Photo: Ruchama Weiss
Ruchama Weiss and Yona Arzi
Photo: Ruchama Weiss

'Bo': Let my sisters go

Open letter to rabbi who asks us to stay behind wall separating men and women in prayer

Dear Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein,


For several weeks now we are writing back and forth to one another on the screens of Ynet Judaism in regards to the place of women in the house of prayer, the place of women as givers of public Torah sermons, the place of women as leaders of ceremonies and prayer services, and of the proper place for the mechitzah, the wall for separating men and women in prayer.



Over these weeks, you have labeled us shallow or superficial and claimed we play dumb and oversimplify. You have accused us of domineeringness and aggressiveness. Despite all this, after all these words, you invited us to dialogue directly. We bless your invitation and we are taking it up.


The difficulty that will accompany the entire width and depth of this column is the difficulty to find and choose the correct words. The prophet Zechariah, in his eschatological vision, articulates this great challenge: "Truth and peace you shall love."


Are we able to write words of truth that can also extend a hand in peace? Will we succeed at writing words of peace to a rabbi that demands of us that we sit behind a mechitzah, and limits our rights to speak words of Torah in public?


Will the demand for truth and justice that bursts forth from us, however required by the insult heaped on generations of women, successfully be stated with the intention of instilling peace? And is there not a danger that the desire for dialogue and peace will quite the truth that finally needs to be brought to light in the religious world?


If this isn't exclusion of women, what is?

In your retort, you have stated that the presence of a mechitzah in the house of prayer, and your granting of leadership roles in prayer and in Torah sermons exclusively to men, is not discrimination and is definitely not exclusion of women. We ask ourselves if these actions can possibly be given any other definition.


In the name of which logic and which truthful ethical standard can we avoid having to appropriate these actions under the unflattering title "exclusion of women"? We could understand, although not accept, the religious position that excluding women is not a sin, or that in the name of Halacha, Jewish Law, one must commit unethical acts. However, we are not able to understand the linguistic "pilpul" (casuistics) of those who try to have their cake and eat it too by excluding women, and at the same time roll their eyes at Heaven and at the value of human equality.


'I love my master' (Exodus 21:5)

You claim that the women of your community and the women of Rabbi Ariel's community (and other women-excluding communities) come voluntarily to the house of prayer and accept with understanding discriminatory rulings in Halacha.


We believe you, but claim in a clear and definitive fashion that moral issues are not determined through popularity tests. As in this week's Torah portion, and the entire length of wanderings in the wilderness, the children of Israel do not want to leave Egypt, and after they do, they want to return to the land of their enslavement. If Moses would have asked the slaves where they would like to live, we, our daughters, and our granddaughters would still be enslaved in Egypt.


"But if the (Hebrew) slave shall plainly say: I love my master... I will not go out free" (Exodus 21:5).


It is a sad, but not surprising fact that many slaves do not want to be freed from their masters. Even if there is amidst the female members of your community women who support the continued presence of the mechitzah and their own continued exclusion from activities in the house of prayer, that is in no way a response to the ethical wonder why you, as a rabbi and a leader, choose to support discrimination against women.


For the sake of domestic peace?

The term "shlom bayit," domestic peace, has become worn away over the years into a cliché, a term that is far from the concern for truth. In the name of "shlom bayit," terrible injustices have been committed. "Shlom bayit" can sometimes be an attempt to make permanent a bad living reality in order to create "deceptive quiet."


Just imagine the women of your community asking themselves where they really want to sit. Imagine them coming out from behind the mechitzah and sitting at the front of the house of prayer. Obviously an action like this is inconceivable. As of today, very few women have demanded full partnership in worshiping God. This is because of the demands of "shlom bayit" that have been articulated in one way or another.


Some of the women obey your demands of them not from love, but from willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a double "shlom bayit," the concern for the criticism they would receive in their own home and the concern for the condemnation they would receive from the rabbis and other community members.


Women who do not fight back against their exclusion from worshiping God do not do so out of choice or acceptance. Rather, they restrain themselves as a result of many years of internalizing the patriarchal community structure and from concern for the sanctions that would be directed towards whoever should dare to suggest changes.


'Love thy female neighbor as thyself'

A painful, but also hope-inspiring comparison, is your moral struggle for people with special needs. With impressive courage you choose to struggle with the educational, communal, and halachic establishment, in order for people with special needs to be accepted with equal rights by the broader community.


In response to the harsh words of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who ruled that one should recite "Baruch Dayan Ha'emet" – the traditional blessing recited when bad news such as a loved one's death occurs – when a child with Down syndrome is born, you responded decisively: "Rather than be punctilious with blessings in this matter, it is necessary to be scrupulous on the topic of 'love thy son as thyself."


We ask ourselves how would you respond to a community that decides to put people with Down syndrome behind a mechitzah? How would you respond if a community would screen its members based on skin color or personal income.


For the sake of those with Down syndrome, you are justifiably ready to bend and twist through the thicket of the Jewish legal tradition and come out with an ethical ruling. We ask ourselves how you allow yourself to give preference between just causes. Do for the women of your community exactly as you do for those people with Down syndrome.


