Continually opting in to Orthodoxy

There has been a lot of talk online over the past few months about Orthodox Feminism – ranging from how it is not possible, to how oppressed we are, to why we stay Orthodox. The posts on the latter topic seem to come mostly from women who grew up within the structure of Halacha that Orthodoxy provides, and “don’t know what they’re missing” in more liberal streams where egalitarianism reigns along with the thoughts of our oppression.

Well, I know “what I’m missing” and I’m still staying Orthodox.

I grew up Conservative. I loved wearing a kippa and tallit, laying tefillin with the minyan on Sunday mornings before teaching Hebrew School, serving as shaliach tzibur, and leyning. (I was good at leading and leyning too.) I started keeping Shabbat and Kashrut as a Conservative Jew. I started dressing in a tzniut way as a Conservative Jew. I got married and started covering my hair and keeping Taharat HaMishpacha as a Conservative Jew.

And yet, today, I am an Orthodox Jew.

I opted in to Orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, but they were my reasons and they still are. I was not coerced or strong armed in any way. I made a decision based on intellectual honesty and intuition. I am happy in Orthodoxy and do not feel oppressed or held down. In fact, I feel uplifted. I have had more exposure to learning and to text since becoming Orthodox. I have had more meaningful Shabbat and holiday meals, with richer conversations since becoming Orthodox. I engage in more mitzvot in my daily life since becoming Orthodox.

I opt in to Orthodoxy everyday.

So no, I can’t lead the entire service or serve as a witness and I don’t wear my tallit and tefillin anymore, but I still have a fulfilling and meaningful Jewish experience and won’t let anyone attempt to convince me otherwise.

Life is a journey, God is the guide

Today in my Chumash class, we were asked to think/write about how we view or relate to God as part of a discussion about revelation. I had to (sadly) admit to myself that I don’t really think about God on a regular basis, I have just internalized the relationship as a part of who I am and how I engage with the world. When I had to stop and think about it, I found myself caught up in a metaphor which I wanted to explore a bit more with you.

If life is a journey, then surely God is our guide and the Torah is the guidebook.

To expound it a bit more, Talmud is the sequel, Halacha is the “must see” lists, and commentaries are all the reviews and blogs which people write to distill their experiences.

Sometimes, the books are enough to keep the traveler going on a good path and having a fulfilling journey, but sometimes they leave one wandering, lost, or disconnected. Sometimes the traveler has to set aside the books, and talk personally to the guide. Sometimes a person on a journey has face the guide directly to get answers for the difficulties.

The guide is always there, even when a traveler forgets and gets caught up planning for themselves.  While one can pick the places they want to go from a book, they may be closed for renovations or generally disappointing. Meanwhile, the guide knows exactly where to go and can help weary travelers get out of these slumps – if only they would stop to ask and open up to the answer.

The traveler can’t get mad at the guide when it doesn’t work out, rather they have to slow down and be willing to open up to the answers. One has to be willing to give up control sometimes, and just trust that the guide knows what is best.

The guide is able to see the bigger picture of the journey, while the traveler is caught up in the day to day activities and the minutiae of the logistics.

While the guidebooks, “must see” lists, and reviews tell other people’s experiences, only the guide knows the individual traveler and what is best for their unique experience. The guide knows all the options, while the individual is limited to their minimal exposure to the books.

It may be hard for some of travelers (myself included) to embrace this, but it seems like the only way to truly get the most personally fulfilling journey possible is to find a balance between being self-directed with texts and giving up some control in connecting with the guide and allowing him to lead.

Quite simply, despite all of our best intentions as travelers, we can’t always rely on the texts to get us through our journey. We need a personal relationship with our illustrious guide, God, in order to maximize the experience of our journey. (And it doesn’t hurt to have good traveling companions either!)

 

{This blog has been cross-posted to These & Those, the Pardes student blog, which I help manage.)

Getting to, and through, shloshim

You may have noticed the serious lack of posts from me over the past few months, and well, there is in fact a reason: I’ve been getting to and thus inevitably through shloshim. What follows is a bit of a recount of the past few months, more for myself than anyone else, but on the off chance anyone else can get solace from it now or in the future, I’m going to post it.

