My name is Tali Fitoussi, and this is my journey as a French Orthodox Jewish woman trying to stay within an institutional Orthodox context.
Even before college, my religious education was already gendered: my little brother was asked every Shabbat to go to the synagogue, and girls were not encouraged to do so – which at the time seemed normal to me. With interest, I followed his progress: learning cantilations, his different aliyot to the Torah, and working on his haftarah. When I reached the age of Bat Mitzvah, nothing was planned in the synagogue to mark or celebrate this milestone in my life. There was no buffet kiddush after the service. I didn’t do any learning or preparation for the occasion. Instead, my parents offered to rent a separate space to give me the opportunity to deliver a speech in a separate room. On the other hand, a few years later, after my brother participated in a 6 month training course and read from the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, he had a celebration in the synagogue.
As a child in a Jewish private school, I became attracted to learning Gemara, a subject which was not taught to girls. When I probed, my teachers explained that those texts weren’t a good fit for women’s skills: women were more emotional, less prone to understanding and appreciating Gemara. My desire to learn did not fade, and during my senior year, I became interested in a gap year program. My school brought in representatives from several seminaries. However, the men’s programs appeared to be serious and multidisciplinary, while the girls’ seminaries proudly offered courses geared towards becoming good Jewish wives and mothers. These seminaries were generally located in Israel. Disappointed, I convinced myself to skip a gap year and go straight to college.
When I probed, my teachers explained that those texts weren’t a good fit for women’s skills: women were more emotional, less prone to understanding and appreciating Gemara.
During my studies, I became involved in several student groups, including one that gathered young leaders every week to prepare and deliver a dvar Torah. I loved the idea of empowering ourselves as a young generation, over our centuries-old texts and making them ours again. I immediately offered to prepare a drasha (class). I was told no: the laws of tsniut – modesty, propriety, decency – would prohibit women from giving classes in front of a mixed audience. Instead, I was offered the opportunity to organize classes for young women only.
A few months went by, and Simchat Torah festivities were held in the synagogue. Like every year, the women watched the men dance, throwing sweets and clapping their hands. That year, I requested a sefer Torah for the women’s section, so that we could hold it as we danced among ourselves. The answer was quick to come: “it’s too heavy for a woman, and besides, you might be nida – in a state of impurity related to the menstrual cycle – and therefore forbidden to touch a Sefer Torah. Therefore, as a precaution, we can’t give you any. Sorry.” I learned later that Rambam, for instance (Laws on Sefer Torah 10:8, based on Berakhot 22a), explicitly allows a woman to hold the Sefer Torah while menstruating.
A few years later, I was no longer tied to any particular community or synagogue. I did everything I could to understand these differences, why I accepted them in a Jewish context when they would have revolted me in a non-community context.
A few years later, I was no longer tied to any particular community or synagogue. I did everything I could to understand these differences, why I accepted them in a Jewish context when they would have revolted me in a non-community context. I enrolled in the SNEJ, Jewish studies program for young adults organized in Paris by the IAU, and then in a mixed course of Gemara study. I also organized with my association parallel Carlebach services, in which women could dance and sing on their side of the mechitza. To celebrate our first Shabbat, I gave the honor of leading kiddush to a woman. It was not meant to be a provocative act, simply a way of honoring a friend with an action that, as I had recently learned, did not seem to pose any halakhic problem. Even in this progressive context there was a general outcry. I was asked not to repeat it, or else most of the members would leave the association – and since then I have felt too uncomfortable to do so again.
Not long ago, I got engaged. I learned that I was required to follow courses on nida in order to validate my wedding at the French Consistory (the French Orthodox institution in charge of administering Jewish Orthodox congregations). I learned that these classes might solely cover the practical exposition of the rules of nida. I was horrified to see that the meaning behind these rules didn’t matter, that the women I would meet in those classes would not prepare me psychologically for or explain the details of the wedding ceremony, and that they would not help me understand the difficulties of a get. Nor would they talk about the couple, about love and spirituality – just nida as a mandated precept. Thankfully, and with the help of the Facebook group “Judaism and Feminism,” I found an exceptional teacher who followed me and brought me all the knowledge I needed, but I know that my case is the exception to the rule.
For our wedding ceremony, I suggested we have some women come up under the Chuppah to read some verses alongside the seven men who would be reciting the seven blessings of the bride and groom, and to stand next to the male eidim (legal witnesses). Members of my family threatened not to come to my wedding out of shame. We wanted to sign Tnayim – an agreement in a different document adding terms to the Ketouba in order to avoid potential problems about receiving a get – and the two witnesses we had chosen in the first place declined the invitation either out of fear or ideological disagreement. We did not give up, and organised what I would call the first Modern Orthodox wedding in a Jewish consistorial synagogue, thanks to our rabbi who helped us find halakhic possibilities in our propositions.
I want to study freely, and I want a say in the choices made in the synagogue. I want to be free to challenge the superstitions that bind halakha in a straightjacket of bigotry.
Today, I want to build a welcoming Orthodox Judaism, which does not bring me back to a status that civil society has long taken for granted. I want to study freely, and I want a say in the choices made in the synagogue. I want to be free to challenge the superstitions that bind halakha in a straightjacket of bigotry. A Halakha that, when studied, seems much more progressive than the current French Orthodox Jewish society. I want our institutions to condemn these sexist practices based on obsolete traditions, not on laws.
Multiple initiatives stemmed from the first time I shouted my disappointment in a video on Facebook that has since been viewed 5,000 times. The United States’ community is ten years ahead of the French one in terms of gender studies and feminism. We will catch up because we owe it to Jewish women to facilitate their ways and to give strength to their voices. We will not be silenced just because silence is what has maintained the status quo for years.
Instead, we will build websites to gather information, and schools and courses for people to learn how to fight back against mediocrity. We will build a community that is a safe space for women and men to ask questions and get real answers, for them to speak up and own their own Jewishness. And all this, we will build inside the Orthodox community.
Tali Fitoussi is a French Jewish Orthodox woman. She advocates a wider access to the study of Judaism for women, and a more equal treatment of women and men in her community. She attended a year long educational program on Jewish studies, and keeps attending seminars of Tashma, a French branch of Pardes institute. She has co-created Pilpoul, an association that offers a co-educational study of Talmud and organizes monthly shabbat services aiming at improving gender equality. She is involved in the only Orthodox women’s Megillah and Torah readings in France. She also speaks up about these issues through different networks such as Dieu.e, an interfaith podcast on Orthodoxy and feminism, or on blogs such as Ayeka or jeducationworld.com , and social networks. Tali Fitoussi was interviewed in the “feminist and believer” podcast Dieu.e, in French, which can be listened to by clicking here.
Tali Fitoussi is a fashion graduate and is therefore passionate about Jewish Costumes. She also gave and attended various conferences and lectures notably at Limmud Paris on the issue, researching these topics extensively in the process. Her next projects for a more equal Jewish community include building a Kollel with Myriam Ackerman Sommer (Maharat French student) and a website gathering textual resources for French Orthodox women on numerous relevant topics.
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