Rabbis in Red Lipstick

Alongside my graduate studies, however, I’ve also chosen recently to embark on a another journey towards social change through spiritual leadership. I’ve enrolled and begun to learn at Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary seeking to confirm Orthodox women as Halachic and spiritual leaders. I have always embraced and loved learning, and studying at Yeshivat Maharat is a perfect way for me to be involved in a profoundly change-making movement and also to engage in vibrant Torah leadership. The conversation about women occupying positions as clergy in Orthodox institutions is a certainly a contentious one, and also one of which I’m so excited to be a part.

The program is going well so far, days spent with my head buried in ancient rabbinic texts, exploring and wrestling with the complex nuances of Jewish law. A few weeks ago, however, something happened that struck a particular nerve for me — something having to do with my struggles and questions regarding gender and sexuality in my new community and line of spiritual work. I was sitting and eating lunch with a colleague of mine in between classes, and we were having a discussion about what would be the appropriate attire should be when performing ritual duties. Considering the controversial space the Yeshiva already occupies in a broader global Orthodox context, we agreed that though our clothing choices should not completely hide our the fact that we are, in fact, sexual beings, that anything too provocative was inappropriate.

I paused for a moment and gestured towards my lips.

“What about my lipstick,?” I asked nervously, almost unwilling to hear her response.

She paused.

“Maybe pick a different color,” she said.

And thus entered a complication into my morning rituals. I found myself actively questioning whether or not calling attention to my lips by way of history’s most notoriously seductive color would be wise as a newly emerging Orthodox female leader.

As I looked into the mirror one morning, my Sephora lip stain No.1 open in my hands, I thought about the women who have preceded me and moved on to become spiritual leaders, activists, and strong voices in their communities. I meditated on the ancient rabbinic texts I review every day, which often indicate a fear of female “otherness” and sexuality.

The truth is, I want to push back against centuries rife with the sentiment that men are unable to control themselves in the presence of beautiful women. I want to push back against the idea that there is anything deviant about a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality.

In a position that sometimes feels powerless, I don’t want to disappear into the folds. The work before me is enormous — I seek to be among the Jewish leaders whose leadership lends itself to radical shifts in power structures and to creating more expansive and inclusive communal and ritual spaces. Given the enormity of this work and my passion for doing it well, I seek to bring the entire expression of myself — not a compromised or compartmentalized version of me — to all of my pursuits. The thought of ducking into the bathroom to wipe off the lipstick I wore to my non-profit board meeting before I go to teach Jewish texts is troubling to me. We live in an era when Orthodox women are finally studying to be members of clergy, which, in and of itself, is wildly radical. It seems like this era should also be able to accommodate a broad diversity of women committed to this risky work — women who have loud voices and bright colors, women who are comfortable with who they are and what they bring.

I am certainly not the first woman to think about the question of attire and the rabbinate. Ever since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972, women rabbis have been thinking about how expressions of their sexuality interact with their spiritual work. But due to the particularly strong emphasis on modesty and the accompanying specific restrictions in the Orthodox tradition, however, I am finding these questions harder to answer. I can’t pretend that wearing red lipstick isn’t provocative. But is that really a bad thing?  I find the effort to deny the presence of sexuality usually only draws more attention, and makes that presence even stronger.  Being real about my sexuality and the ways I enjoy expressing it seems like a much better and more honest idea.

It’s also about so much more than how the lipstick looks. Upon reflection, I also realize that when I think about what I now refer to as “the lipstick question,” I think of the countless men in leadership who have questioned my own capacity as a leader.  Without fail, this conversation isn’t about my qualities as a leader or my skills as a student at all — most often, it’s about whether someone who looks or dresses the way I do can possibly helm a Jewish community, drive an organization, or deliver an inspiring sermon.

Ultimately, I’m not sure where I stand on the lipstick question. Maybe my colleague was right. Maybe I should forgo the red for something a bit more muted–perhaps a subtle berry tone or even a nude pink. I’m already attempting a course of study that is considered controversial in the Orthodox world. I find myself pushing the envelope in my work, and trying to make Orthodoxy a space that can accommodate different expressions of gender. But why exacerbate my already contentious journey by adding a layer of suggestive lipstick? I could switch shades–but red is my trademark. It’s the color that announces my presence in a room. Red is the color that says I’m not ashamed to be doing what I’m doing.

My answer varies from day to day, but both on the morning in question and upon writing these words, I realize that I feel it vital for people whose goal is to be Godly to do their best to be fully present in their devotion to spiritual community-building. I’ll take things slow and won’t push social change when my community is not ready for it. But I’ll still provide a burst of color to reassure to myself and others that I am indeed, a change-maker. I thought of the women in the Talmudic era who wore Kochelet, a type of blue eye makeup. I wondered that if in their effort for aesthetic beauty, they also made an implicit statement about their power.

As a scholar, professional, and spiritual leader, I will lead with words of Torah as my backdrop, using effective strategies and tactics to foster strong communities. I want to constantly grow and use innovative strategies: walking the crucial line of progressive social change and rooted tradition. So, sometimes I’ll have to choose a different shade, but I’ll keep the red lipstick in my pocket. When I feel it there, I’ll look forward to feeling empowered as opposed to tolerated. To thinking about reclaiming the redness of lipstick and the legacies of Deborah, Eve, and Huldah. To adding the tone of women’s voices to centuries of psak. Finally, I’ll know that when I utter words of Torah, I’d love nothing more to envelop those words in a deep, rich red.

Photo credit: Zinaida Serebriakova – In the makeup room. Portrait of Vera Ivanova as a Spanish woman (1924) by Cea. via photopin cc

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