Post by Melissa – In memory of her beloved mommie, Joanne (Yocheved bat Yisrael v’Esther)

May was just a busy month, and then I got excited about the Israeli Presidential Conference and anticipated multiple posts afterwards. Unfortunately, right at that time (early June), I got the initial news that my mother, my best friend, and one of the most healthy and stoic women I know had become suddenly ill enough that she’d made multiple trips to the doctor, urgent care, and ER. That threw me for quite a loop. Then I started my summer learning and attempting to balance that, working, and dealing with the various life in Israel tasks at hand, and wishing I was in CA with my parents I didn’t have much time left for blogging – and amidst all that I got two more pieces of news (1) I was pregnant (still am, Thank God) and (2) my mom had a rare cancer. As time progressed they decided it wasn’t what they thought it was, it was maybe one of two other cancers, and then in early August (the same day as my 8 week ultrasound) my beloved mommie found out that she in fact had Stage 4 Metastatic Sarcomatoid Carcinoma, as identified by the National Cancer Institute. She was told there was no good treatment options as anything would cause more pain (this was also verified by a second opinion), that she would not recover from her paralysis (waist down), and that she should enjoy the next 6-12 months with her family while receiving hospice care to reduce the pain.

I spoke to her on the phone that day (Wednesday in America) and she was optimistic about enjoying this time and she and my dad told me about the various things in the works in order to make her life as good as possible for these last months. I called home a few times over the next few days and heard as her voice began to give out as the disease spread to her throat. I called home on Monday night, and she could only eek out a few phrases, but I did get a clear “I love you” and I’m so grateful for that, as it was one of (if not the) last thing/s she said.

Amidst all of this, we had booked a ticket for me to go out (my brother who was in TX at the time had been out already) in mid-August, however after the diagnosis, she began to deteriorate very quickly so we moved it up. A week after being told she was terminal and two days after I spoke with her for the last time, D and I arrived in CA to find her semi-comatose, not speaking, eyes closed, and finally accepting pain medication. I spent the last few days of her life by her bedside giving her her meds, holding her hand, and talking to her – alongside family and friends.

At Shabbat dinner, we said Kiddush and sang Shir Ha’maalot by her bedside as well, knowing those were things she always liked to participate in. I think in time, it will bring me some comfort that those were among the last sounds she heard, as she died roughly four hours later.

Birthday! (10/198?)

Birthday! (10/198?)

Two days later I stood amongst a large group of family and friends as we reminisced about her amazing life and shoveled dirt into her grave. For the week of shiva, my father, brother, and I were hardly ever alone. There was a constant stream of people visiting the house. However, I often found myself needing to get away from the crowd and hiding out in “my room” (not the room I ever actually lived in, but the room which possessed a few of my belongings over the years and where I stayed when I visited, though it now posses all of our books while we live in Israel). I leaned heavily upon a few friends who welcomed me into the dead parents society via email and in person to help me attempt to deal with this new reality I had no desire to engage in.

On Sunday morning when we walked around the block, my dad and I huddled together and cried. After everyone left, we looked at each other in awe — what did we do now? We tried to move on. Our worlds had been completely flipped upside down and we didnt really know what to do with ourselves. He did the mundane post-death tasks, and I stayed home and and tried to help do some stuff around the house. I couldn’t read, learn, or communicate with most people. I couldn’t clear my head or wrap my head around my new reality. Sitting at the house and watching TV, I waited for her commentary. My dad would do silly things and I expected her reactions. I kept waiting for her to walk in the door from work. By none of that happened. The hole in my heart remained wide open.

After a week, D and I came back to Israel and I had a new task: how to reintegrate into society and community when I was a fundamentally different person. Classes started right away, I had to put on a happy face, engage the new students, and reintegrate into my daily learning. I was completely overwhelmed by being in a communal space and forcing myself to “fake it til I make it.” Every time I walked out of my apartment, I knew I would have to face other people, and had a small panic attack.

The it was the chagim, and Rosh Hashana interrupted my shloshim a few days early. I couldn’t handle being in public still and only prayed in the minyan in the evenings, and we had small meals with friends. The liturgy was also particularly challenging, all the “who shall live and who shall die” stuff is pretty harsh when death is in the forefront of your mind.

