Back to Basics: Inspired, Intro. to Judaism Class in Chicago

Chicago Jewschoolers, take note! Jewschool Senior Editor Aryeh Bernstein is moving back to Chicago and will be teaching a beginners Judaism class for the Mishkan community. Registration just opened.

Inspired Judaism in Small Installments for Busy People

will kick off February 4th and runs Wednesdays through July 29th, 6:30-8:30 pm [Conversion Add-on 8:40-9:30 pm]

@ The Mishkan Space at 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave, 403a

Sign up for 1 class, 4 classes, 8 classes, or the Whole Megillah

• for conversion
• adult b’nai mitzvah

• general brain food for everyone

Finally learn all the stuff you pretend to already know about Judaism. Impress your friends at parties, not to mention, stimulate your most under-utilized organ with a sophisticated dive into the fundamentals of Jewish practice, thought, philosophy, culture and tradition. Take your Jewish intellectual life to the next level.

Learn more about Mishkan here.

The Talmudic Revolution

by Mo Martin

Mo Martin is the host of the new  podcast “Radio Free Babylonia”, produced by Jewish Public Media.

The year I first cracked open a book of Talmud was 2006, and life was pretty good. I was a moderate liberal filled with the righteous indignation of the Bush years, I was a 19-year-old Birthright-style Zionist in Israel (The Land Flowing With Beer and Single Jews My Age), and I was a loyal and proud son of the Conservative Jewish movement. Sure, life wasn’t perfect. I had an undiagnosed panic disorder, no girlfriend, and my friends back in the states missed me, and I missed them. But surely the Democrats were about to sweep the midterms, and with Israel withdrawing from Gaza, peace couldn’t be many years away, right? Talmud was an exciting intellectual adventure, and a necessary step on my way to the Rabbinate. As the foundation of Jewish religious thought, Talmud would clarify the complicated Halakhic discussions that I had been told were the heart of Jewish life. At that time, my religious life and my political beliefs were distinct.

Now it’s 2015, and I’m angry. More »

Going my Way?

Part of our Fearless Judaism series.

 

We live in a moment of transition. It is not the first, of course: the Temple is destroyed, the era of the sages has gone, the vast and varied Jewish life spread throughout Europe and the Middle East was decimated by the holocaust and other historical events, and today, the day of the great movements, these movements are fading. Many people are frightened by this – what will happen? And not without some reasonable cause.

Our numbers are shrinking, and many people who identify as Jewish treat Judaism as an ethnicity -like being Italian, or a hobby – something to be done when there is time and it is convenient.

But the “ever-dying people” will once again find a new wave to ride, and will continue.

 

And what will it look like?

Many religious speak of “the way” – and Judaism, too, has a “way,” – Halacha. But maybe instead of thinking of it as “the” way, maybe we should speak of it as “the Going,” or better yet “A way” or “A going.” More »

Yesh Bereyrah–There Is A Choice: An Affirmative Judaism

This guestpost is by Jonah Rank and is part of our Fearless Judaism series.  Jonah Rank is a musician, and, as of May 2015, a rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Jonah is currently studying for an M.A. in Jewish mysticism. Jonah is the student rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel (in Amsterdam, NY) and the rabbinic intern at the United Synagogue of Hoboken (NJ) for the 2014-2015 year. Since 2006, thon has worked on new liturgical projects for the Rabbinical Assembly, most notably as the secretary to Mahzor Lev Shalem (released in 2010) and Siddur Lev Shalem (forthcoming).

 

Grounded in a life of learning, my affirmative Judaism centers on tikkun olam—building a universe of peace once shattered by our limited capacity to transmit chesed, loving-kindness. In order to build further the universe our Divinity only started to build, we must steep ourselves in the values of the Jewish tradition. In this affirmation of Jewish tradition, the altruism of humanity must act as a conduit for the Divine Flow that seeks to inundate the world with sacred love.

