Let’s start: Some follow-up thoughts

On my wall, I have a beautiful paper cut that was a gift from my chevruta when I graduated from the Drisha Scholars Circle. In the middle, it has the famous verse from Tehillim 119: Ma ahavti Toratecha, kol hayom he sichati—How I love your Torah, all day I meditate on it. I have always thought both the artwork and the pasuk were beautiful, but lately I have been thinking a lot about what it means to meditate on Torah. How do we define the parameters of Torah? What does it mean when we find pieces of Torah difficult, challenging that love? And how do we transfer those meditations into action, in an effort to bring more Torah into the world?

Last week, I wrote a piece that seems to have struck a chord with many, and a nerve with many others. My intention was to expand a communal conversation, not by closing the door on those who were already engaged, but by challenging all of us to think about how we are excluding those who are not. I did not wish to shut men out, but rather, to make them aware of how it feels to be made an object in socio-cultural and halakhic conversations, rather than a participant. It is not that I want men to give women their seats at the table; I simply think we need a larger, and more open, table.

With that in mind, here is the outcome of some of my recent meditations on Torah and the Jewish community. I would like to make five suggestions of things that all of us, regardless of gender, may want to start doing:

Let’s start admitting that, at its heart, the halakhic system is messy. It is a beautiful, brilliant, creative mess, but sometimes a frustrating one as well, in that there are few cases with one clear, correct answer. Anyone who has ever broken their teeth on a dispute between the Ba’al HaMeor and Ramban knows that there is fierce debate about the correct ways to read texts and to pasken halakha. Anyone who has read a teshuva by Rav Ovadia Yosef or Rav Moshe Feinstein knows that there is space for creativity and flexibility within the halakhic system as society changes and the need is warranted. So before we say, “What you’re suggesting, or doing, is assur and against halakha,” let’s start at least considering the possibility that another side can be justified within the halakhic system as well.

Let’s start remembering that one of the foundational principles of rabbinic Judaism is intellectual pluralism. As the mishnah says in Pirke Avot 5:17, “All disputes that are for the sake of heaven, in the end, they will remain.” This seems strange—wouldn’t we expect disputes that have proper motives to be resolved? And yet, there is a value—there is a reward—in disagreement, if it is done in a productive way, for the right reasons. This means that you can be right without my being wrong. It takes real security in our views to be able to reach the point where we can speak with those with whom we passionately disagree without trying to change their minds. Let’s start working to gain confidence in our beliefs and principles, rather than asserting those beliefs by summarily dismissing or rejecting the opinions of others.

Let’s start trusting the men in our communities to be strong and secure enough in their identities to not flee at the first sign of women’s empowerment. If the Orthodox Jewish community is so weak that it cannot withstand giving women more opportunities—opportunities that are permissible within the boundaries of halakha, but not traditionally associated with women—then its problems are much deeper than gender roles. I would like to believe that the men who have dedicated their lives to living within the halakhic system have not done so because it allows them to lord over women, but because they believe themselves to be obligated, or because they find keeping mitzvot meaningful. And if that is not the case, the solution is not minimizing the opportunities we give our daughters, but rather, rethinking the ways we are raising our sons.

Let’s start using our brilliant and thoughtful female scholars to teach the whole community, instead of just the women. Let’s ask them to talk about whatever is on their minds, rather than only about hilkhot niddah or the stories of Beruria or the women of Tanakh. Let’s invite them into all halakhic conversations, instead of only those about women’s issues. Let’s trust them to inspire everyone in our synagogues and our schools, not because we owe it to these women, but because we owe it to ourselves. As my teacher Rabbi David Silber always says, this is not a matter of kavod ha’briyot. It is a matter of kavod haTorah. To honor all of the Torah’s seventy faces, we need all of our community’s voices.

Let’s start remembering that our own individual experiences will never be identical to those of the people around us. That means that each of our voices are invaluable, but also that we are responsible for allowing others to be heard. When our conversations devolve into shouting, when we only listen because we are waiting for our own turn to talk again, when we assume that we know how others feel without asking them, we are shutting out those have things to say, but in a quieter voice. So let’s stay in the conversation, but start pulling back a little. Who knows what we will hear when we try to listen?

The goal of the Jewish people is to be holy—kedoshim tihiyu. But achieving the status of a holy community is not easy. Yishayahu Leibowitz notes that Korach’s sin in saying, “All of the nation is holy,” is that he is assuming that holiness is something that is bestowed, rather than a continual quest in which the community should be engaging. So it is incumbent upon us to continually seek out holiness, rather than assume that, in our righteousness, kedusha has been bestowed. Ma ahavti Torahtecha—may we find a way to love each other as deeply as we love Torah. It won’t always be easy. But let’s start.

About the Author
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where she teaches Talmud.
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