The Sweet Agony of Autumn

leaves

Remember the sweet agony of autumn?

Fire erupted from the roots in the ground

Into an inferno of amber and pyrope.

We were the fire that broke off in the wind

The errant sparks that wandered and gave life to new blazes.

Wasn’t it hard to mind our manners?

How can you tell an arsonist

Put that fire out!

Fizzle into ash until the hissing stops.

Passion cauterized

The clapboard house is singed and standing empty.

Neighbors smug in their kitchens

Passing their salt and grateful to do so.

We watched and waited

Planned how we would stir the embers

Reignite the smoldering heat

Turn the blackened shack

Into a palace of flames.

When did it get easy, my love

To live in char and wreckage?

Adding layer upon layer against the biting chill

Until we achieved a numbness

Forged from necessity and habit?

We poke at the kindling

Ancient contracts and cocktail napkins

The frost is home now.

SOA – Sons of Avraham

bobbyRobert “Bobby Elvis” Munson, the only Jewish member of the fictional Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club.

 Big, sweaty, hairy bikers. The ladies love ‘em! They have a culture all their own that’s often associated with crime, violence, drugs, alcohol, loose women, and burning rubber on the open road.

When it comes to gender equality, the women’s liberation movement seems to have bypassed the true 1%er Motorcycle Clubs. Outlaw biker chicks are not on the same level as the male club members. In fact, a woman can never become a patched member of a 1%er Outlaw MC, rather she is merely another form of entertainment and recreation for the male club members to enjoy.

As long as a woman provides such entertainment for the club members, she can stick around and enjoy the kind of fast life these rough and burley bikers provide. The highest level of status she can achieve is to become someone’s old lady. Becoming an old lady basically seems to mean that she is now in a monogamous relationship with one of the bikers and she has become his property – this could include marriage, but not necessarily. In fact, many women sport tattoos or clothing that mark them as the property of a certain biker.

Men also wear patches indicating relations with the opposite sex.  The patches don’t mark them as the property of a specific woman, but rather, showcase their various levels of sexual conquest. Men own women, but women do not own men. While there are arrangements between individual couples where the man stays faithful, it is culturally acceptable for men with an old lady to get a hall pass at club parties or road trips. As long as he keeps his dalliances away from home, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell.

Why would women be attracted to a bunch of sexist, grisly bikers? Some say it’s because they represent freedom from societal conventions and rules. The 1%er world is one where partying, doing drugs, and being promiscuous isn’t frowned upon, but encouraged. As long as these women are willing to accept a different set of conventions, no less enforced than those of civilized society, they can be a part of this exciting and dangerous world. Women who anger club members or appear disloyal in some way can expect to endure physical violence as punishment.

Despite all the seeming negatives, some women say that no other man can compare to a biker. They are the ultimate in masculinity and excitement. Real men are sometimes out of control and violent – it’s just part of the package. Being with a biker makes them feel like they belong to something larger than just themselves, despite the fact that they can only be involved in the club by association, and can never become actual members. Their proximity to all the activity makes them feel as if they actually are members.

So, you can probably guess by my post title, Sons of Avraham, that I can easily imagine orthodox Judaism as being one big biker gang. We women are the old ladies, and our men are the patched members.

Of course, our moral code is different, as most of the aforementioned vices associated with a 1%er motorcycle club are carefully avoided (the only exceptions being alcohol and sex with your spouse – within the boundaries of halacha). However, the purposeful division of gender roles is very much the same. Even the telltale physical signs of females being owned are present – with orthodox Jewish women markedly altering their appearance upon marriage with hair covering and ring wearing, while orthodox Jewish men show practically no signs of belonging to a woman upon marriage (save for some communities where only married men wear a tallis during prayers).

Also, let’s not forget that according to the letter of the law, similar to 1%er bikers, Jewish men with old ladies are still able to be with other women (marry additional wives), each one permitted to him alone, while he can continue to spread his seed far and wide (as long as it’s under the auspices of a marriage).