When guided by Jewish wisdom, the affirmative Jew must accept that affirmation is a process of borer—picking and choosing. For as long as there have been Jews, there have been disagreements between Jews. This requires us to learn from all teachings of the Jewish tradition and to acknowledge at least three categories of Jewish teachings. More »

The Terror and Joy of *Feeling*: Channah’s Legacy for our Spiritual Activism

Editor’s Note: Following yesterday’s post by Sarra Alpert, here is another piece about the Rosh HaShana Torah readings, re-visited as we read those passages again this coming Shabbat.  This piece was given by Mary Otts as a derasha at the Mishkan Chicago community.  –aryehbernstein

by Mary Otts

As a child, I spent lots of time on my knees, glass rosary beads floating over my fingertips, staring at paintings of saints on the walls of holy buildings. Prayer smelled like the incense wafting through the cathedral and sounded like the reverberation of the kneelers being dropped onto the tile floor. While my mouth moved—still moves—effortlessly around the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” this Mary was distracted by a clumsy inadequacy around what it was I was really supposed to be doing in these moments.

Many years later, I’ve found G!d in the hum of the Bet Midrash, in the gentle correction of my chevruta, in the letters of the Gemara, in every single time someone who thought they couldn’t learn Talmud is empowered into finding their place in our Tradition. I find joy in P’sukei d’Zimra, community when we stand together during the Amidah, and revelation in the melody of Eitz Chayim Hi, but prayer—that magical thing that is supposed to happen in between the lines of liturgy—prayer is hard for me still. And, yet, particularly this past summer, I have needed to pray. More »

Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, and Repairing their Unresolved Brokenness

Editor’s Note: This Shabbat we will read VaYera, including the birth of Isaac, expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and binding of Isaac.  These are also the readings from Rosh HaShana and provide us an opportunity to revisit ideas that might have inspired, goaded, soothed, or chastised us during the holiday, now, a month later, when we are just back into our regular routine and may need those ideas the most.  Here is a piece for Rosh HaShana submitted for this purpose by Jewschool friend Sarra Alpert, shared originally with the Kolot Chayeinu community in Brooklyn. –aryehbernstein

by Sarra Alpert

In approaching Rosh Hashanah this year, I have found myself particularly aware of its unique type of split personality.   On the one hand, this is a celebratory holiday — a happy-birthday party for the world, days whose customs mirror those of all of our joyful holidays, only with added sweetness.  On the other hand, these are supposed to be days that open a particularly solemn chapter as we enter the Ten Days of Repentance.  In our prayers today, we ask to be written in the Book of Life for a year of health, peace and blessing.  We recite the tragedies that may befall us this year, asking to whom they will occur.  And we are urged to reverse the potentially harsh judgments awaiting us by turning to prayer, repentance and justice, with the idea hanging there that our fates will be sealed in ten days, on Yom Kippur.  These are difficult ideas for a modern person to relate to, and particularly odd ones to couple with a birthday party and honey-dipped apples.  More »

TBT: Remembering Lou Reed, a Year Later

Throwback Thursday has been dark here for a while, with holidays falling on Thursdays, but with the holidays over, we’re back. Today, we recall legendary rock and roll poetic grouch, Lou Reed, front man of the Velvet Underground and prolific soloist, who died last Oct. 27, after which I wrote this piece, cross-posted in Heeb and on our blog, reflecting as a Jew on Reed’s cultural significance.

 

Being Judged as Newborns — a Rosh HaShanah Intention

The dominant Rabbinic tradition is that Rosh HaShanah marks the creation of the world, as our liturgy reflects:  “This is the day, the beginning of Your creation, a memorial of the first day” —   “זה היום תחילת מעשיך, זכרון ליום ראשון” (introduction to Zikhronot in Musaf); “Today is the conception of the world” — “היום הרת עולם” (Shofar service).  Our Day of Judgment, our accountability, zeroes in not on reception of the Torah, but on our very creation as fragile human beings with clean slates.  

