Playing on Purity

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Last Wednesday night, instead of tuning into one of my long-distance classes at Yeshivat Maharat, I joined BBC Radio DJ and host Lauren Laverne for Late Night Woman’s Hour.

In a relaxed round table format we discussed what ‘purity’ means for women in the context of food, sex, religion and thought.  Emma Woolf, who chronicled her experience of anorexia in her book ‘An Apple a Day’ spoke about the current obsession for purity in food, Shirley Yanez explained why she took a vow of chastity after a near death experience, and pundit Helen Lewis addressed the subject in the context of political ideas.

My contribution – the religious perspective on purity – was substantially shaped by a recent series of ‘Pastoral Torah’ classes at Yeshivat Maharat that focused on embodied spirituality. Click on the image below to listen to the program:

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Chanukah and Self-Transcendence

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The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household’. (TB Shabbat 21b)

The formulation of Chanukah lights as a household mitzvah is unique and intriguing.

What is it about Chanukah that demands a household effort?

20141223_183934I have been mulling over this for the last week while preparing various Chanukah shiurim.

Unlike other festivals that begin at sunset, we are required to wait until it is fully dark to light the Menorah and place it near the window, so it can be seen by people passing by. The oil with which we light the Menorah represents comfort and luxury, it symbolizes affluence and satisfaction.

The act of burning the Menorah oil to illuminate the outside is symbolic of a deeper spiritual act we must perform on Chanukah – taking a luxury, and sacrificing it in order to illuminate the darkness outside our home, to brighten the night for strangers passing by.

The Sefat Emet (Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger,1847-1905) suggests the reason this particular mitzvah is a household requirement is because spiritual illumination can be best accomplished by pooling together a family’s energy. This need for family security in order to fully realize the mitzvah can be understood best through the framework of Maslow’s Pyramid.

MaslowrThe American Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) posited a five level hierarchy of human needs. The bottom two levels of  the Pyramid consist of most basic human needs such as food, shelter, health and security. The upper two levels consist of such elevated needs as self-esteem and self actualisation. The middle level, which is the access point to the higher two, consists of love and belonging; needs that are best met in the context of family and close friendships. In other words, being secure in one’s own loving relationships is the foundation upon which the individual can come to the more elevated levels of altruism; extending love and compassion to strangers.

If kindling the Chanukah lights at night represents our responsibility to illuminate the darkness and alleviate the loneliness of those in need, then this can be achieved best when we feel secure within our own relationships. This may be why this particular mitzvah is singled out in its requirement that it be performed in the framework of a household.

This Chanukah, may we all find within the blessing of friendship and belonging the resources to self transcend by alleviating the loneliness, alienation and fragility experienced by those less fortunate than ourselves who occupy the darkening street.

 

Don’t Confuse Simchat Torah with Shavuot

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Simchat Torah is in three days and I am looking forward to celebrating by dancing with the Torah. Fortunately in my neighborhood there is a synagogue that provides this opportunity. However I am aware that for the vast  majority of women in Orthodox synagogues this is not an option. That is not to say that these synagogues are necessarily ignoring women, on the contrary, many of them have responded to the desire for greater female participation by encouraging shiurim for and by women, instead of Hakafot.

While Torah study is very important and women’s advancement in this area is to be encouraged, I find the replacing of dancing on Simchat Torah with Torah study particularly disturbing.

Let me explain why.

Shavuot and Simchat Torah are the two festivals that specifically celebrate Torah. On Shavuot we immerse ourselves in Torah study all night but on Simchat Torah we rejoice  without even opening the Sefer Torah; we keep it rolled up, covered, we just dance with it.

simhat danceThe Lubavitcher Rebbe distinguishes between these two celebratory  modes.Torah study differentiates between individual Jews. It is entirely dependent  on each person’s intellectual ability. Some will study and understand more, others less. But no one person is able to grasp the infinitude of Torah. Despite our best efforts, our connection to Torah through study on Shavuot remains relatively limited.  

