Old friend, warm soup, healthy debate

I  have an old friend (can you say that after nine years? What if it feels like you have always been friends?) that I rarely get to spend time with. We are different ages,  at different stages of our lives with different schedules. Recently we got a precious hour to catch up over some of her delicious warm soup.

Her company feels like “comfort food” as much as the soup.

Yet the conversation we had, like so many that we do, was not a comfortable one in some respects, and did not involve much in the way of what our respective children are up to lately, or any small talk. We wound up in a debate of sorts, that was, for me, enlightening, refreshing, challenging and real – the precise words I would use to describe this friend.

She and I come from very different Jewish backgrounds. While we arrived at an observance that is quite similar in a lot of ways (we have both studied at the same women’s beit midrash, davened at the same shul… ) we very often disagree about aspects of Orthodox Judaism, especially as it relates to women.

This particular conversation revolved around the idea that Traditional Judaism is a Patriarchy, one that has not created a suitable status for women with an expertise of Torah knowledge, one that has not created a voice for women’s thoughts and ideas on the Torah, one that has arbitrarily unilaterally* dealt with women’s observance of certain halachot without their say, and one that has not sufficiently encouraged and inspired women to learn, teach, interpret, think, or speak out.

That is what I believe is her opinion… you see, it isn’t mine. [ Dear friend if you read this and I have gotten it wrong, please forgive and feel free to let me know, comment away, and clear up the misunderstanding. ]

How much we need to “trust” the male sages of our Talmud that their decisions are what are best for women as well as men is a real source of disagreement for us.  I don’t want to see women as Rabbis. I don’t want more access to “male” halachot, and I don’t want to spend time exploring if some of them actually should also be my obligations as a woman.  I think there is a lot of wisdom in many of the decisions that the male sages have made about women, many that are antithetical to modern sensibilities of women’s roles in families, societies and Judaism.

Of course I believe that when it comes to gender issues(as well as lots of other things) there are problems within Orthodoxy. There are lots of groups of people who are serving Hashem in lots of ways that I may think are, well, misguided. There are also whole religious societies that have certain areas that need a lot of work…. but I think they are parts of a body that need healing, not an affliction from within that must be uprooted or defeated.

She did make an interesting and very compelling point to me, one that has stayed with me: we live in an age where women live more years than every before with grown children. Those children customarily don’t live around the corner, meaning in our times women have more time available for Torah study than ever before. More time to attend shul, more time to sit in a beit midrash.

This huge shift was pointed out to me several years ago by another friend and amazing woman who is the past president of her Conservative Temple. She said: ” I don’t have to be home to take care of anybody. I have time now. I am not a mom to young children. I am not a grandmother. My children didn’t get married after high school, they are busy pursuing their careers. So I have time as a Jew – and what is the Jewish world offering me to do with that time? Where is the establishment putting that decade of my life to good use as a member of the Jewish people? Why are they telling me not to use it to be Shul President? Were would they like it to go? Away?” I had a momentary desire to drop everything at that moment and write a book. Because what ARE we doing with that new-found decade (or more) in the lives of Jewish women? What are we offering them to help cleave to and serve Hashem? And what is the establish doing to work on the problem?

One answer is that we have more resources for Torah learning for womenthan ever before.  In Israel, in New York, and on-line. I have friends in this in-between stage who are consuming Torah classes at places like Naaleh.com at an astounding pace — because they simply have the time.

So a woman who is a true expert in Torah? My friend is right when she says that there are now scores of women with far more Torah knowledge than an average Talmud Torah 3rd grade male teacher bequeathed with the title “Rebbe”.

So, what are we to do?  I want women’s roles to stay far away from those that men have. I have stated before on this blog that I am a sexist, and with strong reasons. I don’t think women encroaching on male territory is good for men, and therefore I don’t think it is good for the perfection of our society. But these women have accomplished something that is often taken seriously by the people who know her, yet isn’t acknowledged in any systematic way.

Personally, I like the idea of a “Hachama“, which could be translated as “wise one”.  I would like to see “hachamot” in schools. I think it would confer an understanding that some women – like this friend of mine – are head and shoulders above the rest of us in their Torah learning, due to the hours and years of study that have been put in. I would like Yoetzet Halacha Shani Taragin, for example, to be “Hachama Shani Taragin” because at the end of the day, she is an expert. She cannot perform the duties of a Rabbi, and she cannot give halachic rulings, but she certainly can teach Torah rings around most Rabbis and Torah scholars I know.  She certainly could be consulted as an expert on a lot of Torah topics. And she should be called something other than Mrs. when she teaches at the many Torah institutions that she does. She will soon be a “Dr.”, but do we really want our Torah credentials coming from the world of secular academia? I don’t think so.

So, while we may not agree on the solution, at least I was positively persuaded of the need. I hadn’t missed it, not being a hachama myself, but when pointed out to me, I do understand the lack.

Long after arriving home from this visit with this debate still percolating in my head, it occurred to me that one reason that we have such different viewpoints is because we arrived to a similar spot from opposite directions… with one thing in common. We both have a Jewish voice that was silenced in the past.

My friend grew up in a traditional household with a traditional education….if you can call moving around the world going to zillions of Jewish schools traditional. I don’t know much about her family life growing up and I would never presume to describe how her parents taught her to view women in Judaism. But I do know that she had a lot of experience with women learning Torah… for the purpose of teaching their sons. Or girls being limited in what they could learn – and what they could say – within Orthodoxy.

“Don’t speak, don’t think out loud – you have to fit our mold“.

I grew up in the seventies, with feminism at its strongest, including within the Conservative Jewish world I lived in. I was encouraged to daven, read Torah, learn Torah, wear a tallis, be a Cantor – forge ahead in helping women being everything a man could be in Judaism.

But I wasn’t taught women’s halachot. And I was told that it isn’t okay to want to stay at home and raise children, or change diapers rather than make it to shul. (Not only is it not okay to do, but it really isn’t okay to want to.) It wasn’t okay to let my husband’s career take precedence, or to view myself Jewishly in any way different than a man. When I chose to be Orthodox I was told I was “chaining myself to a stove”. Why would a woman want to do that to herself? It would not have been socially acceptable to admit I am a sexist in my former life. To say such a thing was a “shanda“.

For the record, I have spent a great majority of the last decade barefoot, pregnant and/or nursing and cooking! Because I want to and I love it. It nurtures my family, it has made me happy – and I resent being told that it simply isn’t a valid option – it is only a symptom of oppression!

“Don’t have those goals or desires – you have to fit our mold“.

So, I want a place for the traditional woman’s role to be elevated and valued by society, including secular society. And my friend wants a place for women to do more, take on more, say more, be heard more and have it elevated and valued by society, not just secular society. But I think both desires come from a place of being invalidated.

The Girl Scouts have a saying which has become a life-mantra for me: “Always leave a place better than you found it.” I think they must have gotten that from the Torah somewhere,  Tikkun Olam and all.

This friend? Well, a short get-together over warm soup leaves me better than she found me.  And I think that is a sign of a great friend and a real “hachama“.

*the wording where crossed out was changed at the request of this friend.

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