Kol Nidre 2018
Over the summer, I received a message from Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who serves a congregation in California. In addition to his pulpit work, Rabbi Kipnes is in the middle of creating material for the Reform Movement’s newsletter, Ten Minutes of Torah. He explained to me that he is in charge of the commentary for every portion in Genesis, and that for Vayishlach, the parashah that includes both the rape of Dinah and the birth of Benjamin, he wanted to work with a female rabbi and create something with her.
Rabbi Kipnes had seen my sermon about politicians’ distortion of biblical values and knows me from my various posts in rabbinical forums which are apparently, and I’m sure you will be shocked to learn this, strongly feminist in nature. So he decided to reach out to me and to ask if I wanted to collaborate. After thinking about it for all of one minute, I, of course, enthusiastically agreed.
What came out of my conversations with Rabbi Kipnes is an original midrash that reimagines the few moments our matriarch, Rachel, was able to spend with her newborn infant before she passed away. Midrash is a genre of Jewish literature that encompasses a hugely diverse set of writings, but at its core, midrash is a technique of interacting with the biblical text that allows us to imagine details and stories that fill in some of the gaps in the original storyline. My classic analogy for midrash is this: If the Wizard of Oz is Torah, Wicked is midrash. Wicked takes a character, the Wicked Witch, that we see only briefly in the original text and fills in an entire narrative around her. In that same way, the midrash that Rabbi Kipnes and I wrote this summer takes the sparse account of Rachel’s death, and opens up the spaces in the storyline, giving Rachel the chance to speak to her son, something which the original text does not allow her to do.
As I emailed the last draft to Rabbi Kipnes, I realized that I didn’t like our working title. After thinking about it for a little bit, I came up with an outrageously long suggestion that will almost certainly be rejected and replaced by the URJ’s marketing wizards, but I thought I would share it with you tonight. My suggested title for our midrash was, “When Ben-Oni becomes Benjamin: Tracing the Patriarchy’s Appropriation of Women’s Stories Back to the Patriarchs.”
We’ll see what the URJ decides to call it, but to my mind, this is the perfect title. For me, the exercise of giving a matriarch the opportunity to speak while experiencing a critical and painful moment in her life had brought into stark relief just how long Israelite and Jewish women have both gone unheard and been actively silenced by those in positions of authority.
Tracing the patriarchy back to the patriarchs. What a depressing and yet unbelievably crucial task to take on.
And so, as I sat down to write my Kol Nidre sermon this year, I decided to use this time and space to explore the question of why women’s voices have been a source of such incredible anxiety for the Jewish tradition. I believe strongly that it is only once we understand our own tradition’s broken places that we will be able to heal ourselves and those outside of our community.
Before I begin, I want to briefly address the term, “patriarchy” which I will be using often tonight. I know that for some, the term will cause feelings of defensiveness, because they understand the use of the word to be an implicit condemnation of all men. In her powerful book, White Fragility, sociologist Robin DiAngelo investigates and presents the many reasons why white people often find conversations about racism to be difficult and uncomfortable.
DiAngelo defines racism in the following way, “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self images of individual actors.” She goes on to explain that we have been socialized to see ourselves as individuals who are able to live outside of general social patterns and that this “ideology of individualism” allows us to exempt ourselves from internal evaluation.
In the opening chapter of her book, she offers this advice to her readers, “Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which we live; individualism will not. For now, try to let go of your individual narrative and grapple with the collective messages we all receive as members of a larger shared culture. Work to see how these messages have shaped your life, rather than [using] some aspect of your story to excuse yourself from their impact.”
When I use the word, “patriarchy,” I am describing a system like racism which exists outside of what DiAngelo calls, “individual actors.” That means that while there are certainly many, many men who see women as completely equal, all of those men AND the women that they esteem exist within a system where women are bound by legal and institutional restrictions that men will not face.
I ask that for the length of tonight’s sermon, all of us follow DiAngelo’s advice and try to set aside the idea that any of us are exempt from further examination. I ask that even if you disagree with my characterization of our society, you allow yourself to engage with the idea that every single one of us has been shaped by, “the collective messages that we all receive as members of a larger shared culture.”
