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Can We Speak for Ourselves?

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Image via gerardmontigny

I want to paint you a picture of my Yeshiva: Yeshivat Maharat. Piles of giant books are stacked on the table like precarious dominoes, and pens and laptops litter the table. There is a steady hum of learning with the occasional burst of “And Abaye says what?!” As it draws close to 3:30, when it comes time for the instructor to review the holy material with us, we take notes furiously and listen.

While, like in many parallel Orthodox Yeshivot, we struggle with understanding Halachic (Jewish law) nuances between great Talmudic sages, we also battle with the very nature of the text itself. There we are, day in and day out, a group of feminist scholars and leaders, in a movement seeking to change the gender landscape of Orthodox Jewish leadership. Yet we sit at our tables in front of books where the voices of women barely appear. When they do, it is certainly not as serious partners in the development of the Halachic discourse. 

So we have a jar. In this jar we put a quarter, or a dollar, or whatever seems appropriate when a woman’s voice seems egregiously absent from a conversation in the text. For example, you can walk into our classroom one afternoon as we explore passages where Rabbis discuss the nature of what was likely the uterus. One Rabbi proposes that it resembles a bag of coins with an opening at the top. No, another Rabbi exclaims, what about a home with a door?

You’ll certainly find me tossing quarters into the jar during that conversation.

This summer, I’m exploring “menstrual purity” laws, and it is in these texts that I feel particularly excluded from the conversation. This past week, I was sitting at my desk late at night, flipping through a more modern book on laws for married women around their periods. In the book, I marked the pages where the author wrote “Ask a Rabbi,” so that I could understand areas of the law about which I will eventually be consulted on. I was disturbed, however, when one paragraph advised the woman reading the book by telling her that if she was uncomfortable showing her stained undergarments or cloths to her male rabbi, she should give them to her husband to bring to the Rabbi for her. I shook my head with a familiar frustration. Here we go again, excluding women from the process.