Simchat Torah presents the opportunity for every single Jewish person, scholar or illiterate, to forge a direct, arational, primal connection with Torah. It is precisely because the celebration does not involve study on Simchat Torah, because ‘it takes no brains to dance’, that the ritual of dancing becomes  an equalizer among all Jews. Anyone and everyone can dance and this allows all Jews to forge a visceral connection with the Torah that transcends intellect. Simchat Torah demonstrates the fundamental bond between the essence of the Jew with the essence of Torah.

Embracing the Torah also does something else; It elicits love. A hug is not only an expression of affection, the very act of embracing itself has the ability to generate this emotion. Every parent experiences this truth when they embrace their newborn baby for the very first time. Embracing a Sefer Torah is no different. It engenders a deep love, not just for the sacred scroll itself, but for all that it represents.

This is why I am passionate about celebrating Simchat Torah through the ritual of dancing with the Torah rather than through studying it. I cherish every opportunity to study Torah and do my best to assimilate its wisdom. But once a year I value the opportunity to forge a unique and direct bond with Torah by embracing it. To replace dancing with study is to squander the uniqueness of Simchat Torah and to deny women a most spiritually meaningful and uplifting experience.

Wiping the Slate Clean

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This is dedicated to two dear friends, Rochelle and Alan Bernard of blessed memory who passed away 5 years ago today,  4th of Tishrei (11 September 2010).

Rochelle was like a big sister to me, she listened, had very wise words and I learned a lot from her about true Gemilut Hasadim, altruistic kindness.

Rochelle & Alan Bernard

Rochelle & Alan Bernard

Below is an idea I shared on BBC Radio2 ‘Pause for Thought’, inspired by Rochelle, Rachel bat Moshe.

Wiping The Slate Clean

My memory is pretty good, I can recall books I’ve read, people I’ve met and important dates. But I also tend to remember insults and injuries long past and sometimes I have a hard time letting go. I’m good at forgiving but not so good at forgetting.

Sometimes I wish I was more like my dear friend who had a remarkable capacity to forgive and forget. Several years ago she was betrayed by someone very close to her and although it was obvious to me their relationship was broken beyond repair, she was determined not to let this be the case. She made a conscious decision not to dwell on the pain caused but to let it go, by willfully forgetting the past in order to start a new chapter.

And yet while I admire her greatly, I know I am made of different stuff. I just cannot willfully forget. I will always remember. For me the solution lies not in suppressing memory but in changing the way I react. In this I am guided by a passage from the Jewish daily prayer:

‘My God, to those who curse me, let my soul be silent’

I have learned that silence is an important part of forgiveness. By not responding to hurtful words or talking about a painful past I am able to create the space and the possibility for a hopeful future.

I may not always forget, but through silence I can soften the edges of bad memories until the gradually fade of their own accord making my forgiveness complete and irreversible.

First Orthodox female rabbi will open new chapter

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Published at 12:01AM,  The Saturday Times,  January 31 2015

Dina Brawer is utterly determined to blaze a trail for women as a British rabbi-at-large, reports Jenni Frazer

This year it will be 40 years since Britain got its first female rabbi, Jackie Tabick. And to date, Laura Janner-Klausner is the country’s only Jewish female head of faith, as the senior rabbi of Reform Judaism. But both women are from the Progressive wing of Judaism. It seemed that there was no place within Orthodox Judaism for educated Jewish women to become religious leaders.

That may be all set to change, and it has a particular resonance as the Church of England welcomes Libby Lane, its first female bishop. Dina Brawer is set to become Britain’s first Orthodox woman receiving rabbinical ordination, from an American study centre specifically launched for the purpose.

The Yeshivat Maharat — a religious seminary for female leaders — in New York is already sending out its first graduates to work with congregations across the United States. There is, though, no particular dress code for the female Orthodox rabbis graduating from Yeshivat Maharat. “What’s important is what a rabbi does, not how he or she looks,” Brawer insists.

