Date night

This is the time of year when I used to think about whether I should make the effort to attend a women-led Megillah reading. For many years such readings, for me, were a luxury that required effort – getting in a car and driving out of my home neighborhood to a different part of town. But this year, suddenly, I have multiple women-led options within an easy walking distance of my home. Suddenly, logistics are no longer an issue.

Now I have no excuse for not going to a women-led reading.

Would I ever not want to go to one? I suppose if I had no patience or were extremely pressed for time, I might give it a pass. The women-led readings often take longer, I find. Then there’s the suspense factor — Will they mess up? Will they sound frail and hesitant, or confident and proficient? No matter how many years go by, it still feels like a novelty, and there’s still that sense of being tested – the readers on their reading, and the rest of us, tacitly, on our decision to be there.

Of course it’s not all anxiety and ideology. The atmosphere can be joyous, with a real sense of camaraderie and simple gratitude that women are now able to learn, to do this: one can’t take it for granted. Other times, one misses the virtuosity of the more seasoned male reader; or one simply misses the men and the boys. There have been times when I’ve wondered: why did I bother?

Sound cynical? I didn’t mean it that way. I do bother, because I think women-led Megillah readings are important — though not for the “ritual-inclusion” reasons that are often seen as a key mission of Orthodox Jewish feminism.

Orthodox feminism has a lot of great stuff to its credit (obviously doesn’t need me to defend it), but a growing emphasis on ritual inclusion is arguably doing the movement harm – alienating people who have real halakhic problems with, for instance, partnership minyanim, and deflecting attention from, or possibly delegitimizing, other issues of importance to Orthodox women.

Think I’m exaggerating? Someone in Wikipedia-land feels comfortable defining Orthodox feminism as “a movement in Orthodox Judaism which seeks to further the cause of a more egalitarian approach to Jewish practice within the bounds of Jewish Law” – full stop. One could argue that Wikipedia is open to re-editing by anyone; but the fact is that Orthodox feminism needs to be more vigilant about its public face – lest those unconvinced of its necessity be persuaded that it is all about “egal,” when in fact it should be about women’s Torah study, yoatzot halacha, helping agunot, and a whole host of things that are endangered by halachically-dubious or impracticable fixations with ritual inclusion.

In my salad days — back when there was no Wikipedia – ritual inclusion sounded great to me. But by now I’m pretty disillusioned with the idea that women need to grasp at any available opportunity to be “active” in the synagogue. That idea, for me anyway, lasted about as far as Baby No. 1.

A couple of recent articles (here and here) do an excellent job of explaining why an Orthodox feminism that is publicly and excessively focused on women adopting the traditional time-bound obligations of men does not actually work for most women who identify as Orthodox and feminist. I won’t rehash the arguments here; I’ll only observe that the authors, and the “silent majority” of Orthodox women whom they represent, share a view of meaningful Jewish life as being embedded in the day-to-day, in the minutiae of one’s ongoing activity as mother, spouse, worker, and member of the community – and not necessarily in the rapturous public prayer session, which (for women who are not obligated in it) is more like a break from everyday life than a part of it.

Essentially these silent-majority women look upon their relationship with G-d as a marriage, not as a honeymoon. The relationship is something that develops, over time, out of the discrete and banal moments of the everyday. It isn’t “Niagara Falls.”

In marriage, one isn’t continually engaged in explicit expressions of devotion to one’s spouse. The emotional connection is implicit, underlies/informs one’s daily activities, and is reinforced by them. So, too, with the Jewish woman’s life project in which, as Avital Chizhik, one of the aforementioned authors, puts it, “every moment one turns to G-d, and daily life becomes an intimate conversation with Him rather than a series of mandated public encounters with the Divine.”

Women’s voluntary – and intermittent — adoption of traditionally male roles in the shul, and the satisfaction or benefit that they derive from it, do not strike me as very meaningful compared with the male synagogue experience as thrice-daily obligation. Gadol ha-metzuveh ve-oseh mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh.  Sharon Shapiro puts it beautifully:

Where there is no work or effort put forth, there can be no love.  Those admirable men who are committed to daily shul attendance have put in the blood, sweat, and tears to feel ownership and pride.  The work they have put into their own tefillos and their spiritual institutions create a sense of love and loyalty.

So if I think a preoccupation with women adopting men’s roles in the shul — particularly in “partnership” frameworks — is shallow and kind of immature, then why do I see a value in women-led Megillah readings (and yes, for those so inclined, in periodic women-only – as opposed to “partnership” — tefillah/Torah readings, etc.)?

For very simple and straightforward reasons that should be acceptable across the Orthodox spectrum: knowledge is better than ignorance. Knowledge that is used only occasionally still helps shape one’s approach to life and reinforces the knowledge that is used regularly. Women like to sing and need outlets – at least, some women do; probably most women do, some of the time.

We’ve all been to the women’s (male-led) Megillah-reading from hell, where the burned-out baal koreh read at breakneck speed, to the point where none of the women could really follow – but no one said anything or worried that they hadn’t fulfilled the mitzvah of hearing Megillah, because they had guests coming for the festive meal and needed to get back to their cooking.

Sometimes married couples take each other for granted, and the daily routine becomes the daily grind. The antidote that is often prescribed for this state of going-through-the-motions is “date night.”

So how about it? The women-led Megillah reading as date night.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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