In terms of domestic violence, of course this is not condoned in 21st century Judaism.  However, there are many discussions in Jewish texts espousing both assenting and dissenting opinions on the matter of hitting wives, as well as touching upon the subject of ownership and women as property.  Fortunately, the majority opinions in halacha are against spousal abuse, so much so that wife beating can be grounds for divorce and severe punishments for the husband.  However, the concept of wife beating, and even making it into a debate up for discussion, started with the original SOA.

Of course, in terms of appearance, there is a striking similarity between the two groups of men. Exchange the leather cut for a kapote? Squint and you can see it.

Similarly, like biker chicks, we can’t get enough of these guys – so much so that there is even a market shortage of men! Just as biker chicks aren’t bothered by the fact that they can’t attend church (club meetings) or have any control over club decisions, so too we don’t care that we can’t participate in shul services or be in positions of communal leadership or decision making. We feel a part of things simply because of our proximity to it all. Plus, at the end of the day, we get the men; those sweaty, bearded, burning hunks of love. Or is that just my husband?

The gender divisions created within these two societies help to preserve a mystique about the other sex, while at the same time firmly establishing roles for each that represent each group’s ideal archetype of masculinity and femininity.

Of course, both groups have seen an uprising of women wanting to do more than ride the rear seat and hang on for dear life. In the end, both groups of men fear the sentiment expressed below will become a reality if their women get too many big ideas:

sandwich

Plugging the dike…is it time to build a new wall again?

This morning I read an article in Haaretz entitled, “Is Orthodox Judaism on the verge of a historic schism?” It talks about the deepening fracture between liberal orthodox Judaism and right wing orthodox Judaism, one of the highlights, of course, being the growing demands of women for greater public and leadership roles within traditional Jewish communities. While there are other issues causing conflict within the many strains of orthodoxy, Prof. Vered Noam of the Hebrew Culture Studies Department at Tel Aviv University summed it up in an article she wrote calling for a change in attitude toward women in religious life:

This article is not a feminist manifesto, and anyone who thinks it’s about arrangements in the synagogue is mistaken,” she wrote…..The subject is the synagogue as an example and women as an example. The reference is to a society in which the tensions between its declared value system and the reality surrounding it and the world of its members’ natural inclinations, have led it on a difficult path of denial, ignoring and strong repression – of both the external and the internal reality. This repression leads to dichotomy, compartmentalization, fakery, double standards and the construction of wall upon wall and partition upon partition… The first ones to be crushed beneath these walls are the women, who in their very being, to their detriment, represent the fault line between the two worlds.

While there are certainly other issues at play, women are the fault line – attitudes toward the advancement, or lack thereof, of women’s roles in orthodoxy determine which side of modernity a community rests upon. Those who oppose women studying gemorah, having a role in shul services, or obtaining an advanced level of Jewish studies culminating in some sort of official title are now pitted against those who maintain that there is room within orthodoxy to expand women’s roles and textual studies without violating halacha. At the core of any argument between orthodox factions is the argument for or against granting women more opportunity and control over their religious education, advancement, and spiritual possibilities.

When I read articles about the debate over women’s roles in the right wing orthodox Jewish media, I am reminded of the fable of The Little Dutch Boy Who Saved Holland. There are several adaptations of this tale, but the general theme is of a young boy who notices a leak in the town dike, and thinking quickly and selflessly, he plugs the hole with his finger and remains in place until the adults of the community can permanently repair the damage. The parable teaches a lesson about self-sacrifice, civic responsibility, and how one small boy can save a town from immeasurable damage by taking a simple action. One small finger can stem the tide of a raging flood, and many fingers together can hold up a crumbling wall against an imminent tidal wave until a more permanent solution can be found to fortify the breaches in the barrier.