Brawer, whose husband Naftali is a rabbi (though no longer running a congregation), is also the daughter and sister of Orthodox rabbis, although none of the Brawers’ four sons are thinking of going into what looks like a family business. She does not want to become a congregational rabbi — rather, a rabbi-at-large. “The concept of rabbi as the professional Jew is peculiarly British,” she says — by which she means that British synagogues have traditonally left it to the rabbi to run Jewish life for his congregation. “I see myself as going back to the original role of rabbi: to teach, to lead — but above all to engage.”

Currently she is running a revolutionary (in Orthodox terms) series of workshops for brides and grooms together to teach about sexuality. “I had taught brides before their weddings for many years but then I did an intensive course, partly sponsored by Yeshivat Maharat — we wanted to find ways of teaching couples together. We found that often men and women were being taught different things.” Her workshops attract young couples who have been living together but who are eager to learn what Orthodox Judaism brings to marriage.

Brawer, who has a BA in Jewish studies and holds a master’s degree in psychology and education from the Institute of Education, describes herself as a full-time student. Two years ago, however, she became Britain’s first ambassador for JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was founded in America; Brawer set up its British wing. She works hard at what she describes as “grassroots activism, enabling people to think differently about how Judaism could work”. Often this involves teaching in community homes or holding seminars. Sometimes she is approached by Orthodox women who ask her to devise “life-cycle” events such as a batmitzvah service — the equivalent for girls of a boy’s barmitzvah or coming-of-age ceremony — or a “simchat bat” (welcome celebration of a girl) ceremony for newborn girls. There are plenty of such ceremonies in Progressive Judaism, but relatively few in the Orthodox world, although this is changing.

Although within Britain’s (Orthodox) United Synagogue, women have begun to be employed in a variety of roles, there is no specific programme for training female religious leaders. Ironically, all too often Orthodox Jewish women have suffered precisely because of the Progressive trailblazers such as Rabbi Tabick and Rabbi Janner-Klausner, with every bid for equality in the Orthodox world dismissed as “aping Reform”.

Within congregations, women’s desire to participate more found expression in “partnership minyan”, which enables women to lead parts of the service, read from the Torah, and serve in lay leadership positions. However, the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has ruled out such services in synagogues under his authority. Brawer says that the feedback from her JOFA work inspired her to pursue the study necessary to achieve rabbinic ordination. “I went to a congregation to speak about JOFA and the rabbi — jokingly — referred to me as ‘Maharat Brawer’ [the female rabbinical title]. Then the rabbi’s wife talked to me about the lack of female role models in the Orthodox community. This planted the seed that I should study.”

She lives in Hertfordshire with her family, studying remotely, with a couple of visits to New York every year of her four-year degree. She will qualify in 2018 with exactly the same skills that lead to rabbinical ordination for men.

Long before making this historic jump, Brawer, 43, had had years of experience in the “non-job” of “rebbetzin”, a colloquialism for “rabbi’s wife”. But while people instantly understand what being a rabbi means, explaining what she did as a rabbi’s wife took a whole lot longer. “What message does a community convey when the role of female leader is limited to women who happen to be married to a rabbi?” Brawer says. “It is insulting to women’s intellectual and pastoral capabilities. It also severely limits the pool of potential leaders.”

Brawer is confident that acceptance will come, albeit not overnight. She came to Britain from the US with her family 18 years ago when her husband was appointed to head a large London congregation. “The differences then between London and New York were striking. There weren’t even any outward signs on the synagogue building that it was a synagogue. But that has changed a lot and in the past ten years I’ve seen a flourishing of Jewish life and confidence. The current spate of antisemitism and the Paris attacks has set British Jews back from the sense of ease that was being developed, but — though I don’t want to be a prophet — I hope it will return.”

It’s too easy for religious authorities to dismiss women’s aspirations if the women are not well-informed. Brawer aims to change all that, by helping to create a core of Jewish women who are knowledgeable about their own faith.

