Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I won't join your denomination or synagogue

Every so often - and more often than I would like - someone tells me to leave the orthodox community and join their synagogue/denomination and all my problems with patriarchy and religious misogyny will be solved. Despite asking people to please don’t tell me to belong somewhere else, it keeps coming up. so here I will try to articulate why telling me to join to another community is not an answer. not at all. Warning: this will get personal. very very personal. 

It will get personal because this is partly about intellectual decisions, but the hurt and pain is because there are a lot of emotions flying around this issue. and in order to express my opinion on this I am going to have to be emotional, and talk about my personal experiences. My very very personal experiences. Not yours, although some may resonate with you, but mine.

(a quick word about the gender inequality that is very obvious in orthodox circles. it is particularly bad there and is part of my sense of alienation and unease about being part of a community. But I also look around the world and see misogyny and gender inequality everywhere. In the visual art world, in the cinema, in advertising... and I see it in other denominations of Judaism) 

In Anglo-Jewry the mainstream Jewish communities are organised around synagogues and communal prayer services. Synagogues of different denominations and communal prayer of varying types. Be it Orthodox, Masorti, Reform, Liberal - the synagogue is a place for prayer. There is a lot of talk about the traditional name for a synagogue is Beit Knesset - House of Assembly, not a Beit Tefilah - House of Prayer. And there are other activities - social, educational. But the main headline activity is the praying bit. And it is the differences in how to do communal prayer that practically, if not ideologically, distinguish between the denominations. 

I don’t like communal prayer. 

I have tried to like it. To find it meaningful & spiritual, and I don’t. I am impressed with anyone who does like it. and i wish I did. it would make it so much easier. I would just go to a synagogue that would include me in the communal prayer.... but I tried that. and I didn’t like it. perhaps it is because I can’t sing, and feel self-conscious in a group of people singing beautifully. I can’t add my voice to group as it would be a mangled note of discord to otherwise harmonious and uplifting atmosphere. When I lived in Israel I went to an egalitarian minyan. it was lovely. women were counted and respected. women led the prayers. But I hated it and realised my discomfort in communal prayer was not to do with lack of equality... God may dwell in the multitude, but God is also found in the still small voice. The times when I have found the strange act of praying to be meaningful and transformative, were all in private. Just me. my thoughts and the siddur. the prayer book....

the siddur... that has not been something which I have been able to open. when I lost my baby it was silent as to the appropriate words to say. this book that tells me what to say when I see blossom for the first time. hear thunder. when I wake up. before I eat. and what to say before I die. all scripted and prescribed. all experiences of life . except for this one. which is the only one that I needed someone else to give me words to say as I had nothing. so I looked in the siddur and it gave me nothing. but not only did it give me nothing on this situation, every word was now alien and suspect. The prayers are not written from the experience of a woman’s body. Translations may try to be gender-neutral but the hebrew isn’t. Avenu Malkanu... Our Father, Our King.... The God in words is male. But private prayer is modeled by Hanna, who whispered unspoken words that cannot be heard. Take this siddur away from me. it has too many words in it and all of them are wrong and they stick in my throat. I have tried many times to pick up the siddur and I cannot find a reflection or articulation of the mess of my internal emotions. I have looked at various siddurim at all different types of communal prayer experiences. It is an act of great self-restraint that I am not known in different denominations as the crazy lady who throws sacred prayerbooks on the floor. Why would I join another community, another denomination only to be faced with the same prayerbook or variant of the same?

Hanna prayed silently, wordlessly out of great emotion and longing. A longing that I sadly have experienced. Jewish communities are very family-focused. Being a married woman of a certain age people would begin conversations with me with “how many children do you have?” - they were trying to be friendly... Communities are great if your life-experiences are in step with the acceptable stages that are marked and deemed important. If for any reason you fail to hit those targets then you find yourself in the margins. A community may try very hard to be inclusive but I definitely felt an unease about being in a place where I was seen as lacking. When I did eventually have a child the community was great. sort of. We found ourselves on the rota for meals, receiving food from strangers who had never spoken to us in the years we had been going to the same synagogue. We had achieved what was expected of us and were only now really being welcomed. They saw and welcomed a mother, not me, and the welcome was hollow. Now I was socially acceptable I never felt more distrustful of how groups treats those who don’t fit. 