Take the example of the rise of the Bais Yaakov movement. Although it took about 14 years from the time the general concept was brought up to the gedolim of Polish Eastern European Jewry in the early 20th Century, the movement to provide Jewish education for girls did eventually take off, to put it mildly:

Leaders of the Orthodox community in Palestine or in Eastern Europe still often preferred that the girls study in alien non-Jewish environments than they be taught traditional Judaism in a school setting. The latter they considered an outright violation of the prescribed women’s role within Judaism. In 1903 at a conference of Polish rabbis held in Cracow, Rabbi Menachem Lando, the Admor of Zvirtche, [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Landau] blamed his colleagues for neglecting the education of Jewish girls and called for the establishment of schools to deal with the problem. His suggestion was almost unanimously opposed.

It took a dedicated and courageous woman named Sarah Schenirer to initiate the change. Influenced by a brief period in Vienna during the First World War when she was exposed to the spirit of German Neo-Orthodoxy, Schenirer founded the Bais Ya’akov movement in Poland in 1917. Beginning with a kindergarten class of twenty-five pupils in Cracow, the movement grew to encompass almost forty thousand girls on the eve of the Second World War, having spread to several continents and established day schools, afternoon schools, teachers’ seminaries, summer camps, youth groups, a monthly journal and a publishing house for textbooks and other educational materials. ” – Studies in Contemporary Jewry: Volume V: Israel: State and Society, 1948-1988, edited by Peter Y. Medding Institute of Contemporary Jewry the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, July 13, 1989, Oxford University Press, USA

It should be noted that Rabbi Landau, in his book Mekiz Nirdamim, came to the conclusion that formalized Jewish education was necessary for girls because of the growing prevalence of trafficking lower class Jewish women for prostitution among Eastern European Jews. Rabbi Landau blamed the lack of education. He proposed an organization to be called Shomer Yisroel that would foster education among women and girls in religious observance and the running of Jewish homes to be subsidized by communal funds. However, rabbis such as Rabbi Akiva Rabinovich of Poltava, editor of Hapeles, opposed Rabbi Landau’s proposal using various arguments, the main one being that teaching one’s daughter Torah is like teaching her tiflut (frivolity or immorality).

Certainly Jewish Polish society probably wasn’t any more immune to societal ills such as prostitution than the rest of early 20th century Polish society. However, it’s most likely safe to assume that, like today, most women exposed to secular society and educational opportunities during Rabbi Landau’s era wouldn’t choose prostitution as their preferred way of life. So was this really the burning reason driving him to propose a women’s educational system? After all, Rabbi Rabinovich’s response that teaching a woman Torah is like teaching her immorality seems a weak response if the alternative is that she becomes a prostitute, as Rabbi Landau feared.

Whatever the arguments made against developing Torah education for women, they were obviously fingers in an ever crumbling dike, springing new holes until finally, Sarah Schenirer helped them to create a new fortification. The Bais Yaakov movement became a new edifice in preserving the future of traditional Judaism by teaching women subjects that would help them to become better wives and mothers in both a practical and spiritual sense, but not venture anywhere near the sacred texts that are the realm of men. The old wall of keeping women illiterate in Hebrew and Jewish studies may have fallen 98 years ago, but the bricks of limitations that the rabbis set forth regarding women’s education have been firmly embedded inside the new structure. Only with those limitations in place could a new wall have been built.

Make no mistake, the development of Bais Yaakov was nothing less than miraculous. In addition to promoting women’s basic literacy skills, the Bais Yaakov movement also provided the most advanced formalized opportunity for women’s education in the history of Judaism (within those texts approved for female study). Additionally, it also instilled a sense of pride and connection to Jewish heritage that has probably kept countless women in the fold who otherwise would have left. However, for some, maybe even for many, today a Bais Yaakov education is no longer enough.

