the Rabbis of the Talmud had known all that we know today about deaf-mutes and their ability to learn, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have taught  and applied the Halakha differently than they did. Had they possessed more accurate scientific knowledge, they would not have treated deaf-mutes as mentally retarded and would not have excluded them from the community of Torah learners and mitzvah-performers.

Similarly, had our Sages understood what we do today about the innate equality of males and females - if they had had the privilege of seeing brilliant female brain surgeons, lawyers, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and Torah scholars - there is no question that they would have had a totally different view of the proper role of women in Jewish life.

Many of the statements about women in the Talmud and Midrash, and some of the halakhot applicable to women, reflect the Rabbis’ own beliefs about women, beliefs that they mistakenly thought were “scientific facts.” Today we realize that many of these ideas were totally incorrect. But just because we know more than the Rabbis did about women doesn’t automatically mean that we can change the rules of Jewish law on our own.

On the contrary, we must continue to observe the Halakha as it was formulated by our Rabbis thousands of years ago. That is the way the system of Torah that Hashem gave us is supposed to work - its laws remain fixed and can only be changed by an official Rabbinic Supreme Court called a Sanhedrin. 

Of course, we eagerly await the arrival of Mashiach and the establishment of a new Sanhedrin that will review and update any laws that are incompatible with current scientific knowledge, including knowledge about the equality of the sexes. In the meantime, though, within the limits of the halakha as it exists now, we must live out our Judaism in light of our awareness that there is no intellectual or spiritual difference between women and men.

Zehara, to me, you are the ultimate proof of this eternal truth. You embrace your uniquely female qualities. You love being a young woman and enjoy the blessings of femininity. Yet you also engage in Torah study with the fullness of your mind and soul; not as a girl or woman, but as a Jew who seeks knowledge. You pray with intensity and sincerity, not as a girl or woman, but as a human being who yearns for closeness to Hashem.

Zehara Yehudit Maroof, your name means “Famous Jewish Light”. You are a source of “Jewish” light and inspiration to us with your amazing Megillah reading, in your study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, and in the beauty of your kind, generous and compassionate personality.   

ZZ Joon [dear ZZ], you have never been one to seek attention. But you are loved and admired by all who know you and have come to recognize your remarkable intelligence, your warmth, your concern for others, and your deep commitment to Hashem and to Torah. You really are a “Famous Jewish Light” that we pray will continue to shine brightly for many years to come.

Like the farmer who won that big award, you are outstanding in your field!

Love Always,