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livredor
More on women / feminism in the Jewish community
Wednesday, 12 July 2006 at 08:46 am
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Sorry if you're bored with this topic, by the way; I'm working through stuff.

So there were some visitors in synagogue this shabbat. (It's quite gratifying that I'm getting to the point where I can spot visitors as opposed to regulars I don't recognize.) Anyway, the male half of the couple asked me if I was the only woman in the community to wear a tallit. I told him that there are a handful of us, and also mentioned that there are semi-regular "egalitarian" services where women's participation is positively encouraged and that a lot more tallit-wearing women show up at those. He said something about a lot changing in 50 years but I couldn't tell whether he was being approving or critical. I didn't bother getting into an argument about whether this is actually an innovation, anyway.

It turned out that the person I'd been speaking to is rather a famous rabbi. So famous in fact that I had previously assumed (in a vague, non-specific sort of way) he was dead, as he is mentioned so much in historical accounts. And as he was leaving he said to me: Keep flying the feminist flag with your tallit! I said that it wasn't a feminist tallit, but in the conciliatory manner one uses for contradicting strangers.

I am sure the rabbi meant well (and now I know who he is I'm fairly sure he is pro egalitarianism). And no, I don't think it's insulting to be thought a feminist. It's just annoying that people should make a whole string of assumptions about my politics because of something I do for religious reasons, not gender political reasons.

I am not trying to make a statement that women are just as good as men. Much less implying a criticism of Judaism for being too sexist. I wear a tallit primarily because of the Biblical commandment to do so. I am joining myself to that element of Jewish tradition, following a practice in common with other Jews for at least 2000 years and probably longer. Wearing a special garment while I'm engaged in specifically religious actions and celebrating holy days is something that is meaningful to me; I like the physicality of it. In the more immediate sense of "tradition" it's something that is common the community I come from and my family, and that's important to me too. Those reasons or something similar to them would probably be the default expectations if one saw a man wearing a tallit. But as a woman, I have to justify my practice, and that's annoying.

The community where I grew up and acquired the rudiments of a Jewish education was egalitarian by default. They didn't spend a lot of time debating feminist theory; it was just obvious to them, as I think to most people in late 20th century Europe, that women were people. They weren't always terribly consistent in their practice, but that went for a lot of different issues, not just egalitarianism. For example, although women took a completely equal role liturgically, it was generally the case that men wore tallissim throughout the service whereas women would put one on specially if they were doing something ritual such as leading the service or reading from Torah or whatever. Nobody really thought through the inconsistency; it wasn't that kind of intellectually engaged community.

When I was taking bar mitzvah classes, I was taught in part by R Hadassah Davis. She was both much more actively feminist, and (being a rabbi, it's somewhat expected!) more engaged with Jewish learning than most of her community. I had assumed that I would follow the synagogue's normal practice of borrowing a tallit for my bat mitzvah and then going back to only wearing one when needed. R Davis encouraged me to take on the practice of wearing a tallit whenever I attended services. It seemed logical to me; taking it as a given, as I then did, that women were equal participants Jewishly, there seemed no reason for women not to wear the ritual garment in all the circumstances men would.

I was vaguely aware that the historical reason for the difference was that women were exempt from commandments that have to be performed at a specific time, and for somewhat technical reasons wearing a tallit is included in this category. It is generally assumed that this exemption was to save women from a situation where their religious duties might conflict with urgently needing to deal with young children. So men were theoretically obliged to wear tallit, women could choose to do so if they wished. Traditional Reform Judaism has issues about absolute obligations anyway, so in fact not all the Jewish men I knew wore tallissim. But my 13-year-old's understanding of the situation was that the custom of women not wearing tallissim was a relic from the days when women were married and pregnant as soon as they reached puberty. Some Jews, I was vaguely aware, carried on this antiquated custom because they hadn't quite realized that in today's society a large proportion of adult women are not the primary carers for young children. (At 13 I thought Orthodox Judaism was this aberrant sect who hadn't realized that society has changed in the last several centuries, which was rather unfair of me but I had had little direct contact with Orthodox Judaism.)

So it seemed reasonable to me that I, as an unmarried and childfree (and intending, even at 13, to stay that way) religiously adult woman, I might as well follow the same standard of religious observance as my male peers. At the same time, I didn't want to rock the boat, and I was very conscious of the fact that many in the community were nervous of R Davis' feminism and generally radical ideas. Then as now I didn't want people to assume I was making a feminist political statement by wearing a tallit.

