Can we take a moment to remember all the Jews who are ORTHODOX? The ones who keep Shabbos (sabbath) and kosher to the extent of Jewish law, as well as they have been taught? The girls who had their bat mitzvahs at 12 and DIDN’T read from the Torah, because that’s not the way she was raised to follow Torah law? The people who went to jewish school- not just Hebrew school, but yeshiva. The people trying to follow the Torah, the full Torah, and constantly working to become better Jews? Can we take a moment to remember everyone who may be involved in pop culture but does not think for one second that they are the same as them? Can we remember the middling Jews that never get attention?
The only Jews in the world are not ultra orthodox caricatures and parodies or people who say they are jewish but don’t follow the actual religion.
We exist.
The middle exists.
and we are sick of going unrecognized because we’re too different from non Jews to be accepted but too involved in pop culture to be represented by the ultra orthodox community

Interview with a Member of the Jewish Faith

I was hoping to do a couple of interviews with people in order to provide a better understanding of faith as pertaining to individual women. Unfortunately, this might be the only one but it is certainly informative and I hope everyone enjoys it!

This interview is with my friend, Kim, who identifies as culturally Jewish but ideologically agnostic.  The “Q” references my questions and the “A” references her answers.

Q: In your experience, what roles do women play in the Synagogue, specifically?

A: There weren’t many differences [between the way girls and boys were treated]. We didn’t separate by gender during services. Girls were allowed to read from the Torah along with boys. Girls might have been able to have their bat mitzvah a year earlier than boy’s bar mitzvahs (12 vs 13), but as far as I can remember girls always waited until they were 13 as well. In fact, we had a woman rabbi and a woman canter at some point. Some of the prayers might be gender specific, and traditionally women did the Shabbat candle ceremonies (prayers and lighting) and men did the bread ones (prayers and cutting the bread). If there was ever something gender specific (such as a bris for the boys) there was usually some form of equivalent for the girls (a naming ceremony).

Q: Would you say that there was a sense of equality between the genders, then? Was there ever an emphasis on one gender over the other in ceremonies or in the Synagogue in general?

A: Yep, in my group at least.  Any differences seemed to come from personal preferences (there were offshoot clubs, some of which were based off of gender, and would tend to do activities that people of that gender would typically enjoy) but there was not much pressure to act one way or another.

If the ceremonies ever differed, there was usually a separate but equal feel. The only difference I can really point to is that males get circumcised and females don’t (though they have a ceremony at around the same time).

Women were often in charge of things like food, but this was often either because the women’s club offered or just because mostly women tended to offer to help. There was never any pressure on other women to conform though, or at least, I didn’t experience any.

Other groups that I attended might have stronger gender roles, but in my synagogue it was at most tradition (tradition that you weren’t obligated to follow)

Q: Would you say these other groups were more conservative?  How would you describe the difference between your group and the ones with stronger gender roles?

A: The more conservative the group, the stronger the gender roles (from my experiences at least.)

In the more orthodox groups men and women are often kept pretty separate. For instance, in a wedding my family attended the celebration was separated with a curtain, with men on one side and women on the other.  When the wife and husband would celebrate they would be lifted up in chairs (often done at Jewish celebrations: video ). It’s tradition for the couple to each grab onto the end of a cloth, when the wedding party is split this is the closest they get to dancing together I think.  (more orthodox type of version than the one in the video: image)

There’s also a whole bunch of stuff that goes on with menstruation.  It’s the reason an orthodox Jewish male might not shake hands with a non-orthodox woman (he can’t make physical contact with a woman if she’s on her period; an orthodox rabbi I met couldn’t shake my hand for this reason.)  

During prayer, the more orthodox groups would separate the seating by gender.  In some cases it’s split down the middle, in other cases the guys sit closer to the bema (stage) than the women. I’ve experience both types of seating, in addition to my temple’s mixed seating.

In some orthodox temples, girls cannot read from the torah during their batmitvah (a friend of mine wanted to have hers at a more religious place, but chose not to when she learned she was unable to read from it).

Mothers are also often used to determine the child’s religion. There was a conservative kid/teen’s group that only let people join if their mother was Jewish, regardless of the father’s religion. (The father determines the status within the religion, but there seems to be less emphasis placed on those, from my experiences at least). A friend of mine wasn’t able to join a club for that reason.

Also, might be worth noting that my temple identified as “conservative”, as opposed to “reformed” or “orthodox”

Q: Is this a small or large percentage that identifies as Orthodox? 