End of Term Report (1 of 12)

2013-10-07 04.14.10I’m currently looking out onto bright and fluffy clouds from an altitude 31000 feet above the Atlantic, heading west towards New York. This is going to be my second term at Yeshivat Maharat, where I am studying for semikha (rabbinical ordination). The bright sunshine above the clouds takes me back to the summer day four months ago when I entered Bet Midrash (study hall) for my first day of yeshiva.  I was rather excited to meet my classmates, some entirely new, some whom I knew ‘virtually’ through social media and a couple who I had met and studied with a few years ago at Pardes in Jerusalem.  Attending orientation week in person was particularly important to me because I am studying as a remote student. This means that while I continue to live in London, I am able to study with the help of technology, following the yeshiva’s 9-5 EST schedule at GMT.

My yeshiva day begins at 2pm and ends at 10pm. The bulk of yeshiva time is spent studying set text with a peer. Both the peer and the study method are known as havruta. The taught classes build on the material studied independently. Like classic semikha courses, the curriculum focuses on halakha (Jewish law) and Talmud. In addition, the Maharat course includes subjects such as  bible, hassidic philosophy and the development of halakhah which are not strictly part of a classical semikha course. Being designed for practical rabbinic and communal leadership, it includes Pastoral Torah, a fusion of the clinical and spiritual aspects of pastoral counselling, as well as a customized leadership track.

After three intensive days in September faculty, students and subjects were introduced, I returned home and set-up my virtual bet midrash. I found three elements key to recreating the bet midrash atmosphere at home; people, sounds and sights. I’m incredibly fortunate to have Leah Sarna as a steady havruta to study with.  She (with her macbook!) provides me with a portal into the students, dynamics and sounds of the Yeshivat Maharat bet midrash in New York.  Having a book lined study from which to work is an additional bonus, as I find it fosters the feeling of being in a bet midrash and is handy for chasing up references.

I have found spending eight hours a day immersed in Torah study both exhilarating and exhausting.  The exhilarating aspect begins during morning prayer, which includes Birkat haTorah, a blessing for Torah study, which I now recite with new inspiration, knowing that a good chunk of my day will be indeed dedicated to studying Torah. It continues when my sons return from school and find me surrounded by books, often in the midst of an animated discussion with my havruta, or my husband peeks into the study and gives me the thumbs up. While the intellectual aspect of study is enjoyable, adjusting to fitting all of the more mundane tasks into my mornings and week-ends has been more challenging.

As  the end of the first term was approaching it felt a little like the battery low warning was flashing. My initial week in the Yeshivat Maharat bet midrash gave me a charge of energy, passion and enthusiasm which fueled the subsequent weeks I spent studying in my virtual bet midrash. I now look forward to spending the next 10 days physically present in the bet midrash, holding havruta discussions in person,  catching the small talk at lunchtime and joining my fellow students for prayers and occasional songs.

Time for spiritual refueling.

A Hanukkah Meditation on Peshawar: Shed Light not Fire

Just after we lit candles on the first night of Hanukkah, news broke of the school massacre in Peshawar. I sat gazing at the little single flickering flame and tried to process the horrifying news. Irrational acts of terror such as this make us feel utterly helpless. But they also ignite in us strong passions; anger and hatred towards the perpetrators. We feel like unleashing a firestorm. Yet this is neither practical nor meaningful. Looking at the small Hanukkah flame burning brightly amid the surrounding darkness, its message became clear.  We must channel our burning, passionate anger and use it to kindle the light that resides deep within each of us. “God’s candle is the human soul” says proverbs (20:27).  A favourite saying of the Hasidic masters was “A little light can banish much darkness.” Hanukkah beckons us to dispel darkness through living our lives brightly. Each day adding a little more light, consistently, until our world, like our Hanukkah Menorah, is brightly illuminated.

From Rebbetzin to Maharat

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Did I always want to be a Rabbi?

The answer is no. It never occurred to me.

