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Lines of Communication

Dear LILITH:

I thoroughly enjoyed Cynthia Ozick’s “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question ” [issue #6]. Having fought these battles for so long, I had thought that I was past the point of being driven into a raging fury, but what Ozick wrote moved me enormously. I felt like screaming and shouting in sheer anger and frustration.

There is one point, however, where I must take issue with her. The principle of women’s exemption from positive time-bound commandments does not rest on the idea of kevod ha-tzibur (“the honor of the congregation”). The two are totally unrelated in all of rabbinic literature, as far as my research has shown me, until their recent coupling in anti-feminist polemics. Mishnah Kiddush in 1:7 states simply that “Positive time-bound commandments —men are obligated and women are exempt; positive non-time-bound commandments—both men and women are obligated.” A baraita found on Megillah 23a states: “All may be part of the seven (who are called up to the Torah), even a woman and even a minor; but the sages said that a woman should not read because of the honor of the congregation.”

The status of the public reading of the Torah on Shabbat is rather ambiguous: it is technically not a positive time-bound commandment, nor is it considered part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (see Tosafot, on Rosh Hashanah 33a, beginning Ha Rabbi Yose ha Rabbi Yehudah). There is, therefore, no a priori reason for excluding women from the public reading of the Torah other than the social prejudice of kevod ha-tzibur. No reason whatsoever is given for the exemption of women from positive time-bound commandments, however; it is not until the past few centuries that the “home obligations” argument makes its appearance.

by Joan Friedman, Toronto, Canada


Dear Editors:

Concerning Ozick’s discussion of women’s role in the synagogue, “kevod hatzibur”—the honor of the community—is the official reason for not calling women up to the Torah, but it has nothing to do with exempting them from public prayer. Women are excluded from the Orthodox minyan, as Ozick indicates, because public prayer is a commandment performed at a specific time. Unfortunately, none of the reasons given for women’s exemption from time-bound commandments is very appealing from a feminist point of view. To be fair, however, it should be said that many halachic authorities require women to pray in some form at least once a day. If we are going to demand the obligation to pray publicly and be counted in a minyan, then we should already be praying regularly, in public or in private. To ignore the obligation we have while demanding a heavier one seems inconsistent.

by Gitelle Rappoport, Chicago, IL


To the Editors:

Substitutions of gender in references to God, Ozick writes, lead “only to quibbles about the incompetence of pronouns.” This conclusion follows the examination of several examples of her own construction. However, a section in the Amida, “Modim Anachnu Lach,” begins with a feminine address; a whole passage in the K’dusha of Shabbat morning services uses feminine pronouns and verb forms. Such cases are not frequent, but they show Ozick’s implied premise-that they do not occur—to be a little unfair. However, the existence of such ambiguities actually supports and strengthens her conclusion.

by Elana B. Doering, Baltimore, MD


To the Editors:

The woman problem is not a frivolous side issue in Judaism as the establishment would have it, but the central flaw in Judaism itself, as it is in most other religions and in most societies and cultures. That is an idea so profoundly terrifying in its apparent “heresy” that it is usually evaded, distorted or trivialized. No one has better articulated the whole knotty problem than Cynthia Ozick in an example of passionate yet very lucid and intellectual writing. I am becoming an Ozick fan.

by Miriam Greenwald, Merion, PA.


To the Editors:

Ozick’s article makes a superb beginning towards vindicating the rights of Jewish women… but the argument she develops from the metaphoric uses of the Holocaust and “mass loss” leads her into complicity with the kind of thinking which would regard Jews as their own worst enemy.

