Who stood at Sinai?

Who stood at Sinai?

Conference to look at 25 years of Jewish feminism, examine what might come next

We want to figure out how we can have an inclusive conversation. We don’t want to duplicate the same exclusion that we have felt for so long. Rabbi Felicia Sol

Every Jew who ever was and ever will be born stood together at Sinai when the mountain smoked and trembled and God revealed the law to them, midrash tells us.

Born Jews stood with those who were born into other faiths but were created with a Jewish spark that was liberated when they left their native people to join us. Souls encountered each other there, across millennia and over the boundless expanses of ocean that separate the continents.

At that one time and place, we were one people.

But wait a minute.

Exactly who was at Sinai?

According to the text, was everyone really there?

As Judith Plaskow pointed out in her groundbreaking work of feminist scholarship, “Standing Again at Sinai,” in parshat Yitro in the book of Shemot – Exodus, in English – God tells Moshe to gather all the people, to tell them to stay pure, to wash their clothes, to wait for three days, and not to touch the mountain until a ram’s horn sounds a loud blast.

Moshe came down from the mountain where he had listened to God, we are told, and gave the people God’s instructions. “‘Be ready for the third day,'” he said. “Do not go near a woman.”

This is one of our most basic, most formative texts.

So wait. What?

Was Moshe speaking to all of Israel, or just to the men? How could women not go near themselves? Did women even count as part of Israel?

Those were the questions that were at the heart of Dr. Plaskow’s book. Where do women fit into Judaism? Is Judaism inherently patriarchal, or could it change? Is there or is there not hope?

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the unaffiliated Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that is New York’s second oldest congregation – and which draws many members from eastern Bergen County – is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dr. Plaskow’s book with Meet Me at Sinai, a daylong conference that will look at the changes wrought during the last quarter century and consider what might come next.

Dr. Plaskow, who lives in Manhattan and is a member of BJ, will give the conference’s keynote talk.

We will read about the revelation at Sinai, not at all coincidentally, this Shabbat, in parashat Yitro, she said. “How do we deal with it,” with the absence – if not the active negation – of women at the most crucial, formative part of our people’s history? “I use that central image in my book as a metaphor for saying that we really don’t know where the women were,” she said. “I think that the chapter of my book that has been most influential is the one on Torah. It calls for discovering women’s Torah. What does it mean to recover and invent women’s Torah?

“There have been enormous changes over the last 25 years,” she continued. “New commentaries by women, new midrash, new history. We certainly have a lot more women’s Torah than we did 25 years ago.”

She faces a constant and unabated struggle as she faces the text.

She continues to identify deeply as a Jewish woman. “But at the same time, I would say I do it with difficulty, because obviously the Torah is still the same Torah. Every year we read that passage. The new women’s Torah has not necessarily made it into the synagogue service, which is how so many Jews encounter Judaism.

“If I had been willing to turn my back on the tradition, I wouldn’t have bothered writing the book. It came from a stance of not being willing to walk away. At the same time, I continue to struggle with it.

“There is something enriching in the struggle itself,” she continued. “And there are many things that I love about the tradition. I love Torah. I find it endlessly rich. I find that many of the horrible things that it says about women provide occasions for talking about those things in our culture.

“To me, the material that’s more difficult in the Torah is what I find most interesting and challenging. What do we do with that? How do we use it in order to create change?”

For example, take the part where Lot “offers his virgin daughters for the strangers.” That disturbing story is rarely discussed in synagogues when it is read. “That’s something that needs to be noticed,” Dr. Plaskow said. “It could be an opportunity to explore violence against women. There is much that we could do with the destructive things in the Torah, if people are interested. If they have the will.”

So what should women do? Form small groups, Dr. Plaskow said, like the chavurot to which she belonged for many years. “Become acquainted with the new material, new rituals, commentaries, and so on that have been created over the last 25 years. Don’t have your whole Jewish life depend on a synagogue. Participate where smaller groups of people have control.

“And agitate for change.”

As for her, she will continue “struggling and remaining, not struggling and leaving,” Dr. Plaskow said.

Felicia Sol, one of BJ’s rabbis, organized the conference. “It’s meant to honor the incredible progress that has been made in the last 25 years, but also to agitate,” she said. “What is so compelling to me about Judith’s book is that it raises deeper questions, beyond access to Jewish life, about what you do about the structures that you hold so dear, when you aren’t considered as a subject in those structures.”

The conference accordingly is divided into three sections – celebration, disruption, and vision for the future. Each section will begin with a pair of women offering what the program calls “path-breaking duets”; the Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, will moderate. In a display of the conference’s range and reach, the first section, Celebrations, will feature feminist author and icon (and BJ member) Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Rabba Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who also is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the open Orthodox institution that ordains women as maharats. “They both represent how far we have come, in very different ways,” Rabbi Sol said.