Let’s turn now to the question of why women’s voices have been silenced for millennia.
Traditional Judaism is a term that I use to denote the all-encompassing category of Jewish thought, practice, and belief that existed until the Enlightenment sparked all modern expressions of Judaism- including Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.
Traditional Judaism was built on the assumption that male and female Jews were fundamentally different in many, many ways and that therefore their ritual duties should be shaped around their inherent differences.
Among many other responsibilities, the ancient rabbis assigned to men those practices which required them to be in the synagogue at specific times. Examples of these “time-bound mitzvot” include their participation in three, daily prayer services. These rabbis reasoned that women could not be required to fulfill these specific kinds of mitzvot as their responsibilities to their children and their homes would make it impossible for them to also attend services in the synagogue.
This understanding of ritual responsibilities created a world divided into two hemispheres where the demarcation lines were solely based on gender. This worldview can be traced all the way back to the Mishnah (codified in the 3rd century of the Common Era), and it is the foundation upon which the Jewish tradition has built and then cemented the idea that public spaces- like the synagogue- belong to men while private spaces- like the home- are inhabited by women.
Along with this classification of space comes an idea that would do more than almost anything else to limit the lives of Jewish women for almost two thousand years. In the collection of rabbinic writings that we call the Babylonian Talmud, there is a section of text dedicated to the dangers that men face when they look at a woman. It was there that Rav Samuel taught the following, and I have to admit that I feel as if I should play theatrically ominous music underneath my reading of his teaching because this short sentence has been the source of so many years of oppression. But, since we do not have an organ, my voice will have to suffice.
“Rav. Samuel said, A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, ‘For sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 24a)
קול באשה ערוה
A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement.
These are the opening words in a struggle that Jewish women, including myself, are still grappling with as we fight for equality.
If you had never met a woman, and only knew of them from your reading of traditional Jewish law (which was, of course, written exclusively by men), you would almost certainly think they were the most dangerous creatures on this earth. In the Mishneh Torah, a medieval legal code created by Maimonides, we read that, “Even to smell [a woman’s] perfume or to gaze at her beauty is forbidden. And one who engages in this [gazing behavior] deliberately receives lashes of rebelliousness.” (Mishneh Torah, Forbidden Intercourse 21:2)
Another medieval legal code which continues to have a huge influence on Orthodox Jewish practice is known the Shukan Arukh. It is even more explicit about the peril that men experience when interacting with women.
“A person must stay very far from women. He is forbidden to gaze at women doing laundry. He is forbidden to gaze at the colorful garments of a woman whom he recognizes, even if she is not wearing them, lest he come to have [forbidden] thoughts about her. If one encounters a woman in the marketplace, he is forbidden to walk behind her, but rather [must] run so that she is beside or behind him… It is forbidden to listen to the voice of [a woman] or to look at her hair. If one intentionally does one of these things, we give him lashes of rebellion.” (Shulchan Arukh, Even HaEzer 21:1)
In another section, the Shulchan Arukh explains that, “One should refrain from hearing a woman’s singing voice during the reading of the Shema… even [if that woman is] his wife.” (Shuchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 75:3)
Over time, women’s silence is woven into the concept of modesty something which is of paramount importance to the Traditional Jewish world. A primary and critical responsibility of observant Jewish women becomes taking every precaution to NOT tempt men to have forbidden thoughts about them. Women are therefore barred from leadership or even equal participation in the synagogue and any other public realm.
Women’s voices, even when raised in prayer, can distract men from their prayers, and because the ancient rabbis decided that men pray in order to fulfill a commandment, male prayers have complete priority over the prayers of women.
Because of this hierarchy of spirituality, women are walled off from public ritual experiences, separated and covered so that men will be able to accomplish their spiritual goals and fulfill their ritual responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the prioritization of men’s voices in synagogues and other public arenas is alive and well in certain parts of the Jewish world. For example, if you search for the phrase, “Kol Isha” (A woman’s voice) on Aish.com, a website operated by an Orthodox organization and yeshivah, you will find an incredibly unnerving “Ask the Rabbi” article.