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, we read the Haftarah of Hannah’s suffering over her barrenness, her prayer for a child, and the birth of her son Shmuel, the prophet — on Rosh HaShanah, according to the Rabbis.  Hannah, the outcast, is scorned by the religious establishment, which mistakes her sincere, vulnerable prayer for drunken blathering in violation of Temple decorum and public decency.  But the Rabbis in the Talmud (Berakhot 31 a-b), stylize her prayer as the legal paradigm.  To pray according to halakhah, we must bring out into the open our inner Hannah — our vulnerable, heartbroken, and rejected self, despite the fear.  

On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, we read Jeremiah’s promise that exiled and broken Israel will see new life.  The current agony of exile is poetically personified as Mother Rachel, bitterly weeping for her lost children.  Rachel, like Hannah, suffered for years through barrenness, so the pathos of her wailing over her lost children rings especially intense.  There, too, the Rabbis see something else in the Matriarch’s emptiness.  She is not עקרה (barren, uprooted, maimed, hamstrung), but עיקרה, the essence, the chief, the core of her household (Bereishit Rabbah 71:2).

This Rosh HaShanah, let us create safe spaces for dangerous prayer, to be present as though our prayer is the most important thing for us to do at that moment, because healing the world requires perceptive and audacious consciousness, rooted in vulnerability, and believing in our ability, and each other’s, to be better than we have been.  The consciousness of our continual rebirth requires preparation, inclusivity, and support as we draw out the pain, regret, and joy of our inner Hannahs and Rachels.  Some scholars have suggested that “היום הרת עולם”  should be translated not, “today is the conception of the world”, but, “Today is pregnant with eternity”.  God sees us as newborns, with infinite potential.  Dare we see ourselves that way?

Tzitzit, the Deviant Body, and Male Entitlement

 

I’m a young woman who visibly wears tzitzit. The public nature of my observance of this mitzvah means that when I leave my home, I become public property to many; in the same way that people feel free to comment on the bodies of or even touch pregnant women, people with noticeable tattoos or piercings, and, as has been written about extensively, black women’s hair, when I wear tzitzit in public, my deviant body — at least for those who recognize my fringes — suspends normal expectations of courtesy and privacy. I’m often approached in inappropriate contexts, and even have had my tzitzit grabbed.

 

Is there any context in which it is ever appropriate for an older man to approach a young woman and inquire about what she’s wearing under her shirt? (Let’s put aside, for the moment, that male teachers and administrators at Orthodox day schools DO police girls’ clothing, as has most recently been brought to light by a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.) Yes, my fringes are visible, but the violation of my privacy I face on a regular basis about my tallit katan is appalling. The typical interaction of “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” followed by an awkward fidgeting and mumble about my tzitzit as the asker realizes that they hadn’t actually formulated a question is always unpleasant for me as an introvert, and irritating in its assumption that my unusual garment means I am open for conversation in otherwise rude contexts. (See: the Israeli police officer who interrupted a date to ask.) Curious women are one thing; while I’m often disturbed to be questioned by strangers in public, part of the reason I wear my tzitzit visible is so that the image of a woman in tzitzit will become normalized — when I first began to consider tzitzit, the one image of a woman I’d seen in tzitzit at a partnership minyan flashed again and again in my brain and strengthened my resolve. Even when strange women approach me and ask if I’m wearing standard “boy tzitzit” or a garment made specifically for women, I’ll answer; this question about what is in some ways my underwear gives me a chance to share my views on the mitzvah with more women, and to share with them the resource that is Netzitzot. More »

In Brooklyn Next Sunday? Come Make Shofar-blowing History

Calling all Jews with horns (and their allies)–

You are hereby welcomed to take part in a historical mass shofar-blowing gathering this       coming Sunday in Prospect Park. The event will consist of a shofar-blowing workshop, a  series of collective blasts, and a vegetarian potluck picnic.

At 5:30pm, we will meet at the corner of 15th St. and Prospect Park West and proceed to enter the park. Please arrive on-time so everyone can find each other.

If you own a shofar and/or a phone which can film, please bring it with you, as well as something for the potluck, if you can stay after.