Disruption will open with Jodi Kantor of the New York Times and writer, blogger, and media personality Rachel Sklar; both are observers, reporters who can detail Jewish women’s lives as they are lived today with accuracy. Visions for the Future will begin with filmmaker Lacey Schwartz and Leah Vincent, who writes about her childhood as a Satmar chasid and her integration into the larger Jewish world. “They represent pathways to the future, a non-normative understanding, and pose the question of how do we make space for the new voices of the future, which do not fall into the same categories that we have used in the past,” Rabbi Sol said.

The conference is not only for women, she added; not only are men welcome, but there will be a session that is only for them, led by BJ’s Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein and Rabbi Daniel Brenner of Moving Traditions. “There are a lot of questions about the meaning of Jewish feminism for men, beside the typical questions about where are the men, once the women are empowered,” Rabbi Sol said. “We are trying to create space for men, in the hope that we are telling a new story. Feminism is not just for women. We want to figure out how we can have an inclusive conversation.

“We don’t want to duplicate the same exclusion that we have felt for so long.”

“All Of the Above: Single, Clergy, Mother,” a documentary by Dr. Debra Gonsher Vinik, will screen during the Celebrations section.

Dr. Vinik, who lives in Leonia, said that she first thought of making “All Of the Above” when she interviewed Lisa Gelber, a Conservative rabbi, BJ member, and single mother, for another film, “and between takes she said, ‘Did you ever notice how many attractive Jewish women, educators, rabbis, professionals there are on the Upper West Side who are single and have children?’

“I said no, I didn’t, and then I thought about it, and I realized that I could think of five off the top of my head, so I said yes.”

That idea-germ sprouted, “so I tried in a very small way to get funding, but I couldn’t,” she said; in fact, of all the films she’s made – she is now working on the 19th – this one was the hardest to fund. She used her own money for it, although she did get a very useful $5,000 toward it once it was done. “I feel to this day that all my films are my children, and you can never say which child you like best, but this is a very special film,” she said. “It is much more intimate and much more personal.”

The film looks at the lives of three rabbis and one rabbinical student; all are single but three of the four have had children. The fourth, student and Pharaoh’s Daughter musician Basya Schechter, considers that option during the movie.

The other three women made their decision and their lives look easy, Dr. Vinik said. “Things have changed so much. Twenty years ago, it just seemed so impossibly difficult.” Now, it does not, although, of course, as she pointed out, even lives that look perfect are not. It is just that sometimes the strain does not show, and at other times that strain is cushioned by parents, friends, and the community.

One of the women in the film is Rabbi Sol, who now is the mother of two young children. “There is a moment in the film with Felicia” – Rabbi Sol – “I have seen it a thousand times, and whenever I watch it…” Dr. Vinik said, her voice trailing off. “Felicia is very very strong, and has it all together, and she is talking, and suddenly she breaks, and the pain and the emotion still is there.

“If Basya hadn’t agreed to do the film, it would make everything look wonderful and easy, and it’s not,” Dr. Vinik said. “That would have been fake. I wanted her to talk about it. It is so raw, and she is in so much pain.”

The process of becoming pregnant is not only emotionally risky and physically unreliable, it is also very expensive and financially draining, Dr. Vinik said. That toll is visible in Ms. Schechter, who still has not had a child, and still does not know if she wants to.

The movie was shown on ABC; the network held off on showing it because “they were hoping that after the conclusion, I would bring up a black frame with white lettering, saying something like, ‘Three months after the filming, Ms. Schechter became pregnant,'” Dr. Vinik said. “They – and you, when you watch it – so desperately want that frame to come up.

“It doesn’t, because this is real.”

The rabbis who have chosen to become single mothers find that it can bring them closer to their congregants, helping them to serve as role models in this as in other aspects of life. Rabbi Sol “has said that since she had her children, women have come to her and talked to her, and she sees it as part of her rabbinate,” Dr. Vinik said.

Judith Rosenbaum, the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass., will be on a panel examining disruption. “I will be looking at unfinished business,” she said. “I love to celebrate, and there is much to celebrate. Feminism has been one of the forces to which we can credit the revitalization of Judaism, so far as that has happened. But one of the things I come across often in my work is that people say, ‘Yes, there have been these changes, everything is much more egalitarian, there are women rabbis, it is very much time to move on.’

“But I think that there is a lot of unfinished business.”

Dr. Rosenbaum is a historian; the American women’s movement is among her specialties. “I always have been interested in Jewish feminism, and the role of Jewish women in American feminism,” she said. The two often are studied separately, “either women’s history or the Jewish community,” but a decade ago, JWA put together an online exhibit that combined them there as they were combined in life.

The exhibit looked at the lives of 75 influential Jewish women who had been involved in feminism; they included overtly Jewish feminists Blu Greenberg and Judith Plaskow as well Gloria Steinem and the theorist Susan Brownmiller, whose work was better known in the general culture. The exhibit also included journalist Nina Totenberg and artists Barbara Kruger and Judy Chicago, among many others. Each was asked to give an artifact and a story to the archive.

