“I am their Text”

A college student struggles to teach Jewish feminist values to teen girls

FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS, I taught this course, called “Women in Jewish Text and Tradition,” at Makom, an interdenominational Hebrew high school in New Haven, Connecticut. Initially, my goal for the class was to teach Jewish texts, and not my own feminist perspective on them. My class taught me the complexity involved in teaching texts I have complicated feelings about. Most importantly I have learned about who I am as a Jewish feminist, and about the difficult task of educating the next generation of Jewish women in a (so-called) post-feminist era.

One of the first things I was told by the principal at Makom is that Jewish educators are the primary texts for their students. They may not remember the specific words of Pirkei Avot or the names of major figures in pre-inquisition Spain, but the students will remember their teachers’ values and personalities. I have come to understand that I teach Torah through my own experience. As I live and learn, my relationship to Torah changes, and the text that I am changes too.

How did I come to be their teacher? I’m the product of a name-brand Conservative Jewish education: Solomon Schechter Day School, Camp Ramah, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Prozdor Hebrew High School. As a Jew, I am literate enough, and curious enough, to be aware of how much there is in Judaism and how little of it I know. As a woman, my Jewish practice is egalitarian; I use a tallit and tefilin when I pray in the morning, I also cover my head when praying, learning Jewish texts, and making brachot, blessings, in order to show respect for what I am doing, I am the daughter of a Jewish feminist and, more generally, a Jewish feminist magazine, I think seriously of becoming a rabbi, I am committed to feminism, to Judaism, and to a feminist Judaism, All of these facts play a role in who I am, and not only what I teach but how I teach.

I think that teaching fundamental Jewish texts, like the Bible, Mishnah, Tahnud or midrash, is one of the most important things that Jewish educators can do. I designed this course to be about women in Jewish texts, not about feminism, I wanted to introduce my students to classic texts that they might respond to in a positive way. For example, I hoped that showing high school girls the Song of Songs, the Biblical poem of erotic love, might give them a new framework for feeling happy about their bodies, or to think about how Judaism includes this vision of a happy, healthy, mutually respectful sexual relationship, I wanted to show my students that these texts have specific things to say to them about their concerns as developing young women, about their bodies, about sexuality, about morality and self-discovery in a Jewish context, I want the girls in my class to be able to talk about “teenage girl” things in a nonjudgmental Jewish context, as well as enabling them to talk about religious and spiritual things with their peers, I want them to leave the class proud to identify themselves as Jewish women, with all the complexity and struggle that tide implies.

But Jewish writings are, of course, not all positive about women and I myself have a complicated relationship to the texts and the tradition, I know that there are classic Jewish writings that strongly discourage women from practices that are very meaningful to me and to many other Jewish women—for example, the way that I pray. At the same time, I am entirely committed to (and cannot imagine giving up) my Jewish practice; keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, praying every day. Teaching my perspective on the Torah—a perspective that is fraught with both love and criticism— becomes a very tricky process. As an educator, I was concerned not to force my own opinions on my students. I wanted to show them, as objectively as I could, what foundational Jewish documents have to say about women, in hopes that this would draw them into a critical and loving relationship with these texts.

Introducing myself to my students on the first day of class, I outline my Jewish observances for them, to help them know me. Though they have mostly become b’not mitzvah, the current Jewish experiences of my seventeen-year- old students are more social and educational than religious. I suddenly realize that with my daily prayer and tefilin, I must seem radically religious to them. I fear alienating my students, as more traditionally observant teachers (who took holier-than-thou tones with me about my own practices) alienated me in the past, I almost want to apologize for the extent of my religious observance, or tell them that I don’t judge them for not having my level of observance, I also want to show them my Jewish commitment and feminist convictions which lead me to believe that they, like all Jews, ought to live observant lifestyles, I want to be confident but not coercive, and sometimes this is awkward. This is my first taste of the complexities involved in being a text.

On the third day of class, we talk about feminism, ‘Are you a feminist?” I ask, “No way,” says one girl, immediately, “Feminists are lesbians,”

Other girls have more moderate responses, but no one identifies with feminism. “It seems angry.” one explains. “What does it mean exactly?” I offer seeking equality of the sexes as a definition. “Yeah, well, that’s not what feminist means to people though,” another girl chimes in. I quote a T-shirt that was popular at my high school: “Feminism, the radical notion that women are people too.” A third girl is very uncomfortable with the word “radical” and with anger in general, and we spend a while talking about how people associate feminism with anger.