Our rain location is the Park Slope Jewish Center (1320 8th Ave, located at the SW corner of 14th St and 8th Av).

This event is free, open to the public, family-friendly, and intended for experienced and novice shofar-blowers alike, so please do come and invite friends. We hope you can join us as we herald in the new year with great fanfare.

It will be…a blast

Ready for Withering Flowers: A Ritual for Elul

I’m familiar with your story
This gratitude you cultivate helps ground you
And yet, do you really deserve to ask for more?
The answer to this question will give you the balance you seek

Sometimes you need a reminder that we already said farewell to the month of Av
As it is written in Job: “Man born of woman is short of days, and fed with trouble. He blossoms like a flower and withers, and vanishes, like a shadow.” (Job 14:1–2)
In Elul, you are instructed to enjoy the ephemeral beauty of the flowers without worry of their withering
Since t’shuva/repentance is the name of the game, instead of fearing change we welcome it in

Every morning the shofar calls you to t’shuva/repentance
Are you listening?
How might you be more awake in order to hear its sound?
Allow these blossoms a chance to bring you to the presence you desire.

Step 1 – gather flower petals into a large bowl- ideally four colors and four different species. Bowl is ideally wood but can also be glass or metal.
In New England this is a great time of year to find a diversity of goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, chicory and aster.
Step 2 – fill your bowl with water covering the petals – ideally spring water but tap water is also fine. The chance to visit a river, lake or small spring will only add to the ritual
Step 3 – ASK FOR SOMETHING. This is for real. If you’re going to open up enough to do real t’shuvah/repentance this year, you have to acknowledge that you are not yet whole – that there is something about yourself you want to change, or at least cultivate. A useful formula is “May I be…” or “Let me be…”
Step 4 – Pour the entire bowl of petals and water over your head.
Step 5 – Proclaim out loud: “Horeini Ya Darkecha – הוֹרֵנִי יְהוָה, דַּרְכֶּךָ – reveal to me your path” – Ps. 27:11. This is both the sealing of our request and also a letting go of wanting only one thing.

Re-posted by the author from Ma’yan Tikvah’s Divrei Earth: Spiritual wisdom from Earth and Torah.

“It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.””

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.”

(More here.)

A Still, Small Voice for Suicide Prevention: Elijah’s Journey

by Gabe Kretzmer Seed

Gabe Kretzmer Seed is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and graduate fellow at Elijah’s Journey.

I’ve had the honor of serving as the inaugural graduate fellow for Elijah’s Journey, a wonderful organization which helps to serve as a voice regarding suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community.  This Shabbat we will read the haftarah (prophetic portion) from which the organization gets its name.  Though read rarely, due to quirks in the Jewish calendar related to 17th of Tammuz fast day, it is considered the “regular” addition to Parashat Pinchas.

There, in I Kings 18:46-19:20, Elijah has just performed a miracle and proved God’s power over the prophets of Baal. Yet he is pursued by the evil, idolatrous Queen Jezebel, and dejected, asks God to take his life. God instructs Elijah to eat and drink and take a 40 day journey in order to re-assess the situation. Elijah eventually hears God’s voice in a still, small voice, and decides to continue his calling and mission. Elijah’s desire to stop living, lonely period of reconsideration, and reception of a line of hope from a barely audible source, can strike a strong chord with those who have considered ending their lives.  In the United States alone, over one million contemplate suicide each year and over 40,000 do take their own lives. We can all walk in God’s ways and serve as a listening ear and source of encouragement for those around of us who may feel down, dejected or unsupported. More »

Throwback Thursday: Remembering Adam “MCA” Yauch

Many Jewschool readers probably saw a video making rounds on their social media this week, that could be described as “sick like malaria”, or at least, “cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce”:   four Buddhist monks (or, apparently, four young men dressed as Buddhist monks) shaking their rumps in money-makin’ Manhattan’s Union Square to put on a breakdancing show in anticipation of the 2nd anniversary of the death of rapper, bassist, film director, music producer, social activist, and Jew-turned Buddhist, Adam Yauch, aka MCA from the Beastie Boys, aka Nathanial Hornblower, aka, Praying Mantis, who died on May 4, 2012 of cancer, at age 47.

