My Feminist Struggles With Yom Kippur
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My Feminist Struggles With Yom Kippur

“I always say I’m sorry when I’ve hurt someone,” a man told me proudly in a recent conversation, a reflection that seemed appropriate in advance of Yom Kippur, which is so focused on repentance. “It’s the most important thing,” he said, looking me squarely in the eye with a mixture of impassioned education and nuanced reprimand. He is right, of course. And this is the season, I suppose, for all that — for remorse, apologies and open hearts. There is something beautiful and tender about all this, as members of the Jewish community engage in genuine and sincere introspection.

Still, I looked at this man, an Orthodox leader who is esteemed in his community and has a regular spot on the podium and the bima to speak or lead services, and thought to myself, “You never apologized to me.” Like all Orthodox men who are so easily counted and heeded, who have a voice and a place and are free to participate in the community practically any way that their hearts desire, he has never asked for forgiveness from the women and girls in his community, the ones who sit upstairs behind glass, or in the back behind the curtain, desperate for even a glimpse of the activity in the sanctuary.

I have never heard an apology like that from an Orthodox man. I have never heard of a rabbi get up in shul and say, “On behalf of all the privileged men, I’m sorry to all the women for all the silent suffering that you have endured for so many generations as the community stripped you of your voice and your power.”

I realize that this is a very un-Yom Kippur-like thought for me to have; so much ego, so much wanting, so much self-centeredness. A proper Yom Kippur reaction would have been more self-effacing, and magnanimous, more embracing and accepting, more gracious and grateful. That’s what women — especially Orthodox women — are so well-trained in doing, not only on Yom Kippur but all year round. We are taught to put our own egos aside for the sake of the collective, to ask for little if anything for ourselves, to not want so much but to just do for others. To even think that perhaps men should apologize to women sounds so, well, unfeminine, doesn’t it?

Not only Orthodox Jewish women face the expectation of selflessness, but women generally. Countless studies point to how women are punished for being assertive and self-promoting in ways that men are rewarded for. Think about attitudes towards Hillary Clinton in her election bid: When she was running, she was subjected to terrible misogynistic attacks, but when she quit and made room for Barack Obama, she was praised for her generosity. The world is more comfortable with women rolling over than with women taking charge.  

Yom Kippur is such a struggle for me. My desire to live a spiritual life feels like it is at odds with my desire to be a full and equal person in the world. To be sure, all that humble, submissive subduing of the ego for which women are so revered is a powerful spiritual motif that crosses religions and cultures. Yet, when that subjugation of the ego is forced upon you — because of your biology, by those who do not suffer the same silencing, by those who are not expected to let go of all ego in the same way — it is hard to feel that this is God’s way. Meanwhile, as women are forced into lack of ego to the point of invisibility, the men’s section of a standard Orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur remains full of ego — who leads services, who has the best nusach (liturgical melodies), whose voice is greeted with the most ooohs and aaahs. The men with the biggest egos are often the most rewarded with public adoration. The Yom Kippur liturgy may be evocative and redolent, but there is no hint on the bima of the kind of self-erasure that there is in that unseen women’s section.  

Yom Kippur asks us to forgive, but this a challenge for me because I think forgiving can be much harder than asking for forgiveness — especially if we are expected to forgive without having our pain acknowledged. Women are often expected to just let it all go, to accept the hurtful and abusive practices of the community without their pain ever properly acknowledged and validated. We are sometimes told that our outcry is too provocative, or that it threatens the “unity” of the congregation, or that women’s assertiveness makes people uncomfortable. So many people prefer a self-effacing woman to a woman who values her own dignity. Women’s outcries are too odd, too destabilizing, too unfamiliar, too confronting. So women are sent back to their silent corners behind their curtains, and silently search within their hearts for the ability to forgive.

And so, I will stand before my Creator, along with all the women of Israel, and try to forgive the sins against women. I will ask God to forgive the abusers even though the abusers have not asked me for forgiveness. And I will continue to pray for a better world, in which women are truly valued as equals.

May the year 5775 be a year in which we all feel and appreciate one another’s pain, and we all open our hearts with empathy and compassion. 

Elana Maryles Sztokman is co-author, with Chaya Gorsetman, of “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools,” winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Award in Education and Jewish Identity.

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