Commentary

A Spirited Quest

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Giti Bendheim

Editors’ Introduction: The past year has been full of conversations, statements, and publications surrounding the topic of women’s roles in Orthodox Judaism. Among the many issues underlying this important and continued dialogue is how women experience their religious lives, and what will enable them to foster and sustain a relationship with God. The Lehrhaus therefore presents this three-part symposium. We thank Tova Warburg Sinensky for spearheading and serving as guest editor for this project.

The Messages We Are Sending –  Tamar Snyder Chaitovsky

Supporting Women’s Avodat Hashem Across the Lifespan: Reflections and Recommendations – Tova Warburg Sinensky

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I grew up in a home where my parents took education very seriously. They had a passion, from the time I was very young, for the then nascent day school movement, and for the newly established State of Israel. My day school taught all Jewish subjects Ivrit b-Ivrit, and the enthusiasm and passion of my mostly Israeli teachers engendered in me an early love for Jewish studies and Hebrew. I cherish the many passages we had to learn by heart to this day.

But as I grew older, the dearly-held value of education expressed itself in an ironic way, especially for me, as the oldest child. It was a foregone conclusion that my two younger brothers would go away to yeshiva—since a coed high school would not serve the religiously aspirational goals of my parents for their sons. It was not considered a deficit that the yeshivot my parents had in mind did not embrace the Modern Orthodox lifestyle that my family led. In fact, in those days, when Modern Orthodoxy was perhaps less self-confident about its bona fides, the “black hat” culture that my brothers would become a part of was looked upon in our out-of-town community with veneration. If you really studied hard, and really learned the sources, then this was the authentic way that you would lead your Jewish life.

There was, therefore, no question in anyone’s mind—least of all in mine—that those little guys would go away to a serious place of learning for high school—and I would not, because I was a girl. The comment by a visiting rosh yeshiva after I simply answered a question in our seventh grade Talmud class, that it was too bad that I wasn’t a boy, sums up the situation succinctly. Clear gender norms and expectations precluded any serious thought about how my spiritual inclinations would or would not be addressed during my adolescence.

Which left me at home, knowing that my search for meaning would have to wait until college. I resolved that when I got to college, I would find a way to explore my Judaism as rigorously as I was pursuing the rest of my education. I just didn’t quite know how that was going to happen. During my sophomore year, a cousin told me about a new three-year school that had just started in Israel that was taking Torah study to a new level for women. I immediately filled up every available crevice of a pale blue aerogram with my plea—in cramped Hebrew script—for the dean of the school to accept me for one year. I knew my chances were slim, but fortune smiled upon me, and I was accepted. I consider myself to be forever indebted to Rabbi Yehuda Copperman, zt”l, for the extraordinary opportunity he thus gave me to absorb his inspired and incisive—and revolutionary for its time—approach to Torah study.

The year that I spent in Michlalah Yerushalayim was deeply transformative. I immersed myself completely in a culture profoundly different in every way from my American Modern Orthodox college life. I lived in a crowded apartment with eight other young women, and spent all day in a repurposed shul learning in Hebrew. My teachers were gifted, many of them rising to become the leading educators of their day. The students—most of whom were Israeli— all seemed to know fifty times more than I did. I spent my evenings in the library poring over Bereishit Rabbah and Maharal. Every day I ate a Krembo purchased from the kiosk across the street for lunch. No food plan, no guys, no street life. Nothing. But as I walked home in the cold, clear night air on the dusty main road of Bayit VeGan, the vast starry sky above me sparkled with possibility, winking knowingly of all I could grow to know.

I remember my transformative moment—a moment when my studying moved from concrete information-gathering to active theory-making. In preparation for an assigned paper, I was studying the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites through the desert. I labored over Rashi, tried to grasp his questions, studied his commentators, read the midrashim. Slowly, to my surprise, I found myself beginning to form my own theory— that what was provided for the Jews was a mini-cosmos—a portable little world. I reasoned that it had its own versions of sunrise and sunset, it totally enveloped its inhabitants, it fed them manna, and it insulated them from the exigencies of the desert.

