When I was a girl, on Friday nights, I would compete with my sisters for the privilege of fetching my father’s slippers when he returned home from prayers. My siblings and I would beg for the seat to my father’s left or right at the Sabbath meal. I was often chosen for this honor. My father and I had a special bond. But as I entered a rebellious adolescence, our relationship disintegrated and he soon stopped speaking to me.
In my 20s, in one of our sporadic doomed attempts to repair our relationship, my father and I met up in Manhattan. We walked up Broadway together, a young atheist in modest disguise and an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Suddenly, a woman approached my father and, flinging up her hand, knocked his velvet hat from his head, surprising him and putting him so off-balance he collapsed to the ground. Seeing my estranged father go down on the pavement had all the horror of watching a Torah scroll fall.
I’ve spent the last year reengaging with broader Jewish culture from my current perspective as a secular woman. As part of that effort, I recently read “Kaddish” by Leon Wieseltier, one of American Jewry’s most famous sons. This book, written to honor Wieseltier’s father on his passing, explores ancient Jewish scholarship on the mourner’s prayer. It is a volume of men’s teachings and men’s ideas and men’s laws.
“Kaddish,” a bold book by a prominent secular Jew dismayed me. It fortifies the same Judaism that had excluded me as an ultra-Orthodox girl. It perpetuates a very narrow incarnation of our faith: a Judaism that reveres men and renders women invisible. A Judaism based solely on cycloptically male-focused books. There was nowhere for me, an activist seeking the empowerment of women within Judaism, in “Kaddish.” Nowhere for any woman who pushes back on the silencing of female authority in the Jewish world. Nowhere for any woman at all.
We have for too long colluded in our acceptance of the illogical idea that Jewish authenticity is solely determined by an elaborate system of ancient verse and text. That cannot be the only way to determine Jewish truth. If our understanding of what it means to be Jews is to belong to a family and faith that has passed a tradition down over the centuries, the core of that faith, its stamp of authenticity, cannot reside only in Torah study, a practice that 50%of its members were banned from participating in for the vast majority of our history. Rather, it must also be found in the experiences of Jewish women.
Many progressive Jews take great pride in the intellectualism of their faith. But only half of us are the people of the book — the other half is illiterate. To continue to define the scope of Judaic authenticity and history by an exclusively male legacy makes modern liberal scholars as responsible for the continuation of the silencing of women as the ancient misogynistic rabbis.