I don’t think the synagogue and community are supreme values. They are reactions to the trauma of exile and destruction. The Temple was gone and new unifying systems were needed. Torah and identity was in danger of being lost.  So the group needed to be important and the maverick individual with dissenting opinions is ostracised. Run, don’t walk, to pray in a synagogue! God dwells in the multitude! Do not separate yourself from the community!  Follow the majority! Rabbinic Judaism is a political act of keeping the people together and it uses halachic rhetoric to as a method of control.

So this is why I don’t join another denomination. I don’t want to change orthodoxy from within. I want to get rid of all of them. Or at least break the spell of The Synagogue and find alternatives. If you find communal prayer meaningful and spiritual, then great. Good for you. What consenting adults want to get up to together is fine. Just lose the smugness and superiority that what works for you should work for all. And all the denominations are guilty of seeing themselves as superior. A plague on all your houses for that attitude. 

There are times when we do need other people to help us, and we need to be there for others. I believe in friendships and creating connections. With all sorts of people, not just those who are the same age, the same life-stage, same interests, same opinions, same political affiliations, same sexual orientation, or have chosen to be in the same ethnic grouping. It is convenient to attach oneself to others who are similar to us, but our lives are poorer for it. 

I do not live alone. I have a husband - who has the title of Rabbi, from an orthodox institution. He also has a doctorate in theoretical physics. He worked hard for both of his titles, neither of which has anything to do with me. And we do have children. As a family we are members of a synagogue that I don’t go to. Or go to as little as possible. He finds communal prayer meaningful and spiritual. (We don’t have the same taste in music or films either) Our daughters, at the moment, also like it. The synagogue being the child-centric place that it is has excellent children services run by professional educators. And it has become especially good for girls. We as a family benefit from this and so we pay membership. Although I do regularly push the conversation about leaving, and I would like to have the burial-only United Synagogue membership. (having seen a close friend face financial strain when his father died without being part of a burial scheme, I do urge everyone to be member somewhere for burial. It’s a horrible thing to burden your relatives by having to organise your funeral. And because we are members of United Synagogue, when I lost my baby they dealt with it all with much care and consideration. One phone-call and they organised everything.)

The school that we have chosen to send our daughters to is a modern orthodox school. I do not presume to know how they will lead a meaningful life as adults. I don’t want to create that for them. it’s their life’s work to do that for themselves. My task is to make sure they have the knowledge, literacy tools, social skills and confidence to be able to make informed decisions and walk their own path. And in this country, when we were applying for schools, the school that best fitted this was a modern orthodox one. Having experienced their educational programmes for parents to learn with their children, seen how they dealt with a potential bullying situation, and I know that they encourage my daughters’ enthusiasm for all types of knowledge and activities. I think we made the right choice. For us.

I realise I am very fortunate in that I could be a real insider if that is what I want. I have the luxury of being able to choose. I know the right jargon to fit in. I have connections to what may be seen to be the right people. But I don’t really fit into the traditional mode of belonging. My voice is one of discord within a otherwise harmonious choir. In my way, I do lead a very Jewish life. I don't need to go to public Torah readings to engage with Torah. I learn every day and go to a shuir twice a week. I have a rich and wide network of people to talk to and who challenge my thinking. I am still grappling with and exploring different modes of private prayer. My artwork reflects that my internal thoughts are in constant engagement with Torah - sometimes a conversation, often an argument. But I feel embarrassingly parochial and value my friends of other backgrounds and hope that they will always remind me to expand my horizons as how I see the world. 