I ask them if they see any inequalities in their immediate worlds, in high school. One notes how boys boast about their academic achievement with impunity, while girls who even talk about their high grades are considered “stuck up.” There is much annoyed talk about double standards of sexual behavior; how guys get credit for flirting and having lots of girlfriends, but girls get blamed and derogated for the same behavior. Over the course of this one class, my students come to realize that many of their concerns are also the concerns of feminism. I feel proud of the class, that we have accomplished something good. I can see, in retrospect, how important it was to show them that feminism, as well as Judaism, can be inhabited and used, that it doesn’t have to be a foreign set of stringent beliefs held by others.

We talk about the Jewish wedding ceremony—the process by which a man buys a woman with a ring, a document, or sexual intercourse. “That’s what it means if you translate it?” one girl says incredulously. “Well, forget it, I’m not having a Jewish wedding.” I hasten to add that this transactional view of marriage dates from the Bible, a time when “buying” a wife was a normal practice among the different world cultures. The Jewish wedding isn’t more misogynistic than others from that time. “But people still do this?” the student persists. “Men still buy women?” It’s symbolic, I add, all the while silently agreeing with her challenge. I share her qualms, but feel that my opinion will undermine a real understanding that this is the Aramaic of the normative Jewish wedding ceremony, even among egalitarian, liberal Jews.

We look together at prayers, the daily thanks some men give that God “did not make me a woman,” and the female alternative, thanking God for “making me according to His will.” We look at the arguments against women’s reading of Torah aloud in public, which attributes possible humiliation to a community that acknowledges even one learned woman. And the argument against women’s performing positive time-bound commandments, which classes women with minors and slaves. The girls are shocked. Though they’ve sat through several years of Jewish education they have never seen these texts before.

We deal briefly with divorce and its attendant agunah problem. A student objects to the way the man has all the power there, how Judaism can “trap you if you care about it,” since a man can refuse his wife a Jewish writ of divorce, keeping her from making a second, legal Jewish marriage, while he himself is free to remarry. We look at Jewish attitudes towards menstruation, or female ritual impurity. Certainly the girls see the merits of having time to oneself during menstruation, but several students complain that this separation is not fair, especially considering the fact that impurity was also originally—but not longer—associated with men who ejaculate. Negative feelings are building up. No one is giving up on the religion or the people, but my students are becoming increasingly skeptical about the relevance of these traditional texts in their lives. “Judaism says that?” my students say over and over. “Maybe for them, but not for me,” one of them declares. The girls are detached and even dismissive rather than angry. One of the girls tells the class that she is planning on choosing which religion she’ll affiliate with when she’s eighteen and independent. Judaism, for her, is arbitrary, optional, and maybe even temporary; not something to get upset about. This makes me sad.

I decide to leach one class on Orthodox feminist ideas in hopes of showing my students a positive articulation of women’s role in traditional Judaism. But Orthodox feminism turns out to be unintelligible to my students. They cannot relate to the total Jewish commitment which seems to subordinate Orthodox women. My students can’t understand why women would focus on improving their second class status rather than seeking equality. We end up talking about ultra- Orthodox practices, modesty in dress, head coverings My students react like detached anthropologists; they don’t identify with these Jewish women. “They live in a completely different world from us, with totally different values and priorities,” explains one of my students, “They look really backwards to us, but we look really sinful to them.”

I am unhappy watching my students respond in this way to people who arc, like them, both Jewish and female. The last thing I want to do is make them feel alienated from other Jewish women, especially other Jewishly committed women. I want them to fee! ownership of Jewish texts and understand that these texts are the legacy of all Jews, so that they can understand the different choices open to them as Jewish women. And I want them to respect the rhythms and practices of Orthodox Jewish women, even if these are not part of a lifestyle that they would choose for themselves.

After-wards my students tell me that they enjoyed the course. They liked having an all-female class, and they learned something about what classic Jewish texts say about women. I have learned that teaching Torah is not simple, that Rashi’s concept of the Torah having seventy faces is a crucial one. There are many different perspectives on Jewish texts.

I am leaving New Haven, graduating, and I’m sad that I won’t be able to teach this course again soon. I would love to apply what I’ve learned to the task of teaching this subject matter again.

