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Reflections of a Young Jewish Feminist

Here is another in our occasional series of divrei Torah by our amazing TBA youth. This one was written by Rachel Warshaw for her bat mitzvah on May 11, 2013.

In my haftarah portion, the prophet Hosea refers to Israel as the cheating wife and God as the husband. The imagery Hosea uses is very negative towards women, and is hard for modern women to digest or accept. In my Torah portion, in the census, the men aged 21 and over are the only ones who are counted. These men were eligible to be drafted into a fighting force. Women are not mentioned at all. Men are the only ones who are counted. If we re-arrange that sentence, we find that in the time of my Torah portion, it seems that men were the only ones who counted, or in other words, the ones who were valued most.

In Reform Judaism, women are lucky to be treated in an equal way to men. And in our temple, girls and young women have had the opportunity to see that of 4 professional rabbis on the temple staff, three are women. Women who practice Orthodox Judaism are less lucky. Unlike us, they cannot stand on the bimah and read from the Torah. In Israel, the women who come to pray at the Western Wall can only pray in a certain less choice portion of it, whereas men can pray in the nice area. I believe the people in charge of who may pray and read Torah at the Western Wall are acting like the adulterous wife Hosea portrays in my portion. In the same way that Hosea says Israel has become adulterous towards God by straying from God, her husband, and going to other gods, people who will not allow others to further their relationship with God are ruining their own personal relationship with God.

While I would very much like to be able to say that our Torah is a feminist book, I cannot. There are so many instances in it of women being treated and portrayed as the “weaker vessel.” In fact, many of the matriarchs in the Torah are only special because they married men whom God called to do something great. Rachel, my namesake, did not do anything particularly special that was recorded in the Torah other than waiting 7 years to get married to a man who didn’t know her well enough to tell the difference between her and her sister. Leah did even less. She married the man her sister was promised to, because her father wanted to marry her off before she got any older. Neither of these “matriarchs” did anything to change her fate. I wish that the strong, smart women of the Biblical stories could have been shown as heroines, but women who thought for themselves and got what they wanted were either overlooked, or their stories are recorded in a way that does not focus on the heroic. How many women and girls were present at the counting my Torah portion represents? We cannot know. Their history is a blank, their numbers are invisible. And the people who were not included were not just the women, as Rachel Stock Spilker writes in the Women’s Torah Commentary, “What about the woman who might have wished to fight? Or how about the 19-year-old man, just months short of his 20th birthday, eager to serve God and his people? Or the 23-year-old male Israelite who can count the right number of years, but the not the right number of limbs since he lost one of his in a childhood accident?” This type of census was not fair.

As of today, women are now supposed to be treated the same way as men in the army, in what posts they are given, thanks to recent orders by the Defense Secretary to allow women in combat. Even though we consider our American society progressive, we were still woefully behind when it came to counting women for the army.

During the last war that people were drafted for, the Vietnam War, women were not drafted. Only men, aged 18 and above were drafted. I hope there will be no more wars that will call for anyone being drafted to serve in combat forces, but I do think that it is a big step for equality to know that women will be eligible to fight, too. In light of recent revelations about abuse of some female service members, there is obviously still a great deal of work to do for women’s presence and contributions to fully valued and respected. I am proud to go to a temple that will let me, a young woman, lead the prayer service, chant Torah and Haftarah, and give my D’var. In reaching this day, I am now able to be counted for a minyan, and can participate fully in Jewish prayer and Torah study.

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