Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Beauty, Controversy, and Being a Jewish Feminist

It occurred to me that a blogger won't find success until she says something controversial: something that makes people think, and possibly challenge their own assumptions. On Monday, I wrote a post that was more widely seen than anything I've written before on this blog. 

In response, many people have reached out with positive, inspired reactions. I heard personal stories of struggles to find a meaningful spiritual practice and community. One commenter said she was educated in Haredi schools, and started wearing tallit with Women of the Wall. She advised that I practice the bracha in advance, as I might find myself tearing up. One friend wrote to tell me that she didn't start wearing tallit and tefillin until she was in college, but her daughter, now in high school, began at her bat mitzvah: "It has been very joyous for me to watch this be a natural and comfortable ritual for my daughter, rather than a vexed one, as it has been for me." 

But there was also this, on Twitter: 
@rachelmannnyc @JVoicesTogether There's so many beautiful things to do as a Jewish woman and wearing a talit isn't one of them.
Really? Like keep quiet, mind the kids, and let the men pray for us? Remember, a hundred years ago many people would have agreed with the above statement if you delete "Jewish" and replace "tallit" with "trousers."  I'm quite familiar with the traditional women's role in Judaism, and I am very happy lighting the Shabbat candles with my family every week. But there are some aspects of traditional religious gender roles that are simply outdated, and yes: sexist. 

Standing yesterday with an overflow crowd at my home shul, I saw hundreds of Jewish women (and men) proudly davening in tallit. And I have to tell you: they were beautiful. It was beautiful to see that despite the rain, so many people cared enough to miss a couple hours of work or school to come together and pray. It was beautiful to hear an inspired, educated, and unified congregation, which was really an amalgamation of dozens, sing the Hallel together. It was beautiful to see the future of pluralistic Judaism join in the service: middle school students from Hannah Senesh and Schechter Manhattan. It was beautiful to sit with my daughters by my side and yes, it was beautiful wearing a tallit. 

Most importantly, it is beautiful to know that there is a large, committed group of people who believe that a small segment of Jews should not have carte blanche to decide how people can pray at the Kotel, or anywhere. 

I asked Bella, my 10-year-old, to write her reflections on the service and the cause. Here's what she wrote:

I definitely agree with the Women of the Wall because I think that it is very important that all Jews have equal rights especially when it comes to the precious Kotel. I thought that the service was special and that it showed that we believe in equality as Jews. If women don’t wear tallit or tefillin then Jewish women don’t have any clothing to represent their religion. I am planning on wearing tallit and tefillin after my bat-mitzvah and that is one of the reasons this is important to me.
I was not the only one who wore a tallit for the first time yesterday. The woman sitting directly behind me at the service told me that she was, too. Another woman like us was honored with an aliyah. And, more famously, three female Knesset members also wore tallitot yesterday at the Kotel, participating in a service with Women of the Wall. This time, no one was arrested.

I can't say that wearing a tallit will become a permanent part of my practice. Time will tell. But I feel certain that yesterday, it was just the right thing to do.

P.S. Please "like" the new Facebook page for this blog. And thanks for being here. 

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