You don't want to study Torah with us

Time after time our female friends, our male friends and ourselves offer you and your friends the best halachic sources that can finish, once and for all, the debate on mechitzot and discrimination against women in the house of prayer. Time after time you choose to ignore the halachic candies we throw over to the men's section.


Your choice is not just a personal missed opportunity, but is also a moral and a religious failure. In your attempt last week to justify this choice, you stated: "All the 'pilpul' in Jewish sources will not beat out (Jewish religious) life as it has been formulated over hundreds and thousands of years."


Seemingly, we should be happy, as this is almost a "Reform" statement. It seems to be the most "Reform" statement that one can get out of an Orthodox rabbi, and even more I think that we should translate "but" instead of "and even more" paradoxically, it has been said in an attempt to maintain the inferiority women in the house of prayer.


However, Reform Judaism opposes "pilpul" when it is used as an axe in the hands of those attempting to prioritize Halacha over what is ethical, whereas you oppose "pilpul" that offers a method of saving Halacha from moral distress?!? This is simultaneously saddening and hard to understand.


As a side note, we will remind you that the traditional Jewish legal sources that we brought testify to the fact that a mechitzah in the house of prayer is actually a relatively new custom, and certainly not a thousands of years old tradition. But as you said, this is "pilpul," and you didn't intend to learn Torah with us, so why should we let "pilpul" confuse the patriarchy.


Orthodox wounds

More than a few things you wrote threatened to open old wounds in my heart. Among other things, you claimed: "This does not mean that it is forbidden for a specific community (Jewish or not) to organize it's life as it chooses in a fashion that gives different dominance to men and women... on condition that they choose to affiliate with that community in a free fashion."


I, Ruchama, read your words and was reminded of the "free communal choices" of my childhood and teenage years. I grew up in those very communities of which you speak and you lead. I was one of the women that you believe chooses to freely affiliate with your community. Only that I was born into an Orthodox community that through its heart runs a mechitzah and has at its foundation discrimination against women; into a community that believes I am invalid to testify as a witness; into a community that believes I do not need to, and am not able to, learn Gemara, and that I am exempt from many commandments.


Simultaneously, I also learned that my body is a ticking time bomb of sexual arousal for men and it is my responsibility to cover it with long clothes and loose edges. I learned that women entice but have difficulty being enticed themselves, while the men are easily tempted and are in need of constant protection. I learned that women need to be modest. The men, much less...


No, I didn't choose these beliefs, they were forced on me. With persistence and methodicalness, day after day, in school and in youth group, the male and female teachers (yes, the female teachers swore loyalty to the beliefs of this system) toiled to instill in me this awareness about myself, about my friends, about my mother, about my grandmother, and about all women.


You succeeded in educating me, and don't take this success lightly, because it was difficult for me. For many years I toiled with great effort, with internal and external attention, to peel away these beliefs. I have discovered that I am no less smart and no less sexual than men. To know that I am free to know, free to lead, free to pray, free to dress, free to tempt and free to give in to temptation, and that I am free to restrain myself and control my desires.


Not insignificant strength was demanded of me to escape the grip of these patriarchal beliefs that you implanted in me. I found my freedom in Reform Judaism that was never dependent on 'scholarly casuistry' in order to believe that all people are created in God's image. I chose to leave the communities of my childhood I thank God that gave me the strength to do so.


Don't force women to choose

We chose communal life that offers equality with obligations and rights, but in your communities there are female members who want to continue to be Orthodox and demand equality. We hope that you will cease placing them in tests of loyalty that are too difficult, and quickly learn to be Orthodox and fighters for human rights all at the same time.


Something new and exciting is happening in our religious world. The denominations in Judaism in the modern era and the "unavoidable" struggles between them are all inventions of men. In the last few years, far from the "exposed denominational places" of the male religious establishment, we, women of various religious denominations, are making a covenant between us. It appears that partnership of pain and exploitation, of the desire for freedom and for moral responsibility included therein, is stronger than the walls that you requested to establish between the denominations.


Two examples stand out of these interdenominational covenants are the Women of the Wall and the Facebook group "I am a religious feminist and I too don't have a sense of humor." Almost all of us are angry and lose our sense of humor when we read your apologetics and discriminatory halachic rulings. It seems to us that if you will not engage the female members of your community in serious negotiation, and if you won't find a way to respectfully address their voices, you will become very quickly an irrelevant leadership tacked on at the far edges of the camp's periphery.


We are standing positioned this Shabbat at the opening of Torah portion "Bo." At the beginning we thought to finish the this column with a reading of "Let My Sisters Go," but on second thought, out of the deep familiarity that has been formed with the sisterly bond, we know there is no reason to request that. They are liberating themselves. They are establishing Orthodox egalitarian prayer groups, they are delivering excellent Torah sermons, and they are exemplary teachers and cantors.


For you it is worthwhile to stop pushing back and see that you have the possibility to merit enjoying the company of some exceptional women.


Shabbat Shalom!


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew


פרסום ראשון: 01.03.14, 10:21
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