Dear Rabbi Lob

Have you been watching the Agudah Convention? It’s about education, so it’s tangentially related. One video that affected me was Rabbi Lob’s speech on people going off the derech (OTD).

First, I want to say that it was a great speech. It was humble and it was honest. You can find it at the bottom of this page under “Sunday Morning Highlights.”

Rabbi Lob mentions that his sister stopped being observant, and he blames it on “the women’s movement,” by which he means feminism. And he describes the letter she wrote explaining her decision, saying, “Yiddishkeit works for you, you’re a man… Being frum raises your status, while being frum lowers my status.”

He said “I didn’t know what to do with that.”

Rabbi Lob, you don’t know what to do with that because lowering the status of women is a basic tenet of chareidi Judaism. To be content as a frum woman, one must be content to be secondary. But if you’re not, it has nothing to do with feminism.

I never read a single feminist tract until last year. I only read it because everyone kept telling me I was a feminist, in spite of my protests.

I’m not a feminist. I just want respect. For as long as I can remember, I have battled with frumkeit and frum people for respect I wasn’t accorded simply because I am female.

When I was four: My father was davening for the amud. My brothers were standing next to the bima – essentially on it – as a way of being important by association. I wanted to stand there too, but they kept pushing me back. I was a girl – I didn’t belong on the bima. I threw a temper tantrum so big and so loud, complete with lying on the floor kicking, that my father had to stop davening to sort things out. The gabbai teased me about it until my bas mitzvah.

I wasn’t a feminist when I was four.

When I was seven: We had Thanksgiving dinner with my great uncle, who was a rabbi with a great deal of communal involvement. I thought it would be appropriate to shake his hand, like grown-ups do. When I stuck out my hand, he stared. He said that usually he doesn’t shake women’s hands, but he’d make an exception for me. But first he had to put his glove back on. I was offended. Why was I untouchable just because I was female?

At age seven, I had not yet been exposed to any feminist influences.

When I was nine: They told me I had to sit behind the mechitzah in shul. I couldn’t see what was going on. I couldn’t kiss the Torah as it passed through the shul.

I knew that being shoved out of reach, out of sight, and out of mind was not an honor. I declared that if I had to sit behind a curtain in shul, I just wasn’t going to go any more. And I didn’t, until high school, except for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchas Torah, and Parshas Shkalim.

When I was nine I didn’t understand “patriarchy” but I was an expert on “fair.”

When I was eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve… All kids get into “boys are gross/girls are gross” arguments at this age, but when you’re frum there’s a twist: the boys have Chazal on their side.  I heard that “daatan nashim kalos” and that teaching me Torah was teaching me “tiflus” and I couldn’t be a witness in court because I was too emotional.

I would counter with whatever I could: “binah yeseira” and “I get bas mitzvah’d first because girls mature faster” but they always had an answer. They always knew more. “It’s not ‘maturity’ how you’re thinking it means.” Then they’d all look at each other knowingly.

I couldn’t answer back, because I didn’t know. I wasn’t allowed to know. I was purposely kept ignorant because I was a girl. I knew that I was as smart as they, and I seethed that anyone would think I was incapable of learning as much as they could.

It didn’t take any external influences for me to know: I was being judged by my gender and not my character or ability.

When I was fourteen I was in bais Yaakov and doing my best to be a better Jew. I loved Torah and mitzvos. And yet every Simchas Torah, the holiday for celebrating love of Torah, I was relegated to audience. There was no way for me to express my love. No way for me to participate. All I wanted to do was hug a Torah – that precious scroll that guided my life. All I could do was sit and listen to women swap recipes.

And finally, through some begging and scheming, I was able to get my arms around a Torah when nobody was around.

Almost nobody.

I had just hefted the weight of Hashem’s will and closed my eyes to let the greatness of this moment flow through me… and it was yanked out of my arms by a furious man. How dare a woman touch a Torah?

Why? I wanted to know. Where did it say that I couldn’t hold a Torah? And why did being a woman matter*?

Was this the insidious influence of secular society?

When I was in high school: the men, at the Shabbos table, always had interesting discussions about Torah and halacha. I listened avidly. Whenever I could, I would chime in. Often, I would come up with chidushim that would impress the guests. “Who says that?” they’d ask me.

“I do,” I’d say.

Some looked impressed. Others were immediately dismissive. In an attempt to be taken seriously, I ran my initials together into a Rishon-esque acronym. Whenever someone asked “Who says that?” I would answer, “The Zlagan.”

But when the subject turned to Talmud or halacha, as it invariably did, my participation was limited to hearsay. “I heard that it says…” was as deep as my input could go. I was frustrated by my own irrelevance. I wanted to talk Torah. Why couldn’t I?

Perhaps this was a desire born of feminism?

When I was in high school: They told us that we, as women, had two main purposes in life. Our first was to be tznius. The reason for this, they said, was because we were a bas melech and had to dress accordingly. And yet, whenever they explained why we had to look a certain way, it was described in terms of preventing men from having wrong thoughts. Tznius, we quickly realized, was all about men.

Our other main purpose was to support Torah and raise b’nei Torah. Our own Torah had minimal value, because we weren’t obligated to learn. And Torah was the only way to earn Olam Habah. So we had to marry learners and support Torah to make it into Gan Eden.