Throughout those thirty days my dad and I spoke very often, both trying to figure out what life without “our person” looked like. For both of us, my mom was our best friend, our confidant, our go-to for life’s good and bad, she was our rock – having the person who is all of those things ripped from your life leaves you gasping for breath and unsure of your footing. But we both made it through, and are trying to take deep breaths and put one foot in front of each other, cherishing the days that are good and riding out the days that are bad.

Bat Mitzvah Weekend (07/1995)

I’m now another month later and I still don’t know how I actually make it through each day. I hope every night I will sleep and wake up at a normal hour, but often I wake up and cry in the middle of the night. I hope every day I will make it through the day without breaking down, but I often find myself very emotional. I say Kaddish at mincha daily, and sometimes I am able to say it all, and other days I lose my words and add to the tear stains on the pages of my siddur.

I tried to ignore my birthday recently because she always told me it was one of her favorite days of the year. I’m trying to ignore friends’ discussions of Halloween because it was her favorite holiday. I am unable to find words to write, despite people constantly encouraging me to do just that. I find myself drifting between activities, classes, and meetings trying to ignore the thoughts in my head. I periodically over schedule myself just so I don’t have to think, but then I can’t function the next day because thats simply not how I work. And every time I cry, I hear her words in my head “don’t cry baby, its just going to give you a headache and its not going to make anything better” – and she is so right.

MSW Graduation (12/2006)

MSW Graduation (12/2006)

One of my rabbis said to me recently that I am a human experiment, by experiencing both mourning and pregnancy simultaneously. My belated reaction is that I did not sign the consent form for this experiment and I want out. (Too bad it’s not an IRB approved study where that’s an option, huh?)

My mommie was my number one fan. I know she was so proud of all of my accomplishments thus far and only believed in the best for my future, so I’m going to do my best to be the woman she saw in me and to carry on some of her warmth, kindness, compassion, and generosity into my life. I know that her spirit lives in me and her smile shines out through mine.

Wedding Day (06/2009)

That said, this blog remains an important part of my life, but I will likely remain fairly silent on the blog for the rest of this year. I imagine there will be experiences which I will want to write about, but my primary focus needs to be on my personal journey through aveilut and pregnancy. (Which end in Elul/September and Adar II/March respectively.)

I appreciate all of the support and understanding which I know you will offer.

(I also apologize for any grammatical errors or typos, I’ve written this post in countless spurts and I just can’t proofread it.)

One of Four, but All for One

I had the distinct honor to be at the kotel for Rosh Chodesh Sivan. At least, that is what I believed as I left my house that morning and wrote this on Facebook:

I believe that prayer is a communal mitzvah. I believe that Rosh Chodesh is a special time for women. I believe that women’s Rosh Chodesh tefilla is particularly powerful.

Honored to be able to back up my beliefs and join Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Sivan….

Two days after Yom Yerushalyim and five days before Shavuot – ’tis the season to remember that this is everyone’s Jerusalem and everyone’s Torah.

But then I got there, and honor wasn’t one of the first words that came to mind.

I initially wrote a long and detailed post of the entirety of my experience that morning, but it is just that – one experience in thousands with all the emotions attached. I do not honestly believe that rehashing each of those moments adds something to the narrative of the day, nor will it help anyone move forward or reconcile the difficulties that it may have provoked. What I think I can add is a very unique viewpoint based on just a few moments and the take home message I’m trying to carry forward.

Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton – Post by Melissa

When I showed up at the kotel at 7:02am on Friday morning I could have been part of nearly any of the four groups that were there that day: those who praying at the kotel because that’s just their normative experience, those who were praying with Women of the Wall (WoW, a group of women who have held Rosh Chodesh services at the kotel for ~25 years with many of them wearing ritual garments), those who were praying with Women for the Wall (a new group started by women who do not feel the need for public prayers from women and/or the wearing of ritual garments at the kotel), and those who were actively protesting Women of the Wall.

