Erev Yom Kippur: #MeToo

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

In the more traditional and Orthodox prayer books, there is a paragraph that Jewish men are supposed to recite every morning. It declares the following: 

“Baruch atah Adonai E.M.Ha.O she’lo asani eesha,”

“Blessed are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” 

These difficult words are one part of a series of otherwise beautiful prayers called, Nissim be’chol yom, Every Day Miracles. For when we thank God for the gifts of sight, for waking up, our freedom, the functions of our body, and so on.

Then, in the midst of these beautiful blessings we also find “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.” I can’t think of more controversial and frankly, nasty words, in all of our Jewish tradition. OUR OWN Jewish tradition!

And I can’t help but wonder: what do female teachers, mothers, and female mentors in the Orthodox world teach the girls in their own sector? What could they possibly say to their female students, that will eliminate the venom from this unhealthy set of words? 

“Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe” – is a beautiful and positive opening for a blessing, where we express our gratitude to God, right? But then, men continue on with reciting the negative and demeaning message of “who has not made me a woman.” And I’m asking: isn’t THIS combination of foul words, one reflection on wrongdoing that’s happened to women for the last few millennia? 

As students at the AJRCA, we were required to use an Artscroll Siddur, THE most comprehensive source for all Jewish liturgy which contains the full historical spectrum of our worship language. 

Since these controversial words appear in this Siddur (show), most of us made copies of the Reform Siddur’s morning blessings, then cut and glued it tightly onto that page, in order to cover these poisonous words (show).

Personally I find this verse deeply offensive, simply because I can’t imagine being anything BUT a woman. And no, there is no corresponding verse in any siddur that teaches women to respond, “and thank you God for not making me a man.” Instead, women are to thank God, King of the universe for having made us, women, according to “His,” God’s will.”

But let’s face it, being a woman—yes, even in today’s progressive 21st century—is indeed difficult. While opportunities for women have expanded, many women are still earning less than their male counterparts. Sexual harassments still flourish in the workforce, and on the streets. Many working women still perform most of the household chores, and biases against women are still, unfortunately, widespread.

Sadly, I will admit that there are some very compelling reasons to be grateful for not being a woman in this world. Here are just a few examples:

  • Other than possibly in jail, men, usually, are not raped. 
  • If men do happen to be raped, they probably won’t be told that they were, “asking for it.”
  • In most prayer books and Bibles, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, “God” and “men” share the same gender.
  • Men can be ambitious professionally, and no one will question their gender, or refer to them as “emasculating,” “too assertive,” or “too aggressive.”

And of course, the list goes on and on.

Written by male rabbis nearly 1,000 years ago, the words from this Siddur evoke for many of us anger towards sexism, which is so dominant in the traditional world, Jewish or not. These words come out of the religious haters of women: those who throw chairs at women for holding the Torah at the Western Wall; those who force their women to cover themselves head to toe, even when it’s 100 degrees outside; or those who force women to sit in the back of Israeli buses in some areas of the country. 

Such “blessings” thanking God for not making them a woman, enable religious sexism to silence female voices, keeping them from positions of communal leadership, and denying them the study and teaching of Torah and our sacred texts. This “blessing” is no different from other poisonous words of religious theologies that promote separation, cause pain to someone else, and claim superiority over others who are regarded as “less than.” This “blessing” exists in some form or another within orthodoxy of all traditions and religions. 

Yes, and ani ma’ashi’ma, I am blaming Religion, all religions that caused this despicable mistreatment of women, these religions that put us in a subservient place to men, our fellow human beings. 

I was asked recently why I have been speaking about many recent events happening in our country and around the world this past year, yet I haven’t really communicated anything concerning the #MeToo movement? Why haven’t I, like many other religious leaders in our country and around the world, condemned celebrities like Louis CK, Harvey Weintstein, Roman Polansky, Bill Cosby, and all the other famously infamous men who were finally brought to media-justice?

I didn’t say anything because I needed time to think.

And I have been thinking. Thinking hard as a matter of fact. About all the despicable abuse and repression many women have suffered in our world for thousands of years. So from this Bimah this evening, I will share that like many other women, I was addressed, and even touched inappropriately on a few occasions. But unlike so many women, I was never forced into doing anything I didn’t want to, or, thank you God, I have not been raped.  But I am, conflicted. 