In short, bais Yaakov students are having it pounded into their heads that they have no intrinsic value of their own. Everything they do has worth because of how it affects men.

I never really bought this, because while I am uncertain about many things, I have always had one solid conviction: that I have value in my own right. It troubled me that the people who I trusted the most could be telling me something so damaging, and so wrong.

Maybe I was already influenced by the radical notion of women’s equality.

When I was in high school, I heard that women are supposed to form a mezumanes.  But I have never been able to get a group of halachically-minded bais Yaakov girls to form one. They assume that three women together cannot possibly be equal to three men together.

Both men and women assume that it is inappropriate for women to form a zimun in the presence of men. Why? Because in Orthodox Judaism, men are the ones who do things. Women are the ones who watch. It’s inconceivable to us that the reverse might be possible. But halachically, this attitude is wrong.

And I know that halacha isn’t feminism.

When I graduated college, I moved out of town for my first job. I had my own apartment, and I occasionally hosted couples for meals. I made Kiddush Friday night. It never occurred to me not to. The head of the household makes Kiddush, and the head of my household was me.

My guests’ reactions ranged from uncertainty to refusal: they were sure it was dishonorable for a woman to be motzei a man in Kiddush. Even source and citation couldn’t change their mind, because this wasn’t about halacha. This was about honor, as defined by our society.

That’s the point, really. Orthodox Judaism is very solicitous of the honor of its men. (That’s why women can’t get aliyos: because of the kavod of the men**.) But it is downright dismissive of the honor of the woman.

Your sister didn’t need feminism to turn her away from frumkeit. The truth is exactly how she put it. Frum society and praxis raises men up and provides them with opportunities not available to women. (Why can’t a woman be a shochet? Why can’t a woman be a mohel? Why do we need a special teshuva from R’ Moshe for women to be mashgichim?***)

Many women are content to take the backseat in their household, community, and family. But other women aren’t. This is not because we are under outside influence; it’s because we have passion, conviction, and self-regard that cannot be quashed by our education.

I know of a family with twin siblings. The male twin is learning in kollel. His sister is a Maharat. Many people think they are oddly divergent. But to me it seems exactly the opposite: they are the same.

Both twins love Judaism. Both twins want to learn and grow and connect with their tradition. Both want to be active participants in their communities. But chareidi Judaism offers so much more to one twin than the other. What choice, really, did she have?

Well, she had one more choice than Rabbi Lob’s sister did.

And so do I: in two weeks I’ll be leining two aliyos at a local partnership minyan. The first time I leined – just six pesukim! – I was shaking like a leaf the entire time. The enormity of transmitting the text to the congregation with perfect accuracy according to tradition overwhelmed me like nothing ever had before.

Why do I do it? Learning the trop has added a whole new level of meaning (and comprehension) to my Torah reading. It brings me closer to the ancient minhagim that form the religion I practice. It makes me a meaningful participant, and not a mere spectator, in my Yiddishkeit.

…Or maybe, I’m just trying to yank back that Torah scroll – and my (female) honor – that I lost so many years ago.  One thing I assure you: this has nothing to do with feminism.

Rabbi Lob doesn’t know what to do about this, because Chareidi Judaism will not, any time soon, give women the same honor it gives men. But there is still something he can do, and something the Agudah can do: do more than pay lip service to “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim.”

There are schools where girls receive a Jewish education comparable to their male peers. The rabbanim behind these schools have legitimate psak behind what they do. But the average chareidi perpetuates malicious rumors about such places. If a girl even dreams of transferring to such an environment, she is warned that they are dens of drug abuse and orgies, and how will she ever get a good shidduch.

There are shuls where women are given a sefer Torah on Simchas Torah. There is legitimate halachic logic behind this practice. But the average chareidi assumes that anyone who goes to such a shul doesn’t have a chezkas kashrus. “We don’t eat by them.” These attitudes create unnecessary divisiveness in klal Yisroel, forcing many girls to squeeze themselves into molds they don’t fit – at least until they can leave, permanently.

This kind of sinas chinam is something that Rabbi Lob and the Agudah can battle. If they do, they may just help those girls and women who want more than second place. And that might just be enough to keep them from seeking empowerment elsewhere.

 

 

*For the lay reader: The Rema brings down a minhag for women who are niddah to not attend shul or touch a sefer Torah. Obviously, we do not follow this minhag today — at least the first part. The second part requires the assistance of men to change, and therefore it hasn’t.

**The Gemara explicitly states that a woman can get an aliya, but you shouldn’t “mipnei kavod hatzibur.”

***The Rema says that only reason women can’t shecht is because women don’t shecht. It’s a similar story for being a mohel. The baby’s mother used to be the sandek before the Maharam put a stop to that.  And the only reason a woman can be a food mashgiach is because R’ Moshe paskened that a mashgiach isn’t really a position of authority. Which is to say, it’s not dishonorable for men to take orders from her.

Afterword: The speed at which this has spread astonishes me, but is a testament to how deeply these sentiments must speak to so many.

I wrote this shortly after the Agudah Convention and posted it on this out-of-the-way page, not knowing what to do with it. It has never appeared on the main blog or been promoted in any way. Until I mentioned it in a subthread of a post in a Facebook group. From there, it just took off. 

Thank you to everyone who found this meaningful, and thank you to everyone who helped spread the message. I wish I had more of a solution. 

 

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