Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Don't Tell Me What My Daughter Can't Do, Tell Me What She Can

A guest post by Mordechai Osdoby

There's currently a conversation going on about Jewish women wearing teffilin (leather boxes with prayers in them), something that is traditionally a male-only practice in Orthodox Judaism (Modern, Yeshivish, Ultra, whatever). Some are cheering, some are disdaining, and some are calling for "official statements" (from who? We don't have a pope!) against it. In my case, it's reminding me of an earlier incident in my own life.

We were having Shabbat dinner at the house of the Rabbi of a local synagogue. This synagogue at the time was not strictly Orthodox; they had no mechitza (barrier separating men and women) in the main sanctuary. The Rabbi, however, was, and he was a long time associate of my parents. In fact, they were the real guest; we were just ride-alongs. I will never forget that night; after the blessing of the wine, we went to wash before hamotzie (the blessing on the bread). When we came back, it was not the Rabbi who uncovered and blessed the challah, but his wife. Daphna stared at her in abject wonder. I could hear the thought in her head "Girls can DO that?"

The Rebitzen, seeing my smile, must have thought I was amused or worse, being dismissive. "Let me explain," she said. I insisted there was no need, but she continued. "Every Shabbat, my daughters would see me in the kitchen, slaving and preparing, and yes, sometimes complaining. I didn't want that to be their only association with a woman's role in Shabbat. So I made it a point to make hamotzie every week, to show them that our part is not just setting the table."

I loved it and thought it was brilliant. Daphna too. For the next several weeks, she proudly made her own hamotzie (as she was under Bat Mitzvah, we could not "count' in her blessing). I was talking with my own Rav and mentioned it, including the story the Rebitzen told. Now my Rav is very YU (in fact, he teaches there). He was one of the later students of Rav Joseph Dov Solovechik z'l (known in some circles simply as "the Rav). He has a big black hat and people seem to have this mental image of him as this stern, tough guy. His reaction to this flip of traditional gender roles (no pun intended)?

"That's great! More people should do that."*

That's why I felt comfortable in that synagogue. Because there was no knee-jerk reaction of "this is different from what I am used to, so it must be assur (forbidden). Actual merits were weighed. At the end of the day, there really is no reason why a woman cannot make hamotzie (or indeed, kiddush) for a man beyond "this is what we're used to". I am not enough of an expert to weigh in on the teffilin laws themselves, but it does seem to be an example of the same thing; something that's not traditionally done, so it must be bad.

It goes both ways, incidentally. My mother used to give a class at NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) events, entitled "On Being A Jewish Woman". Once - well, likely more than, but I only witnessed it once - a young lady was very upset. How dare my mother, a stay-at-home mom, lecture her on the role of women in late 20th century Judaism! The girl argued that we needed to redefine our roles. My mother, who aside from having the (demanding) job of raising us also ran a catering business out of the house and served on several boards of the Orthodox Union, smiled and said "Exactly. There's no one role for Jewish women. The goal here is to discuss all we can do, not all we can't."

Sometimes, these discussions mean considering things outside our comfort zone, or things that may remind us of other "split off" movements of Judaism that we may have issues with, or even a discussion that results in the answer that it's not compatible with our own personal understanding of our faith. But the key is to *discuss it*. They day we knee-jerk shoot down anything as forbidden without any research is the day that every one of us has failed not just our daughters, but our sons, our parents, and ourselves.

*Note that this was a casual conversation and not a Halakhic ruling. Sad that I have to note this, ain't it?

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