By Repair the World Fellow Amalia Mark
As a fellow with Repair the World, I understand that communities must organize within, and systemic change can only occur from an outgrowth of community members seeking and maintaining change. Yet, I struggle with this idea as someone who believes deeply in the presence of women’s inclusion and leadership within Orthodox Judaism. I am caught up in a constant conflict: it is not my place in non-receptive communities to push forward an agenda of women’s involvement and equality. On the other hand, I cannot stand idly by while women are divorced from commonplace Jewish ritual that men are given ownership over in most Orthodox settings.
Much of my life has been spent in a synagogue. I invite you to walk with me through an average Shabbat morning at my family’s orthodox synagogue.
This is the community I was raised in and the walls I have lived behind.
We enter the synagogue. To the right are glass doors, where the men’s seating and the bimah, are clearly visible. Leaving this main entrance we cross into the reception room, and walk the length of the room until we are standing in front of a set of scuffed grey double doors. There is no visibility of what awaits on the other side. Opening these doors, we are met with a small and narrow section that is filled with women. To the left of us is a set of six-foot wooden partitions, spanning the length of the room. Few women are able to view the other side, where the men sit and the Torah is placed, over these partitions. Welcome to the women’s section of the synagogue.
When the Torah is brought back to the ark it is only carried through the men’s section; the women can only crane their necks and attempt to catch a brief glimpse of the holy scroll wrapped in gilded velvet (my mother waves hello). There will be no kisses reverently given by women to the Torah and there will be no little girls held up to greet the scroll’s embroidered outer face.
Everything about this space, from the placement of the rabbi’s pulpit (in front of the men’s section) to the placement of the bimah (in the middle of the men’s section) to who has access to the Torah (the men), to the narrow space that seats the women, speaks of an imbalance of power.
At the end of the day, I have chosen to affiliate myself with an Orthodox outlook of Jewry. I choose to honor and observe Shabbat to these standards every week and I choose to follow commandments given in the Torah through an Orthodox interpretation.
I do not choose to live as a second-class citizen.
While it is true that many communities are beginning to recognize the missing voices of women in ritual and observance, many others refuse to acknowledge the invisibility of women and drastic imbalance of power levied between the sexes.
True ownership of a religion cannot exist when one sex is given an entirely different set of ritual experiences than the other. I didn’t know what the inside of a Torah scroll looked like until two years ago, when I participated in a women’s reading on Simchat Torah. The joy in the room was palpable that day as one by one, women were called up to the Torah to read or to receive an aliyah. For many, myself included, it was the very first time this experience had occurred.
The balance of power within Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, must be re-assessed with a discriminate eye towards gender parity and inclusion. The voices of women, long missing as commentators, rabbinic figures, and spiritual counselors, must be valued in these capacities. Yeshivat Maharat is taking huge strides in this space and offers a comprehensive model for what true inclusion of women can mean in Orthodox practice. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has been organizing around furthering egalitarian practice in Orthodox Judaism since the inception of the organization in 1997. And most recently, SAR and Ramaz, Modern Orthodox high schools in New York, have allowed their female students to wear tefillin (phylacteries) during prayer.
Yet these institutions and organizations are cold comfort. There is an overwhelming lack of inclusive synagogues and community spaces for women to joyously claim ownership of Jewish ritual considered in the realm of men for so very long.
There is no one approach that will lead to a shared ownership of tradition, no panacea to pursue. I can only hope that my choices, and inspired call to action from the change makers who have come before me, can “repair the world”.
I have a dream where the mechitza isn’t an invasive wall but rather a partition that creates an inclusive space. I have a dream that the Torah is not given to one sex to have and to hold, but a container for all who choose to partake. I have a dream that communities will see the inequality and imbalance of power tied up in traditional Orthodox interpretations of ritual and be moved to create a lasting change.
I have a dream of a world, repaired.