Two years ago, on MCA’s sheloshim (when I was still a guest-poster at Jewschool), I posted this piece trying to capture the depth of grief that some of us otherwise rational and well-balanced adults experienced over Brother Yauch’s passing.  Every word still feels raw and fresh to me.  For the man who put TiBeT in the popular American discourse, here’s today’s TBT for  MCA.  Namaste.

The Man’s Seder: The Backlash to the Backlash

This is a guest post by Miriam Cantor-Stone. Miriam serves as the Education Program Assistant at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. When she’s not working at JWA, she teaches third graders about immigration and Jewish culture at the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule/Sunday School and sings in Voices Rising, an all-female feminist chorus. 

I have had many experiences in my life that have involved spaces made just for women. These women-only spaces were not created specifically to exclude men, rather they were to give opportunities to women who might not have had them otherwise. For instance, I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts. While I may have been initially drawn to a women’s college to escape the “dumb boys” of high school, I stuck with it for the excellent education and once-in-a-lifetime chances offered to me, like working abroad for a summer and directing plays as a non-theatre major.

So when I read the blog post entitled “Man’s Seder: The Backlash,” I was immediately skeptical. I imagined it was written by the same kind of person who would obnoxiously ask, “If there’s a ‘women’s studies’ major why isn’t there a men’s studies’ major?” As I read the post, by Rabbi Reuven Spolter of Israel, I couldn’t help but scoff and snort my way through most of it. It’s clear to me that he has little to no understanding of why events like women’s seders were created in the first place.  He makes this very clear when he says, “I wondered why only women were having such an event, and decided to organize a similar program for the men. Was there an outcry at the exclusionary tactics of the Federation for creating a gendered version of the Seder? Hardly. There was a need, and we created it.” Rabbi Spolter makes all sorts of assumptions about his readers that I find both laughable and a little bit offensive. When defending the idea of a Men’s Seder, he says:

“At your Seder, who recites the Kiddush? Who breaks the Matzah? Who makes the Motzi? At most Sedarim (although I wonder about those of the members of the “I’m also fed up with the way women are treated in Orthodoxy” FB group), a man makes the kiddush, breaks the Matzah at Yachatz, etc. In other words, he ‘leads’ the Seder. That doesn’t mean he monopolizes or controls it. He leads it. Wouldn’t it also make sense that in addition to the technical aspects of leading, that he also came to the Seder prepared to lead a discussion and engage in meaningful conversation about the Exodus? Yes? You agree? That’s the basic idea of the Man’s Seder.”

Rabbi Spolter seems to think that all seders everywhere are just like the ones he attends. While he’s making his case for a Men’s Seder, he’s perpetuating every reason why Women’s Seders exist in the first place. His argument is that because men have traditionally led seders in the past, then of course an all-male seder makes sense. Rabbi Spolter, you really don’t get it, do you? Women’s Seders were created for the purpose of giving women the opportunity to participate in a ritual that up until the last few decades has been exclusively a men’s zone. And when he mentions the Facebook group that lit the spark of criticism of Men’s Seders, he is completely disrespectful and hypocritical. He says, “You’re fed up? You’re angry? Can there be a more negative, nasty, distasteful group on Facebook? (It is the definition of what’s wrong with Facebook. While FB can be a tool to spread ideas and share constructive thoughts, too often it serves as a clearinghouse for venomous spewing of negativity and hatred).” Umm, HELLO?! You’re writing a BLOG POST, buddy. Don’t condemn people for online discussions when you’re writing in essentially the same manner. He continues, “What you end up with is a group of Feminists from across the religious spectrum who have gathered to criticize Orthodoxy. Great.” It’s not Orthodoxy they’re criticizing, dude, it’s the idea that people are creating ritual space for men that has been a space for men for centuries, and acting like it’s revolutionary and necessary.

