Let Us In: A Call for Expanded Female Roles in Orthodox Spaces

By: Molly Meisels  |  December 18, 2019

By Molly Meisels, Editor in Chief

Synagogue, an alien space in my adult life, is not where I imagined spending any of my time this Rosh Hashanah. From an early age, I never recognized the point of public prayer. With its fixed Hebraic words, written by men of another generation, for men and led by men of this generation, it tired me. As a Chasidic schoolgirl in an insular Brooklyn community, my shul-going experiences involved fighting for a glimpse of Torah scrolls and the Bobover Rebbe through a caramel-colored frosted glass mechitza, two floors above the (men’s) ark and prayer space, for occasional Rosh Hashanah, Simchat Torah, and Shabbat afternoon excursions. The words being said below, meant nothing to me. The melodies and harmonies of the centuries-old tunes struck a chord of sentimentality in my soul, but they were not mine. I would hold the brown leather siddur (prayer book) in my hands, glance at the ocean of words which I could not ascribe meaning to, as hard as I tried, and mumbled under my breath, annunciating every six or seven words to prove to myself that I was trying. I recognized words of sacrifice, repentance, and salvation, but they did not influence my emotions. In the words of predetermined prayer, I did not find God, because my words seemed like a masquerade — insignificant and inauthentic. The real prayer happened in minyan, with my father, brother, brothers-in-law, and nephews, but not with me. 

The same was true for my relationship with Torah scrolls, but these, unlike the words in my siddur, were explicitly forbidden for my niddah-stained body to hold. The closest I was able to get to the Torah was as a preschooler, when my family would spend our Simchat Torah nights in a small shtiebel (synagogue) close to home. My father would invite me into the men’s side, the side that mattered, and would hold my hand as he held the Torah scroll covered in burgundy velvet and golden embroidery in the other. I cannot recall if I was allowed to touch it. As I got older, my presence on the other side of the mechitza was criminal, and so I was thrust to the women’s side. For hours I was expected to watch the boys and men dance with the root of my heritage, feeling lucky with the lot I was granted. Instead, I was bitter, drowning my sorrows in the red lollipops and sickly-sweet cherry balls the smiling candy-man threw over the mechitza to the little girls watching their brothers dance. My role bored me, and I took my consolation prize. 

The older I became, the more I recognized that the men in my community — the people who made all the rules — did not acknowledge me as a member of the tribe. My female teachers (I was not taught by any men) tried convincing me that we, as women, had another role in life — a domestic role — and that this role allows the Jewish people to learn and thrive. They tried convincing me that challah, candles, and children would make me a full-fledged Jew — that it would take away the sting of the mechitza, lack of communal authority, and isolation from the Torah. But I could not be convinced. Many of the women around me accepted their roles with gusto, claiming their luck with not being subjected to hours of prayer. They said that they preferred to prepare the meals for when the men returned home from their dialogue with God. But not me. I could not stomach the domesticity. I could not tolerate belonging to a religious community where I was not perceived as necessary beyond my cooking and child-rearing skills. 

What I craved was knowledge and belonging. I craved the ability to learn and research and discover the secrets of the world and the equality I required to survive. In the Chasidic community, the lack of equality and personhood, stifled me. I found myself being slowly smothered by the degradation of my free thought and feminist attitudes. It physically hurt me to witness the unjust treatment of women — of myself. The expectation that I would get married soon after high school graduation, bear children, and raise those children with the same smothering perspectives, hurt me more. So I did what I had to do to live, to follow my dreams of liberation, academia, and egalitarianism — I left the Chasidic community. 

Yeshiva University was where my refusal of Chasidic life led me. The thought that I could attend YU started as a fever dream. My understanding of the college process was limited, and my access to resources for applying were even more so. I found out about YU through my weekly escapades to NCSY and an alcoholic cousin who was finding his own way through a cruel world. My Chasidic high school was doing everything in its power to stop me from attending college, eventually expelling me for my choice to attend YU and raise money to get there, so YU became my symbol of freedom. I will admit, I knew nothing about YU. I knew it was Jewish, Modern Orthodox, a place where students of all sexes mingled, and that some of its female students wore pants. I took Halakhic Man out of the Brooklyn Public Library in preparation for my matriculation. I knew YU wasn’t Chasidic, and in my not-yet-open mind, that meant it was egalitarian. 

While I tend to criticize YU for what it lacks, I also attribute my success to the university. If it weren’t for YU accepting me, I would likely not have been able to attend college and I most likely would have been married with children at this time. YU gave me the opportunity to hope for more for myself — to take my ambition and run. It also gave me the opportunity to fight the injustices infecting the institution I find myself fortunate enough to attend.  

