Can We Speak for Ourselves?


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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. 

25 comments on “Can We Speak for Ourselves?

  1. Anonymous on

    I’ve been wondering about this for some time…how do we justify keeping halacha that was formed and interpreted entirely by men? How true could it really be without us? Where was the representation of Hashem’s feminine side in this lengthy conversation? Why is the feminine perspective missing?

  2. Bill Landau on

    Very thoughtful post, Dasi. I won’t say that, when I first met you (you were in fourth grade) that I would have expected this to be your eventual path. But I certainly would not have been surprised (and am not surprised now) to have been told so. Keep on working to make important, positive change in our community.

  3. Dasi Fruchter on

    Thanks for your comments: To continue to conversation–what was your moment where you first felt strongly that someone was speaking “for you” in a Jewish text? How did you react?

  4. Mrs. Edwards on

    Same issues plague Christianity but we do have a scripture that says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Hope you don’t find my comment offensive.

  5. Moshe Averick on

    Spoken like a true Conservative Jew. I especially liked the part where you stood up for women and men who advocate the killing of unborn children, which is forbidden to Gentiles also as one of the Noahide Laws. Very loyal to Jewish law. Whose voice are you listening to there? Rabbi Akiva or perhaps his wife Rachel? Deborah? Sarah? or was it that great master of halakha, Betty Friedan?

  6. emes l'am on

    While heartfelt, it is a conservative screed. Your words show that you are worshiping at the egel of contemporary hubris. The ‘patriarchy’, ‘the exclusiion of women’ – your priorities are skewed. Clearly you want to tear the walls of orthodoxy. For the sake of honesty you need to leave the yeshiva and go to the conservative seminary.

  7. Nechama L-L on

    Very thoughtful piece. A breath of fresh air in an overheated room. Thanks for offering a mind-expanding perspective that can speak to so many who are searching….

  8. RJM on

    Are you interested in what the Torah Shebichtav and Torah Shebaal Peh actually have to teach us, or in “crafting rituals” and “having your voice heard”? I applaud your devotion to Torah study but the not-so-hidden social agenda is troubling to those of us who’d like to see all Jews – men and women – learning Torah for its own sake and not for an ulterior purpose.

  9. Reb Yid on

    Obviously, you are proposing something which differs from traditional Orthodoxy. What will be the name of your new movement?

  10. Lisa Liel on

    I think it’s funny when radicals like this bring up Bnot Tzlofchad. Their concern wasn’t over having their own property. They didn’t want their *father* to be eliminated as a Founder because he only had girls.

    These pretend-Orthodox are really getting on my nerves.

  11. J. C. Salomon on

    “… women and other traditionally disempowered groups in Jewish thought.”

    Could you elaborate a bit on who else you consider traditionally-disempowered in Jewish thought?

  12. Reb Yid on

    One thing that is striking is the inability of these particular women to deal with the fact that men have opinions about women, as manifest by the iconic “Jar.” One would wonder about the maturity level of a female doctor who had trouble coming to terms with the fact that a man wrote her gynecology textbook, or a woman architect who had to throw coins into a jar upon learning that men designed women’s restrooms, etc. There may be room for female spiritual leaders, but surely this childish, andro-paranoid bunch isn’t at the top of the class.

  13. Yossi on

    Amazing how you can speak for the motivations of Tzlofchod’s daughters with such confidence, Lisa. Were you there? Do you know them personally?

    If I were in the position of standing up for myself back then, and had any sense of politics, I would also say that I want to stand up for my father’s legacy. So, were they smart? Sure! Were they as closed-minded as you with respect to women’s place in our system? I doubt it, or they would have just kept their heads down and mouths shut as frum women today are expected to do.

  14. Someone on

    “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.”

    So, Ms. Fruchter, in your own words, learning Torah is not your primary goal.Social-Political change seems to be your reason for delving into the Talmud.

    As negatively as your perceive Mishna and Talmud, you must absolutely detest your studies. Yet you admirably persevere, in pursuit of your agenda.

    Such a view of Torah and Mesorah is a formula for disaster! How can you profess that “In the meantime, however, there is no reason one can’t teach traditional Jewish law while actively setting a new table”, when you loath that which you teach, and see it as ancient and irrelevant, waiting for your progressive model of inclusion?

    Will you then re-write the Talmud? Will you redact sections when “a woman’s voice seems egregiously absent from a conversation in the text.”

    You have every right to your opinions. Just stop calling yourself Orthodox, or Open Orthodox, etc. Your philosophies are more and more like those of the Conservative movement of yore. How about Neo-Conservative, or Open-Conservative, or Frum Conservative?

    You will have my full support.

  15. eclici on

    The daughters of Zelapchad were not making a feminist statement. Their question was not “Why can’t we inherit the land? Why can’t women inherit as well as men?” Rather, they asked, “Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family?” They didn’t have a problem with male inheritance; their problem was that their family wouldn’t get a portion at all because their father had no son. If they had had a brother, they wouldn’t have spoken up. Furthermore, when they were later told that getting an inheritance would restrict their marriage possibilities, because they would only be allowed to marry someone within their tribe, they readily acquiesced. To interpret Zelapchad’s daughters as feminists standing up for women’s rights in Jewish society is to bend the text to fit your your own argument.

  16. Someone on

    Agreed. A typical freshman in a typical Yeshiva High School has more Torah study than this schedule.

  17. Sandra on

    Dasi is “pretend-orthodox”? look at yourself. a “real-orthodox” person wouldn’t defame another on the internet. You just committed lashon hara, l’mehadrin.

  18. Sandra on

    There have been plenty of others who have been disempowered in Jewish thought. take converts, for example. They make tremendous sacrifices to join our community, our fate, and our destiny. Then halacha treats them as kind-of Jews (who are most obviously disempowered in being prohibited to be king, dayan, etc.). Worse, they live in a perpetual state of others doubting the validity of their Jewish status.

  19. Nehedar on

    Excellent work Dasi. I want to wish you the best in navigating the minefields of those who look to fight with your work.

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