Now, Dr. Rosenbaum said, it is time to move from the late 1990s, when the last exhibit stopped, and look at younger Jewish feminists. “We spend a lot of time asking, are you or are you not a feminist,” she said. That debate has become old. We need no longer discuss definitions. “That seems like a distraction,” she said. “How do we move forward? How do we engage the younger generation? People say young people are not interested, but I think it’s how you frame it.

“If you focus only on what has been accomplished, it’s over. But if you frame it to look at the places where people still are struggling, then it is clear to see the way forward.”

To that end, she will collect a few stories from young people at the conference; she hopes to seed the next exhibit with fresh voices.

Of course, Dr. Rosenbaum, like Dr. Plaskow, Rabbi Sol, and Dr. Vinik, speak mainly to the liberal Jewish world. That is exactly the part of the Jewish community where questions of gender are least threatening, and the concept of feminism is not inherently divisive. But those questions have crossed the boundary between the Orthodox and liberal worlds. “JOFA,” – the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance – “is doing really important work, pushing the barriers on leadership, on scholarship, on ritual,” Dr. Rosenbaum said. “There is a lot of change happening there, although there is a lot of pushback as well.

“It is where some of the most lively conversations are happening. In liberal communities, there is less left to be said.”

Elana Sztokman, an Israel-based writer and scholar and JOFA’s former executive director, will join Dr. Rosenbaum on the disruption panel.

“It is very clear that Orthodoxy is the last denomination to come to the table when it comes to gender,” she said. “A lot of things that non-Orthodox or formerly Orthodox feminists were talking about 25 years ago are happening now in Orthodoxy for the first time.

“Many of the great Jewish feminists talk about their Orthodox upbringing,” she added. Why? “I think that a lot of feminists are in conversation with Orthodoxy,” she said. “We are all struggling against the patriarchy, which we see so strongly there; there is so much residue of it throughout the Jewish community.

“Even the nonreligious parts of the community – even in the federation system – wherever we find sexism in the Jewish community, it always feels like it is deeply rooted in the tradition. Everyone is in conversation with it.

“What I find most striking is the extent to which we haven’t really uprooted the patriarchal underpinnings from the deepest aspects of our communal consciousness.”

Its lack of egalitarianism certainly is not unique to the Orthodox community, she added. “None of the denominations has achieved 100 percent equality.”

Dr. Sztokman noted Dr. Plaskow’s desire not to look closely at absolutely everything. “She talks a lot about looking deeper at history, but in the beginning of her book she says that she is not going to talk about Shabbat. She doesn’t want to uproot Shabbat, but to accept it as it is.

“But I find myself very often wondering what Shabbat would be like without the assumption of female servitude.

“Everywhere you go, the Shabbat experience revolves around the assumption that someone is going to be managing the kitchen, the food, for a gazillion people,” she continued. “That is really deep-rooted. But I keep asking myself what Shabbat might be like if we stopped assuming that there is somebody – some woman – who is responsible for serving everyone.

“Would it have evolved differently? Maybe there wouldn’t always be a trail from the kitchen to the dining room table.

“I am not suggesting that there are not a lot of polite people, nice guests, who help, but the idea of the female serving food is the ideal of Jewish communal identity.

“I would like to start doing what Dr. Plaskow didn’t do, because Shabbat is key. I would like to start asking the question about what Shabbat would be like if it wasn’t about serving good food. I am tired of that model of Jewish femininity. I am tired of the questions always in my head – am I serving enough food? Serving good enough food? Inviting enough guests?

“I would like to rethink Shabbat without female servitude. Would it be about something else? More singing? More people getting together? Or maybe less people? Maybe it would be about meditation, or yoga. Yoga retreats often feel a lot more like what I want Shabbat to be, instead of sitting around a table for five hours stuffing my face.”

These are intense questions, the result of intense emotion, often stifled even now, at a time when it seems from the outside that nothing need be held back.

The conference will allow some breathing room too. It will open with four davening options, from the straightforward egalitarian Conservative morning minyan all the way to Rabbi Jill Hammer and Shoshana Jedwab’s Kohenet davening, a more unusual offering they subtitle “a Hebrew priestess prayer service.” (Ms. Jedwab has lived in Bergenfield for many years.) It includes approximately 30 panelists and speakers, breakfast and lunch, an animated film, and another documentary, “Little White Lies.” Music will come from Michelle Citrin, now of Brooklyn, the internet-and-real-life sensation who comes from Fair Lawn.

The conference organizers are expecting a synagogue full of women and men who feel that maybe they too stood at Sinai. The day is an attempt to decode and then reclaim the feelings of awe they still feel, when they stand still again and listen for that still small voice.

Meet Me at Sinai
Who: More than 30 academics, artists, musicians, and other feminist Jews

What: A day of learning, song, workshops, films, food, and friendship

Why: To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Standing Again at Sinai, and to think about the future

Where: Congregation Bnai Jeshurun, 257 West 88th Street, Manhattan; between Broadway and West End Ave.

When: Sunday, February 8, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

How: Members, $32; nonmembers, $36, students/young professionals, $18

More information and registration: www.bj.org/sinai

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