The Orthodox “feminist”? I don’t think so….

I was asked by the local outreach organization to teach a “lunch and learn” class on Tu B’Shvat this past Shabbat.  I heartily agreed because I love what they do and love to help them do it. I love to teach and jump at every chance to do so (there aren’t that many). I have been running a women’s Tu B’Shvat seder at the same location for the past four years, and as a result have ended up learning quite a great deal about the holiday.

However, once I had a chance to stop and think about it, I realized that this would be the first time I was teaching a shiur to a mixed crowd. I teach lots of mixed crowds – religious and not religious – but never men and women together. My rebbetzin – who would never agree to do such a thing –  gave me a look that read “give me a break”. My husband gave me same look, but even stronger.

I am not shy or in anyway less than completely outspoken in mixed company. I have “addressed” mixed audiences before in the same location… but not as a teacher of a Torah shiur. Not for an hour and a half. I have taken gemara shiurim for women.  I studied at Drisha. I had a Rabbi (the brilliant Rabbi David Aaron) speak under my chuppah, but was adamant that I wanted a woman – the incredible Rabbanit Chana Henkin – to speak at the wedding…. so no wonder they gave a look that said “give me a break”, right?

I wrote as my title that I am not a feminist. I am a strong sexist, and a huge fan of womankind.

What I do not support, however, is the idea that we are the same as men in any way, that Hashem wants us to have similar roles in any way, and that male opportunities can and should be given to women wherever and whenever possible. (Even when speaking within the boundaries of halacha.) That is my understanding of what feminism is, and so that makes me not a feminist.

Here’s the thing; I think that women are better at just about everything under the sun than men. Maybe not lifting huge weights or playing football. But if we needed to, we would find a wiser way of getting both of those things done. I have seen and heard and read numerous studies on how women use more parts of their brain. I have read shiurim on how the limitations put on women in Orthodoxy are because we are “exempt” and not because we are “prohibited”. Why do more things than you have to in order to connect to G-d? Why not perfect instead what you do need to do?

My experience of egalitarianism in Judaism is the equivalent of the best behaved child in the school fighting for decades for the right to stay after school in detention.

I once had a dream of becoming a Cantor. I had amazing role models, education and experience to pursue such a thing. My choice to sit behind a mechitza is not because I feel a desire to be subjugated. It comes from a true sense of superiority – not the opposite.

Years ago, I sat in a session at the GA – the General Assembly of the UJA.  In this session they were discussing a new crisis in the Hebrew Union College’s Rabbinical program. According to the panel, as the percentage of enrolled female students neared 50, the enrollment of males just started drastically dropping off.  The woman on the panel went on to describe studies that had been done in other industries, and cited the same phenomenon in the secular world.  Men fled the nursing profession when women began entering it in equal numbers.  The rise in female enrollment in medical school, at least according to the panel member, was having the same effect.

This would seem to be data that agrees with the way a sexist Orthodox Jewish structure was explained to me. Women can be rabbis; they can be great rabbis…. but what does that do to the men? There is something in the male psyche and makeup that doesn’t like competing in anything against women.

And I think the sages understood that much better than contemporary secular society would like to.

I know there are some that believe that this is about evolving and growing beyond such primitive and unfair inclinations, but I don’t buy it. If you believe in G-d, and you believe (he) made man and woman the way he did for a reason, then I believe you need to conclude that the differences are not to be ignored or squashed, but acknowledged, celebrated and worked with.

…. So I believe all of that, and still gave this shiur in front of a bunch of men.  G-d must have a wonderful sense of humor. Someone in our community had a baby, and while baby and Ima stayed in the hospital, many family members came for the shalom zachor and to lend a hand. From Brooklyn and from Lakewood. With very black hats on their heads. And these family members decided to stay for the ‘lunch and learn’.

Mixed learning in our community, taught by a woman at times, isn’t unusual or controversial. So the issue was with me, and my comfort level. Now, I was dealing with men in my audience who had never (they told me) listened to a shiur by a woman in their lives.  So apparently, I was making some statement or stand anyway.

I would love to hear from my readers if my next move was cowardly; I asked the proud new father of said baby to get up and read the Gemara section (the first part of Masechet Rosh Hashana, in the Mishna) that is our first mention of Tu B’Shvat. The truth is he is a wonderful Rebbe in the school and he did a much better job at reading and explaining it than I ever could have.  I am quite sure that there is no halachic distinction at all whatsoever between my teaching the class and my reading that Gemara. But I couldn’t do it.

The rest of the shiur I chose to enjoy. After all, no one made anyone stay, or indicated that it would be rude for them to leave. They could have eaten and then left. They chose to be there. They complimented me afterwards. I take comfort in the fact that I seriously doubt that any of the black hat men have ever heard much of anything about Tu B’Shvat at all whatsoever. Certainly not why the kabbalists made a Tu B’Shvat seder and perceived it to be a tikkun.

I am not embarrassed to teach in front of men, and I don’t apologize for my own level of knowledge, access to learning (yes, the Gemara) or my ability to give that knowledge over.

Through this process I have come to realize that ultimately what bothers me is only that I don’t like being the focus of attention in a room for over an hour that isn’t filled solely with women. Although the focus should of course be on the material, in principle I just don’t want to stand up and be that which everyone looks at for such a long period of time in mixed company.

I don’t think that I will agree to do such a thing again. In this particular case, there was a least some strong element of kiruv, outreach, involved. I know there were men at an early point in the Jewish journey who became more connected to the holiday because of my teaching. This is the one aspect that causes my ambivalence.

I have no doubt that the “black hat” men (as if I can judge them by their head covering…) did NOT learn that a  woman can be learned and teach a coherent shiur on a topic and give over information they didn’t know. I am 100% certain they already knew that.

I don’t think tzniut is about hiding your talents. G-d forbid. Or denying them. But I do think it is about having the confidence to share them in a way that draws attention to the service of Hashem and only the service of Hashem and not attention to ourselves or what we are capable of.

I hope this is the way in which the shiur was received.  I am confident that Hashem is concerned with my intentions.

I am still left with the feeling that I made a statement, and not one I am sure I wanted to make.

I am, after all, a sexist.  :  )

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