In the Bathhouse with Aphrodite – Why We Are Wrestling with Jewish Sources?

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What use does a Jewish feminist have for studying patriarchal rabbinic texts written hundreds of years ago?  That was one of my central questions while I was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem as part of my rabbinical school education.

When I had considered which rabbinical school to attend, I chose the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College because its values and commitments aligned with my own.  It was a movement and an institution rooted in the understanding of Judaism as ever-evolving, giving tradition a voice but not a veto.  It was thoroughly committed to equality between men and women, and it was inclusive of the range of gender identities and sexual orientations.  I didn’t want my education to feel like a constant wrestling match with the assumptions of a male dominated, heteronormative institution and the sources it upheld as defining present-day Judaism.  These egalitarian commitments not only shaped who was admitted to the school, but it was a critical lens through which we read all of Judaism.

But here I was in my mandatory year of study in Israel, which I soon extended into two years, studying in schools that didn’t share my feminist, queer, reading-against-the grain approach to Jewish learning.  And here I was at the Conservative Yeshivah, taking a course on women and Jewish law.  The texts we studied made me angry and frustrated.  I could think of countless other ways to spend my time – studying spiritual and mystical teachings, engaging with texts about justice, doing my laundry.  But day after day, I sat in the beit midrash (house of study) examining what these male rabbis had to say about what women could and couldn’t do, what women were and were not capable of.  And my anger and resentment grew.

Then one day I had an epiphany.  The kind of ‘a-ha’ that reordered the world and reoriented me within it.  One text, placing women in the same category with children and slaves, asserted what legal and ritual actions members of this category are not permitted to do.  Another text, placing women in the same category as people who are mentally ill and children, asserted different legal and ritual actions that members of this category are not permitted to do.  I was angry, insulted, and then – oh, a realization!  The rabbis loved categories.  Categories were a way of defining values and applying values to concrete situations.

It wasn’t simply that they thought of women as stupid or incapable.  They were asserting that certain rituals or actions require that the person doing them be independent, have agency, and be able to take responsibility for their actions.  They were asserting that other actions require intellectual clarity, knowledge, discernment, and sound judgment.  In that social time and context, women were not independent or educated.  These rabbinic categories were describing the reality of the time and placing values-based limitations on a population that didn’t have the resources or support to choose a different reality.  As a female rabbinical student studying Talmud, I could affirm loudly and proudly that the reality of the present day is radically different from theirs.  Women can no longer be placed in the same categories.

What I appreciated and understood at the same time, was that the values at the centre of those rabbinic categories were wise and important.  They were values and standards I wanted to uphold.  Yes, I wanted to engage with questions about agency, knowledge, commitment, responsibility for one’s actions and responsibility to the community as a whole.  Without these rabbinic texts, I wouldn’t have considered these dimensions – dimensions that are essential for moral philosophy, community-building, and religious commitment.  These categories and questions pushed me to sharpen my feminist thinking as well, not merely seeing women as victims throwing off the yoke of oppression, but as wise and active agents, shaping a vision of responsible, informed community.  Without these texts, I wouldn’t have been pushed to discern the nuances of what aspects of the tradition I sought to change or challenge, why I sought those changes, and what aspects are important to preserve and deepen.  Now I could see myself, and the project of progressive Judaism as a whole, as continuous with the chain of Jewish learning and interpretation instead of at odds with it, giving up on it, or offering a watered-down version of it.  I could stand in the unapologetic clarity that what I was arguing for was legitimate Judaism – beautifully, courageously, substantively evolving in informed conversation with the past rather than simply cutting off from the past.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly statements made by the rabbis about women that are denigrating, simply oppressive, and should lie in the dustbin of history.  And without the voices and experiences of women, LGBTQ people, and young people around the early rabbinic tables, the Judaism we have inherited will always be limited by the scope of the men who were present and defined those around them.  But the more I learn, question, wrestle, and engage, and the more I bring my life and concerns into substantive conversation with these sources, the more the wisdom of the past and the present can inform one another.

At our last Wrestling Together community conversation, exploring the changing boundaries of the Jewish community and the range of connections non-Jews have historically had with the Jewish community, we looked at some texts that were angering and some that were delightfully surprising.  The texts explored categories of commitment, participation, knowledge, motivation, the preservation of the Jewish people, and the permeability of boundaries.  There was even a text about a great rabbi bathing in the bathhouse of Aphrodite!  Our next session will continue to bring our lives, experiences, and concerns into conversation with the voices of wide-ranging Jewish sources, to sharpen our thinking, to deeply engage our concerns, and clarifying the robust vision we are aiming for – for the Jewish people, for progressive Judaism, and for our diverse community.

Posted in Rabbi's Message