As a visibly Dati Leumi (essentially Israeli/Zionist Modern Orthodox) woman, I moved relatively easily through the masses of religious men to get to the women’s side, and again through the masses of religious women to try and find where I was hoping to be. I said “slicha” (excuse me) and snaked my way through, but no one really paid any attention to me. I couldn’t find Women of the Wall amidst the thousands of people at the kotel, so I found one friend and we decided to pray Psukei d’Zimra together in the women’s section and hoped someone would text her with details on where we could find the group. That is when everything changed for me. You see, the friend I was with prays every morning wearing her tallit and tefillin - this is as much a part of her day and her religious experience as putting my head-covering on is for me. She donned her ritual garments and we prayed shoulder to shoulder, shuckling together through the psalms, and trying to focus on the words of our tefilla and not the stares and whispers around us. At one point, she identified the location of WoW so we decided to make our way over.

I took my friends hand to lead us out and keep us together. Immediately the girls who had moved out of my way before blocked my path.  Contrary to everything else I have seen reported about the women and girls, they were not all just davening peacefully. They may have been quieter and more subtle than the men, but they were hissing and spitting at us. They pointed, smirked, and took our photo. They yelled out that we were not Jewish and what we were doing was not Judaism, and many other things which I didn’t hear clearly and/or understand. We tried to stay focused and in the moment, quietly moving forward and towards our goal and out of their line of fire. [A few women did remark to my friend about her courage, bravery, and dedication (which she surely appreciated) and a few women approached us to ask where WoW was as they had also been unable to find the group.]

It was amazing to me that in a split second, the time it took to grasp my friend’s tefillin clad hand, I went from being perfectly acceptable, to a complete outsider. That in one moment, I went from being able to move about freely, to needing security personnel to protect me from those who wanted to hurt me. That in an instant I personally became the target of spit, water, eggs, curses, rocks, and even “the finger” as we drove away in the busses brought in to escort us out. Nothing about me changed from when I walked into the kotel plaza unnoticed to when I exited the Egged bus two hours later, and yet to a segment of the population my very being changed and made me an equal recipient of those actions. My heart still aches when I think about those sights and sounds, and I am still conflicted when I try to rectify the dichotomy in my head.

It is impossible to say how many people were at the kotel on Friday morning or how many were there for any of the four reasons I previously identified, but what I feel confident in saying is that on some level, the people who were there with any of these four groups want the same thing. We all want to be able to pray the same words of the same tradition in the same place. We are all looking to connect to God – we just have different ways of doing that. We have to find a way to use our common spiritual ground to create a common physical ground, even when we will never have a common practical religious ground. Deep down, we are all the same.

Rosh Chodesh Sivan falls just two days after Yom Yerushalyim, the day which commemorates and celebrates the Six Day War in 1967 in which Israel reclaimed Jerusalem (and so much more!) and provided access to the kotel and Old City after 19 years of it being locked up under Jordanian rule. I was there on Wednesday, singing and dancing to a band as thousands of people (mostly Dati Leumi) celebrated the ability to come to the kotel to pray. Rosh Chodesh Sivan is just five days before Shavuot, the day where we commemorate and celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – man, woman, and child. Thousands will again descend on the kotel that morning after staying up all night learning to celebrate the greatest gift of all – Torah.  Three times in one week, thousands of people will have gathered at this holy site to pray and celebrate – each in their own way. (Yes, there were also those who will have been there neither celebrating nor praying, but they are the minority in the grand scheme and we cannot let them overtake the deeper and more meaningful connections which are at our fingertips.)

In retrospect and having stepped back from the intense emotions of the day, I have to say that I am again honored to have been there. There were thousands of people from across the Jewish spectrum gathered together in this holy space: women and men, young and old, those who made a conscious decision and those who were bussed there by their seminaries, those who believe in women’s tefillah groups and those who oppose them, those who prayed and those who protested, those who want a change at the kotel and those who support the status quo. But at the end of the day, they were all there because their Judaism is so important to them that they want to be sure they have a way to honor it publicly at only of the holiest places we can access.

I hope and pray that we can unite around that and not continue to let the nuances around it divide us.

