28 December 2011

Christian 'Feminist' Converts to Orthodox Judaism

The Back of the Synagogue is Not the Back of the Bus

By Amy Edelstein

Editors Note: The interviews below were conducted with two Orthodox Jewish women regarding the Jewish view of femininity for What is Enlightenment? magazine, a liberal, religiously unaffiliated publication.


"She converted to Orthodox Judaism after being a feminist!?" my colleagues exclaimed to me. "We have to speak with her!" Tamar Frankiel, who taught at Stanford, Princeton and Berkeley...led me to question many of my prior assumptions We were discussing the work of Tamar Frankiel, author and educator, whose book The Voice of Sarah portrays the purpose and meaning in the traditional roles for women in Judaism. Drawn by the spiritual depth she felt in the Jewish ritual observances for women and by the unusual strength of character of the Orthodox women she had met, Frankiel underwent the unlikely conversion from liberal Christian feminist to practicing Orthodox Jew.

"As I grew to know [Orthodox women]," she says in a candid description of her experience, my first feelings of condescending pity toward these victims of patriarchy changed to admiration and wonderment. I knew I could never live like that, but I appreciated that they were living a life of integrity with a spiritual richness of its own. That was ten years ago. Today I find myself speaking in much the same way to others as those women spoke to me then. . . . I don't expect such statements to be any more believable to feminists than they were to me ten years ago. I can only assert that there is truth behind their simplicity."

The fact that Frankiel, who has taught comparative religion at Stanford, Princeton and U.C. Berkeley, found the message of this gendered belief system so compelling that she left her liberal feminist freedoms in favor of a far more restrictive lifestyle led me to question many of my prior assumptions. And mainly, I began to wonder: Could Judaism, whose "faceless" G-d nevertheless seems to have a very masculine face, really offer women a spiritual life of equal depth and significance to the one it offers men?

The Judaic religion is built on traditional roles for women and men, with elaborate commandments governing all aspects of the observant Jew's life, from conjugal relations to time and place of prayer. Its very structure depends on man fulfilling his distinct duties and woman fulfilling hers. Men hold the positions of authority as the religious leaders and lawmakers while women are relegated to hearth and home. "Separate but equal," some may argue, but as far as feminist scholars such as Rita Gross are concerned, Judaism practically tops the list of patriarchal religious offenders. So when Tamar Frankiel, with her background in the feminist and equal rights movements, praised this "separate but equal" tradition primarily because of the position of women, we raised more than an eyebrow.

Could Judaism really offer women a spiritual life of equal depth and significance to the one it offers men?
Among observant Jews, the rabbi is meant to be the final authority on all issues spiritual and mundane, including everything from whom to marry to the finer points of theological debate. So I called Rabbi David Edelman, leader of the Lubavitch Orthodox congregation in western Massachusetts, to gain some insight into this gendered way of life. As presiding rabbi over a large Jewish community for the last forty-nine years, Rabbi Edelman, I thought, would be well-versed in both the theory and practice of the Orthodox tradition.

"Can you tell me about the traditional roles for men and women in Judaism?" I asked him last December. "You want to know how men and women should be?" he began. "All the answers are in the Torah." Then he proceeded to tell me about the great Biblical matriarchs and the exalted position of women in Judaism. "Women are more spiritual than men," he said, to my astonishment. They naturally have a closer connection to G-d. Men need to be reminded to pray. That's why they have to come to the synagogue. Women can pray by themselves because they pray deeper. And you know, it is said that when the Messiah comes, men will be raised to the spiritual level of women."

His description stood in stark contrast to the Orthodoxy I had pictured. I had expected Rabbi Edelman to explain why, in Judaism, women are prohibited from chanting the holy scripture; why they sit behind a screen during public prayer; why they are considered impure, unclean and not to be touched every month because of their physiology; and why men utter a prayer every morning thanking G-d for not making them a woman. But the rabbi then told me, "I have six daughters. They never missed out on anything. You should have seen them all together, walking down the street to the yeshiva school—what a picture! They were modest, but they were always nice-looking, with a little lipstick. You should talk to them; they'll tell you they never missed out on anything!" In Yiddish there's a special word, "nachas," used to describe the often less-than-objective pride parents can take in their children. So was Rabbi Edelman kvelling [gushing] with nachas? Or had this way of life actually given his daughters a deep sense of self-fulfillment?

I couldn't help wondering what Rabbi Edelman's daughters were really like. Would I find them to be meek or subservient, with a narrow scope of interests centered around teething and bread making? Would they be restless in their restricted sphere, with all the freedoms of the modern world tempting them from just around the corner? Would they be passive and accepting of their lot, reluctant to question, challenge or reform, fearful of retribution from an angry G-d or a conservative rabbi? Or was Rabbi Edelman accurate in saying they really hadn't missed out on anything? My curiosity piqued, I arranged to meet Esther Kosovsky, one of Rabbi Edelman's by now, at least to me, illustrious daughters.

