Reclaiming Our Mothers’ Religion

In this week’s Parsha, a new and courageous heroine forces her way into the story and history of our people. With her bold ploy to bear Yehudah’s child without his approval or consent, Tamar steps out of traditional feminine bounds and gains our admiration and respect.

We live in a generation of amazing “Tamars”.

Only this week, a group of courageous Ultra-Orthodox women burst into the public eye with their demand to represent their own interests. They launched a campaign to secure a place for haredi women on the electoral lists of the haredi parties. In the face of insults and threats, these women tell the world that they will not be confined or defined by anyone else’s ideas of “women’s place“.

The “Tamars” of our time have my deep respect and, in many cases, my active support. But at the same time, our Parsha makes me sad. In our excitement to plunge forward into a time of “Tamars,” we barely notice that we left the Matriarchs behind. Sarah and Rachel are dead, and Rivkah and Leah disappeared from the story. Similarly, in our determination to expand our options as religious women, I fear we sometimes disrespect and devalue our mothers’ religion.

Our mother’s religion was deeply domestic, and domesticity is devalued in the Western world. Our culture tells us that housework is inferior. It doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t affect society in any way. As for childcare, it’s nothing special. Everybody does it, after all.

As religious girls, we grow up into a cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, we absorb the Western perception of domesticity as inferior. On the other, we are told that one day, the domestic arena will define our unique and important religious role. We will raise Jewish kids and nurture a loving and holy family. We will have the privilege and responsibility of maintaining the tangible and material aspects of our families through our special women’s mitzvot. We will be the cornerstone of the house.

The problem goes beyond the clash between domestic religious goals and the western perception of domesticity. The very teachers who prepare us for our “womanly” future”, tell us also that what truly matters is our soul, our mind, our spirit. And for a time, we really do experience religion this way. We learn Torah, attend seminaries, pray with kavana, discuss spiritual matters with like-minded girls…

Come marriage and children, however, our brief period as honorary Jewish men is suddenly over. The religious lifestyle pushes men to shuls and batei midrash, and invites them to worship with their minds and souls. We are presented instead with the traditional trio of Nidah, Challa, and lighting Shabbat candles. After learning our whole lives that the mind and soul are what’s truly important, we are now commanded to take care of physical and bodily things.

For me, like for many other girls, this was a painful crisis. When I gave birth to my first child, I felt burdened and rebellious. I felt that I could learn as well, think as well, seek God as well as a man. Why should my spirituality be defined by nursing, feeding, and changing diapers? Why was I suddenly exiled to the inferior realm of gashmiut?

Many women either accept their religious experience as a constant trial, or try to participate in traditionally-male religiosity. I recently heard Haviva Ner-David, the first woman to ever receive semicha from an Orthodox rabbi, give a talk in Jerusalem. She explained that she pursued semicha because only “men’s Judaism” seemed valuable to her. Her family made time for her father to go to shul and learn. Nothing her mother did ever received similar respect and support. Why be the enabler of “real” Judaism instead of practicing it? Like her, many bright and passionate Jewish women join egalitarian minyanim or seek other traditionally “male” religious outlets.

But why should we accept the devaluation of “women’s religion” in the first place? Haviva Ner David herself later questioned her previous perception of her mother’s mitzvot. She dedicated a year to examining “women’s Judaism” and recorded her insights in her memoir “Chanah’s Voice.”

Like Haviva Ner-David , I feel that we are too quick to accept what male-centric culture tells us about our traditional religious sphere – the body, the household, and childcare. The body is the place where life happens, where we experience emotions and exert self discipline. The household is neither insignificant nor unchallenging: fostering a positive and nurturing atmosphere in the home is both difficult and crucial for our well being. And raising children to be mensches is a tremendous challenge, with incalculable importance to society at large.

As we struggle to redefine our place in Judaism, regardless of our bid for greater communal involvement and new roles, let’s not neglect the powerful heritage of our mothers. Let’s not accept the devaluation of their religion. We don’t have to neglect the Matriarchs in our support of Tamar. Let’s reclaim the body and the family as a powerful arena of growth.

Yes, I can fly higher when my mind isn’t fettered by this-worldly concerns. But one can only grow within a living organism, and I choose a life of growth.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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