Another step toward equality

When I was a youngster, things were very different for girls growing up Jewishly.
I went to Sunday school, of course, but I could not attend weekday Hebrew school. And I could not stand on the bima of our shul holding a Torah.
These exclusions were because women at that time were kept away from many privileges that were taken for granted by men.
I don’t say that I was denied these experiences so much as brought up to recognize that they were meant only for males. I was not resentful, just resigned. But I wasn’t happy with the restrictive roles that Judaism then assigned to women.
I didn’t question the expected: Of course I would marry and have children. But I didn’t like the centerpieces of that life: I was totally unfond of the kitchen and everything that went on in it, and intensely distressed by dusting, sweeping, washing, ironing and all the other routine chores that fell to my sex. Years later, as my children still recall, I once told them that some mothers stay home and bake cookies, and other mothers do other things; like it or not, life had given them one of those “other mothers.”
Then I moved, figuratively, outside my home, working even when that was frowned on by the traditionalists who surrounded me. In this I was aided and abetted by a single person, a neighborhood woman who had sought help from her minister because she hated staying home and baking cookies; she was able to face down her local critics only when she had his “permission” to work.
This friend opened the local newspaper’s door for me. I compromised, working only when my children were in school, and when my employer granted me the freedom to leave my office when those children were doing something at school that mothers should be attending. (Interesting: Nobody ever thought fathers had to attend those daytime functions…)
Look what has happened since! Women not only learn Hebrew; they stand on their bimas holding Torahs, leading their congregations even as rabbis!
And soon, after a struggle of years, they will be able to worship openly and freely at the Western Wall, in an egalitarian venue being created specifically for this purpose. Imagine a woman standing by her son for his bar mitzvah instead of having to peek at him over a barrier! Imagine her as her daughter becomes a bat mitzvah — something unheard of in the time and place where I grew up!
Of course there are dissenting voices in all of this, loud ones. Not surprising, because Israel, with all its exciting freedoms, is still bound religiously by men who cling most closely to the old, women-restricting ways. The backlash has not been pretty, with truly ugly words, and even the burning of a feminist prayerbook.
But although the Torah tells us that Eve was brought forth out of Adam to be his helpmeet, it does not say that she or her female descendants should be relegated forever to kitchen duty and household chores. Yes, it says she will bear children for them both, in pain, while Adam sweats to earn their living. But nowhere does it specify that the Torah and its mandated reminders, those threads of blue, are altogether forbidden to her.
When all women of my generation are gone, these dichotomies will also have disappeared. However, today I continue to straddle the issue, with one leg firmly planted in my Orthodox upbringing, the other steady in the camp of the more nonrestrictive life my heart and soul long ago led me to pursue.
Today, I applaud each bat mitzvah of my congregation as her parents present her with a tallit of her own, but I don’t wear one myself. I do not carry a Torah. Yet maybe, just maybe, I will do both if I am privileged, someday, to stand once again by the Wall in Jerusalem…

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