With its inherent limitations, there are women who are looking for further avenues of Jewish education for their daughters and themselves. Women are seeking higher educational opportunities beyond one or two years of post-high school seminary, that will lead to a career path either in addition to or beyond teaching, venturing into the realm of halachic expert and advisory roles.

There is a current phenomenon underway where the disparity levels between the leadership roles frum women are assuming in the secular world compared with the limited leadership roles they can play within their own communities is becoming a distance too great to bridge. Additionally, even voicing a desire for the opportunity to achieve a greater level of involvement or leadership in ritual life or communal institutions is met with suspicion. For example, a man who aspires to be the President of a right wing modern orthodox day school board will be seen as ambitious, while a woman who aspires to the same role will be seen as trying to rock the boat. President of the PTA is her lane, and she should stick to it.

Just as the Bais Yaakov educational movement was an inevitability in the early 20th century, so too is giving expanded Jewish leadership roles to women in the 21st century. Right now, the only movement that seems to have found tentative acceptance is the Yoetzet Halacha movement. Because of its narrow emphasis on women’s health issues and niddah, and its commitment to defer to rabbinic authority on all questions, it is an example of an innovation in female leadership that more centrist and right wing elements of modern orthodoxy are willing to accept. Any further acceptance of an expansion in ritual or advisory roles for women in right wing modern orthodox communities will have to follow this example.

The slippery slope argument isn’t far-fetched. Education and knowledge follow a path leading to the desire for more education and knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Will 21st century women ever be happy to travel paths that ultimately lead to dead ends? The end of the road might get pushed back a bit further each time, but still, for us, there is always an end in sight. The fear of a swelling tide rising up against a 98 year old wall is real, the question is, who will be the engineers involved in building the new fortification?

Why are rabbis encouraging family estrangement and why are parents listening?

One bad apple spoils the whole bunch. This seems to be the philosophy behind why some rabbis advise parents to kick out a deviant child, cutting off all contact, except for the most delicate thread of connection that might inspire them to return to the right path.

The child parent bond is the most primal form of relationship. I never fully understood the innate connection between parent and child until I became a parent myself. Yes, as the child of parents, I felt a love and dependence upon my mother and father. However, it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I felt the immediate magnetic bond, that “mamma bear mode” protective instinct, that I knew that my babies will always be my babies even when I have to crane my neck to look them in the eye.

Therefore, I can’t imagine coming to a bump in the road with my teenage or adult children, where I would seek rabbinic counsel and be told that the only solution is to cut off my child so that they don’t taint the rest of my kids. I can’t imagine this because I don’t believe that the rabbinic counselors I would choose would offer this advice. However, I also can’t imagine, no matter how great my respect for the rabbinic authority offering this counsel, placing my reverence for that person over my love and responsibility for my child. I personally don’t believe a good rabbi would ever force a parent to make such a choice.

Some of us seeking the advice of our rabbis concerning a family crisis, know that the choice to follow that advice is still ultimately left to our own discretion. However, in some communities, the rabbi’s counsel is never simply advice, but a mandate. Going against the decision of the rav is akin to breaking a commandment. In those communities, rabbis have a tremendous responsibility to their followers. Their word is irrefutable, and as such, they have the power to hold families together or tear them apart.

I often wonder, when I hear stories about parents who shun their children because – they no longer want to be religious, they come out as having a same sex preference, they identify as a different gender than their God given biology conferred upon them, or any other number of other revelations that are incompatible with the path laid before them by the Torah, the rebbe, the parents, and the community – how could they abandon their child?

Maybe in my heart I can understand. Their child must be the sacrificial lamb. Perhaps they can justify their actions by feeling that they made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the whole family unit. This child will reflect poorly upon the entire family. Their younger children will be ostracized at school and their older children won’t get good shidduchim. They themselves will be viewed by their neighbors with suspicion as having failed as parents and possibly inspiring the devious ways of the wayward child.

