When ev­ery is­sue is a bat­tle, it wears you down

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

THE WEEK of Rosh Hashanah, Elana Sz­tok­man, for­merly Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of America’s Jewish Ortho­dox Fem­i­nist Al­liance, an­nounced that she was be­com­ing a Re­form rabbi. While her lev­els of observance were not chang­ing, she wrote on her blog that the “Re­form move­ment is the only place where I think a woman can truly be free to be a whole per­son.”

The ad­vances for women in Ortho­doxy were too lit­tle, too late for her, she told The For­ward news­pa­per. “Even though I’m so happy that women are be­com­ing rab­bis in Ortho­doxy, at the same time a ma­harat [Ortho­dox cler­gy­woman] can­not count in a minyan — even though she may be more learned than 95 per­cent of the con­gre­ga­tion….”

Twenty years of “do­ing bat­tle” had left her “worn out” and “trau­ma­tised”.

On her per­sonal Face­book page, the com­ments were sup­port­ive, in­clud­ing from Ortho­dox peo­ple she had left be­hind. The most neg­a­tive com­ments were from Con­ser­va­tive Jews who were up­set she hadn’t cho­sen to join their de­nom­i­na­tion.

But pre­dictably, her de­ci­sion also at­tracted some snip­ing and sneer­ing from on­line com­men­ta­tors, who rel­ished her move as “proof” that Ortho­dox fem­i­nism was a dan­ger­ous slip­pery slope to­wards Re­form.

Of course, it is noth­ing of the kind. Sz­tok­man’s story is no­body’s but her own, and there is move­ment be­tween and within the de­nom­i­na­tions in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, as an Ortho­dox fem­i­nist, watch­ing a prom­i­nent ac­tivist like Sz­tok­man switch camps was an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. It felt like watch­ing a caged bird fly the coop — and part of me was jeal­ous.

The tired­ness that she ex­pressed so elo­quently is the same tired­ness I feel. In my own way, I too have been fight­ing for a greater role in the syn­a­gogue for over 20 years.

And let me tell you, when even the small­est is­sue is an on­go­ing, up­hill bat­tle, it wears you down.

Ev­ery time a rabbi tells you, “Yes, it’s ha­lachi­cally al­lowed, but no, it’s 10 years too early”… Ev­ery time you hear, “Yes, it’s ha­lachi­cally al­lowed, but my Board won’t let me”… Ev­ery time you ar­rive at shul to dis­cover that the women’s sec­tion isn’t open… Ev­ery time a shul Board mem­ber makes a misog­y­nis­tic com­ment… Ev­ery time the shul acts like it’s do­ing you a mas­sive favour on Sim­chat To­rah, be­cause they’ve given women a To­rah scroll to dance with… Ev­ery time the rabbi says from the pul­pit that “ev­ery Jew” is com­manded to do this or that, when you know full well It was like watch­ing a caged bird ¼ā ]QN ûXXY he only means the men… Ev­ery time you have to jus­tify why you want to par­tic­i­pate in your own re­li­gion… It takes it out of you.

The irony is that Ortho­doxy has moved an enor­mous dis­tance even in the last five years. I never be­lieved that I’d see Ortho­dox women clergy in my life­time. Nowa­days women are be­ing or­dained, with var­i­ous ti­tles, both in America and Is­rael. Megillah read­ings, Sim­chat To­rah danc­ing — th­ese are now en­trenched. But they still feel like crumbs. By com­par­i­son, the things I was fight­ing for as a stu­dent, such as the right to de­liver a dvar To­rah in shul, were very ba­sic. And yet, my faith, my con­nec­tion to God, my cer­tainty that Ortho­doxy was worth fight­ing for never wa­vered back then. Per­haps it was eas­ier to com­part­men­talise when I was younger.

Sz­tok­man’s an­swer is not every­one’s an­swer. It’s not my an­swer. And yet, to me she is a pub­lic sym­bol of a gen­er­a­tion of women who have drifted away from Ortho­doxy, or at least the pub­lic as­pects of it. Most of us do not switch de­nom­i­na­tions, as she did. We re­main ob­ser­vant, but opt out of go­ing to shul, opt out of tak­ing up lead­er­ship po­si­tions, opt out of the re­li­gious classes which we once led. We just slowly dis­ap­pear.

Elana Sz­tok­man has made a rad­i­cal move

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