Jewish women who are encouraged to believe that Jewish patriarchy has victimized them as much as—if not more than— non-Jewish anti-Semitism, do not know the difference between “real” and “metaphoric” or assumed victimization. . .We do not minimize the loss of professional, educational and political rights, but we dare not equate these with the loss of life itself, with pogroms and expulsions, not even with the burning of holy books… It is simply not true that Jewish women, through the centuries, have suffered a mass loss, quasi or metaphorically, equal to Jewish mass loss of any aspect. Such an argument radically separates their history from Jewish history per se, and lends support to those women who “cannot decide between their feminism or their Judaism.” Ms. Ozick’s argument gives them good reason to decide against their Judaism.. .

Instead of the metaphor of mass loss, I suggest the metaphor of time-boundedness, for this is what history is about: events and ideas take place in time. The fact is that women were “time-bound” in their role as mothers. Biology bound them to nature, and their “time-boundedness” was part of their biological nature. For Jewish women, there should be no quarrel with their patriarchal past, for there is little if any evidence that it was oppressive. It is no aspersion on Jewish men or Jewish patriarchy that Judaism developed in such a way as to take account of this and, in the main, to take compassionate account. We can suppose that there were women whose intellectual and sexual natures suffered on this account; but to measure this humble observation against the oppression of auto-da-fe is to put the issue on a Procrustean bed. There can be little reason for modern Christians to concern themselves about their behavior towards Jews if the argument is that Jewish men have been the worst enemy Jewish women have had.

Jewish feminism must distinguish itself as Jewish feminism: it must not borrow the language of anti-Semitism in any form or allow the desire for religious equality and political maturity to mask or permit itself to be mistaken for Jewish self-hatred.

by Roberta Kalechofsky, Marblehead, MA


Dear Editors:

Reading your magazine has made me feel less alone—I no longer apologize for “my big mouth.” After all, even Cynthia Ozick thinks as I do!

What concerns me most is the attitude of women—not necessarily Orthodox or Hassidic—but those who say, “I just wouldn’t feel right seeing a woman up there as a rabbi.” What nonsense!

The letter of solicitation from the Jewish Theological Seminary received this past week was answered by my husband with the message that “no females there means no money from here.”

by Miriam Milamed, Swampscott, MA


Dear LILITH:

I read Reena Sigman Friedman’s article, “The Politics of Ordination” (issue #6) with particular interest. May I compliment her on an exemplary journalistic effort.

by Gerson D. Cohen Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY


…a fair and good article. The author captured the spirit and depth of emotion that is involved in the issue.

Israel Francus
Chairman of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics Jewish Theological Seminary New York, NY


Dear LILITH:

I read with great interest the article on the politics of ordination. It is almost a dozen years since I first raised the issue on the floor of the Rabbinical Assembly. The Rabbinical Assembly Membership Committee reports annually to the convention. At the conclusion of its report some dozen years ago, I asked the Membership Chairman whether the policy of his Committee was to consider all applicants regardless of their sex. I was hooted off the floor and the question was left unanswered.

Some five years ago it reached the floor on the last day of the convention and it was tabled. The following year, my resolution was placed before the Assembly as a formal document of the Resolutions Committee. It was debated for over an hour and the convention adjourned before a vote could be taken.

Some three years ago I once again had the formal Resolutions Committee endorsement and had good reason to believe that the vote would be favorable. Debate was scheduled for a Tuesday night, early in the convention, at an hour so late in the evening as to make it impossible to conclude debate without a vote. The Chancellor requested of me, through an intermediary, to withdraw my motion which by now had two parts: one directing the Membership Committee to consider applications regardless of sex? and the other urging the Seminary to accept candidates for the Rabbinical School regardless of their sex.

The officers of the Rabbinical Assembly circulated, following the rules governing the Assembly, a constitutional amendment that changed the language of the articles regarding membership, removing all sexist language. This change in the constitution mooted the first part of the resolution.

