Friday, June 28, 2019

Muslim Atheist Christian Jew and African American Living and playing Together For Humanity (Not in) Retreat

The setting was a cottage in the Blue Mountains, complete with a wood fireplace in the lounge room. The cast of characters included; a 21 year old female African American, a student of criminal justice; a 26 year old Australian, a Muslim man of Lebanese heritage; myself, a Jewish man more than twice their age; three women with young children including a Catholic teacher, of Croatian heritage; an atheist social worker of Hungarian heritage; and a Hijab wearing Muslim of Cocos Island and Anglo heritage; as well as another male teacher, of German and Peruvian heritage. This was the Interfaith, Intercultural Together for Humanity retreat.

Instead of talking about our work, we lived and played our message of building inclusive diverse community. Not only are there foods that the Muslim participants and I are forbidden to eat; for me, even the cooking utensils need to be Kosher. So I used a sandwich-maker to cook Kosher and Halal pumpkin and eggplant, lentil burgers and scrambled eggs. The three males cooked dinner one night, with the youngest, a newly married man, cooking a delicious pumpkin soup. As is so often the case, despite the men’s efforts to clean up during and after cooking, the women unfortunately ended up with the lion’s share of the cleaning up.    

Prayers were done quietly in another room, with people disappearing at various times. Otherwise, religion came up informally. We played a game together called ‘Apples to Apples -Jewish Children’s edition’ that I sometimes play with my kids on a Saturday afternoon. Each participant got 5 red cards that had a word on them that is part of the world of a Jewish child. The play involved selecting one of these cards to match with a green card that contained an adjective. I wondered if the unfamiliar cultural references would make the game fail or provide a glimpse into my world and spark cross-cultural conversation. Fortunately, it certainly turned out to be the latter.

In our game, one of the red cards referred to the festival of Shavuot. The card sparked a conversation about how my family celebrates Shavuot, with a dairy meal with blintzes with mushrooms and cheese, and lots of ice cream. Often, Shavuot afternoon is spent in front of a live wood fire, just as we did in our mountain cottage. Another card referred to queen Vashti, who refused to appear naked before her husband’s drunken friends to show off her beauty. This led to sharing perspectives on women standing up to unreasonable men. Perspectives on gender politics were exchanged, along with personal and family stories, late into the night. We learned a lot about each other’s’ families. Some of it was funny, some of it was sad. While I sensibly went to bed at 11, others talked till 1 am.

Names were the topic of another conversation. One man’s migrant German father was insistent on assimilating his family into Australian culture. Rosario became Sharon or Shazza. And a ‘fat lot of good’ it did for the high school aged son, who was emphatically told he was a ‘wog’, and not Australian. Worse still, despite his grandfather having been a partisan who fought Hitler, the bullying of the grandson included giving him the nickname Nazi! It was even printed on the back of his year 12 jersey.

We had a great bushwalk in the mountains together. But I also went back into the forest alone. My heart was filled with a feeling of connectedness, and my mind was mulling over a disturbing story from the weekly Torah reading, about a man who was put to death for collecting firewood on the Sabbath (1). Like the altruistic bunch in the cottage, according to the sages, this man was an idealist (2). The context of his collecting these sticks was that he was 'in the desert' (3). His people had failed to have faith in God’s Promised Land, so they were condemned to never leave the bleak desert and see the realization of their dreams (4). In that case, they reasoned, there was little point in continuing the practices that lead to a better world. Just throw in the towel and forget about the Sabbath. One man, our wood collector, wanted to be test case for the Sabbath, to show that the practices must continue and he was prepared to die to demonstrate that the Sabbath was still to be taken seriously. He is praised for his effort (5).

There are reasons to be pessimistic about the degree to which the human family is ever going to achieve the “Promised land”, of true acceptance and affirmation of all people, in all our diversity. It often feels more like a long term stay in the desert than an imminent arrival in the lush forests of the Blue Mountains. However, regardless of where we are right now, or what the short term prospects are for achieving our dreams, we can and indeed we must continue to live and play this vision. 


1)    Numbers 15:32-36.
2)    Midrash, cited in Tosafot, on Bava Basra 119b, Dibbur Hamaschil Afilu.
3)    Numbers 15:32.The fact that the text mentions their presence explicitly despite this being obvious is pointed out by the Chida in Torat Hachida, 66, p. 91.
4)    Numbers 13:1-14:35.
5)    This interpretation is based on the Midrash above and the Chida in Torat Hachida, 66, 71, 72 p. 91-93.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Sotah Ordeal of the Straying Wife and An Orthodox Jewish Feminist

A male Palestinian atheist friend made a comment on my last blog post about the status of women in Judaism. He wrote: “alas matter how one spins it...women do occupy an utterly inferior position in all religions.” In this blog post I want to explore one more disturbing example that would appear to support his argument but then to bring what I learned from reading a book by Tamar Frankiel that presents a strong counter view.

