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

19 comments on “Rabbis in Red Lipstick

  1. Arlene on

    You are opening a window and yes, adding a new dimension, a new color to Torah study. Please continue to honor the legacies of Deborah, Eve, and Huldah and as well as Lilith too. Beauty and red lipstick is not a sin.

  2. Nechama L-L on

    Love this piece.  Looking forward to the spiritual dialogue of Rabbi Dasi in the future, a whole, vibrant, fully present, authentic human being in red.

  3. Rainbow Tallit Baby on

    The question being asked here is not “can a rabbi wear red  lipstick?” as I bet many rabbis do. I certainly have seen red lipstuck on at leat 3 Conservative Rabbis and 2 Reform rabbis. The question is”  Can a Rabbah or a woman ordained by a modern Orthodox Yeshivah wear red lipstick?” That is not the same question, as non-Orthodox streams have already struggled to some degree with issues of modesty, sexuality and the assumed unconrollable male in ways that even modern Orthodoxy has not.

  4. Rabbivalerie on

    People you serve are going to continue to make assumptions, have transference, and project all sorts of anxieties on to you whether or not you wear the red shade. Your leadership and intelligence will shine through and will make the biggest impression in the end. Keep the red lipstick. But don’t be surprised also if the fact that if over time, your trademark changes and the lipstick becomes less important to you. Define yourself; don’t let them define you.

  5. Ruchela on

    Hi, I think the question isn’t if you should or should not wear red lipstick, I see it to be more  will YOU be distracted wondering if others are judging you by your lipstick choice? “Am I being heard over this loud bright color on my lips?” The “red” of your lips is not what announces you into a room, it is the confidence it gives you. (which I’m sure you know). Be confident in your intelligence and your abilities – that is what people will feel when you walk into the room. To be honest, when I see a pair of red lips in a room, that’s exactly what I see – red lips. It doesn’t matter what the person is saying, I’m thinking, and this could be because I’m a women, “wow, I like that color. I wonder if I could wear that color…” I’m not hearing a word you are saying. That is not to say however, that you should wear only browns and neutrals. What you wear does not, should not define you. But why not tone it down at first, let people see your intelligence first, then gradually turn the redness factor back up! People will notice but they will see YOU first, hear YOU first. 

    Just another opinion. 

  6. Rabbiellen on

    Love this piece! You could exchange the word “lipstick” for high heels, black eyeliner or whatever “feminine” rendering attire you wish. I agree that this “post-feminist” era allows us to do what we want, how we want and doesn’t dictate what is meaningful to us. Yasher Kochech Dasi!

  7. Naomi on

    I really liked Ruchela’s comment. The thing I’m considering when reading her response is that it’s not just a female issue: there is often a perception that Rabbis are supposed to be simple in their dress and appearance. I cannot picture a single Orthodox Rabbi I know who was not restricted to the black-suit white-shirt model. Now again, that relates back to the history of Men’s dress. Perhaps the rebbitzens would be valued for their beautiful colors and styles, but somehow I don’t think so. The more I think about it, there is definitely an association between a spiritual leader and sexual purity, or at least a sexuality subdued in nature.

    I’m not saying that these associations are correct. And there are absolutely Rabbis who have what you referred to as a “strong presence,” but that’s usually disconnected to their appearance. What if a Orthodox male rabbi came to shul wearing a bright pink shirt? Or, to get away from gender associations, a bright orange shift? Or perhaps, even a red shirt? Would there not be the same personality assumptions?    

  8. Bill Landau on

    Dasi – A wonderful, thought-provoking piece.  My first thought is to say “rock the red” and to heck what the stodgy folks think.  But Ruchela makes a good point, having nothing to do with the Orthodox concerns….

    Whatever you choose, the best of luck to you in both your future paths.

  9. Doodles613 on

    Sorry, in my shul, we have not changed how things have operated in 100s of years.  In a Sephardi community, if you dont listen to the Rabbi all the time, eh, your OK, as long as you really listen when its very important.  HOWEVER, G-d have mercy on you if you DARE do not listen to the Rabbinit.  The entire shul will come against you if you say one unkind thing about her.  You will literally get punched in the face if you raise her voice to her.  You do not want to even think of what will happen if you really seriously do something inconsiderate, but I’ll just say a guy did pull a knife on someone else before over it.  There is nothing wrong with tradition, there is nothing wrong with the journey our people have taken.  The problem is with people who seek to put women down.  There is nothing wrong with the way a traditional community runs.  All the women of the shul say tehilim and learn.  Most of the men work, and very hard, so most of the women dont have to.  If the women want to work, they can, and the men help.  If they women want to take care of the house, they do, and the men work harder.  I just dont see the point in all the hoopla to separate ourselves and cause more rifts.

  10. Miriam on

    I really don’t think this is specific to gender.  In many professions and work settings, my own included, there are customary norms of dress/make up.  Often the often unspoken dress codes involve conservative clothing (and for women, under-stated make-up).  What you might wear to a social gathering might not the type of thing you would wear to work.  In the Orthodox rabbinate, as others have pointed out, conservative clothing – i.e. white shirts, suits, usually a tie – are customary.  Though there’s nothing specifically wrong with it, it’s unusual to see Orthodox rabbis in jeans in public.  The one Orthodox rabba that I have seen seems to conform with the rabbinic custom of under-stated conservative dress (though admittedly I have only seen her in shul and only on a few occasions).  While there’s nothing wrong with more attention-getting clothing or make-up, it is not the norm for Orthodox rabbis of either gender at this time, as far as I can tell. So it would not be surprising that you might get some (positive or negative) reaction to it.

  11. MarleyWeiner on

    Dasi, thank you for this. It’s interesting, because I feel a lot of the same challenges with negotiating modesty and gender presentation in the liberal Jewish community. I think that, at least in our community, the problem is less modesty and more rabbis who are very overtly feminine, and how femininity is perceived in broader society. I wrote a post about it!

  12. Moshe Averick on

    Quit pretending that you are Orthodox; you may fool yourself but you don’t fool the rest of us. Perhaps you are sincere but your mind and brain have taken a trip to outer space.
    You are a perfect example of the distortion and confusion that Avi Weiss has brought to the Jewish world, like Korach, Yeravam ben Nevat, the the Tzadukkim, Karaites, Reform, and Conservative have done before him and in whose legacy he continues. Tragic, Sad

    Moshe Aveick

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