What decided me in the end was the tallit itself. For the special occasion of my bat mitzvah, I was allowed to borrow a tallit which is a family heirloom. My maternal grandfather inherited it from his great-uncle, so it was probably made in the early 19th century. It is made of silk, slightly yellowing, fragile silk, and it has my grandfather's great-uncle's initials embroidered on it, and it is absolutely huge for a small woman. And it's gorgeous. I was so proud to wear it at my bat mitzvah and to feel part of that family line. After that, I wasn't going to put it away, carefully folded up with tissue paper and mothballs so that my brother could have it when he came of age; I was the eldest and it was my birthright. (Screwy in fact inherited our grandfather's carved ivory chess set, which means more to him than the tallit so I don't think I deprived him too badly.)

So yeah, I wear a tallit because I'm following the tradition of my community, the tradition of my teachers, the tradition of my family. My mother, by the way, comes from a long established Liberal family; my grandfather's great uncle might have been a little surprised to see a female descendant wearing his tallit, but then it's unlikely that he or my grandfather would have worn it more often than their bar mitzvahs, weddings (and theoretically their own funerals, but for various reasons they didn't do the latter, which is why I was able to inherit something that is not usually passed down through generations) anyway.

I have since gained a more sophisticated understanding of women wearing tallissim and all the politics behind the controversy but the basic idea still remains: it's obligatory for men and optional for women. There are reasons why it's pretty unusual for women in Orthodox circles beyond "Orthodox Jews are living in the 17th century"; they are not necessarily reasons I approve of, but they are important to the people who believe in them. For me as a Reform Jew, it is an obligation that I have taken on myself (a concept which doesn't really exist in Orthodox Judaism) and therefore it is important in my religious practice that I maintain it.

There are two other factors: firstly, the techelet thing. The original commandment says that the fringes on the tallit should include a thread of a particular shade of blue. Early rabbinic literature goes into great detail about how the dye has to be prepared from a particular organism and matching the colour isn't good enough, it has to be this specific dye. After the destruction of the Temple the knowledge of exactly which organism and how to prepare the dye was lost, so in modern Judaism it has been forbidden to wear the blue thread as it is likely to be the wrong shade of blue. However, recently, there was a huge collaborative project between rabbinic scholars, historical textual scholars and biologists and chemists to recreate the original dye. At least some authorities have ruled that yes, we know with adequate certainty exactly what techelet is (though as with everything in Judaism, there is controversy on this matter). So now it is possible to wear the blue thread again, and I just couldn't resist the idea of a collaboration between rabbinic scholars and biochemists, so that makes it even more meaningful to me to wear a tallit with the newly rediscovered blue thread!

And then there was the whole issue when I was going out with lethargic_man and his parents disapproved of Reform Judaism in general and of women taking active ritual roles including wearing tallissim in particular. When my practice was directly, personally attacked, it made me all the more determined that I had taken on this obligation and I wasn't going to drop it. So I acquired the "small" form of the tallit, which is worn as an undergarment. Initially this was so I could wear it when visiting lethargic_man's parents' shul without offending his parents or their friends. But now that I have the undergarment I have extended my practice so that I wear fringes throughout the day of a shabbat or festival, and not just when I am actually in synagogue.

Is that "flying a feminist flag"? I don't see it as such. I don't put gender politics above religion; in this particular case, I think the differentiation between men and women is not justified and that's why I ignore it. But I don't have a problem in principle with men having different ritual roles from women. (And now that I'm a bit more mature I don't think anyone who comes to a different conclusion from me on this issue is old-fashioned or sexist, either.)

Words that might need explaining: tallit is the Jewish ritual garment, often described as a prayer shawl, usually white with black or blue stripes, and where the important part is fringes at the corners tied with knots in a specific pattern. Tallissim is the plural that comes most naturally to me; it's sort of Yinglish though and probably not a "real" word.