First to the example: in this week’s Torah reading we are confronted by the case of a woman accused of adultery (1). Essentially, if a married woman is suspected by her husband of infidelity with a particular man, he warns her to stay away from him. If she is found alone with this man she would go through a humiliating, public procedure. This involves her hair being uncovered in a society where hair being covered was the norm; uncovering it would disgrace her (2). Her husband would bring a sacrifice and she would drink “bitter” water, “that curse” in which text that includes God’s name had been erased. She dies a horrible death if she is guilty, but is exonerated and blessed if she is innocent. The woman is silent during this ordeal. The only words that the woman speaks during the ritual are to say Amen, twice. The text also tells us nothing about the rights of a woman who suspects her husband of infidelity.

One modern scholar wrote about this ritual:“‘The mouth no longer speaks, it drinks the letter’. Stood up before God by the priest, with hair dishevelled and an offering placed in her hand, the woman does not move by herself – she is treated like a living mannequin by the men” (3).  

It must be said that this ritual was discontinued thousands of years ago: ‘when adulterers became many, the ordeal of bitter water was cancelled’ (4). It is also taught that “Just as the waters test the woman, they also test the man with whom she sinned.” (5) This means that if they sinned together, both parties to the act will die miraculous deaths.

It has been argued that “the ordeal wisely places the decision in God’s hands, thus protecting women against capricious human action. Thus, the Sotah represents a kind of enlightened legal innovation: ‘The community and, especially, the overwrought husband may not give way to their passions to lynch her’ (6). Indeed God allows his own Holy name to be erased just to restore peace between husband and wife (7). However one cannot get away from the overwhelming images of a woman humiliated. There is a strong sense that this is about a man being able to express his jealousy toward his wife and desire for her to be punished, even if it is delegated to the anger and justice of God (8).

My Palestinian friend suggests that for the believer who also values the dignity of women the path forward involves spin. I disagree. Over the weekend I read “The Voice of Sarah” by Frankiel. She started from a place of rage about the status of women in Judaism but she found that her “rage dwindled as [she] began to get acquainted with orthodox women. …I saw that they were indisputably powerful and influential in their families and communities. …My feelings of condescending pity toward these victims of patriarchy changed to admiration and wonderment (9).

Frankiel highlights examples of strong women. One example that touched me was the shift in the attitudes of Leah. Her first three children are named by Leah in ways that reflect her anxiety about her relationship with her husband Jacob (10). But then, something shifts for her when she gives birth to her fourth child (11). “She no longer named him out of her fragile sense of her relationship to [her husband] Jacob but turned outward: she called Judah for “this time I will acknowledge God” (12). “She no longer sees herself through Jacobs’ eyes”.

While the Sotah example seems to suggest an antipathy to women’s sexuality, Frankiel points to two bold women who took the lead in matters of sex and marriage. One is the story of Tamar who dressed up as a prostitute and slept with Judah. The other is Ruth who lay down next to Boaz’s feet at night while he was asleep. Both of these women who went beyond the boundaries of what was considered proper are celebrated as ancestors of the Messiah (13).

Frankiel cites many other examples of a strong female presence in Judaism in the stories and practices. She also embraces the feminine dimension she finds in Judaism. For her, elements such as “immanence” and “embodied spirituality” are important elements of feminine spirituality and strongly present in Judaism. 

Frankiel argues that “justice always must be defined in a context”…. In her view “the context should be understood differently. In its ritual dimension, the synagogue is a spiritual manifestation, not a political one” (14).

I do not regard Frankiel’s understanding of her experience as spin. While Frankiel sympathizes with the bitter pain of many women who feel cheated by the tradition, her authentic experience is now quite different. It does not address all the questions about the status of women or the ritual we read about this week, but presents a powerful positive feminist perspective on Judaism.
1)             Numbers 5:12
2)             Talmud Ketubot, cited in Rashi
3)             Deleuze and Guattari 1983 in Britt, Brian. (2007). ‘Male jealousy and the suspected Sotah: Toward a counter-reading of Numbers 5:11-31’. The Bible and Critical Theory 3 (1). pp. 5.1–5.19. DOI: 10.2104/bc070005.
4)             Talmud, Mishna, Sotah 9:10
5)             Talmud, Sotah 27b
6)             Milgrom 1999, Fishbane, and Frymer-Kensky 1999 in Britt, Brian. (2007).
7)             Talmud, Chulin 141a
8)             Abarbanel
9)             Frankiel, T. (1990),The Voice of Sarah, Feminine Spirituality, and Traditional Judaism, Harper San Francisco, the preface
10)          Genesis 29:32-34
11)          Frankiel, T. (1990) p. 16
12)          Genesis 29:32-35
13)          Frankiel T. (1990) Chapter 2
14)          Frankiel T. (1990), p. 123

Friday, June 7, 2019

The status of women in Judaism. A response to an inquiry from a PhD candidate in Iran

“Just ask me, instead of making assumptions about me.” This is a sentiment I have heard expressed numerous times from Muslims. A key principle in interfaith dialogue is to find out about people directly from them rather than simply relying on what one reads. In this post I share my response to a Muslim PhD student, who put this principle into practice. She had read the Torah in translation, and it seemed to her that women had a low status in Judaism. However, her sister-in-law is involved with Together For Humanity, so this student reached out to me via her sister-in-law. The following is my response to her question.

