What Jewish Women Can Learn from Hillary Clinton
As a woman, a journalist, and a living and breathing human being, it has been impossible to avoid the topic of gender in recent months. Hillary Clinton, now the official Democratic presidential nominee, has reached historic milestones and faced the banal, routine criticism that ambitious women everywhere know quite well. Ambition requires choices: choosing, as a woman, to enter a man’s world of business or politics or movie production or religion. We know this. Hillary Clinton knows this, and by accepting the pain that will come with her position as a prominent female politician, she has chosen to make things a little easier for the rest of us who also have aspirations.
I suspect everyone knows, though many will not admit, that Clinton is held to a higher standard than other people. (Meanwhile, Trump does not seem to be held to any standard, because the bar is lowered each time he makes a racist/misogynistic/self-serving comment. I digress.) And, certainly, all women know that they must meet expectations that men do not face—or at the very least, they must prove themselves and emphasize their success and make clear: I deserve to be here.
Judaism, even the egalitarian Judaism I love and practice, requires women to not just find where they belong in the vastness of religion but to continuously assert their position. Because even though “egalitarian” implies equal—I so love the music and the spirituality and the ability to sit next to my boyfriend or my brother—mitzvot still apply only to men and not to women. 11 years at Camp Ramah, four years in USY, and Yale Hillel have helped me find my place as a woman, but it’s a perpetual search.
In hindsight, there are so many harmful notions of what is and is not acceptable for Jewish girls, even in the egalitarian world I inhabited. It was okay to pray, and even lead, shacharit, but some underlying consensus was reached that it is not okay to wear a tallit or tefillin, because only the “weird” girls do that. Because to middle schoolers, girls who know what they want and who are comfortable pursuing those desires are a threat, or at the very least, are strange and incomprehensible at a time when most of us are simply hoping to emerge from puberty intact. At Jewish summer camp, the independent and, thus, off-putting group consisted of the girls who chose to fulfill the mitzvah of donning a tallit and tefillin. The really risky ones added to the prayers the names of the matriarchs—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—aside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I sometimes wore a tallit on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, if my dad made me. I wrapped tefillin once: at my bat mitzvah training at my synagogue.
Even now, as a confident college student, a proud feminist, and a Hillel president, I feel a tinge of discomfort when I am faced with the choice of leading a prayer or giving a d’var Torah or wearing a Tallit. It isn’t because I think women shouldn’t partake in those mitzvot—indeed, I respect and even envy the women who do—but, rather, it is unsettling to me that I still battle internal perceptions of what a woman should and shouldn’t be.
Of course, Hillary Clinton has never had to make the decision about whether or not to adopt Jewish rituals, but that is only because she is not Jewish. After attending the Democratic National Convention and being reminded of how much hatred she has faced for trying to make a difference in this world, I am certain that were Clinton a Jew, she would have both worn the prayer garb and faced bitter criticism for doing so.
The biggest obstacles I’ve faced as a young Jewish woman are almost inconsequential compared to Clinton’s lifetime of staged scandals, cruel nicknames, and unwarranted controversy. For women, Judaism is a choice. I do not have to wear a kippah when I enter a synagogue, nor am I obliged to wear a tallit on Shabbat. I can choose to include women in my recitation of certain prayers, but I must do so under my breath, so it doesn’t disrupt the service. I have often chosen not to take these steps, to instead continue with the easy and expected religious observance. And yet: This is not fully equal.
I do not want to be misunderstood, because I cherish my Jewish upbringing. But on Tuesday night, when Hillary Clinton became the official Democratic nominee, I understood that nothing is certain. For so much of the primary election campaign I held my breath, and at that moment I could finally release. I needed to be absolutely sure that Democrats had chosen, definitively, to lift up a woman to be their nominee.
When I see other Jewish women choose to wear a tallit, or lead Kiddush on Shabbat, or get involved in organizing or social justice work, they are making a choice. Until now, I thought it would be fine if I did not choose. And yet: I did choose. I chose not to act. Hillary Clinton has always chose action.
I will choose action. And I will picture Hillary Clinton, wrapped in a tallit, as my inspiration.