Orthodox Women

Sociological overview and a theological reckoning

Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday, edited by Rivkah Slonim (Urim Publications, $32.95), showcases a variety of Orthoprax womens’ voices.

“Before I knew the word feminism, it knew me.” So writes Slonim, who grew up ultra-Orthodox. She’s aware that Orthodoxy and feminism may seem intellectually incompatible. “If women were happy within that patriarchal construct, went the cliché, they could best be compared to slaves smiling in the sun,” she notes.

But for Slonim, “Judaism is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal — it is covenantal.” Women’s worth is ordained by God, not by our ability to act like men. When we’re comfortable with our Godgiven nature, we transcend patriarchy’s so-called restrictions.

Like many anthologies, this one has a wide range. Some of the essays are well written but not my cup of tea, such as Wendy Shalit’s arch defense of tsnius (modesty), “A Little Bit Innocent.” Describing photographs of an Orthodox woman, she writes, “That’s how I learned that there are different stages in the life cycle of a modestynik. No Touching, Touching, then Hat.” Shalit and I attended Williams College at the same time, and came away with wholly opposite impressions, so her essay fascinates me.

Elizabeth Ehrlich’s “Seasons of the Soul” is my favorite in the book. Ehrlich alludes to the sacrifice not of Isaac but of the Mother “who bends the course of life to have everything ready for that Friday night, who brings in the Sabbath but never rests.” Her yearning and her wariness are both palpable. Writing about keeping kosher, she acknowledges ambivalence: “I do not enjoy setting myself apart. I fear a statement of difference in a world that needs to see itself as one.” Her laundry list of forbidden foods is poetry on the page.

Some of the anthology’s best essays are poignant and pointed. Maria Schwartz’s “Reverse Assimilation” describes how her youngest son “traded in his motorcycle, his ponytail and his ripped-up jeans for a dark suit, a yarmulke and lernen… I had a ‘black hat’ where my son used to be.”

I’ve highlighted essays by outsiders to the Orthodox world, but most here are written by insiders. Some speak to me despite our differences. In “Studying Prayerfully,” Sarah Yehudit Schneider explains that kabbalah and Hasidut see prayer as a feminine mode of service and study as a masculine one. She draws on traditional sources to argue for the “interinclusion” of feminine and masculine modes of being.

But other essays here feel pat and self-congratulatory. Roxane Peyser’s “A Sanctuary within a Sanctuary” is an apologetic for the mechitza. She describes the scandalous way that men ogle women in a Reform temple, and concludes that the appropriate role of women in Judaism is “separate and equal.”

And in “A Woman of Velcro,” Ellen Golub chronicles how she once saw Shabbat as enmeshing women “in all the things feminism supposedly had freed me from,” but took on the practice of making Shabbat anyway because it was the right thing to do for her children and for Judaism. Does that mean that if I don’t choose Orthoprax observance, I’m doing it wrong?

Bread and Fire presumes that Orthodoxy is normative. Several of these writers report realizing, as adults, that their Jewish educations didn’t open the richness of the tradition to them. (Sarah Shapiro: “When I as a teenager was searching for truth as only an assimilated Jewish teenager can…”) But surely that’s an indictment of lukewarm Jewish educations, not of liberal Judaism writ large? This recurring theme may alienate liberal readers.

I’m glad these voices have been brought together in celebration of the Judaism they cherish. I just wish we were all more easily able to acknowledge and honor each others’ Jewish choices. Maybe when Moshiach comes.

Rachel Barenblat is a poet (author most recently of chaplainbook, laupe house 2006) and a student in the ALEPH rabbinic program.