The Orthodox attitude to halacha is not the only authentic way of interpreting The Law. I am very fortunate. About twenty years ago I studied at a women’s yeshiva in jerusalem (an orthodox and deeply religious institution) where I learnt how to read and directly engage with traditional texts. The rabbi who taught the halacha classes had a very refreshing approach. His attitude was that all Jews should write their own personalised code of Jewish Law. Halacha is essentially an oral tradition of case studies, and so only you know your own situation intimately and can weigh up what is relevant in the literature. But in order to do this, you have to know how to read the sources and make decisions. it’s not easy. it is takes time and commitment to study. It takes a lifetime. It is much simpler to ask a rabbi the question and follow the answer. But if any students approached my rabbi with halachic questions he would respond with a list of sources. He expected us to be familiar with the parameters of the case studies and to apply it to our own scenarios. Thanks to him, and my other teachers, I have a strong foundation in these texts and treat rabbis as teachers and guides but not as authorities. I do not seek permission from rabbis to live my life and make my decisions. Asea lecha rav - “make yourself into a rabbi” Halachic rhetoric can only be used as a method of control if there is widespread ignorance and rabbis demanding their title alone earns them respect, holding themselves apart and aloof from the non-rabbis. I have many teachers of different backgrounds, some of whom use the Rabbi title. Most do not. and none of them insist I call them Rabbi, which makes me respect them and want to call them Rebbe - my teacher. Halacha, the word for Jewish law, means ‘the way’ - we are all walking our own path, writing our own shulchan aruch and creating our own way to be. We can’t do all of it alone, some of the journey we need guidance, and fellow travelers. But it is our life, our path we are walking. Not anyone else’s. 

So this is a very lengthy explanation of why joining another denomination is not an answer to my dissatisfaction with orthodoxy. And why I don't see myself as part of the Orthodox community. Perhaps if I could sing in tune, hadn’t experience infertility, hadn’t lost a baby, had been born a boy. Had neatly fitted into the box of what I was expected to be, I would have been able to conform. But those who know me well know that conformity has never been in my nature. These, and more, are my personal experiences that have shaped me. I hope to continue living, and expect as life chucks other stuff my way I will develop my thinking. As I said. I am walking my own path, but I am not there yet. You are welcome to join me for part of the journey but don’t tell me where I ought to be and I am no pied piper for anyone else. Don’t expect me to tell you where you should be going. Or else I really will tell you where to go...

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

cue eye-roll & "here she goes again"


It has happened again. My local synagogue, a place where I am on paper a member but feel alienated from and increasingly unwelcome, has put together not one but two pre-pesach adult education programmes without any women educators.

I know how this plays out. I raise an objection, get called out for being a nasty girl and for not raising my objections in an appropriately respectful tone... dirty laundry in public... I make the arguments about the need to include women as scholars and educators and not to silence the female voice in public space. So it is precisely in public where the conversation needs to happen... They tell me they invited one woman and she said no, so they tried and I should be more respectful and appreciative of all their hard work... Other people tell me that they agree with me and they are also appalled. Just not outraged enough to speak out... or  they are beyond caring and expecting the synagogue to deliver anything decent.... 

I realise I am a bore about this feminist stuff. I get much eye-rolling and “here she goes again” when I speak out about this. So this time I going to try to behave differently. Not because I have less anger, but because as much fun as it is to receive hate mail and long lectures on how I ought to be nice and polite.... expressing outrage once the programme is publicised is ineffective. Nothing changes. Everyone gets defensive and stupid.

I don't believe that changes haven't happened because women haven't been nice or respectful or private enough. This isn't about asking for permission. This is about not perpetuating the status quo, everyone who cares needs to stop going along with the all-male bias. 

It is too late for this particular all-male line up. but it isn’t too late to make a tikkun, a repair. Let’s focus on Shavuot. The festival of receiving the Torah, so that it is a reflection that all the people, not just the men, received the Torah. Here is my proposal. (and this goes for all places planning Shavuot programming, not just that one synagogue)

(btw - this is not about Partnership Minyanim, women wearing teffilin, or other important issues that need to addressed about women's engagement in public prayer rituals. This is about education and having women's voices as teachers - this shouldn't be contentious and yet it still is. We can't have an honest, respectful conversation about women's spirituality if the community doesn't listen or respect women's Torah.)

