As I journeyed through the process of converting to Judaism, I kept smacking up against sexism…particularly in the Orthodox practices. I hated all the dark, restricting, fashionless, entire body-covering clothes…as though a woman’s body is shameful and must be covered up because men aren’t disciplined enough to control their urges. The mechitza rankled me…particularly when it meant that women weren’t allowed to touch the Torah or participate in the service at all. The minyan, a requirement of ten people present in order for a sacred service to occur, was the last straw to my silence. I, as a woman, would not count toward a minyan…either in the Orthodox or Modern Orthodox communities…only men.
I was frustrated. I was angry. I was indignant.
Why is my value as a woman limited to keeping house, having children, and pleasing my husband? Why is my value as a woman not even noticed if I’m single or childless? Why is my value as a single and childless woman only noticed in terms of getting me married so that I can get on with having children and pleasing my husband? Why is there no value of me for me? Why is my intellect not valued? Why are my other skills as a business woman, musician, writer, teacher, philosopher, scholar, and wild adventurer not valued? Although I ultimately chose to convert Conservative so that all these things that I value in myself would also be valued by my community, this philosophy still irritated me…and still does to some degree. Particularly because if I were ever to go to Israel, Orthodoxy rules…which also means even though I converted Conservative, I will not be considered to be a Jew in Israel. Only those who convert Orthodox are fully accepted as being Jewish and given rights to Israeli citizenship. But, as long as these prevailing practices and attitudes toward women remain, I will never embrace Orthodoxy.
One Shabbas, I was ranting on this topic to my spiritual “Jewish father,” and, true to form, he listened to me with his full attention and interest.
When my words were exhausted, he asked, his eyes twinkling in delight with my thoughts, “Are you finished?”
I flopped back into my chair, indignantly sulking, and stated, “YES!”
“May I suggest an alternative view?” he offered.
I snorted. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“Weeellll,” he mused, “it’s debatable by some, and it’s simply a suggestion, but…it might help a little.”
“Ok.” I finally agreed. “I’d love to change my mind and attitude around this issue because it’s using up a lot of energy. I’m listening.”
He nodded and began. “You know my wife?”
I chuckled reluctantly and nod.
“You know that she doesn’t observe many Jewish practices.”
“She always uses her leather purse…regardless of what day it is,” he continued. “She talks on the phone on Shabbas, she’ll go to the store on Shabbas if she needs to, she drives on Shabbas, she may or may not attend services…you get the picture.”
“I, on the other hand,” he placed his hand on his heart, “go to minyan twice each day, attend all services, attend an Orthodox Torah study on Tuesday nights, keep kosher, walk to shul on Shabbas, don’t turn lights on or off on Shabbas…in other words, I’m observant.”
I nodded again.
“Who do you think is the most spiritual?” he asked with a smile.
I looked at him suspiciously, “Spiritual, or religious?”
He smiled as his head nodded, his index finger waggling. “Spiritual.”
“Well,” I hesitated, “just because she isn’t observant doesn’t necessarily mean she isn’t spiritual.”
“Exactly!” he responded. “Why do you think that is?”
I looked at him. “Please don’t tell me that housework inherently creates spirituality.”
He laughed. “I would never dare to say such a thing. But,” he chuckled, “there is a connection.
My eyes narrowed
“Hear me out.”
“Continue…with caution,” I said.
“Have you ever considered,” he spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, “that a woman is inherently spiritual? That she doesn’t need all the trappings of the Jewish practices?”
My eyes widened slightly, my head cocked in interest. “Continue,” I said.
“These rituals that are required by men…that I observe…are meant to refine the soul in order to bring the soul into a union with Divinity. A woman doesn’t need them…my wife doesn’t need them…I definitely do.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because Divinity is not Who I think of naturally…or easily. I think of myself. I think of my needs…my wants…my desires…my ego. Women, and of course there are always better examples than others, have an easier and more natural access to Divinity on a regular basis.”
“Really?” I asked skeptically.
“Yes,” he insisted. “My wife doesn’t need a service to bring her close to Divinity…she infuses Divinity into everything she does…including housework.” He grinned at me, “She doesn’t need to be limited by ritual because she’s beyond that. Ritual is for beginners.”
“Huh.” I said. I’m still not sure I wanted to give up my rant…although, this makes for an interesting substitute.
“This is not to say that the accompanying attitudes around ritual are at all welcoming or appreciative of women…but perhaps this perspective can help ease the sting around that failing,” he offered.
I nodded slowly as I sort through my thoughts. “Where did you come up with this idea?” I asked.
“The Torah,” he grinned.
My eyes rolled upwards, my hands facing the sky, “Of course you did.”
“Seriously!” he insisted. “Remember the story of creation in Genesis?”
“Which one?” I countered.
“Any of them. For this purpose, it doesn’t matter.”
“Ok.” I replied. “Yes, I remember.”
“How does it begin? What is created first?”
“Mmmmmm,” I pondered, “that’s a really hard question.”
“Not philosophically,” he encouraged, “just what is stated in the story.”
“Oh,” I laughed, “you want the simple answer of light.”
“Yes!” he laughed in return. “How hard was it to create light? How complicated is light?”
“Weeellll,” I began, “You’re talking about the foundations of existence and potentials, so….”
“Ok,” he conceded, “but we’re going for simple here. For argument’s sake, let’s just say that it was easy.”
“Ok.” I agreed.
“Then what comes next?” he asked.
“Darkness,” I replied.
“Again, easy,” he said.
I nodded, beginning to understand the parameters of the argument.
“Atmosphere and separating water.”
“Good!” he seems pleased. “Harder or easier than light?”
“Ok.” I said, “I’ll play along…not harder or easier, but more complex perhaps.”
He conceded with a simultaneous hand/face gesture. “Continue through creation. Each day, does the creation get more complex or more simple?”
“Good!” he agreed. “Now, what happens on the sixth day?”
“Humans are created.”
“Ah.” He agreed, “But in what order?”
“Well, if you’re talking about the conjoined human, then they were created at the same time.”
“True,” he shrugged, “but look how that ended.”
I laughed, “They were separated at the rib and Lilith ran away.”
“So then what?”
“Ah!” A light dawned. “Woman is created…separately…not attached to a man…whole and complete on her own.”
He beamed proudly.
He continued, “If you look at Creation from a simple-to-complex continuum, where is woman?”
“Most complex,” I said slowly, in wonderment.
“Almost,” he said blissfully. “If you look at Creation as also being a movement toward sacredness, where is woman?”
“Most sacred,” I said breathlessly.
“Almost,” he said enraptured. He paused, breathing in ecstasy before saying, “The only thing created that is more complex and more sacred than woman, is Shabbas. And yet!” he emphasized with a finger and a chuckle, “Who’s to say they aren’t one, for she was created Erev Shabbas.”