A:  No idea!  I think conservative is becoming less common but this is just what I’ve heard. I’m also not sure if the experiences I’ve seen are typical or atypical for each group.  My temple might be a bit more on the liberal side of conservative because of the female religious leaders but I don’t really know.  And some of what I was describing for the orthodox groups might actually be Hasidic (which is ultra-orthodox, but still under the orthodox umbrella I think).

Q:  In your experience, what is the general consensus on standard feminist issues like abortion and birth control and what are the most common views on the LGBT community?

A: Unfortunately, that I don’t know much about.  In my Hebrew high school, I think topics were at least discussed (as in, open discussion), but for the life of me I can’t remember where most people stood.  I know a few Jewish feminists from my temple though, and a lesbian and a bi girl also. So at the very least I don’t think the teachings (as presented by my temple) directly disapprove.  I don’t remember them instructing us much on the topics one way or another.

In the Hasidic groups couples would often marry on the younger side and have a bunch of kids.  I’ve heard this attributed to the whole “be fruitful and multiply” business.  So I don’t know if that group would make much use of birth control but I haven’t definitively heard of them being against it.  I also remember hearing something about menstruation being a sad event because it was a loss of potential life (which might imply that something like an abortion would be even more emotional), and that men couldn’t waste their semen on non-procreational activities, but it’s hard to remember if I heard any of this from reputable sources. 

I just scanned this website, though, which addresses a lot of that, and gave answers that I really did not expect.  Not sure if it can speak for the whole community, but it was the first google result.

Q:  How do you think your religion, and the religious teachings you grew up with, affect your daily life?  How different would your ideas and opinions be if you had grown up in a household that wasn’t religious or if you’d grown up in a household that had a different religion?

A: While my family attends a conservative temple, I don’t think we were particularly religious.  We have followed several rules and customs: no bacon, different plates for milk and meat, attend temple on the high holidays, the lighting of yahrzeit candles, and had me attend Hebrew school up until college, etc. However, topics of God and religious duties were never really discussed to me by my parents beyond reading text for religious dinners such as Passover.  In fact, despite my Jewish mother and bat mitzvah, I only identify with the culture, not the religion.

What my family always emphasized with me was a value for critical thinking and a sense of community and culture.  The spirit behind the Talmud, a sort of Jewish life guide, is one of discussion.  It contains the views of several rabbis, who sometimes disagreed. This presentation of conflicting interpretations and recommendations, all treated as valid, promoted in me a desire to ask questions.  This open discussion type of approach was used frequently in my Hebrew high school.

I find enjoyment in humming the tunes to old prayers and Jewish songs, and comfort in foods like matzo ball soup. It feels powerful to be singing the same melodies, and eating the same food as my family in generations past. And it has helped me feel connected to those of a similar religious household, even if they also do not identify with the religion.

Growing up, I never felt particularly disadvantaged because I was female.  I was never told “no” due to my gender; by my family or by my Temple.  My parents supported my ambitions, and were open with me on topics like birth control and the female body as a whole.  The few times I did feel different within my temple because of my gender, it was often due to feelings of pride and comfort in being female.

Unfortunately, I have heard from friends about their experiences which have been less than positive.  One Jewish friend was told (from someone that was Jewish, but not from our temple) that she was unclean due to her period.  Another was confronted with some oppressive views when she delved into more orthodox temples.  I’ve run into my own unexpected experiences, which at first blush at least, made me feel uncomfortable due to my gender.  Experiences like that do leave a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, but I personally don’t view myself any differently because of it.  Once I got older I was always allowed to pick and choose which Jewish aspects I kept and disregarded, anything which made me feel alienated because of my gender I did not preoccupy myself with.

Overall, I view my Jewish heritage as a benefit. It was a potential contribution to my value in critical thinking, and my parents relaxed stance (in regards to my own beliefs) allowed me to get out what I wanted from it, and nothing I didn’t.

Is it lawful?

It was the beginning of another college semester. He had signed up for a full load of classes, and as usual each class took time to look over the syllabus. They covered the class objectives, learning outcomes, assignments, schedule, tests, grading, and so on. He noticed, however, that they failed to address one item of particular importance, to him at least. He thrust his hand into the air and blurted, “How many absences are we allowed to take?”

Though this is only a parable, I’ve often wondered what kind of message this sends to a teacher. Essentially, the student is saying, “Though I signed up for this class, I’m not at all interested in you teaching me. So, how often do I have to be here and still pass the class?” Pretty much a slap in the face.

