Corinne Berzon

To dance with the one I love

On Simchat Torah, a painful realization that she may not be man enough for Orthodox Judaism

Have you ever been in love with someone who didn’t feel the same way about you? Have you ever felt rejected in a way that made you want to scream and pull out your hair and cry until you feel hollow and hoarse? I do.

When I was young my mother would light Shabbat candles and a gentle mist would descend on our home. Her eyes would soften and the constant stress in the corners of her mouth would lift into a slight smile. By the glow of candlelight we would eat our festive meal and sing the prayers together.

In the morning we would walk to synagogue and meet my grandmother. The three of us would sit shoulder-to-shoulder, siddur-to-siddur, mouthing the silent prayers and singing aloud with the burgundy-robed choir. The familiar traditions and tunes of my childhood stitched the rich embroidery of Judaism into the fabric of my soul: my grandmother shielding my eyes from the Kohanim as they blessed the congregation, rebuking me to uncross my arms before the opened ark lest my surly posture dispel the Shechinah, the men bringing the beautiful crowned Torah scrolls to the women’s balcony so we could touch them, with two hands, open palmed, and kiss them.

I can still feel the lingering sensation of the velvet against my lips, the movement of my hands touching the scrolls, then bringing them to cover my eyes and to my lips once again. I breathed in the velvet and parchment along with my mother and grandmother, aunts, cousins, friends. I fell in love with the Torah, it was mine, given to me by a perfect, merciful and loving God. It was for me, for every one of us.

When I was nine my mother took me to New York for Simchat Torah; there was a garbage strike and the city was hot and dirty and frightening. At night we went to Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s shul. It was chaotic and beautiful. I remember sitting on Reb Shlomo’s knee as he told stories and sang to the children. I remember the women, dancing and weeping as the men passed Torah scrolls over the mechitzah. Years later my mother told me how the women wept because it was the first time many of them had been permitted to touch a Torah scroll. They wept with gratitude.

When I returned to religion, after years of rejecting it outright, it was with total and utter devotion. I loved Torah. I loved Orthodoxy. I felt proud of my new modest attire, my lengthy and devoted prayer. I moved to Israel and immersed myself in study, trying to catch up with the so-called FFBs (Frum/Orthodox from Birth). But something was missing. Women were missing. I was missing.

I was taught to cover myself, cover my hair, my knees, my elbows, my collarbones. I was taught to stop singing. I was taught to keep a kosher home, but not offer evidence in a Jewish court of law. I was taught that modesty is synonymous with respect and that being entrusted with childrearing is further proof of this deep respect. I was taught that exclusion is respect. For a while I believed it until I didn’t anymore.

The more I learned, the more I questioned. The laws of exclusion were presented as straightforward, but they are not. Torah is a multifaceted and fluid entity. It is a living, breathing thing, organic and beautiful. But nobody tells you that in seminary.

Every question I asked was met with pat answers, scripted responses designed to quell doubt. But these were woefully insufficient. How can it be that a woman cannot be granted a divorce? How can it be that she cannot learn Talmud or offer binding answers on matters of Jewish law? How can a woman not be permitted to eulogize a loved one before her congregation or serve on the board of her synagogue? For that matter, why is a woman not permitted to be a cleric? Why can a woman not wear what she wants, on her head or her body, without becoming an object of scrutiny? Why can’t a woman dance with a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah? Forgive me if ‘tradition’ is not a convincing enough answer to appease me.

As the years have passed I have become disillusioned. I love being Orthodox. I love Torah Judaism. And yet it rejects time and again, this hateful paramour of mine. With every passing year the religion that I love is becoming increasingly resistant to the participation of women, increasingly misogynistic, increasingly incapable of seeking an adequate resolution to the ‘woman problem’. Orthodox Judaism is unkind to women and a great schism has been created between those who would foster greater inclusion and those who view inclusion as the end of Orthodoxy.

The problem is that many women are unwilling to wait. I, for one, am tired of being rejected by the one I love. If Orthodoxy doesn’t love me or want me, I will simply have to leave it behind and move on. I am tired of crying. I am tired of hurting. I am tired of not being good enough or pure enough or man enough. I need reciprocation for my devotion.

On the eve of Simchat Torah I remember the excitement of kissing the Torah and touching it, with two hands, open palmed. Open hearted. I remember falling in love, a love so deep that it would unseat me, move me across the world, change me from the depths of my soul to scarf on my head. Torah is mine. It is perfect in every way, eternal, merciful and loving. But Orthodoxy is flawed and arrogant and harsh. Perhaps it is time for me to dance with the Torah and leave Orthodoxy behind — it never really loved me in the first place.

About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.
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