I am conflicted because on the one hand, it is wrong wrong wrong! for anyone to think that they can uninvitingly touch, caress, suggest, drug, and enforce—especially when they hear the word “no.” It is wrong to touch without permission, period.

On the other hand, I am a clergy woman, a Rabbi, a Jewish teacher in Yisrael, and I am supposed to give honor to our Torah and its teachings; I’m supposed to address, with reverence and admiration the words of our Sages, and quote them often. 

But then, those “admired Sages” come up with “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.”

How can this type of written statement be anything but an embarrassment to any Jewish clergy—woman or man? What shall I tell our children? My students? How can I justify and refer to myself as a teacher of Talmud or Torah that puts me at the same level as someone’s cattle or slave?

Let me give you one such Talmudic example:

“An affluent matriarch asked Rah-bee Eliezer a very wise, text related question: ‘Why is it that there was one sin committed with the golden calf, and yet three punishments were inflicted on the Israelites?’

Refusing to answer her question, Rah-bee Eliezer responded: ‘There is no wisdom in women other than the spinning wheel, as it is written: And all the women who were wise in heart spun with their hands (Exodus 35).’

Rah-bee Eliezer’s son, Yochanan, said to him, ‘Why could you not answer her with some words of Torah? This woman was insulted! And because she was insulted, I will now lose 300 shekelsin donations from her every year!’

Rah-bee Eliezer then replied to his son: ‘The words of Torah should burn rather than be taught to women.’”

This story was quoted from the, Bavli Talmud, in tractate, Yoma 66b.

So the point here is that Rabbi Eliezer was upset not because the question was rude or unsophisticated. On the contrary, the narrative ends as his students approach him saying, “Now that this woman is gone, will you please answer her question for us? We want to know!” The point here is that the only thing prompting Rabbi Eliezer’s angry response, was the fact that a woman had the Chutzpah to ask it! Had a male student asked such a question, Rah-bee Eliezer might have been offered a Yahser Koach (attaboy) and a pat on his shoulder. 

But wait! It gets even worse. The Rambam, also known as Maimonides, THE greatest rabbi of all time, was quoted saying, “Women, slaves, and children are exempt from the obligation to study Torah.”  You’ll find this quote in chapter 1 of, Hilkhot Talmud Torah.

As we can see, an important component of studying Torah is being aware of, “who is excluded from studying it.” 

Many verses in our Torah, our Tree of Life, include the phrase Nashim va’avadim, women and slaves,” who are often also grouped with tzon u’vakar, cattle. What a demeaning reflection of our social status, in Our Sacred Texts. To add more gasoline to the fire, Rambam stated in Hilchot Talmud Torah that, “most women simply do not have the mental capacity to learn.” 

Are you listening to this, women who are present here this evening? In our Torah, our Sacred Text, as well as our Talmud and Gemara, we are considered, for the lack of better words, “simple and stupid.”

What makes Rambam’s passage even more jarring is its historical context. We know that the Romans had destroyed the 2nd Temple, great Sages were brutally tortured and murdered, Torah scrolls were destroyed and burned, and our people were divided, enslaved or exiled. 

And yet, the idea of “a woman asking a clever Torah question” was so scandalous that Rah-bee Eliezer declared that “he’d rather see the Torah burned – than taught to a woman.”

Modern day Rabbi Sharon Brous asks, “So how do we approach texts whose content periodically exposes serious distrust and even hatred of women?”

She answers her own question by saying that, “[one] option, is simply to walk away. This does not necessarily mean to leave Judaism entirely, but rather, to develop a distant relationship to the text and its Rabbis. Advocates of this approach pull the Gemarah off the shelf when they need a nice story, but are not flustered by painful passages because they read with the understanding that the text, patriarchal and ancient, is essentially irrelevant in our modern world.”

In other words, some choose to treat Rabbinic literature the way we’d treat an aging racist great-uncle or aunt. We feel some familial connection to them, but they never ceases to embarrass all of us at dinners and social events with their sexist and racist humor.