To female educators: if you are invited to teach say yes. Or say: Let me think about it. And then say yes. If you do need to say no, because of family commitments, because you don’t like teaching late at night, because of any reason really. That’s fine. It’s your prerogative to say no. No one individual woman should feel that she ought to something 'for the cause.' If you do need to say no, then recommend a couple of female colleagues and offer to make the introductions. Just please don’t say no because you don’t think you have anything to say, and question why they are inviting you. It is their decision if you are good enough, not yours. They are inviting you because they think you have something to say. So say yes.

To male educators: if you are invited to teach before you say yes, have the conversation about the context within which you will be presenting. Say “I just want to get a feel for the overall programme - who else is teaching/are you approaching?” If they don’t list any women’s names or a bit vague, get specific, and assert “I would prefer to be part of an education programme that respects and includes women.” And have that conversation with the programmer, yes it might be awkward, and they might not listen to you. But they respect you enough to invite you, so at least during that conversation you have an opportunity to influence and educate. Recommend female colleagues and offer to make the introductions. And look through your own research and reading. When you bring other opinions and scholarship into your teaching, how much do you learn from women scholars and writers? There is so much good writing and scholarship from women that is out there, find it and bring women’s voices into your own teaching alongside male scholars. (and teaching about female characters is not the same thing as including women’s voices) Yes, you might have other issues with the educational standards and who is invited to teach in the community, not just gender. Have those conversations as well. But don't think that just because you are male that you cannot be a feminist. You are on the right side of gender inequality, and have the privileged position of choosing to make this something you care about or walk away from. Your female colleagues do not have that choice.

To programmers of adult education programmes: Widen your network of recommendations, ask around, not just the usual suspects. Be creative with the educational formats. Plan earlier than you normally do. Don’t ask busy people to teach only weeks before and be surprised when they turn you down. Do some research on the person you are inviting and suggest topics for them to present. and do say why you are inviting them specifically. (but don’t say, it’s because you are a woman. no one likes to be the token invite). Don’t settle for an all-male line up. If you really can't find any female educators, consider other ways to bring women into presenting - who introduces/chairs if your event goes into that sort of thing. Consider bringing someone as a facilitator to study together some Torah written by a woman scholar, so she may not be physically present in the room but her ideas are. And listen to why a female educator is saying no. Be aware that some communities are less receptive than others to women speaking publicly, and most female educators have had experience of abusive behaviour and having to justify their qualifications, and so they might be a little reluctant. Be encouraging and ask them to consider it. If it is for the night of Shavuot tikkun leil - offer babysitting (you probably should also offer babysitting to any male educators who have parenting commitments...) offer to find people to walk your presenter so they don’t have to walk alone at night. Ask them to recommend a colleague. When you publicise your programme, highlight all your educators and what is great about them, as they might not be so well-known. And do be aware that there are those annoying people out there who will scan through a list of names looking for a balance between men and women. Don't be surprised if they call you out on it and act affronted and offended when they do. You are in no position to be offended, accept the rebuke.

To everyone else: if you care about this, and believe that someone's scholarship and thinking should be respected not based on gender. and want to see more women educators teaching in depth to the whole community, and not just 10 minute presentations. Then speak up. Speak out. Be annoying. Or be nice and polite (that method just doesn't come naturally to me). But speak about this and make it an issue to those who plan the programme. Don't just shrug and throw hands up in the air. If you look to your daughters, and sons, and hope that the community can change in time for them, make the changes for yourself now. 
I am trying to be constructive. Put together a decent adult eduction programme, and I will be happy to promote it... but make no mistake. I am furious that in 2014 this still needs to be said. I know it isn’t just in the orthodox jewish world that this happens. And other areas of society are developing strategies to break the all-male hegemony. Carry on with the all-male programme, and I will be happy to submit your efforts on this website

lets make this shavuot a celebration of all the Torah and knowledge that is out there in all parts of the community. there is time to avoid the eye-rolling.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

saying kaddish...

tonight I said kaddish for the first time. perhaps it was something I should have said 3 years ago. but tonight I said it for a good reason. It was to mark the end of mesechet shekalim, a particular section of the Talmud, as part of the daf yomi cycle. I was the only person in the weekly gathering who had actually learnt every page, and so it fell on me to stumble through the words. 