A similar question was asked to a teacher a long time ago.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Mark’s account of this conversation in chapter 10 seems to have a different focus than Matthew’s (in chapter 19). The Pharisees asked in Matthew’s account, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” This was more in line with the current rabbinical debate when considering the prevalence of divorce during that time. However, Mark chooses to simplify the question even more, perhaps to focus on the root of the matter.

The Pharisees, seeking to test Jesus, essentially ask him, “Can a man divorce his wife and still be keeping the law?” As usual, Jesus fires a question right back at them, “What did Moses command you?” They answer, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” Notice how Jesus asked what Moses commanded and how the Pharisees answered with what Moses permitted them to do. The word for ‘commanded’ here is entellomai, which carries a sense of urging someone with instruction, and it emphasizes the end-objective or purpose of the command. The word translated as 'permitted’ is epitrepó, which means to ‘allow’ or ‘entrust.’ It’s root word, tropé, means “a turning, change, or mutation.” This root word is used only one time in the Bible; found in James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God does not shift or change like shadows.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ argument with, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law. But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.’ 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus is quoting Genesis (1:27 and 2:24), another ‘Book of Moses.’ Jesus wasn’t asking what Moses allowed them to do but what he commanded them to do. What did God say from the beginning about marriage? A man is united to his wife. The word ‘united’ here means “to glue or cement together” or “to cleave.” Literally, marriage is the cementing of a husband and wife together, they are not to be separated. The word for ‘joined together’ literally means, “yoked together,” as in the yoke used for oxen. Among the ancients, they would often times put a yoke upon the necks of a newly married couple to symbolize that they both were to equally pull together in all concerns of life. Marriage is about sharing life with someone.

Later on, Jesus discusses the matter further with his disciples, and says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” During Jesus’ time, there were two main schools of rabbinic thought on the idea of divorce. The school of Shammai argued that the passage in Deuteronomy 24 (the scripture the Pharisees used for their argument) allowed divorce only if one’s spouse was unfaithful, while the other school, Hillel, said that a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast. During his ministry, Jesus sided with Hillel on many matters of interpreting the law, but on the issue of divorce Jesus clearly sides with Shammai. But, he doesn’t stop there, he takes the law even further with the idea that divorcing someone and marrying another is the same as adultery.

Perhaps the reason Jesus doesn’t offer this last bit of teaching to the crowd or Pharisees is because of timing. During this time, a scandal had broken out between Herod and his newly acquired wife, Herodias (the wife of Herod’s brother). John the Baptizer spoke out against Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:18) And, because of this, Herod put John in jail, and eventually beheaded him at the request of his wife’s daughter. Jesus has already claimed that the Son of Man must suffer many things and die at the hands of the chief priests and teachers of the law, but it isn’t the time or place, yet.

Back to the law. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once described the polarity of Jewish thought and theology in terms of a body and spirit. Thus, the law (or mitzvah) was meant to be balanced between the deed (halakhah) and the intention (agadah) behind the deed:

“There is no halakhah without agadah, and no agadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is the inner devotion, spontaneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an inspiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of agadah.” (Between God and man: an interpretation of Judaism, p.178)

N.T. Wright put it this way, “Hardheartedness, the inability to have one’s heart in tune with God’s best intention and plan, thwarted God’s longing that Israel should be his prototype of renewed humanity.” (Mark for Everyone, p.132)

Therefore, is it lawful? If by that, we mean, “Does it fulfill God’s will and original intention of creation?” Then, no, a man divorcing his wife is not lawful. No, putting any other gods or idols before God is not lawful. No, ignoring the cry of the oppressed in this world is not lawful. The law was put in place so that we might live beyond the deed and practice its intention of renewed humanity.

To live out God’s kingdom and will on earth as it is in heaven.


Photos: ‘Mitzvah Tank’ Visits Front Line

As the Israel Defense Forces mobilize for what looks to be an imminent ground offensive to root-out Gaza-based terrorists, troops on the front lines were joined by a different kind of “tank”.

A group of Chabad activists traveled to the border with Gaza in their “Mitzvah Tank” - a truck loaded not with weapons or ammunition, but with holy items to provide spiritual and moral support to the soldiers who at any minute could be called into battle.

It’s a scene which has become increasingly common before major operations, as even otherwise secular soldiers line up to “lay tefillin”, say prayers and thank their guests, who expressed their gratitude to the men and women risking their lives for the people of Israel.