I fully understand the need for an inclusive space. It’s important to have a group of people that understands each other’s situations and feelings and needs. Rabbi Spolter and all rabbis who have done or are thinking of hosting a Men’s Seder, please think about your intentions and about how women have been treated in the past in your chosen movement. Each branch of Judaism has had to work on (and is still working on) the full acceptance of women as full members of the Jewish community. No longer are women confining themselves only to the kitchen to prepare the enormous Passover meal; they’re also digging through scores of Haggadot to choose the best way to lead their Seders. And remember that Women’s Seders were not created to exclude men, so do not for a moment think that a Men’s Seder is needed to exclude women. However much Rabbi Spolter claims to support women in his community, it seems to me he’s got a whole long way to go, as do many other Jewish communities, not to mention people in general.

“Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid…”

This is a guest post by Avigayil Halpern. Avigayil is a senior at the Hebrew High School of New England. She is a Bronfman Youth Fellow for 2013, a Rising Voices Fellow, through the Jewish Women’s Archive and Prozdor, and an alumna of Drisha’s Dr. Beth Samuels High School Programs. She maintains a personal blog at theprocessofthetaking.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter at @avigayiln.

The first time I wrapped tefillin was on Masada, in Israel last summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow. It should have been highly meaningful: I was watching the sun rise, standing in the ruins of a final Jewish stronghold, and I was with tremendously inspiring peers and teachers. Instead, when my counselor handed me the green velvet bag, I stood holding it, nervous and unsure of what to do with myself. As a childhood friend of mine wrapped the straps around my arm and hand and helped me adjust the head-tefillin, I stood still, repeating the brachot after him. When I prayed, any concentration that might have stemmed from the tefillin was canceled out by the strangeness of the physical sensation; the tefillin were powerful because of what they were, not because they grounded me.

My prayers that morning were punctuated by quibbles between my friends — the chazzan was going too fast, a more slowly praying participant was “backseat leading” — and repeatedly counting to make sure we still had a minyan as people wandered away. After we finished, my friend helped me unwrap the tefillin.

It was not until three weeks later that I was taught properly how to don tefillin myself. It was in a rush, the afternoon before my program left Israel, when we were all dashing around packing stray socks and squeegeeing the tile floors. Judith Rosenbaum, a program faculty member, Jewish women’s historian, and personal mentor, took me aside and taught me how to put on tefillin. She showed me how to twine the bands around my fingers, needing to practice on herself; it is not often that one wraps tefillin around another’s hand.

These anecdotes, my first tefillin stories, aren’t simple and spiritual. My experiences were confusing and mundane. Those moments did not ring with feelings of empowerment or reclamation. My Orthodox background, contrary to what I had expected, did not make the tefillin feel taboo — by the time I actually wore them, I had long been considering the idea. What sticks with me about these experiences is how natural it felt to be taught this mitzvah by a woman. I didn’t feel alone, as I had expected; I was part of a chain of tefillin-laying women.

My experience when I began wearing tzitzit was radically different. While I had previously considered wearing them, my first pair was an impulse buy. I was shopping on Ben Yehuda Street with a friend, and wandered into one of the tourist-geared Judaica shops that pepper the boulevard. I began to pick up packaged tallitot katan, examining them to see if I could find a small size. When the only pairs out were in a men’s medium, I asked the store’s proprietor (a friendly-looking, white-bearded, American-sounding Chareidi man) if they had tzitzit in smaller boys’ sizes. He answered in the affirmative, and began to hold up very small garments. “I’m looking for one that would fit a twelve-year-old boy,” I said. My friend added, “It’s for her little brother.”