The questions posed to the rabbi are as follows:
“Why can’t women sing in front of men? And further- why is there a double-standard whereby women can listen to men singing? Shouldn’t we have the same law for men and women?”
Here is what the Aish rabbi wrote in response:
“You are asking very good questions. First let's be honest with ourselves and see if there is any differences between men and women, and if there are [sic], how would it affect this particular prohibition. Would the fact that the overwhelming majority of illicit mediums are produced and geared for men illustrate anything? Or the fact that the bulk of those who participate in these forms of diversion happen to be from this same gender? Psychologists attribute man's stronger sexual drive to many factors. The nature of their hormones, the constitution of their psychological disposition and their physical makeup are but a few of the explanations given. Whatever the case may be, the fact that men are generally more aggressively driven after their sexual impulse than women, is an uncontested fact no matter how you approach it.”
I have to interrupt here to clarify that this rabbi and I seem to have very different understandings of the definition of the word, “uncontested,” but I will set that aside to share with you his next point.
“Men and women,” he continues, “have different criteria for sexual arousal. Hearing a woman sing is sexually arousing for a man. While it might be hard for a woman to imagine such a thing, the Sages are very in tune with human nature - and this rule has been observed by Jews for thousands of years. In Greek mythology, the Sirens were female seductresses who lured sailors with their enchanting voices. Now that we are ‘enlightened’ is there no need for these safeguards? I wish that were true. But we see the media influence has created an atmosphere where sexualization and objectification of women is stronger than ever before. Women, on the other hand, who are stronger [than] men in this area, are not prohibited from hearing men sing.”
He concludes by saying, “But, you ask: Why should women suffer restrictions simply because men can't control themselves? The answer is that we are all in this together. We all have to do our share and help each other out. Believe me, it is ultimately to women's advantage to keep things from getting out of control.”
Tracing the patriarchy back to the patriarchs. It turns out that it’s not such a difficult task. It seems that there is pretty much a direct line from Adam’s rib to thousands of years when Jewish women have been oppressed and Jewish men have been warped by toxic, patriarchal values.
As I considered this topic and worked on this sermon, I became fixated on the idea that our world would be so very different if Judaism and the religious traditions that came from it had lifted up women’s voices instead of systematically silencing them.
I love Judaism with a powerful love. In fact, I love Judaism so much that I’ve chosen to devote my life to teaching about it and to helping others explore our tradition. But there are moments when I am overwhelmed by knowledge of just how much pain our tradition and those that sprang from it have caused to generations of people who look and sound like me.
We have to acknowledge that our commitment to egalitarian Judaism means that we are working to actively counter more than a thousand years of teachings that say men are unable to control their bodies or their thoughts and that therefore women must shrink themselves down, attract as little notice as possible, give up the space that they are entitled to, and allow men to fill that vacuum.
Last Rosh Hashanah, I stood on this bimah and talked about the power of one voice to change the entire world. Think of all the voices that we have lost and the sheer enormity of the changes that those voice could have created.
If our Torah had recorded the pain and grief that Sarah felt when she woke up to find that her husband had, in the name of his beliefs, stolen her only child- a boy whose birth had been so improbable that it was considered miraculous- would we so cavalierly rip children from their mother’s arms in the name of so-called American values?
If our Torah had recorded the voices of the powerless women who were forced to live on the fringes of their society, would it have taken so long for the Jewish community to look around and ask who else wasn’t being heard?
If our Torah had given space to the thoughts and the feelings of our matriarchs and- even more critically- to the women who served as their handmaids, would we have allowed the world to become so twisted that it would take millions of women saying “Me Too” for our society to devote even a small amount of time to discussing the fact that women are being victimized by individuals that are supported and shielded by corrupt and unethical power structures?
Tracing the patriarchy back to the patriarchs.
The patriarchy is not individual men, many of whom are trying to do good in this world. The patriarchy is the toxic social structure that tells men that they are uncontrollable animals while telling women that they are both seductresses and potential victims.