Whereaboooots: Stora synagogan, Stockholm, Sweden
Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Tuuuuune: Peter Hewitt playing Beethoven: Sonata #6 in F major
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(no subject) - monanotlisa (7/12/06 08:53 am)
livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:July 15th, 2006 06:55 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 06:55 pm (livredor's time)
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Thank you for such an encouraging comment. Glad you liked the post!
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:July 12th, 2006 09:56 am (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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I used to get into a lot of arguments because people define feminism different ways. But a quote from someone put it in perspective: "she doesn't actually think of herself as a feminist much these days; the problems she faces as a lesbian and a mother are much more important than the problems she faces just as a woman, and she's only got so much energy."

By my definition, treating women as people *is* feminism, so "wearing a tallot because of scriptural reading, rather than not doing so because most women don't" would also be feminist *because* it's sensible.

But many/most people think of feminism as defining yourself by being feminist, or someone who thinks all women are oppressed all the time, or even just anyone who is loony about it, and that feminist is then a bad thing to be[1].

So I wouldn't say "keep the feminist flag flying" because it'd sound like I was dismissing your scripture and implying only your sex was important to you. But in fact, I'd be applauding you for treating women including yourself like people who can decide things for themselves, and saying perhaps we need more of that round here, which I think you'd agree with and take as a compliment.

And because I'm charitable and optimistic, that's how I'd hear what he said.

[1] In the UK. In some cultures, it's probably quite reasonable, but that's not the point.
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:July 15th, 2006 08:07 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 08:07 pm (livredor's time)
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I agree with you, there are two problems with the definition of the word feminist. The first is about which specific set of principles is covered by feminism, which is one thing and is probably never going to be resolved completely. But there's also the issue of whether feminist refers to someone who generally agrees with whatever those principles are, or only to people who are actually activists in the feminist cause. (I don't think everyone in the latter category is loony, by the way.)

I also think your interpretation is correct: the rabbi who congratulated me on flying the feminist flag intended it as a compliment. I don't think that's overly optimistic at all. I didn't make this post because I was offended by his remark, I made it because I'm annoyed that a decision that has little to do with gender politics should automatically be assumed to be political. I just want to get on with my life and not have all my choices examined and judged as to whether they're feminist or not.
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From:wryelle
Date:July 12th, 2006 11:45 am (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry
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This is all very interesting. :)

I do know where you're coming from with not wanting people to make simplistic knee jerk assumptions about your feminsim. A lot of people outside the church think the womens ordination issue in Christianity is automatically an equality issue, and that for right thinking modern people it's cut and dried. I find myself - even as a woman considering ordination - having to explain that it's not neccessarily about equality and there are cogent theological arguements against it...

though as with everything in Judaism, there is controversy on this matter

For some odd reason, whilst banging my head against various second order issues in Christianity, I find that reassuring. *grins*
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:July 15th, 2006 09:08 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 09:08 pm (livredor's time)
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Thank you, I like the analogy with women's ordination in the church. It's not an issue of feminists v sexists, there's the whole religious and historical background to consider.

As for everything being controversial, well. There's a book of sayings and proverbs called "Ethics of the fathers" which states that there are two kinds of controversies, those that are for the sake of heaven and those that are not for the sake of heaven. And only the controversies that are for the sake of heaven will endure. It fits in quite nicely with a bunch of other similar sayings, about the good kind of love and the bad kind, and so on. But if you think about it, it's telling you that the good kind of controversies will endure, they won't be resolved, they will always be controversial!

Though of course Judaism has plenty of the kind of controversies that are not for the sake of heaven, just people bickering and trying to claim that God supports their side of the argument.
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:July 12th, 2006 01:08 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry, 08:08 am (redbird's time)
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It seems to me that making the choices that are right for you, despite assertions that "you shouldn't do that because you're a woman" (or "because you're a man") is a feminist act.

Whether that makes the person doing them a feminist is a more difficult question: that gets into both patterns, and questions of how the person thinks of her or his identity. ("$person is a $noun" can get into all sorts of tricky territory.)
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:July 15th, 2006 09:40 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 09:40 pm (livredor's time)

Yes, but

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I'm not sure I really am making the choice to wear a tallit "despite" people who think women shouldn't; most of the people who hold that opinion are irrelevant to me.

But even if it is a feminist act, which I agree it might be, "waving a flag" is a very specific kind of act. It indicates that I'm making a deliberate public statement of my affiliation to a particular cause. Since I'm pretty unsure about the cause, and my wearing a tallit is not supposed to be any kind of statement of my politics or identity, I think that assessment is wrong.

