My Secret Life
by Phyllis Chesler
I have a “secret” life. I study Jewish religious texts and observe the holy days. ‘Twas not always thus. There was a time when I fled from a Judaism that had no place for women in terms of religious learning and ritual. I returned to religion as a feminist and helped create many feminist Jewish, life-cycle and inter-faith rituals.
On December 1st, 1988, in Jerusalem, I was privileged to be among the Jewish women who prayed for the first time in the women’s section at the Western Wall (or Kotel). While there are no exact parallels, this was analogous to Catholic women officiating at an all-female Mass in the Vatican. On that day, I was asked to open the Torah for the women to read from and it wedded me faithfully to the ensuing struggle for Jewish women’s religious rights which involved grassroots activism, consciousness raising, fundraising, and a lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court. You may read about some of this in a book I co-authored with Rivka Haut,  Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site.
However, I quickly understood that what I myself really wanted to do was to study Torah (The Old Testament and Commentaries) with learned, feminist women. Thus, I began to study with “Reb” Rivka eighteen years ago. We have studied the Torah, the Megillot (the stories of Ruth and Esther) a number of times; we always see new and unique things and ask questions that have not necessarily been asked before. Rivka brings both Talmudic and midrashic sources to bear on our studies. We are now “walking” through the Prophets. Three other women have joined us. We are currently reading Isaiah and trust me: His sentences about a peaceful and harmonious age are far fewer than are his truly terrible “fire and brimstone” passages which compromise the majority of his extraordinary Book.
Of course, I study with male teachers as well. Many are utterly amazing and welcome women into their classes.
Some questions: Do women see things differently than men do? Does living in a feminist era empower both men and women in new ways? Is there indeed, something new under the sun that the Sages did not contemplate? (The answer, of course, is yes). Does leading a learned and religious life lead to a different way of experiencing both time as well as one’s own life? (Again, the answer is yes).
I really wrestle with questions about religion. Does religion lead to truth or to illusion, to hatred or to love? Is it the path of peace or the path of war? Is it reactionary or liberatory for women to wrestle with tradition? Will the tradition break–or will it hold?
And, if I support a woman’s right to both practice a religion and to safely resist just such practices, where do I stand on Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu) women who choose to lead what seems to me to be terrifyingly subordinate lives in which their religious and spiritual expression is silenced or non-existent?
Friends: This is my way of introducing you: my secular, non-Jewish, non-learned, non-observant, or perhaps profoundly atheistic readership to an interview that I have just published with Rivka Haut and Adena Berkowitz in the Jewish Press. Please understand: This newspaper is a conservative, Jewish paper where I frequently and proudly write–but not about religious matters. This interview is something of a “breakthrough” in that a new Prayer Book, written by these two wonderfully learned women, is being featured in a prominent way.
Here is the Jewish Press interview: “A Bencher (Mini-Prayer Book) for Our Times.”
Many Orthodox women have graced and inspired us with the most profound and amazing learning and leadership. It is my privilege to interview two such women for the Jewish Press about their important new bencher (mini-prayer book): “Shaarei Simcha” (Gates of Joy) published by K’tav.
Rivka Haut is a long-time agunah activist, a mother and grandmother, and the co-author of two books: Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue and Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site (Full disclosure: I am the other co-author and we have studied Torah together for eighteen years).
Dr. Adena Berkowitz holds graduate degrees in law and ethics. A popular teacher of Torah, Adena has lectured across the U.S. on Jewish ethics, Rabbinics, women and Judaism and Jewish values. She and her husband, Rabbi Zev Brenner are the parents of five children.
Rivka and Adena will be lecturing about the bencher on erev Shabbat, December 7th, 2007 at Congregation Orach Chayim after a shul dinner. Everyone is welcome.
The Jewish Press: What motivated you to create this bencher?
Rivka: Originally our intention was to prepare a small volume that would include Birkat HaMazon (blessings said after the meal) that would adhere to halacha (Jewish religious law) and be sensitive towards the religious needs of many groups: women, baalei teshuva (newly religious people) as well "frum (religious) from birth" Jews, marrieds and singles, people with children and those without, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. We were inspired by the approach of Rav Hisda in the Talmud (Berachos 49a) who tried to create a version of Birkat HaMazon that would be applicable to everyone saying it including women and slaves. Although his version was not accepted by the Chachamim, (Sages) his emphasis on sensitivity to all inspired us as we engaged in this endeavor.
