Rabbis in Red Lipstick

There are many things that play an important part in my morning ritual — a nice hot drink, a shower, morning prayers. One of the most important elements of my morning routine, however, is putting on my red lipstick. There is something so satisfying about applying the final smear of the creamy red across my lips before I walk out of the door — I feel instantly like a brighter, better version of myself. My red lips have been my trademark for the last several years, and though the shade has varied, it’s always been red, red, and red.

In college, I spent hours defending my cosmetic habits to my feminist friends, who accused me of buying into patriarchal conceptions of beauty. I knew, however, that they didn’t quite understand why the contents of that tiny red tube were so vital. It was about making an active choice about my own gender expression in a way that made me feel all at once powerful, beautiful and uniquely feminine.

These days, alongside my graduate studies, I’ve also begun to learn at Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary seeking to confirm Orthodox women as halakhic and spiritual leaders.

The program is going well so far, days spent with my head buried in ancient rabbinic texts, exploring and wrestling with the complex nuances of Jewish law. A few weeks ago, however, something happened that struck a particular nerve for me. I was sitting and eating lunch with a colleague of mine in between classes, and we were having a discussion about what the appropriate attire should be when performing ritual duties. Considering the controversial space the Yeshiva already occupies in a broader global Orthodox context, we agreed that though our clothing choices should not completely hide the fact that we are, in fact, sexual beings, anything too provocative was inappropriate.

I paused for a moment and gestured towards my lips. “What about my lipstick?” I asked nervously, almost unwilling to hear her response.

She paused.

“Maybe pick a different color,” she said.

And thus entered a complication into my morning rituals. I thought about the women who have preceded me and moved on to become spiritual leaders, activists, and strong voices in their communities. I meditated on the ancient rabbinic texts I review every day, which often indicate a fear of female “otherness” and sexuality.

I don’t want to disappear into the folds. I seek to bring the entire expression of myself — not a compromised or compartmentalized version of me — to all of my pursuits. The thought of ducking into the bathroom to wipe off the lipstick before I go to teach Jewish texts is troubling to me. We live in an era when Orthodox women are finally studying to be members of clergy — this, in and of itself, is wildly radical. It seems like this era should also be able to accommodate a broad diversity of women committed to this risky work — women who have loud voices and love bright colors, women who are comfortable with who they are and what they bring to the table.

Continued at the Lilith blog!