I would present the many different ways of understanding the intersection between “Jewish” and “woman.” Rather than expecting that my students would intuit and make a commitment to both Judaism and feminism, I’d present them with the experiences of the many women out there who are living these commitments in different ways. I wouldn’t fear feminism as my own particular, embarrassing personal bias, but teach it as a basic element of the culture in which we are living today. Feminism would be a theme of the class; the way that each manifestation of the Jewish female experience is responding, in some way, to twentieth-century calls for the equality of women and men. I would start with a short unit of Biblical and Talmud texts to outline the views of women from the perspective of tradition. But the class could not end there. I would look at women’s Rosh Chodesh groups, at the decision to ordain female rabbis in the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. I would look at Orthodox women’s prayer groups, and the new Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. I would also have us read excerpts from different Jewish feminist writings: Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism, Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, Haviva Ner-David’s Life on the Fringes, Rachel Adier’s Engendering Judaism. In this framework, I would be comfortable presenting my own practices and beliefs as one of many different approaches that Jewish women take to find (or develop) meaningful religious experiences.

It is a constant struggle for me to forge a strong, specifically egalitarian Jewish identity, while also accepting as equally valid—in the interest of Jewish feminist solidarity— the practices and expressions of every other Jewish woman. This is a feminist project: to build identity without recreating categories of oppression and hierarchy, without entering into debates about who is the more authentic Jew. My membership in the community of Jewish women, and all of Israel, is as important to me as my tefilin; I am not willing to give either up. The best way I can think of to teach the next generation of young Jewish women is to show them all sides of this struggle. Maybe I would call this class “The Seventy Faces of Women in Judaism.”

Sophie Danis Oberfield graduated in May from Yale and is going on to study at the Yeshiva of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem.

Between Acceptance and Resistance
by Rachel Kranson

While there are countless ways to be a Jew and a feminist, there is one space that we all share. We accept the Jewish religion, culture and communties that nuture and sustain us, and at the same time we resist those elements of Jewish culture which try to limit our voices, our potential, or our self-respect. And so we each choreograph new dances in that space between acceptance and resistance.

The spaces in between acceptance and resistance can be places of invigorating energy and creativity, where women are reinventing ritual, forming communities, learning new ways of learning, listening, worshiping.

But these are also the spaces of uncertainty, of doubt, of defensiveness. We struggle against those who claim that our feminist Judaism is not authentic enough, against those who fear that any change in Judaism will break a sacred chain. We struggle against those same voices within ourselves.

We also struggle against those who ask us why we bother with a religion that is so patriarchal, with a community that is so resistant to feminism and other necessary and important changes. And we struggle against those same voices within ourselves.

Here we have the stories of two women finding their own ways to negotiate between the parts of Judaism that they embrace, and the parts that they challenge. Each of these women notes that is hard to remain in struggle, stepping carefully between what feels right to them as feminists, and what feels right to them as Jews. But each of these writers has also found beauty and meaning in this delicate negotiation. As we watch these carefully choreographed steps, we may discover a way to dance at our own revolution.

…And Before Girls Become Teenagers…
by Tamara Cohen

Holding workshops for pre-bat mitzvah age daughters and their mothers Is a wonderful avenue for exposing girls to Jewish feminism without ever having to be preachy and without having to prove to them that there is still a need for feminism (it just emerges as obvious). I think the age is a perfect one because it’s still before the hardest stage of adolescence, just on the cusp of so much change, but not yet the point at which girls are losing their voices and self-esteem. Also, bat mitzvah is something that has not always existed for girls, and talking about that fact is a starting point for talking about the different histories of Jewish female and Jewish male adulthood.

At pre-bat mitzvah workshops sponsored by Ma’yan, the Jewish women’s project at the JCC on the Upper West Side of New York City, we also exposed girls preparing for bat mitzvah to issues of feminine God language. The method is everything. I asked the girls to share their own experiences of when and why they pray. I asked them to brainstorm adjectives that describe what they are seeking when they pray and then, from those adjectives, we developed new Images and names for God. Only then did I bring In. as a question, the contradiction between the multiplicity of metaphors we had just brainstormed and the limited nature of the word and Image King of the World. I guess what I find works best is doing feminism before talking about it, doing it in such a way that people will say, yes, of course, this makes sense, and then, only after that, telling them that this stuff that makes sense-that’s feminism.