What challenges did you face in undertaking this project?
Adena: We made a concerted effort to prepare a volume that would have as wide appeal as possible, all within a halakhic (religious) framework. We hope that what we have produced will be a good model for kiruv, ( closeness) allowing people at one table to share in a sense of chavershaft, (camaraderie) greater yiras Shamayim (faith) and an enhanced understanding of the tefilah (prayers) and berachot (blessings) they are saying. Hence we decided to completely transliterate all the prayers, as well as translate them in accordance with the admonition of Rambam. When translating we opted to go with a Sephardic pronunciation as that is the style taught in many yeshivot as well as a way of creating a bridge between Ahsknazim (Jews of European origin) and Sephardim (Jews from Arab and Muslim lands and who originally fled Spain and Portugal) . In addition we made an effort to include different Sephardic prayers which add greater beauty to the texts.
What’s different about this bencher?
Rivka: As we began working on this project, it became evident that we needed to include more material beyond Birkat HaMazon. We were aware that there are many benchers available with beautiful graphics and illustrations. However, our focus was going to be on the text. We wanted to provide scholarly sources along with popular explanations and background discussions of various prayers and blessings connected with Shabbos (the Sabbath) and holidays. We felt it important to reintroduce techinas (women’s Yiddish prayers) and customs that many might be unfamiliar with such as techinas in Yiddish recited before taking challah, lighting candles or at the bris of one's son or the custom of mayim acharonim.
What prayers for modern occasions have you provided?
Adena: We also included other prayers such as the Hebrew blessing such as a Hebrew blessing that a wife may recite for her husband as a parallel to "Eishes Chayil". We tried to find a way to help parents have a role under the chuppah (marriage canopy) and included a prayer that either a mother or father could recite at that auspicious moment of their child's wedding. We also provided ceremonies for naming a baby girl, for a boy at his bris, as well as a unique ceremony for adopted children. We have provided moving prayers for parents to say at their children's bar and bat mitzvahs, (coming-of-age ceremonies) spiritual meditations to add at holiday times, such as Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkos, prayers to remember agunahs, as well as whimsical poems such as a Dr. Seuss style poem for Sukkos as well as a way of making Hannukah more meaningful.
Rivka: Our most difficult issue related to zimmun (group prayer after the meal) and women. We began our analysis as to the halakhic appropriateness of three women forming a zimmun, when they eat together. What we discovered was an interesting Rabbinic debate concerning whether women MAY do this or whether they MUST. For example, according to some authorities, (the Rosh and the Vilna Gaon), they are actually OBLIGATED to do so. Other rabbinic authorities agree that women are permitted to do zimmun. Yet, this fact has routinely been forgotten, and overlooked. When large numbers of women eat together, at women’s luncheons, for example, zimmun is not usually recited. At lunchrooms in girls' yeshivahs it is often not done. Yet, women should recite zimmun as it offers an opportunity to form a group that thanks HaShem (God) together. Instead of thanking HaShem individually, and benching privately, each one to herself, zimmun elevates the meal to a meal eaten together, and adding additional praise to HaShem.
Adena: After researching the issue of three women, we asked ourselves: What about ten women? Can they recite zimmun b’Shem, add HaShem’s name, as ten men do? To our surprise and joy, we discovered that there are rabbinic authorities who permitted this. In our introduction, we cite all the major sources on this issue. Yet, we were unsure whether to include them. Adena then remembered having read in a column in The Jewish Press by Rabbi Aharon Zeigler, an authority on the halakhic views of the Rav (Rabbi J.B. Soloveitcheik), (and reprinted in his book on the Rav). According to the Rav, zimmun of ten is not a function of minyan at all. It is a matter of glorifying HaShem’s name when eating in a group. According to Rabbi Zeigler, the Rav would have approved of ten women doing zimmun b’Shem.
Therefore, we provide the sources, including a long quote by Rabbi Zeigler and we advise women to study the sources and make their own informed decision.
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I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school.
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
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