Six years ago, when I was asked to give a talk on Yom Kippur, I decided to state some of my core beliefs with the simple declarative: I believe. Among my pronouncements about family, prayer and Israel I said that:
I believe that putting women on a pedestal distracts them from the fact that they do not have full and equal access to Jewish life and ritual. And relegating them behind a divider in the synagogue is the historical equivalent of having forced African-Americans to move to the back of the bus.
A few people pointed out that I was wrong when I compared the civil rights movement to gender separation in the synagogue. I thought long and hard about what my critics were saying. One in particular gave me pause. “I don’t agree that a mechitzah – a divider – is the equivalent of having African Americans in the back of the bus,” he wrote. “I don’t personally like a mechitzah and would not choose to pray with one, but it is not sexist in the way that the bus rules were racist.”
Over the years, I’ve reflected on that comment in the context of understanding my Judaism. I’ve come to learn that the Judaism I want to cultivate is powerful because it is unassuming and respectful. My Judaism doesn’t move someone to picket in front of Planned Parenthood to harass young women. My Judaism does not proselytize, because no one has the last word or the best take on G-d. I was born a Jew. But I continue to be a Jew because that’s the best way, the most meaningful way for me to navigate the world. I want my children to be Jews because if they stick with it, they’ll come to feel that their religion is vital and enriching.
My Judaism is the Judaism of Sara Schnerir, Joseph Solevetchik and Solomon Schechter – pioneers in Jewish education who believed that girls had the same rights as boys in a classroom.
I believe that a Jewish girl should have the same opportunities as a Jewish boy. I believe a Jewish girl should be in control of her spiritual life. I believe that Naama Margoles should never have been afraid to go to school.
Naama Margoles, a cherub-faced 8- year-old who lives due west of Jerusalem in Beit Shemesh, was cursed and spat upon by ultra-Orthodox men, a group of haredi fanatics, for going to school. Haredi translates as those who fear G-d, who tremble before G-d. Members of this extremist faction, which has been condemned by other haredim, believe their anger toward women is justified on behalf of G-d. This is not my G-d, nor is this the G-d of my Judaism.
Naama’s parents – Modern Orthodox Jews originally from Chicago – settled in Beit Shemesh, but their presence was too close for the comfort of some of their haredi neighbors. The haredi thought the length of Naama’s sleeves was immodest. Her destination – a single sex religious school – inappropriate. The women these haredi men placed on pedestals must have wept as Naama did when she walked through a daily gauntlet of hate. Those images of Naama reminded me of Ruby Bridges, who was also surrounded by faces twisted by prejudice and ignorance when she went to elementary school in 1960 New Orleans. Yes, she was cursed and spat upon too. Were the reasons really so different? Am I sidling up to a misguided historical equivalency?
Some haredi want pictures of women on bus stop advertisements and in newspapers to disappear across Israel. They must be so weak if they’re driven to distraction by the sight of a woman, shamelessly corrupted when she sings. There is a sign outside a synagogue in Beit Shemesh telling women to cross the street as if they somehow could taint the place. I have brilliant, forward thinking women friends who like the gender separation in their synagogues. For some, it takes them back to childhood. For others, they like the solidarity of praying close to other women. I have never heard one of them express concern that they feel relegated to the women’s section to spare men the temptation of thinking about them instead of G-d.
I worry about what will happen to Jews everywhere. Will my granddaughters cross a street in Jerusalem because there’s an unavoidable sign forcing them to do so. Will those same children look back on my generation, shaking their heads in disgust that we didn’t do more to protect our girls. Where is my Judaism? I need it to articulate my outrage.
I believe that world Jewry must acknowledge that we are engaged in a battle for the dignity of Jewish women. What does life mean without self-respect?
An editorial in Haaretz warned that when the dust settles in Beit Shemesh, “we’ll find out if we have a secular or religious society here; democratic, theocratic or fascist; Western or other.”
When the dust settles, we’ll see if a little girl in Beit Shemesh can go to school without making headlines, feeling sick to her stomach or stirring up more violence on behalf of the false G-d of extremists.