This was thrilling. I had jumped from the concrete to the abstract, arriving at an interesting and evocative idea that captured a new way of thinking about the desert journey with which I was already so familiar. The idea that the text was mine to access, that I could be creative with it, and that I could arrive at ever-deeper levels of understanding by carefully mining the text on my own was tremendously exciting and empowering. I could meet the commentators on common ground, and live the text along with them.

I suppose that, like the Israelites in the desert, I inhabited my own protective cocoon during that formative year. I often wonder why I didn’t miss the sturm und drang of the late sixties that was in full force on my New York campus, but it could not have been further away. Israel was in its post-1967 state of nirvana, joy was intense, spirituality at an all-time high. Rudimentary plumbing, long distance calls made with asimonim from the central post office, visits to relatives who hadn’t seen my family in a generation—these were the experiences that limned my life. The peaceful vista of Harei Yehuda dotted with bright red kalaniot just across the road—behind the military cemetery—was all I needed to engender in me a profound sense of beauty and rightness. I was in love with this land, with its language, with its spiritual passion, with its Torah, with the almost primitive and sparse simplicity of a life so different from the complexities I had left at home.

And then it was over. I came back to Vietnam protests, Simon and Garfunkel, the New Criticism, the excitement of engagement and marriage, and nothing to adequately stoke the fires of learning I carried within me. Until Rabbi David Silber founded Drisha. Now, Michlalah and Drisha sound like they are very far apart in both learning style and philosophy—and so they are. It might thus come as a surprise that I actually brought Rabbi Copperman up the several flights of stairs in Drisha’s first home to sit in on a shiur with its founder, Rabbi David Silber. Such was my enthusiasm for this new institution that was founded on the premise that women deserved a rigorous advanced Torah education.

This commitment was what Rabbi Copperman and Rabbi Silber had in common, though their paths to making this education a reality diverged increasingly as time went on. But for me, brilliance was brilliance, and I guess it was the intellectual electricity and the spiritual gravitas that inspired me—rather than a particular educational or religious nuance. I loved the creativity of David Silber’s way of learning, and the range and depth of his textual knowledge of Tanakh. Drisha became my new learning home, a haven of Torah scholarship deeply embedded in the lively realm of child-raising and professional training in which I lived.

To this day, learning Torah—alone or in a haburah— continues to be a spiritual practice that engages my mind and expresses my soul. I love its allusiveness, the way root words point to deep connections, the way themes develop and play out, the many ways one can make meaning out of a seemingly straightforward series of ancient words that carry a whiff of the divine. This learning also connects me to Israel—thematically, personally, and practically—as I feel Israel’s centrality to the Tanakh at the core of my own Jewish identity.

I have embraced the world of Torah study in Israel that has opened up for women by women, beginning with the founding of Matan by my fellow Michlalah-mate, Rabbanit Malke Bina, and continuing to the founding of Nishmat by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, and those—both in Israel and America—who have followed in their pioneering footsteps. I have a very keen sense of participation in these advances, and find them crucial to my own religious development. I also prize them for the opportunities and role models they have provided for my daughters, daughters-in law, and granddaughters.

As Orthodox feminism has taken root, I have found myself an active advocate, often struggling to square my need for religious and intellectual rigor with its progressive edge. I’m committed to the many strengths and contributions women bring to the communal table, and I believe they fill tremendous gaps in our religious system. There are biblical concepts I struggle with, and I don’t know what to do about the agunah problem. I look to our rabbis and scholars to help me find a way, but am often disappointed that a woman’s existential position is not being dealt with seriously enough by a conservative system that naturally wants to maintain the status quo. I worry about an unenlightened fundamentalism borne, perhaps, of Holocaust trauma that prizes rigidity and close-mindedness over honesty and courage.