The second part, addressed to the Seminary, I was requested to withdraw in favor of what appeared to me a much stronger and better resolution. The Chancellor’s request was for the Rabbinical Assembly to ask of him the appointment of a special commission to study the question and to report its progress at the next convention, with a final report no later than the RA convention of 1979. With mixed feelings I did request the withdrawal of the motion it was my honor to introduce, in favor of the Chancellor’s request. I subsequently served on the commission the Chancellor appointed. The final vote of the commission vindicated, I thought, my earlier decision to withdraw the resolution I had worked on behalf of for so long. The Chancellor was now firmly committed to the ordination of women and I felt certain that the war was over.

I did not imagine the Seminary faculty could refuse to endorse the position of its Chancellor. Nonetheless, the faculty has that power and voted to table the report of the commission. For the present, JTS refuses to admit women for purposes of their ultimate ordination. I was chagrined, and angered by the decision.

I believe firmly that this setback will be temporary. The cause of justice will proceed, and we will yet see women ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. I would now predict that the first woman member of the Rabbinical Assembly will have been ordained by some other rabbinical school and I hope that time will be very soon.

The options open to those who have worked with me in the last few years to bring about a change in policy are many. I hope that people who care will insist that this question not be permitted to lie dormant. I suggest to readers who care about the issue that they press for the release of the taped record of the commission established by the Chancellor. That tape, when released, will go far to point out the strengths and weaknesses of argument. The best the opponents could come up with was a slippery slope argument—weak though it is. But the transcript of the sessions would expose the shallowness and chauvinism of the opposition. It should be released.

My commitment remains unchanged. I intend to pursue every avenue I can to bring about equality within the Jewish people and to assist the Conservative Movement in meeting its responsibilities to our heritage that seeks justice.

by Fishel A. Pearlmutter, Rabbi, Temple B’nai Israel Toledo, OH


Dear Editors:

I read Professor Evelyn Torton Beck’s article, “I.B. Singer’s Misogyny” (issue #6), with both interest and dismay, and decided that I could not remain silent. I feel that Professor Torton Beck’s comments and observations were evidence, In many (not all) cases of a very serious misreading of Singer in general, and of the works under consideration in particular.

Often this misreading stemmed from a failure to differentiate between the voice of the narrator or a character in the action (whom we are not to take at face value) and the greater controlling voice of*the all-knowing author who may, in fact, be leading us to very different conclusions than those his characters have drawn. Prof. Torton Beck has also quoted sentences out of context, and allowed certain statements to go totally unsubstantiated. I would like to support this criticism by speaking in greater detail about two of the stories—”Zeitl and Rickel” and “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”—mentioned in the article.

Professor Torton Beck writes:

“Singer’s thinking, epitomized in “Zeitl and Rickel” is that ‘old maids, you know, also end up half crazy. But when a woman who had a man is left alone it goes to her head.’ The result in this story is a lesbian relationship which Singer views as the ultimate aberration.”

Professor Torton Beck has obviously failed to differentiate between the author and the narrator. Singer, the author, is a sophisticated secularized Eastern European Jew who has lived in Poland and America and is certainly not naive about homosexuality. A close reading of “Zeitl and Rickel” will show that he and his story are full of insight and compassion for his lesbian heroines. It is not Singer who spouts the very traditional thinking of the shtetl that “old maids end up half crazy,” but rather the narrator whom he has created to tell us the story.

She is very different and separate from him. She is a woman who has never left the shtetl. She is telling a story which she recalls from her not-so-recent childhood. She tries to convey all the shock, confusion, and lack of understanding that she, a young girl, felt over 40 years ago when she was a witness to the events recounted in this tale.

Even this narrator, with her rather traditional view of things, could hardly be termed totally condemning of Zeitl and Rickel. “I knew them both,” she says, “may they intercede for us in heaven. They’ve surely served their punishment by now.” Were Zeitl and Rickel’s lesbianism truly the “ultimate aberration,” she would hardly be able to see them as being capable of interceding for anyone in heaven. In other places, the narrator qualifies and even casts some doubts upon the veracity of some of the things she relates. (“There’s no limit to what evil anyone can invent”); on other occasions her skepticism is implied by her using such qualifiers as, “I was not there but people said,” “People said. . . but I don’t believe it.” She is not ready to judge them on the basis of what may be only hearsay, and how much less so is Singer, who is concerned with conveying the tragedy of two people living in a society does not accept or understand them….

