Archive | February, 2013

Let My People Learn: Finding a Woman’s Place in Translation

Weekday mornings from 8:30 a.m. to 12:45.p.m.,and again in the evenings from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.,I indulge in what some members of the tribe label an ever-so-guilty pleasure. With the turn of each page, lechery rises as enigmatic Aramaic engrosses me. Each morpheme leaves much to the imagination, and a hunger for more. A work off the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?  Foreign erotica? No — just Talmud.

“Teaching your daughter Torah is teaching her Tiflus (promiscuity)”(Babylonian Talmud,Sotah:20).” Let the words of Torah be burnt and not given to women!” promulgates Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud itself (Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 3:16).

Despite such an ominous prohibition directly from Judaism’s sacred legal canon which arguably outstrips even the Bible in authority, I am dedicating this academic year to Torah disquisition in Israel.

In a famous passage recited thrice daily in the Shema prayer, the Torah adjures to“ teach [the commandments] to your children” (Deuteronomy 11:19). From this verse,the Sages derive the obligation to both learn and teach Torah (Kiddushin 29b). They further extol Torah study as the greatest of commandments (Peah 1:1), while the Bible also prescribes Torah study day in and day out (Joshua 1:8).Reasoning that since women are not commanded to teach, accordingly they are not commanded to learn, the Sages interpreted that passage in Deuteronomy to exclude women from the formal commandment, at least in its most comprehensive form(Kiddushin 29b).Thankfully, being the maverick that he was, Maimonides held that that the whole prohibition referred only to the Talmud, the five books of the bible conversely, are permissible (“Yad” Talmud Torah, i. 13).

Last month, my seminary dedicated an entire day to elucidating the elephant in the beit midrash (house of study): Are women actually allowed to learn G’marah/Talmud? Even here, within one of the leading institutions of women’s Torah study on the planet, we still question if learning the very material to which we dedicate well over four hours a day is halachikally (according to Jewish law)permissible.

Coming from an American Modern Orthodox day school, females parsing G’marah never fell afoul of credos.Opponents seemed to be remote extremists; controversy, an isolated phenomenon.  Nevertheless, I soon realized that the vast majority of my Israeli peers had never opened a Talmud before entering the terror-targeted gates of Migdal Oz. In Israeli state religious schools, boys begin studying Talmud by the fifth grade, while girls must settle for subordinate Mishnah studies. Turns out, institutionalized G’marah curricula for Jewish women in most parts of the world remains as recherché as a diamond filigreed crocodile Birkin Bag.

“I want a wife, not a chavruta (learning partner),” is a resounding shibboleth rolling off many sabra lips to be flung at my Israeli friends.“Many religious Jewish men refuse to date a girl from Migdal Oz, or any girl who studies Talmud.It is intimidatingly unfeminine,” confessed Eilanit, my G’marah chavruta from Givat Shmuel, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Ironically, in arguably the Middle East’s most progressive country, Eilanit unwillingly reduces her marriage prospects when expanding her knowledge.Is this a tremendous sacrifice for learning some books, or a de minimis price for joining the cross-generational philosophical,ontological and judicial conversation on everything from oxen violence and demeaning omens to bedroom tips and divine providence?

Each page of Talmud plumbs the depths of deliberations in an uncompromising search for truth of behavior and thought. No matter how mundane, we can carry out, or refrain from an action to elevate the self.The Talmud therefore represents much more than a mere compilation of ancient wisdom and weltanschauungs.These pages carry the power to transform one’s life from the common to the cosmic, connecting its student to the past while simultaneously sculpting her future.

Like Chanel’s sylvan German Romantic Spring 2013 presentation at the Grand Palais, the world of the Talmudic Sages (Chazal) seems remote and exclusive.Nonetheless, it brands every decision an observant Jew makes, from the way she ties the knot, down to the way she ties her shoes.Talmudic interpretations of the Bible lay the foundation for Judaism by underpinning halacha, thus establishing the foundation of our entire religious corporality.Can I possibly comprehend myself as an observant Jew, if authorities bar me from even a tenuous peek into that world?Only via Talmud can I step into the past and endeavor to enter Chazal’s mindset—inching towards a fuller understanding of life as a halachic woman.