Mel’s (not-so) Quarterly Reflections – Take 2 and 3 combined

May 1st marked 9 months of living in Israel. I’m not totally sure how that happened, but it did! So, since I missed the 6 month recap, here is one that covers both my second and third quarter here.

Living:

We adapted to our small space but are looking at apartments to move closer to Pardes and the synagogues we have found we liked and others we are told we will like.

Learning:

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best thing about our Israel experience. We have both been amazed at how much we have been able to learn in these past few months and how far we have come in our skills. Needless to say, we are also aware of how much more we have to go!

We will both be Fellows at Pardes next year, so there for sure another year of solid learning in our future.

Exploring:

Ya, we still haven’t really done that. *crosses fingers* Hoooopefully while we have some down time this summer we will be able to do more of this!

Community:

We have embraced that the reality of our experience is that our learning communities are really our primary community and we have made some amazing friends. Also, the sense of community here is much different than in the US.

We have found two synagogues which we really enjoy and hope to move closer to them, as well as some others in that area which we here will help us feel more connected.

Food:

So, apparently, I do actually like hummus and tahina. Thats probably the biggest thing to share food wise. We are trying to get back to a simpler and cleaner diet, with the abundance of fresh produce its really quite silly not to!

We have also deduced that the secret to Marzipan’s deliciousness must be crack. It is the only explanation for their addictive tendencies. ;-)

Safety:

Amud Annan (Operation Pillar of Defense) rocked our world for a few weeks with its tensions, sirens, and uncertainty. However, the cease fire came quickly and lasted solidly for a few months. Even now as it has been violated and the rock-throwing, stabbing, etc incidents of terror have risen in the areas near the borders, there is still a sense of calm.

As such, our largest safety concern has again become the simple act of being pedestrians.

Surprising realizations:

There are only two season in Israel: Rainy season from Sukkot to Pesach, and mosquito season from Pesach – Sukkot.

Kitniyot on Pesach is awesome. (See the post about that for details.)

The “settlements” don’t feel like settlements so much as suburbs…..

We think about being homesick much less often, but when it does come it is just as intense.

Rak b’yisrael (Only in Israel):

Rockets fall across the country and people continue on about their daily lives, but snow is imminent and the entire city shuts down.

National holidays which should fall Saturday night/Sunday get pushed back a day so that people do not begin their preparations on Shabbat.

Busses wish you happy holidays.

There is no customer service and people are rude, but in a moment of need someone is always available to help.

Do you have other things you want to know about? Feel free to ask in the comments! :)

“New” versus “Groundbreaking”

yeshivat maharat

post by Jessica

The Times of Israel recently posted a beautiful article about the upcoming Maharat graduates (we posted the article to the RR facebook – it’s here, if you’re interested). It takes the time to profile each of the graduates and talks a little about the opportunities they face. Plus, the nice pictures are awesome. Just this past Shabbat, the Chicago Tribune ran a great piece about Rachel Kohl Finegold, who was hired by Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Montreal. Both pieces, while appropriately realistic, were also celebratory.

As with a lot of news, sometimes it’s good to ask “Is this worth all the fuss?” After all, maybe this is just my friend Rachel (we were congregants of hers in Chicago) taking on a new job. As the Tribune points out, Rabbi Lopatin hired Rachel in 2007, before there even was a Maharat program.

So, what’s new? What’s groundbreaking?

Without the opportunity for recognition, some women have gone elsewhere. Finegold has watched friends abandon rabbinical callings to become teachers, secular lawyers or CEOs instead.

“How sad is that for the Jewish world to lose a leader?” Finegold said. Not to mention, those women still feel the sting when they walk into the shul on Shabbat, she said.

“Women are Ph.D.s, CEOs and running for president and then they have to bifurcate their identity when walking into a synagogue where they don’t feel like full participants,” Finegold said. “That can be hard. When women participate in every other area of their lives, this feels like a glaring omission.”

The groundbreaking part? The way in which Maharat is trying to address this issue. It’s the first time that Orthodox Jewish women have been trained on the model of Orthodox rabbis, deliberately, in an institutional setting, not just one-on-one. Given the way Orthodoxy has been struggling with this place of women, it’s a very big deal.