I walked out of the store, three pairs of tzitzit in hand, grinning. I wore them for the first time the very next day. It was a Friday, and my group was venturing to Tzfat for Shabbat. As we walked through the city’s narrow stone alleyways and blue-painted synagogues and cemeteries, I grinned each time I caught sight of my fringes. They were both very strange and intimately familiar, totally new and yet totally me. Several times over the course of the weekend, I was approached by friendly strangers inquiring as to why I, a woman, was wearing tzitzit. The first time this happened, two young Chareidi woman came over to me at Kabbalat Shabbat. I wasn’t prepared to answer their question, and simply stammered out “it’s a mitzvah!” The twenty-somethings smiled, and one of them said, “That’s so interesting, I’ve never seen that before. Does your Rav think it’s okay?” I grinned and assured them that yes, my rav permits it. I didn’t attempt to explain to them that the community of people I consider to be my “rav” is large and diverse; while not everyone around me approves of my tzitzit, the people I look to for religious guidance, my “rebbeim,” are supportive.

My experiences of tzitzit and tefillin are unique. Some women wear tzitzit under their clothes, as a private reminder of the Divine. Some women have been laying tefillin since their Bat Mitzvah. Some women find these practices radically spiritual, while for others they are entirely mundane. Each woman’s experience is different. But we share a common bond; every time we perform these mitzvot, we shift Jewish practice a little bit. Every time I explain to a little girl that “yes, girls can wear tzitzit too, isn’t that cool?” as she curiously twists the strings between her fingers, she is more likely to feel that she, too, can own this mitzvah. Every time a woman changes her Facebook profile picture of one of herself praying with tefillin, the cultural image of the praying Jew becomes a little more female. Every time a woman is seen in tefillin or tzitzit, the Jew at prayer in the common imagination becomes more fluid, less likely to have a beard.

The Jewish world needs to hear women’s real experiences with these mitzvoth. It is for this reason that I have founded V’Tzivanu: Women, Tefillin, and Tzitzit, (v’tzivanu translates to “and has made us a mitzvah”) a blog project which will publish women’s writing on tefillin or tzitzit twice a month. Recent uproar in the Jewish blogosphere about women and tefillin has led to an increased presence of women’s voices and stories, but this is insufficient. V’Tzivanu is a project for my past self, the tenth grader who Googled “women and tefillin” and found only an explanation of why women’s spiritual superiority leads to our exemption from mitzvot. This is a project for older women, who have been laying tefillin for decades and have faced obstacles of which I have never dreamed. This is a project for Bat Mitzvah girls, who will see that Jewish womanhood is so much broader and deeper than a set of candlesticks. This is a project for the Jewish people.

Rabbinical Girl

The following post is contributed by guest poster Miriam Liebman. A native Detroiter, Miriam Liebman is currently a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam is also an alum of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

On a Shabbat afternoon last summer, sitting with two colleagues, one turned to the other and said, “Daniel, is this your tallis?” “No,” I said, “It’s mine.” Nothing specifically identifies my tallis as feminine. To the contrary, it is nondescript; white with blue stripes, the tallis my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah. The bag, too, is blue velvet with a gold embroidered star. I would have made the same mistake. The only thing that identifies my tallis as belonging to a woman are the lipstick stains.

I wear make-up and high heals, I like manicures and nice clothes; I am a girly girl. But when it comes to my prayer garb, I feel I will be taken more seriously in something considered un-gendered, neutral. But the more time I spend in traditional Jewish spaces, the more I have come realize that when we claim that a tallis is not gendered what we really mean is that it is male. And when we claim that we are creating egalitarian spaces what we really mean is that women are allowed to enter and participate in traditionally men’s spaces. Are we really only asking for women to find a role in a man’s world or are we asking to ungender the entire space?

Still from "Sermonizer" video

Judaism was a system created by men for men. To the rabbis of the Talmud, “all Jews” meant “all free men.” Today, I am in my second year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I spend my days immersed in texts that tell the lives, stories, and laws of those rabbis. As their words come to life for me, I feel more and more embedded in a vision of Judaism that will both allow me to honor my inheritance and bring my voice to bear on what future generations will inherit. My love of Jewish texts and tradition is not void of an understanding that my voice and the voices of many others are missing. If we are to exist in community where “all Jews” really means “all Jews,” we must live that out without exceptions, without caveats, and without apologies. We must hold ourselves to standards, not because we are expecting perfection, but because being in community means holding each other accountable.