I write from the perspective of a Jewish man within the orthodox and Chabad Hasidic traditions, and as an ordained Rabbi. I do not speak for other orthodox communities or non-orthodox or progressive movements in Judaism. I cannot do justice to this topic in a brief essay, and I recommend further research on this topic.

There are certainly teachings in Judaism that position women as wise and of an elevated status. Perhaps, the most prominent of these is God’s statement to Abraham: “Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” (1) This is interpreted as reflecting Sarah’s status as a prophet. Sarah’s voice is the voice of the holy spirit. This teaches us that Abraham was inferior to Sarah in their respective levels of prophecy (2).

Sarah’s status in this instance is not isolated. Rebecca is also seen as superior in wisdom to her husband, Isaac, regarding which of her children was truly deserving of blessings (3). This view of women is reflected in an often quoted statement: “Additional capacity for understanding has been granted to the woman.” (4) This teaching influences the way some Jewish men and women relate to each other. This is further reinforced by the requirement for men to respect their wives, as it is stated: “A man must treat his wife with great respect, ‘honoring her more than himself.” (5)

On the other hand, there is also a teaching that “women’s minds are light” (6). In practice, only men, but not women, are considered proper witnesses (7). The application of this law is seen at orthodox wedding ceremonies, where the witnesses are never women. At least one source links the restriction on women serving as witnesses to a perception of the female mind (8). There are clearly exceptions where women’s testimony is accepted. One example is that “the testimony of women is accepted if they testified that the husband of a woman has died so that she can remarry” (9). There are other exceptions, including testimony regarding ritual and other matters (10).

There have been several attempts to reconcile these two attitudes to the female mind, including one that differentiates between various cognitive functions (11). One practical difference reflecting attitudes to women, is the average length of advanced Jewish education offered in my community. Men typically do advanced Jewish learning for 6-7 years after high school, but for women it is 2 years. I hope that this will change over time. I draw inspiration from a tradition about women who stood up for their rights, and these rights were legitimised by God himself, through Moses. I refer to the case of the daughters of Tzelafchad, who demanded a portion of the land (12).

My own written research of this topic includes 20 articles (13), including my reflection on naming my daughter (14), but I am far from an expert on this question. I will conclude with a quote from a learned Chasidic woman: “As I was growing up, there was nothing I felt was beyond my reach, except perhaps synagogue life as enjoyed by the men. This often seemed unfair, but there was an understanding that this was just the way it was... Yes, there were things I wished I could do. But I lived in a world of absolutes, the Torah world. I loved that world and I knew it to be true. If in a world of absolutes there were certain things a woman didn't do... I just wouldn't do them even if I wanted to. They never loomed all-important. The joy and potential for fulfilment in the Chassidic-Jewish lifestyle, coming from knowing who you are and having a sense of direction and purpose in life, was far more significant… I know that after all of the arguments, refutations and debate, something must speak to the soul.” (15)

1.     Genesis 21:12
2.     Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 21:12
3.     Genesis 25:28 and 27:5-10
4.     Talmud, Nida 45b
5.     Talmud, Yevamos 62a. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Ishus 15:19
6.     Talmud Shabbat 33b
7.     Talmud Shavuos 30a, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, laws of wittnesses 9:2
8.     Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 122 ונוהגת בכל מקום ובכל זמן בזכרים אבל לא בנשים שאין הנשים בתורת עדות לקלות דעתן
9.     Mishnah Yevamot 16:16
11.    הלל מאירס א. הריטב"א במסכת נדה (דף מה עמוד ב) מסביר שמה שכתוב שהקב"ה נתן בינה יתירה לאישה יתר מאשר לאיש, הכוונה שההבנה של האישה ממהרת לבוא אצל האישה בגיל יותר מוקדם מאשר האיש, ולא שיש לה יותר הבנה מהאיש. וכתב שמוכרחים לומר כך כדי שלא יהיה סתירה מדברי חז"ל שאומרים שנשים דעתן קלה, ע"ש. וכן מבואר בתוספות הרא"ש בנדה שם. וכן תירצו היפה תאר והעץ יוסף על המדרש (בראשית רבה פרשה יח פרק א) ובספר בניהו בנדה שם. ב. בעיון יעקב בנדה שם תירץ, שקודם שנתקללה האשה נתן בה בינה יתירה. אולם אחר שחטאה ואין אדם חוטא עד שנכנס בו רוח שטות נלקח ממנה הבינה, יעויין שם בדבריו. ג. התורה תמימה (בראשית פרק ב אות מט) כתב שאין כאן סתירה, יען שכשרונות הבינה והדעת שונים הם, כי הדעת היא הבאה במושכל ראשון, ובינה היא חריצות השכל הבאה לאחר התבוננות, ע"ש. וכן ראה עוד בתורה תמימה (דברים פרק יא אות מח), ע"ש.
12.   Numbers 27:1-7
15.   Slonim, R, Chassidic Feminist My Personal Experiences