These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

My Modern Jewish Thoughts

Posted on May 24, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes

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From my blog:

The most challenging course I am taking at Pardes is called “Critical Issues in Modern Jewish Thought.” There is no Hebrew involved. There is no Aramaic. I don’t even have to memorize birth and death dates of famous Jewish thinkers. What I do have to do, however, is think for myself. And it’s hard.

Cynthia Ozick, American-Jewish author and essayist

Cynthia Ozick, American-Jewish author and essayist

During each session, we alternate between group discussion and silent reading. We read philosophers such as A.J. Heschel, Mordechai Kaplan, Rav Soloveitchik, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and Cynthia Ozick. We covered topics such as the nature of God, the authorship of the Torah, the authority of Halahkah, and post-Holocaust theology. At the end of each unit, a few students volunteer to give a presentation: as a class, we generate a series of questions that the presenting students have to answer. Next week, I will be presenting on the topic of Feminism in Judaism. Today, while preparing to speak about this topic, I found myself spending many thoughts and minutes on each sentence; this is a tough issue that I care about greatly. It inspired a good deal of personal reflection, and therefore I have decided to share it with you.

Below is the list of questions that inspired my thoughts. I didn’t answer every question directly, but reading over them will give you an idea of what we discussed in class and the challenges I am responding to.


  1. What should the response of traditional Judaism be to feminism?
  2. Are there limits to the types of changes Judaism can make and still retain its identity?
  3. Do I ever feel that I am forced to choose between Judaism and feminism?
  4. How do I respond to the male bias of the Torah and the Talmud? Should these texts be authoritative for women if they are not included in the authorship?


The male bias of Torah does not bother me as much as one might think. True, the Torah was not created by women. But it was not created by men either.

(I say “created” because I am not certain that the Torah was given to us by God in written form. I think that God created its concepts and ideas and dictated them directly through Moses’ hand. So a man technically “wrote” the Torah, but God, who is neither male nor female, created it.)

The Torah was given by God to the Jewish people in a language that they could understand at that time. When we received the Torah, our society was strongly patriarchal. The Torah’s laws appealed to the society that needed to accept it. I am not angry that many Torah laws only command men and not women. I am not angry that the Torah often refers to women as the property of their fathers and husbands. What is frustrating, however, is that there was a very long historical period in which women were indeed thought of as “less” than men. And it is disappointing that the Torah had to appeal to this type of society in order to be accepted. But it did. And it was. And thank God, because otherwise, we would not have the Judaism of today.

I have just acknowledged that the Torah is a product of its time – so it follows that because we live in a different time, we dispense with all the Torah laws that do not mesh with our modern existence, right? Not so fast.


At the core of Judaism is tradition. Our tradition began with the Torah. If the first observers of the Torah lived in a society that held different roles for men and women, we must hold onto some semblance of those roles in order to preserve our tradition and to honor the memory of all of our ancestors who committed themselves to the Torah as they knew it.

Despite my certainty that gender roles must be maintained, I find myself in constant struggle with the stark gender contrasts found in the Talmud and the Mishnah Berura. I do not believe that either of these works was “created” by God in the same way that the Torah was. These works were created and written by men. Again, they reflect the society in which they live, but here I must also factor in human psychology. The rabbis of the Talmud were men. They knew what was best for them. They did not know what was best for women. I believe that this underlying principle is still true today.

For example, when rabbis decided that, after a married woman gets her period, she has to insert a bedika cloth into herself three times a day to make sure she is “clean,” and then show the discharge to a male rabbi if she is not sure about the color, they had little concept of a woman’s sense of physical discomfort or her capacity for shame. The rabbis seemed to be strictly concerned with preventing the woman’s husband from becoming impure, without a lot of concern for the woman’s state of being. In my most feminist stance on Judaism, I believe that the laws of niddah (family purity), which require action solely on the part of the woman, should be decided primarily by women. With the advent of the Yoetzet Halacha and Maharat programs, women are becoming halakhic authorities in this field and it is entirely possible in today’s world for women to take the lead in these matters.

Naturally, due of the above statement, one might assume that I am totally in support of women’s leadership in the Jewish community. But alas, the issue is not so simple.

And here I come to the question of women rabbis. I dislike the idea of telling women that they are forbidden to be rabbis; that they are forbidden to study and lead a community when they might be very talented at providing spiritual guidance and Torah inspiration. But I also dislike the idea of being in a community that is led by a woman rabbi. Something feels wrong to me. When a woman embodies all the roles that are usually reserved for a male rabbi, that Judaism does not feel like my Judaism anymore.

This photo was taken from a Christian website. But do some Jewish women see themselves in the same position?

This photo was taken from a Christian website. But do some Jewish women see themselves in the same position?

Because I grew up in a semi-Orthodox shul, male rabbis are the norm for me. In addition, certain other aspects of Judaism, such as leading davening, reading Torah, and gabbai-ing, have always been presented as being governed by men when men and women are praying in the same space. And that makes sense to me. It fits my perception of men and women in society and as Jews. And most importantly, I feel at home in such a situation. When I pray, I do not want to be on display for the men, nor do I want to be bothered by strict boundaries of time or the obligation of leading the community. I just want to pray. However, I am aware that some women do want to lead mixed communities, and I respect that. They should have communities to lead – although my slightly traditional self will probably not be found in their congregations.