But for me, as an assertive Israeli-American woman who has been studying our Torah for many, many years, I really don’t want to “simply walk away” or “remain silent.” Yes, I am conflicted and embarrassed by some of our ancient texts; they put me and other clergywomen in a “lesser than,” extremely uncomfortable position, especially when we are trying to hail and promote the study of Torah, the genius of Maimonides and our Talmud.

Which is why I consider the #MeToo movement so remarkable. 

A new reality has risen: women around the world, not only rise up to higher, more powerful positions in politics and the corporate world, they are also being empowered by social media to speak out, to demand equality and appropriate behavior at all times, everywhere. 

TIME Magazine, for example, named the silence-breakers its Person of the Year in 2017. Prominent men are losing their jobs for behavior once considered acceptable.

And the #MeToo movement has brought to light just how widespread and systemic sexual misconduct has been for women, not only today but throughout history— including within our own Jewish tradition. 

And here are some more disturbing facts: In this country, our United States of America, not until the mid 19th century did a majority of states pass laws granting married women the right to own property. Women could not vote until 1919. It wasn’t until 1957 that women could serve on a jury—yes, in our country, in MY and your lifetime. 

I still cringe when I get mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. David Simerly. 

Ok, let me be even more specific:

Look at our own directory here at TBT: unless a woman is single or widowed, her name appears as, “Mr. & Mrs. Shlomo Cohen,” and the woman’s name, Shoshana, appears in parenthesis. 

Parenthesis! What kind of a message does this “seemingly harmless reference” send to our daughters, if our names appear in parenthesis, especially at a congregation that chose a female to be your Rabbi?!  

Our country is being pulled, kicking and screaming into the 21st century; let’s embrace at least this one little change more gracefully at Temple Beth Tikvah shall we?

Indeed, the fight for equality has been a long, uphill battle, and today’s women still struggle to have their voices heard and respected. And unlike the society of our ancestors, which valued the viewpoints and pledges of fathers and husbands over those of daughters and wives, today, thankfully, our parent movement, Reform Judaism, holds women fully equal to men, honoring and respecting in all ways our goals, achievements, commitments, and responsibilities. 

The good news is that “change” is taking place.

I am sure that if it were possible – those men who wrote the Torah and the Talmud, for sure, would have been brought to justice sooner or later. We would have chosen to ban their books, like we do with Bill Cosby’s old shows. We don’t watch those anymore. 

But unlike the men of today, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, and other men who were exposed and brought to justice, our ancient texts are here to remind us how NOT to place on pedestals any of the so-called “sages,” our Torah, and old teachings. 

Of course there is value in all of that material as well: it teaches us how to not repeat history, and that our ancient teachers were humans too. 

And I would say to all our students: this Torah and our ancient texts were not written by God. Our ancient texts were written by other human beings, like you and me, reflecting the times in which they were written. 

My advice? Take our ancient teachings in their historical context, and make an educated choice on which rules to live by. Adopt the good, like “honor your mother and father,” and leave out the negative: “thank you God for not making me a woman.” Teach about the wrong message that’s communicated in this kind of ancient text.

There is absolutely nothing in the 10 Commandments, for example, that places “women” in a lesser, or lower stature. Our Torah gives us great examples of what it means to be “menches” and “wemanches,” decent human beings, and Ve’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha, you shall love your fellow human being like yourself. It was written in male form simply because our ancient language was limited to gender classification.

Making educated choices: that’s what it means to study Torah in modern times. And the word “Torah” itself, by the way, is in female form.

Baruch atah Adonai, EMHO, she’asani eesha, Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of our universe, for making me a woman, for creating me in the image of goodness and kindness, and for giving me the wisdom and strength, to choose the path that is right for me. A path that honors and dignifies every human being, regardless of gender, race, or religion. Now THAT is a blessing I would teach each and every one of my students 

And for that, Modah ani I am so humbly and utterly grateful, In female form. Shanah Tovah (also in female form)

And for crying out loud Temple Beth Tikvah, please take us, women, out of those parenthesis, will you, please?

Your Loving Rabbi Meeka

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