I am part of a number of online Jewish women’s communities; as my time spent at the male-dominated Orthodox shul lessens, I find that these virtual communities have a growing role in my Judaism. This week, the question in vogue was whether women are obligated to hear parshat zachor, the passage where God commands the Jewish people to wipe out Amalek. Even though the mainstream opinion is that women are obligated, the fact that every year we ask this question, shows that we are really asking a different question: Are women part of the Jewish people, as defined by Orthodox Judaism?
The average Orthodox synagogue strongly implies that the answer is “No.” Only men are counted for minyan, and in many places, women do not show up for prayers during the week and show up late on Shabbat. This lack of women is taken as a happy status quo by the establishment. Only men can read from the Torah or lead services, and often, shiurim are designed for and by men. As a matter of fact, shiurim for women are often singled out as a “women’s shiur,” because the assumption is that a shiur is primarily for men, unless it explicitly says otherwise.
The fact that every year we ask this question, shows that we are really asking a different question.
Recently, Rabbi Yosef Kelner, a prestigious teacher in the world of Israeli Orthodoxy, got in trouble for saying that women’s spirituality is not on par with men’s. However, isn’t that the non-verbal message being broadcast by the Orthodox establishment? What made Rabbi Kelner different was that he put this message into words.
Even if we believe in the apologetic, that women are on a higher spiritual level, so they can daven at home, we are left with the message that God believes that women’s spirituality is best left to the private realm, because it has nothing to offer the public realm, and therefore, unlike men’s spirituality, is irrelevant to the Jewish people as a community.
Women are constantly expected to hide themselves.
In Kaballah, femininity is often equated with the Shekhina, God’s revealed presence. In reality however, women are constantly expected to hide themselves. Their religiosity is judged by their willingness to cover up not only their body, but also their soul. A yearning for Talmud, or a desire to be an opera singer, would violate the norms of not teaching women Talmud, and of not listening to women sing. I even know one woman who was told by her rabbi that she shouldn’t be a lawyer, because doing so would involve standing up publicly in front of a courtroom and “The beauty of the king’s daughter is inside.”
Indeed, the Book of Esther, one of the few books in Tanakh named after and starring a woman, is all about hiding: Esther hides her identity from King Ahashverosh, and is constantly hiding her true motivations from the different characters who she manipulates. The story is all about secret plots and backroom machinations. The megillah is the tale of a hidden miracle, where God is directing events from backstage, saving the Jewish people by acting from within the laws of nature and politics, such that Her presence is only discernible to those who seek it.
The rabbis of the Talmud went out of their way to say that women are obligated to hear megillah on Purim because “they too were part of the miracle.”
God saves the Jewish people at the end of the day, and the holiday of Purim is born. The rabbis of the Talmud went out of their way to say that women are obligated to hear megillah on Purim because “they too were part of the miracle.” In doing so, the rabbis were re-affirming a commitment to women as part of the Jewish people.
Of course, a cynic might note that the holiday of Purim, the holiday most closely associated with women, focuses on clothing, hiding, and giving out food, which mirrors the way that society reduces Jewish women’s religiosity to the way they dress, the extent to which they expose themselves to the public, and the food that they cook for Shabbat and for hosting guests.
But I am not a cynic, and on Purim, I’m usually too busy eating hamantashen to focus on deep feminist analysis. The week before Purim, however, I look at the debates surrounding whether women are obligated to hear Parshat Zachor, a Purim-related passage in which God lays a mission upon the Jewish people, and at the status quo in the Orthodox establishment. I can’t help but wonder if what we’re asking is really a different question, which I had hoped was already answered by the Talmud’s affirmation of women’s inclusion in the Purim story: Are women part of the Jewish people?
Shayna Abramson is a native Manhattanite living in Jerusalem, where she works as a grant and content writer and is pursuing an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University.
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