Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Serving HaShem as a Woman

Sometimes living in Shilo is like living in a bubble. Most of us are here for idealistic reasons and want to serve HaShem with our love of Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people. Leaving Shilo and meeting people who do not necessarily share our vision can be disconcerting. Recently somebody told me how she resents our religion because it is unfair to women. I laughed and told her I used to feel that way but no more. However, it was impossible in just one minute to tell her how and why I had changed.

Fifty years ago, when I was eight-years-old, I attended my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis. The sanctuary was full of ugly wooden partitions that kept the women in the back behind the mehitza. I was horrified and complained to my mother that it wasn’t fair.

Forty-five years ago, at age thirteen, I had my Bat Mitzvah which included leading Friday night services, reading the Torah portion and Haftorah, and making a speech in our Reform Temple.
Forty-one years ago, on Simcha Torah night, I decided that there was no reason that I could not dance with one of the Torah scrolls just like the men and boys did. The rabbi also could not think of any reason to forbid me. I took the Torah that my uncle had rescued in Germany and changed the custom of our Temple.
My attitude then was more-or-less that of Annie Oakley’s in Annie Get Your Gun. “Anything you can do I can do better.” And now, forty years later, I am satisfied to sit behind the mehitza in the synagogue, to leave the Torah reading to the men, and to dance without a Torah scroll on Simcha Torah. I have done a lot of learning and had numerous, positive role-models in the past forty years.
One of the first things I learned in my exploration of Torah observance is that although there are 613 mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah, no one person can do all of them. Some are for kings, others are for Cohens, some are for men, and others are for women, while some are for everybody.
I also learned that when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, Moshe was instructed by HaShem in Exodus, Chapter19, verse 3, “so, you shall say to the House of Yaacov and tell to the Children of Israel.” According to the commentaries The House of Yaacov refers to the women and the Torah was explained to them first, before the men.
It is clear to me that men and women are not the same. A man cannot nurse a baby and I know that it is usually more difficult for a woman to carry heavy equipment. Therefore it makes perfect sense that I do not have all the mitzvot that my husband has. I still have plenty. Some of them are easy for me. For example, I have never been tempted to commit adultery. Others are more complicated like the laws of keeping kosher and Shabbat but I continue to learn and strengthen my observance of them. Then there are others that are quite difficult. Fasting on Tisha B’Av is always a challenge and no matter how hard I try not to speak lashon hora, I often do.
Instead of complaining about sitting on the other side of the mehitza I can work on my concentration when I pray. Instead of learning how to chant the Torah portion I can use my time to learn the laws of careful speech. Instead of dancing with the Torah I can teach my children and others love for its commandments. Instead of wearing a tallit I can enhance the mitzvah of dressing modestly. The list goes on and on.
I am blessed by the fact that I am satisfied with building a Jewish home. I enjoy having a big family and all that entails. Some of my favorite moments are those when I sit in front of my computer in my dining room and write articles in praise of HaShem.
There are other women, though, who are not content to stay at home. Just as there is no commandment that says only women can change diapers, there is no commandment that says they cannot have a career. It has been my privilege to know women who are doctors, lawyers, and accountants and follow the laws of the Torah. I also know women who cannot get a job in their fields in Israel but believe staying here is too important a mitzvah to give up. So they work as babysitters or cleaning ladies. Some of my friends are divorcees and widows and one was even an aguna. She was hit with one of the hardest commandments in the Torah but it did not affect her faith in HaShem and His Torah. If anything, she became stronger in her beliefs.
I believe that the Torah is divine, given by G-d, and therefore, perfect. Unfortunately man is not perfect and there are some who corrupt the laws of the Torah. On one extreme there are those who warp the laws to subjugate women. On the other end there are those who change the laws to make the Torah “fair”.
Forty days after Moshe said to the House of Yaacov and told the Children of Israel there was the Sin with the Golden Calf.  The women did not participate in it. Nor did they participate in the Sin of the Spies. Instead, they survived the forty years in the desert to enter the Land of Israel.
As I raise my family and build a Jewish home I know that I am following in the footsteps of my ancestors in Egypt. There is a well known Midrash that teaches us that it was the women who kept the men from despair when they were enslaved in Egypt and they continued to build the Jewish people. I am proud to serve HaShem as a woman.
Mehitza: divider
Lashon hora: literally evil tongue, it refers to forbidden speech such as slander and gossip
Tallit: prayer shawl  
Midrash: part of the oral Torah
aguna: abandoned wife 

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