How many times have I heard people clucking about families who have kids who went off the derech – “I always knew this would happen. When the kids were younger the parents would always say negative things about the rabbaim. They would complain about the teachers and criticize their shul rabbi in front of the children. It has an impact. You always want to speak positively about religious figures in front of your kids. Now, not one of their kids is frum!”

It’s the parent’s fault. They didn’t have the proper respect for rabbinic authority and that’s why their kids are no longer religious. By shunning the errant children, the parents show their allegiance to authority, both by respecting the rav’s psak and by making the ultimate sacrifice of their children.

The parents see their actions as selfless, while outsiders see it as selfish. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. However, the one thing that remains is the broken child, who not only is embarking upon a new and sometimes frightening path outside of the only world they’ve ever known, but embarking upon that journey without the support of their family. More than that, the child embarks upon their journey knowing that their family harbors hope and confidence in their failure, which they pray will send their wayward offspring back home with their tail between their legs.

What parents don’t grasp is that the chance of failure is very high when your entire support system vanishes in rubble. Without their love, their child has little chance of a happy existence no matter how successful they are in their educational or career goals. What parents need to understand is that sometimes failing in the outside world doesn’t result in a return to the home, but a return to their maker. The ultimate price could be life of their child.

Parents don’t understand the real gamble they are taking by shunning a child. They aren’t merely risking their child being lured into a secular existence versus returning to the orthodox enclave, they are risking their child’s emotional and mental well-being, and ultimately their lives. The parents might not understand the high stakes they are playing with, the question is, do the rabbis advising them to cut off their children understand that risk?

Killing off non-believers and non-conformists is a heck of a lot easier than bearing the burden of having them in our midst. You don’t even have the pull the trigger, give them enough time, they’ll do it themselves. Assisted suicide.

We Don’t Get It

How can we? We just don’t get the amount of pain and isolation someone feels when they leave the community. We can’t fathom how someone could decide that they just can’t fake it anymore, or that they need the freedom to spread their wings beyond the small cage they currently live in. We can’t comprehend how the decision to poke a toe beyond the given line can result in losing everything.

Those of us living in more modern communities think it’s such a shame. They didn’t need to leave everything behind. It’s possible to be shomer Shabbos, keep kosher, and live as shomer mitzvot Jews in the 21st century. We know because we do it every day! College isn’t evil, you can synthesize higher education and careers with a committed life. You can enjoy many forms of secular entertainment. Smartphones aren’t the devil. Let us show you! Come for a Shabbos meal, try out our shul, check out our schools for your kids, we can help you transition into a life less restrictive than the one you left behind, but still in keeping with halacha.

What can’t we do? We can’t replace your parents. We can’t take over for your siblings. We can’t make up for the fact that you might have lost custody of your children, and that they might be turned against you. We can’t override the trauma of being blacklisted and excluded from everything you once knew and the people you once loved – no matter how friendly we are, or how good the cholent is, or how much we try to get the nigun right during zemiros so that it mimics the tunes you grew up with.

We can’t make up for post-traumatic stress, and what could be more traumatic than losing your entire support network when all you wanted to do was find yourself? Leaving must be like losing a body part, the phantom limb aching every time a memory, good or bad, is triggered.

Reaching out is good, being compassionate is even better. However, we have to realize that we are totally out of our depth when it comes to knowing the challenges faced by those who leave tightly knit insular communities. The pain and grief for those whose families have rejected them (there are those whose families remain supportive) runs so deep that we must honor it. We honor it by acknowledging it and by knowing the difference between a crisis of faith and an existential crisis. The two aren’t synonymous, but often a person losing their faith and their support system can result in them losing faith in themselves, humanity, and any hope for a better future.

If we simply treat those who leave right wing communities as potential new recruits to modern orthodoxy, then despite sincere efforts, we are only seeking to remedy the crisis of faith without recognizing that lives are potentially at stake. With so many beautiful souls driven to leave this world before their time, how can we become better educated to make a positive difference?