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Chanel Spring 2013 through my eyes

chanel 2013

Yet these intellectual fetters are nothing new.Men have been and continue to systematically deny girls in the developing world access to even a basic education.Young women from the United Nations Foundation’s focus countries of Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Liberia, are hit particularly hard by this reality and as a Senior Advisor for Girl Up, a campaign of the UNF, I have been working to empower my sisters in those target countries by raising awareness and funds for their cause.Nevertheless, I am still startled to find such chauvinism alive and well in my very own community.In a settlement 9537.5 kilometers from home, it suddenly struck me that I had more in common with Tigist of Ethiopia than I expected.She might live in the slums of Merkato while I live in a West Bank Kibbutz, nonetheless, we are both surrounded by authorities endangering our basic right to knowledge.

We all know the now-axiomatic justifications for educating women. I have consistently based my campaigns to promote gender-equality in learning on a few mantras, now forever ingrained in my mind by veterans of the global girl-power community of advocates:

1. Investing in girls is smart economics, their rescue giving the most bang for the international development buck.Consider the virtuous potential upward spiral: An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by up to 20 percent.  An extra year of secondary school adds as much as 25 percent. Girls who stay in school for seven or more years typically marry four years later, having two fewer children than their counterparts who “drop out.” Fewer dependents per worker allows for greater economic growth (Policy Research Working Paper Series 5753, The World Bank).  Additionally, the World Food Program found that when girls and women earn income, they reinvest an astounding 90 percent of those earning back into their families. For men, that figure contrastingly remains less than 40 percent.

2. Educated females give birth to a healthy population. Basic education helps girls understand essential health, nutrition, and family planning, entrusting them with new choices and the power to make informed decisions about their bodies.  Direct outcomes include better reproductive and family health, resulting in economic growth for her family and her society, as well as lower rates of child mortality and malnutrition.  Most notably, this basic education helps fight the burgeoning of HIV and AIDS.

Despite the numerous earnest arguments that educated girls have fewer children, raise healthier ones, earn more money, spend it more wisely, and empower countries, the most fundamental justification to educate a girl continues to be skirted.She should be educated for the same reason a Jewish woman should be allowed to delve into Talmud: simply because we women are equal to men.

On discussing female education within the developing world, Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey famously said, “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” With no disrespect to the Ghanian scholar, let us look at this more fundamentally.When you educate a girl—you educate a girl.This is how we should regard the fact.Although a compelling justification and a compelling rationale, we should not view the role education plays in the life of women merely in the context of national benefits, as this has turned into a mainstream buy-in based on hackneyed gender norms.Why must I tie my empowerment to how useful my womb is to my country?According to the logic of those common arguments we should then ask if the country fails, is the female population to blame? Thus, girls should be educated for prima facie, we too are human beings.

Philosophical innuendos should be superfluous when propounding the education of womankind. Will society only educate a woman because of raison d’état?  Or must we educate womankind for the same reason we educate mankind?When engaging in obfuscation oversimplifications, and understatements, society imperils equality—the very cause for which we are fighting.

Women should be encouraged to reach their highest potential, not simply for their nation or religion, but more fundamentally, for their own sakes.Without a formal education women have spontaneously lit paths to development.After all, Gabrielle Bonheur Chane ldid so without a degree. Many women are developing their respective nations both with and without formal educations. Therefore, learning is learning for its own sake (lishma); the nation is the nation for its own sake, and women are women, for our own sakes.

Ultimately, if society educates a man or a woman, it educates an individual. As all individuals are important, why should we force anyone to watch the show by peeking through the tent?  There are no Anna Wintours or Grace Coddingtons when it comes to knowledge—everyone deserves to sit front row.

Would it kill them to smile?

While women in the western world began receiving a greater general education, a number of Jewish schools for girls developed, particularly in 19th-century German communities.Leaders were convinced that the knowledge necessary for a women to maintain religious commitment was greater than ever before.In earlier years, women’s Torah education offered a basic curriculum stressing practical halachic knowledge and other morally edifying studies.This alone was a concession to the changing times.