On the other hand, I worry, too, about sloppy scholarship, about political and social motivations that draw too much upon secular cultural values. But I have come to understand that as the world keeps on turning, so, too, must halakhah. Attitudes, mores, and ways of thinking truly change, and thus the context within which halakhah operates changes, as well.

When the leaders and institutions I have trusted fail to rise to this challenge, I feel at a loss, left to choose between surrendering to what I believe to be insufficiently exercised leadership or challenging that authority and being labeled controversial. I have chosen to make myself part of a larger tent, hoping that my voice can be heard both within it—to promote a shared and solidly-grounded religious sensibility—and without, to demand recognition and a sense of gravitas. I relish the spiritual sustenance I receive from making common cause with these women who want to live their lives in a coherent way that places their Judaism front and center.

I am aware that I haven’t said much about the study of Talmud, which has the highest power valence in the learning world. I had only that one year of Talmud in seventh grade, and even Michlalah did not offer it, at least not in my day. My natural proclivity is for literature and narrative, so, for me, Tanakh is a natural fit. I don’t experience this as a default, but rather as something I would have chosen, though I believe a full education for women today must include a thorough grounding in Talmud. I know that women will not have an impact on our religious hierarchy unless and until they become completely proficient in Talmud, which takes the issue of learning out of the halls of the beit midrash, where it is still viewed as a matter of choice for women, and into the corridors of power, where it is a given.

And so we arrive at the topic of power. I am fortunate to be in a position to help support institutions that stand for the values I would like to promote, and when I think of what moves me spiritually, I think about the experience of exercising meaningful philanthropy. There is something extremely empowering about the privilege of being able to help move something good from dream to reality, all the more so when that dream holds the promise of making a place for richer, fuller, and more meaningful engagement with Judaism for more people. I believe that women have shied away from owning and using this tool to promote their own interests, and have perhaps underestimated the benefits of collaborating on a shared goal.

I have come to recognize that women need to back up their aspirational goals with their own resources to have the greatest impact. My model for this realization was Belda Lindenbaum, z’l, who stood behind the initiatives she believed in with character, grit, leadership, and financial resources. As I watched her demonstrate these qualities from afar, I gained strength and courage from her example, and hope that perhaps I can pay that forward through my own personal work, and through working creatively with others to advocate for causes I hold dear.

I look at the arc of the development of women’s learning over the past forty years, and am struck by how much has changed. Both single-sex and coed elementary schools and high schools are offering serious and creative Jewish educations to their female students. The “year in Israel” is now the all-important “gap year.” There are many programs to choose from, each trying to cater to a specific kind of young woman, and each one offering a slightly different Israeli, religious, social, and cultural experience. There are pastoral training programs for women, and advanced women’s learning programs of many stripes.

I salute this practical, goal-oriented, professionally-driven progress. But I find myself wanting to preserve, as well, something more unpredictable and exciting, especially for young women in the process of establishing their own religious identities. I’m hoping that somewhere there is still a place for the “aha” moment that I felt as a young woman, when I ventured forth into an unknown territory, and where so many elements of my Jewish experience came together—somewhat unexpectedly—with a satisfying click.

I think that sustaining that liminal space requires two kinds of effort. In the face of today’s rampant irony and ennui, I think our first order of business is to apply ourselves—with concentrated focus—to the wisdom and scholarship that has come before us. We need to continue learning seriously and deeply.

But sustaining that space as a place for discovery and growth requires investing our learning experiences with novelty and creativity—with something that illuminates a new corner of the world, ignites a girl’s imagination, kindles a teen’s curiosity, or sparks a woman’s faith. I can think of no better or more restorative mandate for our present fractured state of being than to work consciously to approach Torah study with reverence, to imbue it with freshness, relevance, and immediacy, and to frame it as the beautiful, exhilarating, and enlivening path to avodat Hashem I believe it was meant to be.