The patriarchy is a worldview that mandates that women carve out for themselves a tiny space where they will spend their entire lives working to fulfill their feminine destinies without disrupting the paths of the men who surround them.
The patriarchy agrees with the Aish rabbi who easily dismisses female understanding of sexual desire while simultaneously explaining that all men are so dangerous to women that, “It is to women’s advantage to keep things from getting out of control.”
The patriarchy is what allows a woman writing on Chabad.org to base her argument against female equality on the following observations.
She writes, “I see women prancing in front of men as if they are pieces of flesh to grab on to. I see women leading unhappy lives in a career climb that doesn’t satisfy their natural instincts... I see women who seem to have attained ‘freedom’ and ‘emancipation,’ but come home from a long day at the office to still do 90 percent of the housework. I see women in this free society who hit the glass ceiling far too often because they are women, and I see that those who succeed often have to drop every iota of femininity on their climb up. ...What appears as freedom, isn’t always so. What appears as ‘women’s rights’ can also lead women to the most degrading, self-humiliating behavior…”
The patriarchy is what has taught this woman that the gender roles of a heterosexual married couple, the restrictions on women’s professional advancement, and the negative understanding of women’s freedom are not issues to be addressed and changed because they are realities that have been woven into the fabric of the world. The patriarchy is what has convinced her that to address even one of these issues would risk unravelling creation.
When the #MeToo movement erupted into the world, we saw exactly how strong the patriarchy is. We saw that men and women were so shaped by the toxicity of this social system that many of them were entirely flummoxed by the idea that men could and should cede some of the space that they have occupied in order for women to be and safe and valued.
Over and over again we saw powerful men objecting to this movement by saying something like, “What, now I’m not supposed to be friendly? What if I want to flirt with a coworker? Why are you taking the fun out of work?”
On the other end of the reactionary spectrum, some powerful men decided that the risk that they pose to women (although they of course saw it as the risk women pose to them) was simply too great and that they would therefore no longer be alone with women, no longer have meeting with women, no longer interact with women in professional settings unless chaperones were available.
These contemporary reactions are almost exact reflections of the traditional rabbis’ beliefs that men’s sexuality is uncontrollable and that women’s sexuality is both dangerous and consistently available to any man who happens to walk by.
I want to be clear- I am not arguing that the Jewish tradition is evil. Instead, I’m advocating for us to do the work and to take the time necessary to identify the parts of our beloved tradition that are broken. Once we have figured out exactly where those sharp and painful edges are, we can begin to understand the dangers that they pose.
In the same way- I am not arguing that we are evil but instead that we live in a society that has broken us in some ways, and that those sharp edges can and will hurt us and others if we don’t seek them out and purposefully address them.
Yes, the Jewish tradition was built on patriarchal assumptions and shaped patriarchal societies, but we have inherited so much more than the patriarchs.
We have inherited a tapestry of Jewish traditions woven together by generations of unheard women and unseen people who did not easily fall into either hemisphere of life. If we pay close enough attention, we can uncover the designs that they have left for us.
We have inherited ancestors that who were our patriarchs and matriarchs but were above all human- flawed and incomplete, broken and precious. We can still hold these people close to our hearts even as we work to eliminate the social oppression that was done in their names.
We can love our Judaism even as we work to repair its brokenness.
I pray that 5779 will be the year when people of all genders stop denying that there is a problem to be fixed and start engaging meaningfully in the work of fixing it.
I pray that 5779 will be the year when we do the sometimes uncomfortable work of investigating how the our actions might be supporting oppressive social systems.
I pray that 5779 will be the year when we intentionally address the painful edges within our own tradition and then dedicate ourselves to completing the necessary repairs that will ensure that Jewish spaces are truly safe for every person who walks through our doors.
I pray that 5779 will be the year when women’s voices will ring loudly and with power and men’s voices will call for more space to be given to those who have silenced for so long.
I pray that 5779 will be the year when we finally listen.
Kol Isha. A woman’s voice is a powerful thing.
It’s time for our sisters to be heard.