To be honest, I am surprised that I was not more conflicted as a teenager about women’s roles in Judaism. For my Bat Mitzvah, I led a Shabbat mincha service for women only. I read Torah and got an aliyah in an all-women’s environment. I gave merely a fleeting thought to the fact that my dad and grandpas could only poke their heads in for a few minutes—to watch, not to participate. (After all, I had given divrei Torah that morning during shul, so they had still seen something, right?)

In any case, I spent many Shabbats at my Modern Orthodox shul, and a good deal of time at the Solomon Schechter Day School and in USY – both of which are run by the Conservative movement and are totally egalitarian. Oddly, I felt no dissonance. I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of both denominations, and proudly called myself “Conservadox” (whatever that means). What eventually pushed me away from Conservative Judaism, however, was the fact that none of my USY peers were serious about learning and davening—all they wanted to do was hook-up. And that was not the Judaism that I wanted. Consequently, I was drawn toward Modern Orthodoxy, where many of my peers were educated and committed and, most importantly, where I could grow as a Jew.

Was I bothered by the fact that I could no longer lead services or read Torah? Not particularly—except when I was subject to a tone-deaf shaliach tzibbur or a Torah reader who had “forgotten” to prepare; I knew I could do a better job and resented being on the sidelines. This still happens today. However, I also notice this same phenomenon when I attend a Partnership Minyan and a woman is doing a poor job—I have an urge to get up there and show ’em how it’s done.

Oh, the good old days!

Oh, the good old days!

When I pray, I want the service to go smoothly and I don’t want to have to be on display to make this happen (I would be “on display” by leading the service and/or sitting next to a male). Therefore, the easiest way to have my optimal prayer experience is to attend a mechitzah minyan where the shlichei tzibur (prayer leaders) consistently know what they’re doing—and this usually happens within the Orthodox movement.

Sometimes, when I find a davening experience unsatisfying, I simply leave and daven (or journal) by myself. I love that I have the freedom to do this. Is it selfish? Perhaps. But I also see it as embracing my female role in Judaism. Having fewer halakhic obligations than a man gives me freedom to find my own path to God and spirituality without feeling a tremendous sense of guilt about transgressing halakha or letting down the minyan. I love the flexibility that is open to me, and I will continue to rejoice in it when I have a husband, a home, and a family– because someone has pushed my feminine button. I love cooking, preparing for Shabbat and nurturing those around me. And I will probably always be that way.

The idea of motherhood leads me to a vision I have for progressive halakha. I would like to see Jewish law respond in kind to the fact that the lives of single women, married women, and mothers are quite different from each other. Perhaps single women would have more obligations to pray and learn than women with young children. Perhaps those obligations would come back into effect when all the children have left the house and the woman has more control over her time. I do not believe, however, that any sort of woman should have the same obligation as a man. That would be pushing traditional Judaism too far away.

I strongly believe that God intended for men and women to be created differently. Men have more time to make laws, follow laws, and talk about laws because they do not give birth or nurse their children. This is a simple fact. This is life. Perhaps, because of biology, men and women gravitate toward different aspects of Judaism—but not all men and not all women follow this pattern. Thankfully, I have found a relatively comfortable place—for now—within aspects of Judaism that women “normally” gravitate towards. But I don’t think that other women should be relegated to this place simply because it works for me. If they want equality, it is their right to fight for it and to get it.

Equality in the workforce: another issue for another day!

Equality in the workforce: another issue for another day!

My thoughts on the this topic are winding down, but I have one last anecdote to share about the question of whether I ever felt that I had to choose between feminism and Judaism. During my freshman year of college, I performed in The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler. I auditioned because the title was catchy and I was itching to do some acting. Once I read the script, however, I realized what I had gotten myself into – and decided to go along for the out-of-my-comfort-zone ride.

I learned a great deal about women while working on this piece. I learned a great deal about violence, hate, love, loneliness, and orgasms. I also learned that radical feminism makes me a wee bit uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I continued with the production, and was very pleased that so many of my Jewish friends came to see it.

One other religious girl was also in the play. We saw each other a lot at the Maryland Hillel, and one day I overheard a conversation occurring between her and a Jewish male friend of ours (whom I happened to have a huge crush on).

“Please explain to me,” he said to her, “how you can be in this play. It’s such a chilul Hashem” (a disgrace of God’s name).

I didn’t hang around to listen to my friend’s response. I was too filled with humiliation and shame. If one guy had those thoughts, I was sure others did, too. Was I being viewed as a disgrace to the Jewish people because I was in a play that happened to have the word “vagina” in the title? I couldn’t shake the guilt.

I still can’t. I know deep down that “a nice Jewish girl” would never perform in The Vagina Monologues. But I also know that being in that production did not make me feel any less Jewish; in fact, I felt more so because of the conflict raging inside of me. For those ten minutes of my monologue, was I a disgrace to God? When I pray quietly on my side of the mechitzah, wanting nothing more, am I a disgrace to feminists everywhere? The answer is yes, and yes, and no, and no, and maybe in the future there will be a better answer. Or, perhaps, a better question.