Unless you follow the Vatican closely, you might have missed this. At a recent interfaith meeting, a senior Catholic cardinal pinpointed something that many of us Jews have long forgotten. Speaking of Judaism’s sources of strength, Cardinal Kurt Koch opined that “the most important thing we can learn from the Jewish people is first of all it’s a religion not of the synagogue but of the home, the family.”
The quote resurfaced in my head yesterday, when a radio host asked me about the tradeoffs I need to make to square feminism with Jewish observance. In her mind, having a limited synagogue role prevented me (and other Orthodox women) from experiencing robust, meaningful Judaism.
Actually, I found the question quite disconcerting. What can be more offensive to women than positioning the traditionally male experience as the only one worth living? Nothing conveys the message of misogyny more than setting up the male paradigm as the only way to be worthy and equal. This outlook completely negates the female experience, setting women up for an endless game of catch-up with men, as if we have nothing of our own to bring to the table.
At a recent panel discussion on Jewish feminism, Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv chided Orthodox feminists for taking too much credit and reminded everyone that Reform women have been donning talitot for decades as proof of egalitarianism in the movement. Seriously, I thought to myself, what’s the big deal about putting on a talit? Even my 5-year-old kid can do that.
Somewhere in the heat of the debate about gender roles, we forgot about the essence and got our priorities all mixed up. Without undermining the importance of any mitzvah, Judaism can survive without the tallit and the tefilin. Judaism can even be practiced without a synagogue. But there is no Judaism without Shabbat, kashrut, and the holidays. There is no Jewish life without the family.
It is the family that is the main Jewish house of worship. Cardinal Koch recognizes that. And so does the Torah. In just under two weeks, we will celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. The Torah is the most sacred Jewish object. When worn out, it is buried like a person. Over the centuries, Jews have risked their lives on countless occasions to rescue Torah scrolls out of burning buildings. A Torah scroll cannot be sold for any reason. Besides one. To establish a new Jewish home, when no other means suffice.
Even as Women of the Wall fight to read from the Torah at the Kotel, the Torah itself points us in another direction to seek holiness. The home. This has been the center of spiritual gravity for our people since the time of the Matriarchs. The Ramban, a preeminent medieval Jewish authority, explains that the Tabernacle and later the Holy Temple were built based on the prototype of the Matriarchs’ tents, the holiest of places to have ever existed.
None of this means that women should be confined to the house or that we should not seek intellectual, spiritual, and emotional fulfillment through other venues. There is more to our lives than cooking and childrearing. We are fortunate to live in a generation that recognizes women’s ability or contribute and makes it possible for each and every one of us to have active professional and social lives.
Yet as I ponder the tradeoffs I need to make to keep my Judaism strong, I find myself seeking balance. As the pendulum swings, we sometimes forget about what’s close, as we search for satisfaction far afield. The other day, I overheard an intellectual Orthodox woman I respect say that the only time she feels connected to God is when she is either learning Torah, praying, or performing some other ritual. I found that to be incredibly sad.
Judaism is not a religion of ritual. The Torah is the Torah of life. The halacha, Jewish Law, literally means “the way to walk” – in all of our dealings, not just in the synagogue. Chassidic masters have been known to quip on the verse from the Psalms (104:24): “How great are Your works, God … the earth is full of Your possessions!” to mean that the earth, the mundane physical experience, is full of ways to possess (enter into a relationship with) God.
Women don’t need to emulate traditionally male observance to gain status. It is intrinsic. In fact, Judaism recognizes women’s superior ability to impact the spiritual life of those around them. “Everything comes from the woman,” teach the Sages in Breishit Rabba (17:7) citing an example of the woman’s power to influence her religious environment to a greater extent than a man ever could.
And it has nothing to do with housework. Though my husband and I share many of the household responsibilities and work together to run the family, God has entrusted into my hands the power to shape the spiritual experience both for myself and for my loved one.
So it’s not just the Catholics that need to learn from Judaism how to keep religious observance strong. We need to reclaim our tradition too. As we approach Shavuot, perhaps we should ponder ways to accept the Torah as it was meant to be given, a guiding light that illuminates and enlightens our entire existence. Our synagogues and houses of study, but especially our homes.
Reading and learning the Torah is important, but living it is more so. And that’s within reach for each one of us. We don’t even need to leave the house.