Zeitl and Rickel’s lesbianism is explained not only by their past histories, but also by their unconventional responses to male domination and societal pressure. Even in heaven—supposedly the place of total good and justice for all—a lesbian relationship is preferable to a heterosexual one, because as one of them says, “Since we have no husbands we shall be no one’s footstools.”

They feel so oppressed by society because of their lesbianism that they are constantly looking for ways to escape. They try to transcend “this vale of tears” through mysticism, and when that fails they commit suicide. They are perfectly willing to endure the hell that comes with suicide because it is preferable to the hell they must endure on earth, and because once they go through hell they can “get married up there.” It will be worth it because “in heaven there is no difference between men and women.” This world certainly does not offer them such equality; this world ostracizes them. The author presents it with the pathos and sensitivity, not of one who condemns or abhors, but of one who wishes to convey the injustice and pain inherent in their situation.

If any story has ever been unjustly accused of showing even the slightest bit of disdain for women and their intelligence, it is “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.” Few stories could be more sympathetic to women and more appreciative of their intelligence. I could not agree less with Professor Torton Beck who writes: “The best known of these strong women, Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” comes off relatively well in comparison to some of the others, but even here Singer hardly shows enthusiasm for the young woman’s remarkable intelligence. In recognition of her capacity for and interest in learning, her father quips: ‘Yentl—you have the soul of a man.’ ‘So why was I born a woman?’ ‘Even heaven makes mistakes.’ Singer, who controls the narrative, seems to agree with this explanation. For all the apparent sympathy for Yentl’s situation, her inclination to study in preference to mending socks is presented as if it were a kind of failing in her.”

Once again, the tragic flaw of the analysis lies in Prof. Torton Beck’s failing to separate, not only between Singer the author and the narrator of the tale, but also between the author and the characters. Yentl’s father and the townspeople may see Yentl’s femaleness as a mistake made in heaven, and on one level Singer may agree, but his reasons for agreeing are not those implied in the article.

It is true that when God made Yentl a woman in Eastern Europe, God made a mistake. A woman such as Yentl had no chance to fulfill herself in that society and must therefore sentence herself to a life of androgyny and deception. Singer seems to be saying that this is very sad and an insult to a good female mind. The Singer of “Yentl” is very much the Singer who feels Judaism has made a “historical mistake” in not teaching women Torah. Yentl is living proof that rigid role differentiation between men and women is an artificially created distinction.

In almost all respects, she is the equal if not the better of any male. She is even built like a man—”tall, thin, bony, with small breasts and narrow hips.” She likes to dress up like a man, and she “much preferred men’s activities to women’s.” When she meets the boys of the ye-shiva, she compares their talk to the talk of women, and to her surprise she discovers it is not very different. She proves herself the intellectual equal of any man in the yeshiva, and she even manages to develop a sexual-romantic interest in a woman.

In short, the author has shown many times over that the difference between Yentl and a real man is not in her brains, her interests, or even in her sexual preference. A man can do nothing, except perhaps fulfill the first commandment with a woman, that Yentl is not capable of doing. The only real difference between Yentl, who is not accepted by male society and Anshel who is accepted, is the clothes she/he wears. Clothes can hide one’s gender from the world, and as long as they hide Yentl’s she is free to enter a man’s world and assume a male role. The minute she takes off her gabardine and skullcap, she relegates herself to a life of “bearing and rearing, knitting and sewing.”

Once Yentl has had a taste of being Anshel, she cannot go back to being Yentl. Singer does not present her inclination to study in preference to mending socks as a failing in her. Neither she nor Singer can condone wasting herself totally on such menial tasks. Nothing could be more poignant than Yentl’s explanation to Avigdor of why she cannot marry him: “I wanted to study Gemorah and Commentaries with you, not darn your socks.”

