Sunday, October 26, 2008

Women in Judaism: Chin up!

I can't help but write about the topic of women in Judaism. Specifically, the reason I'm inclined to write is because several Jewish, woman bloggers have written in the past week about Simchat Torah being a man's holiday. You can find posts over at Ilana-Davita , Kosher Academic , as well as Raizy and Isramom. I'm sure there are an abundance of blogs on the net that share kvetches about the holiday while making an assessment about the situation of women in Orthodox Judaism, but these are all I have in the collection right now. Interestingly, last night at the rabbi's another dinner attendee (a male of the Conservative Jewish variety) and I got into a discussion about the topic of women in Orthodox Judaism, the mechitzah, Simchat Torah and so much more.

The posts are a lot about the division of men and women in Orthodox Judaism, how women don't get called for aliyot and how during Simchat Torah the women all sit around watching as the men and boys dance around in great joy. I'm summarizing here, but it's sort of the same kvetches that people have had for eons about Orthodoxy, and it's one thing that I've never really had a beef with -- and this is coming from someone who wasn't raised Jewish, who came through as a Reform convert. Maybe I'm naive and because I didn't grow up in Orthodox I don't have the beef that others do, but in my experience, the only way that I can truly feel a connection to G-d in prayer and action and sentiment and lifestyle is when it is the "Orthodox" way of doing things.

So when I was talking to a friend last night, I was explaining that the mechitzah -- to me -- is so necessary and important in Jewish prayer. My only beef with mechitzot is when they are too tall and you can't see the rabbi, but even then, I'm comfortable enough in my prayer that I don't need to see the rabbi. After all, the rabbi isn't meant to be like a priest or pastor, he is meant to guide the services, but he isn't the key to a proper Shabbat service or otherwise. The mechitzah, to me, is marvelous. I go to shul for me, I go to pray in a community setting, but I go for me and it's all about how you view it. When I go to shul and people are all touchy feely (this is at a non-Orthodox shul, that is), it seems unnatural to me. It's just people going through motions but without the ability to focus on the point of being in shul. The mechitzah allows me to focus, it doesn't separate me from the men, it allows me to be myself.

Now, when I go to Chabad on campus, the mechitzah isn't like it was back home (about four-feet-tall), but is rather a folding thing that can be easily put up and taken down. It's tall, and it blocks the view almost entirely. During Simchat Torah, the mechitzah was up. We women -- there were never more than five of us -- were cutting a rug, really dancing, really being joyous and taking part in the holiday, and when we got really raucous, we moved the mechitzah so that the men couldn't see us. We were celebrating, and I wasn't thinking at all how awkward it might have been or how separate we were or the division. During the service, the rabbi even had me read the English portion before we chanted -- I was involved. Back in Chicago at the modern Orthodox synagogue I went to, nearly every week one of the rebbetzins got up and did a d'var Torah in the shul and all listened with poise and respect. It is not impossible for women to play a powerful role in an Orthodox setting, and anyone who tells you otherwise is stuck on the "can't" and not the empowering aspects of the mitzvot. Mitzvot are not there to bind us, they are there to make us more aware of how we live, be we women or men, and our differing roles are unique and purposeful.

I guess, what it comes down to, is what you can personally get from Judaism. In my mind, I am so devoted to my personal experience with G-d and within Judaism, and I get to express that in how involved I can and cannot be in synagogue. I know that when women get married, their role changes and they have children and homes to attend to, but if you are driven and inspired to maintain that experience of personal, ethical Judaism, then it will be done. You just can't get caught up in all the "you can't do this" and look at them as G-d's way of providing each of our souls with our unique needs. We don't always know what is best for us, but I have to believe that G-d does.

And it isn't all women raise the kids, make the food, keep the home and men go to shul, study, read Torah, get called for aliyot, etc. There's so much more to it than that. We just get so caught up in what we don't have or don't get to do that we lose the meaning and the purpose for those special things we DO get to do and what our individual needs and experience are.

Chin up, ladies.