This past fall, a group of seminary women at Duke University put out a parody of Britney Spears’ Womanizer. Taking the music of Britney Spears, they sang and danced on library tables about their own experiences as Lady Preachers in a music video they called Sermonizer. In reflecting on the video, one of the women, Christina, wrote,

I am a lady preacher because some of the best preachers I know are women. Because they stood behind pulpits and talked about periods and infertility, about rape, about divorce. Because they stood behind pulpits and said words that you don’t say in church. Because they helped me learn to say them, too.
I too stand behind a long line of women and their male allies who helped create a place where I can struggle openly and honestly with the inheritance handed to me.

And so, inspired by the Lady Preachers, a group of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary decided to make our own video for the JTS Purim Spiel: Rabbinical Girl, to the music of Madonna’s Material Girl. We did this because we are both proud of and proud to be at JTS. We make jokes about the absence of women’s restrooms on the fifth floor and the pressure often felt at JTS to be partnered, especially as women. Like the Lady Preachers, we were being silly. We were creating and sharing what we knew to be the best Purim Torah we could think of. And like so much of the best comedy that exists, there was no doubt truth in what we said.

There was a moment during editing of the video where I wondered out loud if some of what we were saying was too offensive. I immediately retracted my statement understanding that if we are not willing to publicly say what we believe at our core, we don’t stand for anything. And though we joke about being invisible to those in the non-egalitarian minyan at JTS, and pride ourselves on having worn tefillin since the 80s, the sentiments behind our jokes hold true. Because until we begin to redefine what a person who wears a tallis looks like, lipstick stains or not, and incorporate the experiences of non-masculine bodies and voices into our perceptions of what we mean today when we say “all Jews,” we are continuing to do nothing more than allow women to participate.

When we start from the premise that women and other minority members of our community must be affirmed, we are maintaining a system of patriarchy. Let’s start from the fundamental assumption that all members of our community are equal. I am not under any allusion that habits change over night. But the way we perceive gender roles can only change if we begin to shift the conversation to one that assumes that all roles are open to all people. Affirmation and allowance are not enough. Acknowledging that we are already on a path to full equality, this necessary phase of acceptance must move beyond a woman’s ability to enter into and participate in traditionally held men’s spaces and into one where roles and obligations are no longer questioned on the basis of gender.

It’s time we stop viewing particular women as honorary men. It’s time we stop giving women permission to take on certain roles. It’s time we raise a generation who no longer assumes the rabbi is a man. It’s time we embrace tradition not because it belongs to the binaries we’ve created of men and women but because it belongs to us.

Torah of the Body — The Prayer of Dance

by Ruben Rais

Ruben is an experiential Jewish educator living and creating in Brooklyn. He likes to dance. For more on this theme, see Jay Michaelson’s book, God in Your Body. (aryehbernstein)

Jewish tradition distinguishes between the written Torah and the oral Torah, but is their room to talk about Torah of the body as well? Specifically, does Judaism have something to teach us about dance and movement?

I began to seriously think about this question last fall, when taking a course on dance education at NYU. The class focused primarily on tribal dances from Uganda. It was fascinating to learn that most of these tribes have no written tradition. Their values were passed down from generation to generation, not through the written word, but through dance, song, and story telling. My first instinct was to contrast this to Jewish culture, which is so reliant on text. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? What are we able to transmit through text, that we are not able to do through dance, and what might be lost in the text that can only be captured through movement?

Then I thought about it a bit more. I grew up in a very Jewish home, but I didn’t look at a page of Talmud until I was 24 years old. Learning text was not a formative part of my Jewish education whatsoever. On the contrary, some of my most powerful Jewish memories are of my mother teaching Israeli folk dances in our community, and of a crazy horah experience when I first visited Tzfat at the age of 12. Even today, though I spend a lot of my time learning Jewish texts, my most uplifting and spiritual moments have involved dancing alone to niggunim in the park by my house, and once again, those Hassidic horahs, this time not in Tzfat, but in Crown Heights. More »