I actually don't terribly mind the idea that wearing a tallit is a feminist act (certainly by your broad definition of a feminist act), and that someone who does feminist acts is at least in that instance a feminist. What I'm objecting to is the assumption that wearing a tallit is a feminist statement, because I don't like to be read as making statements I am not in fact intending to make.
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:July 15th, 2006 10:16 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 05:16 pm (redbird's time)

Re: Yes, but

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What I'm objecting to is the assumption that wearing a tallit is a feminist statement, because I don't like to be read as making statements I am not in fact intending to make.

That I entirely understand. Little about my day-to-day life is intended to make feminist statements--or anti-racist, anti-censorship, or gay liberation statements. Some of it may incidentally have that effect, in the eyes of people to whom living as seems right to me cannot be other than a political statement, because they perceive the set of ways people might want to act for the sake of the act as to narrow to include my life.

On a side note, it looks from here that if you're wearing the tallit as a statement of affiliation, it's to a tradition of Jewish practice.
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:July 23rd, 2006 10:35 pm (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, 10:35 pm (livredor's time)
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Does that not annoy you? I know I used to get very fed up with the fact that mentioning my girlfriend or holding her hand or anything along those lines was automatically a political statement. And it's not in the least that I am against the cause; obviously I think people in same-sex relationships should have equal rights with heterosexuals! It's just that I was peeved that I couldn't just get on with my life without being political all the time. But perhaps I should be more accepting of this, that living right is inherently a political act if the general climate doesn't approve of what I consider to be right choices.

And yeah, I would agree that I am making a statement of my Jewish identity and my affiliation to Jewish tradition. If I were male nobody would be assuming anything else, but hey. I'm not going to get worked up about that.
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redbird: default
From:redbird
Date:July 24th, 2006 03:26 am (UTC)
11 days after journal entry, July 23rd, 2006 10:26 pm (redbird's time)
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It might annoy me if people insisted on discussing it with me as a political statement, even if their comments were entirely approving, because a large part of the point I'm working for is that there shouldn't be anything unusual about me and Adrian holding hands.

As is, it's part of the billions of small things we all do to keep the human world humming along, and sometimes some of those get noticed by bystanders. (Me giving directions to a random stranger is such an act, one almost nobody would consider political; the person getting the information notices, but it doesn't matter whether anyone else does.)
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kassrachel: judaism
From:kassrachel
Date:July 12th, 2006 02:27 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
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How cool that your tzitzit are tchelet! Mine are not -- though I've often thought about what I will do when I buy another tallit (which seems likely at some point; I love the one I got when I became bat mitzvah, and I love my grandfather's old one which I rarely use because it's so precious, but I would like a colorful one someday) and whether I will choose tchelet or not.
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livredor: words
From:livredor
Date:July 15th, 2006 09:44 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 09:44 pm (livredor's time)

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I find the whole idea of techelet so cool! I found out about it from R Wahlhaus (z''l); she wore a tallit that was obviously feminine so people couldn't object that she was violating the prohibition against cross-dressing, and which also had the blue threads which I was extremely surprised to see.

And yes, my inherited tallit is too precious and too fragile to wear very often. I have an ordinary tallit for general use, which my sister gave me and which is purple. And I have my tallit katan, which has the techelet threads.
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pir_anha: default
From:pir_anha
Date:July 14th, 2006 02:56 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, July 13th, 2006 06:56 pm (pir_anha's time)
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in your case it doesn't sound like a feminist statement to me, because gender politics aren't what drives it for you.

it's hard for outsiders to grok the intent of a statement -- all they can see is the outside, after all, and if it looks like a duck, well, it's easy to think it's a duck.

and thanks for the info on techelet -- it made me google various spellings and i found this site in which i'll immerse myself for a while.
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:July 15th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 09:48 pm (livredor's time)
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I definitely see what you mean, that I wasn't intending to take any political position, but that it's easy for outsiders to see feminism if I'm coming to the same conclusion a feminist might, but for different reasons.

I'm glad you were able to find the tekhelet site. Googling for Hebrew terms is an absolute pain because there's so many different spellings. I could do as lethargic_man does and include the actual Hebrew term, but that doesn't really help because there's no guarantee most sites will use proper Unicode Hebrew rather than transliteration or images of text or Latin with a Hebrew font, (and of course there's no consistency among how fonts work). It's very annoying, that.
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