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A word from our highly cranky sponsor


My friend Sarah is having a Bat Mitzvah this coming Shabbat, and that put me in mind of the first Bat Mitzvah ever (of Judith Kaplan in 1922) and how much has been robbed from women who love Torah over the millenia, supposedly because of our superior holiness and the proper place(s) of women and men— including right this very moment when a woman can be arrested for carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall in Jerusalem— and I got kinda cranky. Pissed off, in plain fact.

The Torah portion this week, Ki Teitze (when you go out), begins with a description of what a warrior should do when he sees a foreign woman he desperately desires. He is not to do what men so often do when their adrenaline runs high: rape her. He is given different guidelines for his conduct.

… and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife.”

The notion that a woman is not just booty, that she needs time to grieve her change in fortune is a good thing, enlightened given the parameters of warfare. I’m favorably impressed.

But just when I get to thinking that the Torah was way ahead of our – let alone its – time, there’s this:

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.

Yes, I know, in the greater scheme of things, this is not a big deal, keeping our clothing properly aligned. Except that it is — precisely because it encapsulates all the ways in which gender & its limitations are played out in Torah and in our communal life as Jews. If women and men could dress similarly, then perhaps women wouldn’t be relegated to the back of the bus, or denied full religious participation in some sectors of the Jewish world. Maybe same-sex (Jewish) partners being married by a rabbi wouldn’t be such a big deal. Maybe the first Bat Mitzvah wouldn’t be in 1922.

No, Judaism is not the only gendered religion. And no, we didn’t – as some argue – speed along the shift to patriarchy with the introduction of a lone God. But this is my tribe, damn it, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it be just as I want it to be.

This week I offer up an oldy, but goody, entitled Letter from Self to Younger Self on the Way Things Are Done & the Invisible Pull of Becoming. It is dedicated to Marcia Freedman, a friend and role model who made lots of trouble as an outspoken feminist in 1970s Israel, including a stint in the Knesset. I pull out this poem whenever I think that I need to behave myself.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    08/17/2010 2:44 pm

    I like your advice to your younger self.

    On another note, you are causing me to reminisce. Judith Kaplan was the mother of a very close friend, Andy Eisenstein, from about age 9 on (Interlochen, music lessons at Roosevelt University in Chicago before her family moved to NYC, and college). We went to Brandeis and because home (Chicago) was so far away, Andy often invited me home to NYC for holidays, such as Pesach so I got to enjoy the reconstructionism of her dad and her mom’s amazing music (I think she had a PhD in Jewish music). Andy and her sister, Miriam, are ardent feminists. I didn’t know her family was so famous at the time (Judith was the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan of course). I thank Andy for making me take a Hebrew Bible course with a famous old Jewish scholar whose name escapes me. I do remember some of the insights he shared though. When I began exploring my Judaism Andy was surprised, but gradually did the same and both of us are now practicing Jews. Perhaps Judith’s bat mitzvah paved the way for us to even want to explore who we are as Jews and try out different ways of living as Jews. It certainly paved the way for Sarah’s bat mitzvah (and my own 5 years ago). Thank you, Judith Kaplan!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      08/18/2010 8:40 am

      Victoria, you know everyone!

      As for Judith Kaplan, I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be the first girl to stand in front of a congregation and belt out the blessings on the bimah. Talk about stepping into a garden of the unknown!

  2. Herb permalink
    08/17/2010 6:57 pm

    Hi Sue: Gender discrimination against women is, I concur, a major one of life’s tradegies of inequality, of which, unfortunately, there are many–racial, religious, ethnic, national, age, social, economic, educational, intellectual, artistic, athletic, musical, physical, mental, emotional, health, et cetera. Oy vey, how more-than-half-empty the glass of life can appear. Please cheer me up next week with a fuller vessel, and save me from my cynicism further fostered by the daily news. Love, Herb

    • sue swartz permalink*
      08/18/2010 8:42 am

      Sorry to say this, but the poems get worse as we speed towards the end of Deuteronomy: the gap between what we were commanded (to act righteously, etc.) and what we humans do/did is just too huge to ignore. If it is any consolation, we get to atone for it all on Yom Kippur and start all over again shortly thereafter.

  3. Victoria H. Bedford permalink
    08/18/2010 12:06 pm

    In light of what you said about what it must have felt like to be the first bat mitzvah, Judith was a very gentle, feminine woman. She also had quite a few personal tragedies to deal with. I thought her husband was very much the dominant member of the family. I am inspired to ask Andy to tell me how this first bat mitzvah came into being. Thank you for opening this door for me.

    I love Herb’s comment, by the way.

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