YU disappointed me by being too similar to the life I left behind. I expected to be embraced by Judaism. I expected Modern Orthodoxy to take me into its folds and fill me with warmth and meaning. Instead, the way women in the YU community are treated parallels the Chasidic structure. The mechitzas may be lower, the tzniut rules may be laxer, the women may have more access to careers and Jewish education, but they are still thrust into narrow gender roles concerning their purity, minyan status, and stake in Judaism. I felt betrayed when I slowly discovered this reality in Fall 2016, my first semester on campus. One can make the case that Chasidic communities don’t know any better, that their misogyny is a result of fundamentalist insularity and authoritative power dynamics. I may be branded with inferior status as a Chasidic woman, but that is to be expected. 

The Modern Orthodox community should know better. The gender roles and misogyny I have been exposed to while at YU impact me more deeply than those I suffered in the Chasidic community. Modern Orthodox individuals, and most of those who attend YU, live in the world. They cannot hide from egalitarian attitudes. It surrounds them through the Internet, progressive rabbis, hard-hitting journalism, and shifting perspectives on traditional Judaism. While Chasidic individuals can be let off the hook through not knowing, barricading themselves in a communal structure that gives them the leisure to act as misogynistic as they please, Modern Orthodoxy cannot be granted the same allowances. 

Judaism shifts. With each generation halacha evolves, becoming more stringent in some ways and more lenient in others. Nowadays, we do not take everything mentioned in the Torah at face value, nor do we take all the opinions mentioned in the Gemara at face value. We’ve incorporated heterim into the halachic process, to survive in a world that is ever-changing — a world that is progressing — evident in our varied perspectives on codes of dress, our views on medical procedures like autopsies, mingling with non-Jews, and hechsheirim (kosher certifications). But we have not given women the same leniencies. We do not give them sufficient access to spirituality in public prayer, let alone the ability to open the Torah ark or hold and celebrate the Torah. 

We cling to attitudes more rooted in hashkafa than in halacha, because we can — because women are not making the decisions. We forbid female rabbis due to serara, when the Jewish people have not had kingships for thousands of years. We forbid women from holding the Torah due to “impurities,” when even the Rambam in Hilchot Kriyot Shema 4:8 says, “All those who are impure, even niddot, are permitted to hold a Torah scroll and to read from it, for the words of Torah are not susceptible to tum’ah [impurity].” The Shulchan Aruch presents the argument as follows: “Some have written that a woman currently menstruating shouldn’t enter a synagogue or daven or mention God’s name or touch a Torah. However, some say it is permitted and this is the actual law, though the local custom is like the first opinion. But for a woman in niddah, but no longer menstruating, the custom is to permit. Even in places where the custom is to be strict [like the first opinion], on the High Holidays and the like, when many people gather to the synagogue, it is permitted for them to go to shul like the rest of the women, for it is a great sadness for them that everyone is gathering and they must remain outside.” Seeing as we allow menstruating women into shuls today, the issue of women holding Torah scrolls should be a non-issue in all Orthodox environments. But this is not the case. Since Jewish men are making the decisions that shape the future of Orthodox Judaism and they do not have a stake in accommodations for women, making a space for women in communal Judaism is not their priority, and they often fight tirelessly to prevent it.  

However, these practices are emotionally slaying a generation of young Jewish women. By expelling us from tradition in a world where women are inhabiting all forms of life, you tell us that Jewish women don’t matter. You explicitly inform us that Judaism is not a religion that celebrates women, and that we are outsiders in our own story. With these archaic and dominant perspectives in Orthodox life, women won’t stick around for long. Only so much emotional energy can be expended behind the mechitza, before women decide that they’ve had enough, that they will find value and meaning elsewhere. Why should we deem Judaism worthy if it does not deem us worthy in return? But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

After years of bitterness, of being told to hide myself from the eyes of men fulfilling their sacred duties, there I was, taking a seat at an egalitarian minyan in Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. I sat with Jewish people, young and old, of all genders, and all walks of life, as we sang the songs that have kept Judaism alive for millenia. And then, I was asked to open the Torah ark, to carry the Torah. I was politely told to wear a kippah and tallit while performing the task. The years of being told how wrong it was for me to partake, slapped me in the face. You can’t do this, said the voice that sounded a lot like my high school principal. You need to, said the voice that sounded a lot like my childhood self. So I took a kippah, a large, white silk one that all the newbies wear to shul. It felt heavy on my head, like a crown. I donned the tallit, a shawl of protection. With my crown and cape, I felt empowered, yet awkward. This was not a space I was trained to be in. I was a child, learning the ropes of my own religion for the first time. 

I opened the ark. I recited the prayers. I took the Torah around the room, once as a follower, once in my arms. It weighed me down, as I imagined the luchot (tablets) did to Moshe when I read about him carrying them down Mount Sinai as a child. I took the white-clothed scroll around the room, as people kissed her and thanked me. “Yasher koach,” thank you, they said. I was taking control of my Jewish story. Never did I feel as connected to the Jewish people as I did in that moment. Orthodoxy can be this way.