Esther Kosovsky is the director of the Jewish Educational Resource Center in western Massachusetts, mother of eight and wife of a rabbi. We met in the Springfield yeshiva school, the very school that the rabbi had mentioned. Walking down the hallway, alive with sounds of children singing Hebrew songs, I was struck by her quiet confidence and self-assurance. She was all that her father had described her to be. Not only was she attractive, but there was a light in her eyes, an unusual serenity and vitality. As she spoke about her love, appreciation and respect for this gendered tradition, I found myself reflecting on the great Biblical matriarchs—the Sarahs, Rebeccas and Deborahs who had deep spiritual passion and had served G-d with valiant devotion, powerful faith and rare wisdom. As I glanced around the book-lined office, the white-bearded Lubavitch rabbis seemed to smile and twinkle at me from their picture frames on the wall.

Unlike Esther Kosovsky, most of the women I have known are women who grew up in the wake of the feminist movement, beneficiaries of many newfound and hard-won freedoms. But in spite of all the opportunities available to us, most of us have had to grapple with insecurity, confusion and self-doubt around our role, position and even spiritual path in a world of shifting values. In grocery stores and newsstands around the country, magazine racks sport colorful arrays of women's magazines, all eager to help us navigate our perplexity with "how-to" recipes for finding fulfillment in work, relationships, sexuality and motherhood. In light of the simple confidence of these Orthodox women, I began to consider what had been for me, at least up until now, an inconceivable question: Could it be possible that women adhering to a traditional feminine role in this patriarchal religion might actually end up having more inner strength and higher self-esteem than women free to explore an infinite number of lifestyles in the postfeminist world?

I listened carefully to what Esther Kosovsky and Tamar Frankiel had to say as we talked about some provocative and pointed issues. Their unswerving conviction in their own rich experience as observant Orthodox women speaks for itself.

Interview with Tamar Frankiel:

[Interview with Esther Kosofsky can be read here .

WIE: What led you to convert to Orthodox Judaism after being a feminist? That seems very unusual.

TAMAR FRANKIEL: Yes, it is. When I was teaching comparative religion at Stanford, I met the man who would later become my husband. A commitment to something that is deep and profound gives you a center from which you can do other things He was returning to the Jewish tradition after not having been an observant Jew. First, I found the practice of Shabbat very attractive. It was a richer, more meaningful way of life. I had no intention of becoming Orthodox and I still don't like the labels, but I undertook a Conservative conversion and then found that I was much more deeply attracted to the observance than even the rabbi who converted me! My husband was attending Orthodox services. I would go with him and really rage at what I felt was the inequality of women, but at the same time I felt the authenticity and the depth of the people who were there. So I started talking to the women who had been involved for a long time. They were very strong women. I was sort of shocked by their perspective on life, by their confidence and by their ability to manage their lives. They were not the oppressed, second-class citizens I had thought they would be. It was a process of coming to a depth in my own spiritual practice and reconciling that with what it means to be a woman and to fight oppression. I had to find a way to express my own voice. That's how I ended up writing The Voice of Sarah. It became clear to me that there was another way of seeing things besides women as "feminists and liberated" or "oppressed and religious."

WIE: You described being attracted by the confidence that the Orthodox women expressed. Did you not see the same confidence among women in the feminist movement?

TF: I didn't see much spirituality among the women in the feminist movement. The women whom I knew at that time were politically oriented, and even when I met women who were religiously involved in some way, it often seemed as if they were trying to be like men. After meeting Orthodox women who had a sense of their own being, I realized that we really have to think about whether there is a gendered quality to spiritual work and whether taking the man's role really serves women. The Hasidic women I met had a long tradition that's been passed down to them of how to be with G-d. Doing the simple rituals and observances that they did, which were private, not political, was extraordinarily satisfying to them. They had a sense of their own purpose, and they didn't seem to need to do what their husbands were doing. Of course I asked, "Are they just brainwashed?" But over a period of years of knowing many of these women, I realized that, no, they really weren't. They really did have a sense of deep satisfaction.

WIE: When I was describing your championing the Orthodox way of life for women after having been involved in the feminist movement to a feminist friend of mine, she commented, "I know what that's all about"--the implication being that you must be someone who has sold out or even gone off the deep end. Have you encountered that response before?

TF: Oh yes, sure.

WIE: How did you explain your attraction to this traditional and more restricted role to your feminist colleagues in a way that convinced them that you hadn't gone crazy?

TF: I've found that a commitment to something that is deep and profound gives you a center from which you can do other things. Sure, there are things you cut out of your life. But I found that once I cut them out, for the most part they really hadn't been nourishing me anyway. It's the spiritual work that's nourishing. And what I saw among the Orthodox women whom I respected was a realization that we are all in this together and if we don't help each other--men and women--none of us will advance. There is an organic sense among these women that we're all responsible for each other, for the community and particularly for the future, for the next generation. Judaism insists that women be involved in what is called "the redemption," which means the perfection of the world. It can't be done only by men. The tradition is that it was because of the righteous women that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, so it's going to be because of the righteous women that the final redemption will come. It can't be done without the women, and that means that women have a crucial and unique role according to even the most traditional interpreters of Judaism.

WIE: By saying to women, "You have a responsibility for the redemption of the world," the tradition calls on women to take their spirituality and their own lives seriously. There's something very moving about this way of cultivating that sense of dignity and spiritual responsibility.

