In My Mind's I

For Yom Kippur, I’m adapting the d’var Torah I gave at the first annual Hadassah Shabbat service last Friday evening. May we all continue to think together and learn together in this promising new year!
In my long life, I’ve sat through many classes and seminars, but I’ve learned the most from aphorisms — the compressed wisdom of those who’ve turned what they most believe in, into a few brief words.
So from an old friend I found out all I need to know about housekeeping: Neat is better than clean. And from the mother of an active trio came this: The recipe for a perfect child is, have three, throw away the first two — because with No. 3, you’re finished worrying.
But the aphorism that’s stuck with me the longest is this: “You can’t go back to where you’ve never been.” More than a quarter-­century ago, a reality therapist said this while grinding his ax about pre-birth regressions and other psychoanalytical techniques of that experimental time. But for me, his words resonate with Judaism.
Last Shabbat was Shabbat Shuvah, the inter-holiday Sabbath of turning, of return to — what? We’re supposed to go back to a kind of faith many of us have never had, to a kind of behavior that for many has never been a way of life.
And on that Shabbat, I thought especially in terms of women, in the professions and politics and business and in Hadassah itself, now accomplishing things once totally out of female reach. But these accomplished women are moving forward into new territories, not going backward to places they’ve never been before.
For me, it comes down to wearing a tallit, which I do not do. I’ve chosen not to do so because of my childhood Judaism, which I can and do return to, often, in my mind’s eye. When I was growing up, girls went to Sunday school but not Hebrew school. A girl did not become a bat mitzvah, was never recognized as a Jewish adult in the synagogue milieu. I wanted very much to learn the ancient language of my faith (there was no modern, spoken Hebrew then), to read Torah, to sing with the choir on the High Holy Days. But my desires were dismissed, not because of any lack of ability, but solely because of gender. Only males could wear the tallit, I was told, and only those who wore the tallit could do those things.
Conservative Judaism is my religious home. Our Reform sisters came to put on the tallit even before some of their Reform brothers ever wanted to; our Orthodox sisters still do not, and probably never will. But the Conservative movement offers choice. I applaud the grown woman who takes it; I envy the young woman who receives a tallit at her bat mitzvah, for she’s never known a time when this celebration of her inclusion wasn’t even a dim possibility.
But I can’t bring myself to wear the garment that men told me so long ago I could not put on. It seems to me wrong, somehow, that I can now have the opportunities I used to be denied, but only if I don that once-forbidden male tallit. My gender has not changed. I cannot go back to where I’ve never been.
Is there any way to accomplish this? I think of the conundrum of Amalek, who struck the very old, the very young, the most vulnerable at the back of the Exodus line when the Hebrews came out of Egypt. Blot out his name, the Torah tells us. But remember him forever. How can we remember and forget at the same time, as we’re instructed?
My gender question is another conundrum. All Jewish souls, we’re told, were present at Sinai to hear the shofar and receive the commandments. Not just the people living at that time, but those who would be born as Jews into the farthest future — and those who, while not born as Jews, would choose to cast their lot with the Jewish people. Are women fully counted among those souls? Maybe, if I went back there, I could find out. And if we were all there, together, then it would not be going back to a place I never was, would it?
So: In 5769, I’ll try for that ultimate return, following the aphorism of the Firesign Theatre, the magnificently edgy comedy team of the ‘60s and ‘70s: “Forward into the Past.” Does anyone want to try this journey with me?

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