The narrator of “Yentl” often speaks about the truth and how difficult it is to find it. This story seems to be saying that the truth about men and women lies buried underneath their clothes. Clothes and sex role differentiations are all artificial constructs. Yentl is every bit as clever and as deserving to study Torah as any man, but because she Is a woman, society can never let her do that. Her female body and her supposedly “masculine” intellect have condemned her to a life on the fringes of society in which she is “neither one nor the other.” Truly heaven has made a mistake, but Singer blames society for not correcting it.

I hope that these two analyses have shown that Singer is not a misogynist, and that his stories are as sympathetic to women as are his publicly stated views. I hope that when Singer writes of oppressed women who are victimized, degraded, and overpowered by men, we do not automatically assume that he condones or hopes to perpetuate this situation. We should instead, be asking if he is not concerned and disturbed by their plight..
by Sheva Zucker, Winnipeg, Canada

(The writer was Instructor of Yiddish Language and Literature at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg, 1979-80, and is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature—Yiddish and English— at the CUNY Graduate Center and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, NY)


Shalom,

When the Twin Cities Women’s Minyan celebrated Rosh Chodesh Shvat and Tu Beshvat [New Year of the Trees], part of our ritual included Tzedakah. We unanimously agreed [the money] should be sent to Lilith for its continued support. We ask you to please accept our donation—monetary and ideological.

The Twin Cities Women’s Minyan Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN


Dear Editors:

In a Letter to the Editors in issue #5, Professor Erich Rosenthal tells readers that “a new specialty in the field of demography .addresses itself to the problems of motivation for having children,” and he ventures the guess “that the decision to have children is not influenced by propaganda.” In connecting these two assertions he leaves readers with the impression that demographic research will settle the role of propaganda once and for all.

The research to which Professor Rosenthal refers cannot and will not resolve this question, for the methods of this research preclude the very possibility of discovering the effects of propaganda. These methods are based on asking women questions about their prospective and retrospective fertility decisions—as already conceived by the researcher asking the questions. Any influences which operate at subconscious levels or which occur in momentary and fleeting but repeated verbal and visual images will pass unnoticed by the women and by the researcher. Yet these messages, taken collectively, add up to a very powerful influence on subconscious motivation.

The very fact that there are baby booms following wars is testimony to the power of collective sentiments in child-bearing decisions. These collective sentiments are transmitted through spoken and written word and through visual image; in short, through propaganda.

My own opinion, based on detailed sociological analysis of the hidden messages directed against women in the reporting of recent news events by the mass media, is that we are currently witnessing, and have been for some time, the massive cultural expression of male guilt for the Vietnam War—guilt which expresses itself in self-hatred projected outward against women through the mass media, and guilt for which women must atone by having babies. In other words, men atone for making war by getting women pregnant. Time will tell whether this contention is borne out by a new baby boom.

by Sheila Klatzky, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Fordham University, Bronx, NY


Dear LILITH:

We have just recently learned of the plan of the Council of Jewish Federations to hold its 1981 Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri. As former St. Louisans, we are proud of the work of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Centers Association there. However, we are concerned with the social and political implications of choosing St. Louis as a convention site. Missouri is one of the 15 non-ratified states. We are disappointed that the Council of Jewish Federations would tacitly condone the non-ratified status of Missouri by holding its annual convention there!

We urge the CJF to give notice to the St. Louis convention bureau that you will withdraw your convention from St. Louis unless and until Missouri ratifies the Equal Rights Amendment. We also urge you to join us in actively working for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the non-ratified states and its full implementation in all other states.

From Hawaii, the first State to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, we wish you Aloha and Shalom.

by Barbara Fischlowitz, Merle Fischlowitz, Honolulu, HI