Are you a black or white woman?!

Dear R,

From the moment I started posting articles on women’s issues on my Facebook wall, you’ve been texting and calling me nonstop.

When I wrote my piece on the subject you begged me to reveal MY opinion and where I stand. You challenged me to own-up to the “side” I’m on, wondering if insecurity and indecisiveness was my motive for keeping silent.

Last night you admitted to me during a discussion on women’s issues that although you’ve always been in the more “traditional” camp, you are suddenly feeling a pull to be more innovative and reformed in these areas. You’re getting a message that to be a moral modern Jew, you must have this deep-seated desire to change the place of women in Orthodoxy; if you are not disturbed by the traditional role of women in Judaism, you are an awful human being.

R, I told you this in person and I will say it again, Judaism is not black or white. True, on some issues it is – there is a category of sins that one must die rather than transgress. But our discussion on the role of women in orthodoxy is extremely complex.

There are a lot of factors that play into this discussion. There are, of course, the halachic issues involved and there are social considerations. However, I believe the most important issue here is the way women FEEL and what we can do to make them FEEL more content with their place in Judaism.

You ask if I feel content in my place as a woman in Judaism. That is a very personal question. It is personal because how I feel in Judaism is largely influenced by my upbringing, my experiences, and the messages I’ve picked up on over the years. And that in itself is complex. But, I think it is important to note that I KNOW where my feelings come from and if/when I feel like attacking the institution, instead of blaming the larger community and the halachic system, I can figure out what inside needs to change for me to feel complacent in my position as a religious woman.

R, you are lucky that you feel content with your role as a Jewish woman. The people who are crying out and demanding change, are mostly women who have been treated in ways that are antithetical to Torah, but are somehow “acceptable” in our communities. Don’t change your opinions. I hope you are never put in a situation where you feel objectified, belittled, and stepped upon for being female. When you read the various articles on these issues it should be an eye opener to you to what some of us go through, and maybe help you sympathize with those who have been mistreated.

I know what’s going through your mind right now, you’re like, “Shira, just tell me if you are pro or against. And stop giving me ‘it’s not black or white’ cliches! I want an answer. And I want to know what is holding you back from sharing your stance with the world!”

So here you have it. I heard a recording of a shiur given by Rabbi Wider from YU and felt that I very much related to his approach. His conclusion was twofold.

1. The halachic system is binding. There are rules, and only very very very learned and great Torah scholars, who are not only knowledgeable, but also pious, have the authority to perhaps slightly alter a halachah. But as far as we are concerned, where halachah is present, it is binding. Period.

2. The way we FEEL is valid and legitimate and even if there is nothing halachah could do to change things, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a desire for change even in a place where it isn’t possible.

He told a beautiful story that I believe sums up the broader issue, not only of women’s issues, but of paradox in Judaism.

Years back, in Boston, nine men were gathered in a synagogue waiting for the tenth man to complete the minyan. In the women’s section sat Rebetzin Twersky, the holy, brilliant, learned, God-fearing daughter of Rav Soloveitchik. But of course, the minyan couldn’t start because according to Jewish law a woman cannot count in a minyan. Finally, a man – who is not 100% mentally sane (but presumably not halachicly categorized as a shoteh) – walks in and they are able to begin praying.

Oh the irony.

But that is what Judaism is! Of course our logic and reason finds the premise of the above story to be so off-putting. But in my mind, that is what makes Judaism so beautiful. NOTHING is black or white. Nothing is simplistic. There are rules to this system and we don’t have to understand them in order to believe that they are binding.

If we molded Judaism around our personal and societal views, then what is Judaism? We may as well go and live a secular moral life. If we want to be part of a religion (not that we really have a choice) then we have to be willing to accept the parts of it that go against our logic.

I think it is humbling to be able to admit to a Higher power. Even if the symbolic acts don’t always seem in line with our understanding of the spirit of Judaism, putting God’s law before our reasoning is in essence submitting ourselves to a system we may not understand, but we believe is right.

That’s my answer. I’m grey.

About the Author
Shira Lichtman is Israeli, contrary to common misconception; She grew up in Beit Shemesh with her parents and seven younger siblings; She works for the secret services and therefore cannot disclose any further information regarding her current occupation and mysterious future plans, which are so secret that even she doesn't know them ;-)
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