Recently, I was sitting in a Beit Midrash, as I often do, when I overheard two men talking about the issue of women wearing t’fillin. It is important to note that these men both affiliate as egalitarian Jews, and live in a sphere where women are encouraged, if not expected, to lay t’fillin. I would imagine that they would both call themselves feminists. Even so, it seemed, the question of women and t’fillin required further conversation. And I had to admit, it was jarring to hear myself—or at least, my gender—discussed in such objective terms, without any sense that perhaps it would be beneficial to ask me if I had any insights to add to the conversation.
As a woman who studies and teaches Talmud for a living, I try to stay away from talking about topics like “Women in the Talmud” or “A Woman’s Place in the Halakhic System.” I am a woman in what has traditionally been, and is still to a large extent, a man’s field. Consequently, I strive to avoid issues that will call more attention to my gender, pigeonholing me into being the woman who talks about women. However, in the past few weeks, I have come to wonder if this reticence is a mistake.
In the eternal conversation about how to reconcile halakha and modernity, attention inevitably turns back to the question of the place of women in the Jewish community. And each time, any number of smart, learned, thoughtful people—many of whom I count as my friends and colleagues—weigh in on the debate. However, there is one significant problem with this. In a large majority of cases, the people reflecting on the place for women in the Jewish community are men.
I would like to make a request of those smart, thoughtful men; my colleagues and teachers and friends: please stop.
My personal Jewish journey has had a number of iterations, taking me from highly affiliated egalitarian Judaism to a non-egalitarian Orthodox Judaism to a partnership minyan where I have been blessed to find a home for the last six years. When I became a Bat Mitzvah, my father gave me a set of t’fillin. For a period of a few years during and immediately following college, I wore them whenever I davened during the week. Now, when I daven multiple times every day, I do not wear them. However, they are still in my closet, and it is possible that the day will come when I will put them on each morning again. I’m sure that some of you think it was wrong for me to put them on in the first place, and that others of you think it was wrong of me to stop. That is fine; you are entitled to your opinions, just as I am entitled to mine.
What you are not entitled to do is tell me how I feel about those decisions, or try to make them for me. Do not assume I have not been thoughtful about them. Do not assume that I have not learned the sources. Do not assume that something you will tell me will make me suddenly change my mind. Instead, if you would like to know why I do or do not count myself in a minyan, or what it is like to be a woman in a religious man’s field, please ask, but only if it is from a place of legitimate curiosity. Only if you can trust yourself to remember that my religious choices are not yours to make. Otherwise, I ask you again: please stop.
Please stop because, until it has happened to you, it is impossible to know what it is like to stand on the other side of the mechitza waiting for the tenth man to come when you have been in shul since it began. It is impossible to know what it feels like to question whether a community can exist which values both halakha and your inherent value as a human being. It is impossible to know what it is like to have someone comment on your outfit, every time, before they comment on the content of your shiur.
It is also impossible for you to know what it is like to help a woman have her first aliyah, and have her tell you that she finally feels like she has ownership over her tradition. It is impossible for you to know what it is like to have a 70-year-old tell you how she never thought she would live to see a woman teach Talmud in her community. It is impossible to know what it is like to be aware of your gender at all times, whether you want to be or not, for good and for bad, even when you are certain that your gender is far from the most interesting or significant thing about you. So please remember this. And please stop.
Please stop because, if we are going to value the women in our communities, we can only do so by acknowledging that no two of us are alike. There is no such thing as “the experience of being a Jewish woman.” I have chosen to be part of a community that values my leadership but does not count me in their minyan. For some of my female friends, the sight of a woman on the bimah is uncomfortable, whereas for others, the mechitza is equally so. What is comfortable or right or halakhically valid in the eyes of your sister or wife or daughter will not necessarily be thus for the woman sitting next to her.
Please stop assuming you know how we experience Judaism. Please stop telling us what to do, or that we cannot possibly feel marginalized, or that we absolutely are being oppressed by the system by which we live our lives. Do you want to know how we, the women in of the Jewish community, feel? Please don’t tell us. Please ask us. Otherwise, I will ask one more time: please stop.