TF: Yes, absolutely. I've seen it among many of the Hasidic women. They take themselves seriously spiritually and see themselves as having a responsibility. Even if it sounds genderist or sexist, I think women do have to take seriously the question: If women are supposed to have a special role and it's not exactly what men are doing, and it is supposed to be helping the whole world, what is that role?

WIE: It's a complex question. In your book, The Voice of Sarah, you also wrote, "I think we need to face the potentially disturbing question, "Is it possible that some forms of spirituality are more feminine and some are more masculine?" What do you think about that now?

TF: I grew up with a strong belief in equality, and the feminist movement enhanced that. I'm not sure what it would mean if we took it seriously that there might be very different things that people need to do in order to grow spiritually. In Judaism, I think what's meant by "a woman's place is in the home" is that the inwardness or spirituality of women develops in a different way than the inwardness of men. My husband seems to think that men just wouldn't do any inner work at all if they didn't have to be out there in groups davening [praying], doing the more public thing. I think that's a little extreme, but—

A woman can't just do the rituals and take care of the kids and expect magically to feel as though she's living a spiritual life
WIE: Is that a Jewish view, to say that women would gravitate toward an active relationship with G-d even if they didn't have an outward structure, whereas men wouldn't?

TF: Yes, that's right. That wouldn't be true for everybody, but women don't seem to need those external structures to grow in their spiritual life the way men do, although they may be helpful.

WIE: Can you describe what it is about women's roles and their particular rituals, laws and prayers that brings the awareness of G-d into their lives and gives their lives a deeper meaning and a broader context?

TF: The rituals that are marked out for women have to do with directly bringing spirituality into the physical. Men have certain physical symbols that are supposed to help them do that, like putting on tefillin, [phylacteries, ritual prayer ornaments] and wearing the tzitzit, the fringes; whereas women's mitzvot [commandments] are directly connected to the body, to the physical, to giving birth and all the women's processes. It sanctifies these physical processes for women. Women don't have to set foot outside their own home to create everything that Judaism wants women to do. And when you do set foot outside your home, it's to expand that into the community. It's like an inward center that radiates outward. But a woman can't just do the rituals and take care of the kids and expect magically to feel as though she's living a spiritual life. If a woman is doing that, she's living a traditional life but not necessarily a spiritual one.

WIE: The laws governing marriage and intimate relations seem to be meant to foster a coming together between men and women that is based on each person independently worshipping G-d in everything they do. The relationship described is very beautiful—intimate, loving, respectful but not sentimental. You've explained the philosophical basis as, "When husband and wife unite at permitted times . . . their union reflects the union of masculine and feminine in the divine. This is a special kind of holy act: two people in their physical being and their natural energies reflect the culmination of the divine creative process, making a unity from what had been a duality. . . . Only in the union between man and woman can we touch with our own natures the process that the whole world is about: to come together, to overcome our separation, to be one." Can you elaborate on how this teaching for men and women helps us realize divine union?

TF: Judaism affirms that you can come together in these ways with respect and love and, yes, it is unsentimental. You are manifesting something that goes way beyond our ordinary consciousness. It goes into the depth that unites everything. The idea is to go beyond the personal and the feelings of the two people at any given moment. Maybe they've been doing really well. Maybe they've been having a lot of difficulties, but they're able to overcome them. It affirms that possibility of union even in the midst of all our conflict and division.

WIE: There are relative differences between men and women. When it comes to ultimate realization or union with G-d, how significant do you feel these differences between men and women are?

TF: These differences in conditioning don't mean anything when you get to the ultimate. An important part of the Jewish spiritual path is ratzo vashov, running and returning. You run to G-d and then you come back. This means you can achieve experiences of union, but you're always almost instantaneously brought back into your physical reality. So, even when a person achieves great heights in spirituality, when the person brings it back down, so to speak, they're going to again be speaking through their own conditioning.

WIE: Many different teachings, like Judaism, say that fully embracing our womanhood or our manhood will enable us to realize our full spiritual capacity. Could there be another approach that, without denying the differences between us, allows us to focus on our essential unity and then discover naturally and freely what the differences between the genders are?

TF: Experiencing unconditioned reality is one thing; gendered reality is another—whether you can "freely and naturally" discover it or not. But when I pray or meditate, I'm not the least bit interested in these issues. This has absolutely no relevance when I open up my prayer book or when I sit down to meditate. I am just concerned with either contemplation, speaking from my heart or the different kinds of work one can do in those contexts. I think being concerned with that kind of identity while I'm involved in a specific practice oriented toward my relationship with G-d would be completely distracting. I don't know why anyone would want to do that. When you're doing your spiritual work, contemplating the One, that's what prayer is supposed to be all about. But bringing it back down, then we have to realize that we are in gendered bodies and we do have societies that treat us in certain ways according to our gender and expect certain things of us. And then we need to deal with these issues again. We don't stay up there in a spiritual state. G-d wants us to create that state here on earth. I think the important question is: How can we best create a world where divinity is realized. Because from the Jewish point of view, that's ultimately our job.


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