These and Those

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

Women’s Role in Judaism: A Different Perspective On the Occasion of My Husband’s Yahrzeit

Posted on September 21, 2020 by Carole Daman

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This blog piece was written by Carole Daman (Year ’73-’74, Spirituality Retreat ’13, ’14, ’15, ’17, ’18,  WLS ’08, ’09,  ELS ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16 ’17, ’18, ’19, ’20). Each year a Day of Learning is dedicated in memory of her late husband, Harlan Daman (Tzvi Hirsh ben Dovid Aryeh) z”l.

The following is a talk I gave last year at Shalosh Seudos at my synagogue, The Young Israel of Scarsdale:

Tonight, the 28th of Tishrei, will be the 13th yahrzeit of my husband Dr. Harlan Daman, Tzvi Hirsh ben Dovid Aryeh. Every year the fact that he died five days after Simchas Torah and that the fall which caused him to lose consciousness occurred right at the end of Simchas Torah gives extra meaning to these days for me.

In her eulogy for Harlan, our daughter Gila noted that the last Torah reading Harlan heard included the death of Moshe and that the Haftarah describing the succession of Yehoshua kept repeating the phrase “chazak ve’amatz,” “be strong and of good courage.” Gila said that she felt like these words were also meant to strengthen our family at a time of such great personal loss. After hearing Gila’s eulogy, I realized that the date of Harlan’s final departure from this world, Kaf Chet Tishrei could be understood as Koach  (strength) Tishrei. Indeed the life that Harlan lived and the pure goodness he shared with us have continued to give us strength throughout the years.

That year during the late summer, several people were concerned the High Holiday season would be a particularly difficult time for me in anticipation of Harlan’s first yahrzeit, but I felt that the intensity of our awareness and concern for our relationship to Hashem during this period would be a source of strength and comfort. This intuition was reinforced after I noticed the last line of Psalm 27, which we recite from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Shemini Atzeret, “Kavay el Hashem, chazak ve’yaamaytz leebecha ve’kavay el Hashem.” “Hope to Hashem, be strong and He will give you courage, and hope to Hashem.” I felt that the message of “chazak ve’amatz” which Gila had heard in the Simchas Torah Haftarah was coming directly to me once again and I hear that message every year.

Also on Rosh Chodesh Elul, we begin to blow the shofar and this brings bittersweet memories of Harlan blowing the shofar for this community—in earlier years as a sub during Elul at daily minyan and later as the primary shofar blower at the JCC.

My experience of this holiday period is also colored in a positive way by the devotion of my son Avi to his father and to Torah. Each year, he learns a tractate of Gemara and makes a siyum on Harlan’s yahrzeit attended by many friends in our community.  My own preparations for this siyum give me a focus and sense of purpose knowing Mar Cheshvan, and what can be a feeling of emptiness after the holidays, will not begin until after we have celebrated Harlan’s life.

After the intensity of Tishrei, the month of Mar Cheshvan is the beginning of half a year without any Torah-mandated holidays. According to the Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe, Shemini Atzeret has the power to infuse the six months before Pesach with meaning and kedusha. He discusses this in an essay entitled Chag Ha’atzeret which was taught at our shul before and during Shavuos in 2011. The essay is actually included in the section on Shavuos because, as the Slonimer Rebbe explains, the two holidays have similar characteristics. Both come after 50 days of preparation, beginning with the first of Elul and the beginning of Pesach respectively, and they each illuminate the six months that follow without any Torah-mandated holidays. Each does not have any prescribed observances—mitzvot ma’aseot—but embodies the intimate union of G-d and Bnei Yisroel, reaching an even higher level of holiness, kodesh kodashim. The Slonimer Rebbe compares this to a concept attributed to the great 18th century Chassidic rebbe Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk: that the blank parchment between the letters in a Torah scroll have a higher level of holiness than the letters do. This is because each letter only has its own kedusha, but the blank parchment encompasses the kedusha of all the letters.

The first time I heard this teaching it resonated deeply with me because I associated Shemini Atzeret with Harlan’s passing. The second time I heard it at the Shavuos Tikkun, it offered me a different kind of comfort. Earlier that evening, during a shiur by a visiting scholar, I had been disturbed by how the exclusion of women from the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, learning  Torah, was glossed over in a discussion of how the obligation of Talmud Torah creates a chain linking grandfathers, fathers, and son.

I have been thinking about the place of women in Judaism for many, many years and that night it occurred to me that women may have an even greater kedusha because they are like those white spaces and Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret.

The absence of many particular obligations—Talmud Torah, Tefillin, Tzizit, etc gives women an opportunity to connect with Hashem in a different, unmediated, and, perhaps, more organic way; more of a chance to focus on the relationship rather the specifics.

This is not to say that women are better than men—though I have to admit, I actually feel deeply inspired when I bless G-d each morning for having created me “according to His will”, “She’asani Kirtzono.” Even if that was not the spirit in which the prayer was written.

Rather, I think that it is important that women are able to model—for both men and women- a different modality for connecting to G-d.  While I applaud the expanding opportunities for Orthodox women in our generation and was the co-founder of the Women’s Tefillah at our shul and have been an attendee at many JOFA conferences, I often worry that if women continue to take on more mitzvot, we will all lose that model of a more free-flowing relationship with Hashem.

Referencing Shir Hashirim, there are those who say that the broad outlines in the theory of the relationships between women and men parallel the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.  Others speak of the feminine quality of BEING in contrast to the masculine quality of DOING.

This idea is explored in the book by Miriam Kosman, Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism.  The “feminine” qualities of being and receiving from another are represented by a circle, while the “masculine” qualities of taking action and giving to another are represented by an arrow. In Judaism, she claims, each of these two modalities exists and they combine to create a spiral.

I believe this process is embodied in our responses to the reading of Moshe’s death on Shemini Atzeret, which is also Simchas Torah. After we reach both the end of Moshe’s life and the end of the Torah, we respond in two ways: We create a circle by reading Bereshit and beginning the Torah again. And we move forward like an arrow into the spiral of Jewish history by reading in the Book of Yehoshua about the new leader and the preparations for entering the Land of Israel.

The circle of life becomes a spiral. As we move forward in our lives, we are enriched and inspired by the Torah and by the gifts we have been given by those who are no longer with us.

Though Harlan’s life on earth ended prematurely, his spirit lives on in the powerful influence and outpouring of love he bestowed upon his children and others.

It is a privilege to mark his Yahrzeit with this community each year at Shalosh Seudos and at the siyum.

Shabbat Shalom.