Fearing that women would leave the religious fold, the Chafetz Chaim rendered his now infamous ruling that women should only learn Scripture and ethics. Fortunately, men slightly mitigated this intense ban on learning, if only for selfish reasons. Fathers did not want half the population, the part raising their children, to go off the derech (lit. ”off the path”) and drag the rest of the family unit with them.

Given that a woman is human just like man,shouldn’t she be granted full access to all Judaic learning? Since a man can learn for simply for himself, shouldn’t a woman too be able to learn not just for others, but for herself? Additionally, does she not deserve to be included because of her fecund contributions to Torah scholarship? In fact, a woman’s distinct sensitivities are shedding new lights on the text, revealing hitherto hidden spiritual valences still awaiting full discovery.

Thankfully, in a growing number of coteries today, the archaic restrictions on the scope of women’s Torah learning have begun to melt. Recent years have seen the inclusion of Talmud and other subjects that men had previously considered exclusively their turf. Women are rightfully beginning to have the opportunity to study Torah on a high level, not only in practical preparation for a family life or a career in teaching, but as Torah lishma, learning for its own sake, which many believe to be the highest form of Torah study.Likewise, women in the developing world should also be able to engage in learning lishma.

Years of cogitation on this issue recently culminated in a surprisingly personal event.  Growing up, whenever I helped my grandmother or blushed an exceptional flush of color, she would put down her wooden knitting needles, pull me in for a kiss and tell me I was just like my aunt “Shahlah,”the only one of my mother’s siblings who remained in Tehran after the revolution.To mini-me, Shalah  was a mythical figure belonging to the bible:a cross between the Persian queen Esther, who saved her entire people, and Rachel, who sacrificed personal happiness with her true love for her sister’s dignity.Ironically, I finally had the opportunity to meet my famed Iranian auntie and her two daughters when a wedding here in Israel brought them over (via Turkey, of course).

Unfortunately, it was not exactly the meeting I had pictured as child. Beyond genes, we didn’t share much.Now in their twenties, neither of my cousins has stepped foot on a college campus. Instead, each attends a simple art class twice a week: one learns embroidery, the other, drawing.I uncomfortably searched for topics of conversation, but beyond how the family is doing, we didn’t have much to schmooze about.When I mentioned how some friends in seminary omit a certain passage in prayer, I discovered my family did not even know the basic fact that most Jews are either Ashkenazi (German / Eastern European) or Sfardi (Spanish / Middle Eastern),resulting in distinct customs.The generational fall-out, and opportunity costs of female educational barriers were both staring me teasingly in the eye, whispering calls  of action in my benighted ears.

At least their situation is an improvement. For fear of being forcibly married off to local radical ruling Muslims and economic realities, our grandmother was removed from school by age eleven, married at 14, and became a mother herself by 16. Needless to say, I am eternally grateful my mother was able to break free of her Middle Eastern shackles to build a better life for herself and future family in the United States.  My families past pushes me to embolden my similarly fortunate colleagues, classmates, and chavrutas to join in our duty to use our own education in order to help our global sisters likewise get their over-worked hands on their intellectual birthrights.

But why just take my word for it?  Who is to say we are even equal?  To get to the bottom of this conundrum, I turned to our source: Creation.Surprisingly enough, The Book of Genesis enumerates two distinct, but nevertheless complementary, accounts of humankind’s origin.

“And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:27).”

“And the Lord G-d built the side that He had taken from man into a woman, and He brought her to man. And man said, ‘This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man)’.  Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:22-24).”

Now I know this must be flabbergasting, but luckily ancient Rabbinic literature, known as Midrash Aggadah, with the help of Chagall, paint a picture resolving the duplicitous narrative. Together these accounts illustrate the complete rise of humanity.Rabbinic commentary explains that man was originally created with two faces, then afterwards G-d divided him. Fortunately, the second variation explains explicitly how this nearly incomprehensible division played out:  woman emerged from man’s rib — not from his head, his hands, or his feet, but from his side.  Now how’s that for equality?

Enough from me, what is the ancient text telling you about how women should be viewed today? Email/comment/tweet/ (enter social media here) away…

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