Reading Orli West’s last blog about the strong powerful women that punctuate not just Jewish history, but history in general, left me feeling empowered and also really conflicted.
She writes that these women have gone unnoticed, that it's time that we must remember how they, against all odds, stood up to gain the rights for women today - I couldn’t agree more.
When educating in a progressive Jewish youth movement on stories from the Torah and elsewhere in Jewish tradition, it's a common approach for us to "flip" the stories around, to investigate the "unsung heroes" (often women), to encourage them to question the narratives that are handed to them.
This, to me, is the only way to keep the future generations intentionally engaged with Jewish scripture. Empowering them to read these stories in a modern day context and to draw relevant lessons and meaning from them keeps the texts alive. In the history of the Jewish people there can be found not only stories of women sacrificing themselves like Orli mentions, but stories of female empowerment and leadership.
To shed this light on traditional texts is to show that it is our responsibility to engage with religious tradition in order to ensure that, there are still values to be found and lessons to be learned from the stories our ancestors have been reading and telling for thousands of years, that reinforce our progressive values.
This approach to traditional text became particularly important to my family this week as we celebrated the life of my aunt who sadly lost her battle with cancer. All gathered round the table for Friday night dinner we decided to read Eshet Chayil (A woman of worth), a traditional shabbat text, to remember this amazing woman in our lives.
To my ears it’s undeniably heteronormative and a bit mysogynistic by todays standards (which are not high!) and whilst my aunt was definitely not the farmer and cloth maker described in the text, its words still resonated with us enough to bring all of us to tears at the dinner table. This is because we all could see past the parts which obviously did not apply, and focus on the relevant and resonating sentiment of celebrating a powerful woman.
This was really uplifting for me, as its actually rare that I, as a Reform Jew, feel connected to Judaism when with this Orthodox part of my family. I would always remember being confused as to why I had to sit upstairs in synagogue, away from my cousins and my dad, where I couldn’t see or hear what was going on, and wouldn’t have been able to understand it anyway because it was all entirely in Hebrew.
I never complained about this, or having to wear a long-enough skirt instead of the jeans I was used to, because I respected that some people, who I care about a lot in this case, choose to practise their Judaism differently to me.
But spending my last week in a shivah house celebrating the life of this eshet chayil, the tension between respecting different ways of practising Judaism and feeling like I’m actually going against what I believe, was raised again.
In Orthodox Judaism a minyan (the 10 people necessary to pray) must all be male, and men and women are separated. Based on how the specific Jewish community in this area has interpreted these orthodox traditions, this meant that every evening the men, including the hundreds from the community who came to pay their respects to the family, would pray together to remember my aunt.
Meanwhile the women would sit in silence in a separate room, or the kitchen, listening. Now, I completely respect that this is tradition and "how it is supposed to be" in the eyes of many, including people whom I love a lot. But as someone who regularly engages in and facilitates egalitarian prayer, this made me feel far from a woman of worth.
Its a hard one! And in the end, respect for the way others choose to practise their Judaism remained my priority and I obviously didn’t storm in and demand to be included. But I think it definitely reinforced the importance of practising what you preach in religion - even if that means reflecting on long-standing traditions and saying this isn’t how it should be anymore. I am proud to be part of a movement and a denomination that values traditions but also demands that we innovate and create to ensure that our practises reflect our progressive values.
As Orli reflects, there are too many women of worth that have gone unappreciated. I feel that continuing to engage with and educate within a progressive Jewish community is part of fulfilling my responsibility to ensure that all women feel their worth, always.
Dedicated to the memory of my auntie, a powerful and brave woman of worth, Deborah Judah
Asha Sumroy is one of the JC's regular student bloggers for 2017-18. She is studying at Durham University.