Growing up I already had a defined, robust role for me to serve my community as a woman. As a Chabad teen, I aspired to be a shlucha, a role that provided a clear path to spiritual leadership – regardless of marital status. As a result, I took up numerous communal responsibilities – from teaching to coordinating a Lag B’Omer parade to designing interactive educational exhibitions – all of them enjoyable and fulfilling. When I later married a rabbi, my position as a shlucha remained unchanged, as did my desire to serve my community. The reason the role of shlucha was so effective in enabling me to serve, therefore, was because it was understood, defined, and clearly labeled.

After five years on shlichut, my husband and I moved to the UK where he took up a position as a congregational rabbi. Over the next fifteen years we served two London congregations.  As a Rebbetzin, I led community development strategy, counseled congregants, taught Torah – and baked plenty of challah. And yet, while I clearly had carved out a communal role for myself, I couldn’t avoid the nagging feeling that if it weren’t for my husband, I wouldn’t have that role. I felt this most acutely when at events outside the Jewish community. People asked us what we did. My husband replied that he was a rabbi. But what was I? What could I say? A rebbetzin? A rabbi’s wife? That would just beg the question – what exactly does a rabbi’s wife do? My husband’s title could capture, in one word, who he was, whereas I had to spend fifteen minutes explaining what exactly I did.

The sense of not having a leadership role in my own right was driven home quite forcefully, when an invitation arrived to join communal leaders for the launch of an important report concerning the role of women in the Jewish community. It was addressed solely to Rabbi Brawer. The title of Rebbetzin evidently did not mark me out as a leader; it merely indicated that I had married a rabbi.

I am not being dismissive of the important and varied work many Rebbetzins do for their congregations. Rabbinic spouses should be recognized, appreciate and respected.   But the “two for one” deal – the status quo in many Orthodox communities – is as detrimental as it is prevalent. The widespread expectation that rabbis’ wives will assume the role of rebbetzin very often burdens women who choose to pursue their own careers. By the same token, hiring rabbis based on the expected role their wives will play unfairly disadvantages able leaders with much to offer. Simply put, our communities deserve the best leaders: the best male leaders, irrespective of their wives; the best female leaders, irrespective of their husbands.

What message does a community convey when the role of female leader is limited to women who happen to be married to a rabbi? It is insulting to women’s intellectual and pastoral capabilities. It also severely limits the pool of potential leaders to spouses of rabbis.

Moreover, since the title rebbetzin is not earned, but rather conferred on anyone who happens to be married to a rabbi, it has become essentially meaningless, by not distinguishing between those who are Torah scholars and actively engaged in serving their communities, and those who are not.

Some communities have recognized the value of clearly defined female leadership, appointing women as community scholars, who in addition to teaching Torah and counseling congregants, facilitate life cycle events, and address the congregation from the pulpit. These women are occupying roles that extend far beyond the remit of the traditional rebbetzin, and the congregations who hire them should be commended for their vision.

However, whilst these women are highly proficient in Torah study, there is no uniform standard to their training, and a dearth of courses designed specifically for their leadership. Furthermore, the lack of a defined qualifying designation means that these highly capable and dedicated women are still at a disadvantage, being denied the authority and influence, as well as the recognition, which comes with a bona-fide rabbinic title.

For me, still seeking the defined leadership role I had as a young shlucha, Yeshivat Maharat offers a solution. In creating a formal qualification to deliver the skills required for women in the clergy, Yeshivat Maharat has opened a space, in which able women can truly be heard as leaders within the Jewish community. Crucially, it grants institutional semikha, conferring on  women the authority to make halakhic decisions for their congregations. Personally, it has given me the opportunity to better serve my people by further developing my pastoral skills, broadening my leadership vision, and deepening my understanding of Halakha.

Yeshivat Maharat is an exciting and positive development within Orthodox Judaism, and it is something that we should all celebrate and support.

This Blog first appeared on Time of Israel on 1 December , 2014