As a society, we value training and credentials. Sure, there are stories of this teacher or that prominent person in the community who is self-made, without education, but most of the time, we look for the qualifications, something that tells us, yes, this person knows what he or she is talking about. Even in my own program, when a friend and I got down about some of the course work, I called it our “entry fee” – things we have to get through to gain the degree. And once we have the degree (in not very long for me), it opens a world of possibility.

The kind of training these women are receiving will prepare them to be leaders of the community in a way that we haven’t had in the Orthodox community. The value (and controversy) of having this kind of institution is that it legitimates women’s leadership in a way that it hasn’t been in Orthodoxy. So, the answer? No, this is way more than just Rachel getting a new job. We’re seeing something new in the community – not just one woman here or there, but a real chance for a place – and a career path. At the end of the Tribune article, they talk about Shayna Lopatin (age 12) seeing Rachel as a role model. And that’s something that’s also groundbreaking.

It won’t be easy. We’re going to be “groundbreaking” for a while. There’s a reason we use that term – the word connotes moving earth! There are the myriad issues in our own community, not the least of which is what, exactly, these women will end up calling themselves (the school is granting Maharat). And we know from the experience of the liberal denominations that even once there are women rabbis, the issues don’t end. I don’t think we even know yet, exactly, what it will be like in the future. Just by doing what they’re doing, they’re already changing the landscape. For what I mean, see a piece written by another friend for the Lilith Blog – Rabbis in Red Lipstick.

There’ll be more new, old, unchanging, ever changing issues.

But for now – I’m so immensely happy for and proud of the three graduates, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Why (not) Pardes?

Pardes Logo – Post by Melissa

Since moving to Israel nearly nine months ago, I cannot count the number of times I have had the following conversation with people I meet once it has been established that I am learning at Nishmat….

NewPerson: And your husband? What is he doing this year?

Me: He is learning at Pardes.

NewPerson: Why aren’t you also at Pardes?

The answer is simultaneously incredibly simple and incredibly complex: Nishmat was the right fit for me for this year. I wrote about it when I first posted that I was coming here, so I won’t get into all those details again now. However, I have felt all year that I could have been just as happy at Pardes, and I would have grown just as much – though perhaps in slightly different ways and speeds.

On the surface level, the two institutions appear so very different from one another. Nishmat is an Orthodox women’s midrasha and Pardes is a pluralistic co-ed yeshiva. But realistically they are both serious places of learning with a diverse faculty and student body, where students learn Gemara, Tanach, and Jewish thought. Both are places where “young adults” take a year (or more) out of their lives in order to learn more Jewish text and explore the land of Israel.

While I’m on the more “liberal” end of the spectrum at Nishmat and more “traditional” end of the spectrum at Pardes, I am definitely on the spectrum in both places and love the different conversations and learning that come from that. (I use quotes there because I’m not really sure how to define it and that seems a good option without getting into too many labels, which you know I am not into!)

I have friends from both places and can speak about anything with any of them – from obscure things in the Gemara to the bizarre thing I saw in the shuk. Yes, some of those friends are guys and/or future rabbis of both genders and all denominations at Pardes, but that only adds to the experience. Its nice to interact with people who bring a different perspective to the table. Not that it doesn’t happen at Nishmat too (after all, my “super chevruta” this year is a 19 year old who made aliyah on her own last summer but more about her later), but its on an even larger level at Pardes.

So as this year started to wind down and I had to make my plans for next year, one thing really stood out to me. Why (not) Pardes? I knew I wanted to continue learning full time for the next year (and beyond), so I needed to be someplace with serious learning for a 30 year old English speaking woman, and I knew I wanted more Gemara. With those factors, plus what I know about the amazing community that is Pardes, it became clear that there was only one right choice. I spoke with some of our friends there and got more excited about the possibilities that would await me, and then broached the topic with my mentor who also agreed that for what I wanted, it is really the best option here in Jerusalem, and I applied.

And I am now happy to say that next year I will be joining the Pardes community, not as a wife or a Monday night seder attendee, but as a student.

M & D learn together on Monday nights at Pardes already, and are excited to do it more next year!

M & D learn together on Monday nights at Pardes already, and are excited to do it more next year!