A bit of background. Kaddish is mainly known as being the prayer that a mourner recites in the period of time immediately following the loss of a close family member. But I lost a baby, late miscarriage, and in that circumstance kaddish is not said. But the kaddish, which is basically a prayer that praises God, is also said as liturgical punctuation to highlight and emphasis particular prayers and occasions. By saying the kaddish at the conclusion of a section of study, it turns it from an intellectual act into something perhaps spiritual. Praising God. Not something I wanted to do 3 years ago, and not certain how I feel about it now....

I was not prepared or had expected to say the hadran (conclusion prayer after completing a section of Talmud) and kaddish tonight. But I think that had Michael, the rabbi who teaches this weekly round-up of daf yomi, if he had given me any prior notice I would have agonised and fretted, got anxious and probably would have resolved the internal conflict by just not turning up. And there were so many reasons for awkward stumbling. I am a woman who grew up in orthodox synagogues. Prayer is whispered. I am not used to raising my voice in prayer for others to hear, let alone lead. it’s odd and regrettable how conditioned I am... and the language is tricky and unfamiliar Aramaic... and the content is not something I am comfortable in reciting, with praise for God and blessings for my offspring, I didn’t want the words to leave my mouth and so they got stuck in my throat.

I am not at all upset with Michael for putting me in that position. (although I did feel that with every stumble and falter I was proving why women should not study Talmud, and exposing myself for the sham of a serious student that I am....) I am very touched that he asked me, brought in other students to make up the quorate of ten, didn’t ask if anyone minded if a woman said this prayer but just got on with it... exactly what you want in a rabbi really. He was following the script, in the situation when one completes a section of Talmud study one says this.... But a script, a set ritual, a way of publicly acknowledging something, that was sorely missing 3 years ago. And since then, while some may think I should be over it by now, I have been angrily kicking back. Amongst a whole context of hurt and pain. 

My taking on the daf yomi learning, studying a page of Talmud a day, is an attempt to chart some sort of path with my strong ambivalent relationship to traditional jewish texts, life, everything. I constantly question myself why am I doing this, why am I still doing any of this, and there are days I want to throw the damn book to the floor. I haven’t come to any conclusions as to why I am still doing it. not really. But there are days when the learning flows, ideas click together and then I hate myself for enjoying it.... it’s complicated.  Perhaps it is just the simple act of having something on the to-do list every day, regulating my time and anchoring me as I rage on. Each section that I have completed is worthy of acknowledging. And so I falter with the script, and turn my learning into a stumbling prayer of bitterly swallowed words. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Let's be honest...

this article is by Dr Harris Bor. He does not have a blog, or is on facebook, and so I am hosting his response to Rabbi Alan Kimche's recent missive about Limmud. This is not by me, but make no mistake, I wish I had written it. I agree with every damn word. 

LET’S BE HONEST ABOUT THE ORTHODOX JUDAISM BEING ESPOUSED IN A RECENT ARTICLE (I have tried to keep faithful where possible to the wording and style of the original article. It is recommended that this article be read together with the original.)

Dr. Harris Bor

By all accounts this Orthodox Judaism offers an amazing experience. It survives by perpetuating the myth that Judaism has remained constant for over 4000 years and is warm, friendly, interesting and engaging -it's clearly all this and more. But there's one thing it most definitely is not. It's certainly not a Judaism which would be recognised by Jews of the distant past. This Orthodox Judaism is not anything like the Judaism of the ancients, and so would certainly not be recognised by Ezra or Hillel, by Rashi or the Rambam, or indeed by the grandparents of most of Orthodoxy’s adherents. History applies to Judaism as it does to everything else. Let's be honest. 
In this Orthodox world you will hear a Rabbi from Hendon or Golders Green speaking about how wonderful it is for a wife to stay at home, while her husband learns all day, even though he has no aptitude, ability, or desire to learn or teach, explaining that there is no truth but the truth of Torah, which accords only to his interpretation; or from a fellow from a certain yeshiva castigating any approach to Jewish learning which takes account of historical realities or empirical research, calling this dangerous, subversive and insisting that it must be shunned, and who suggests that the only answers that you are entitled to are those which this Orthodoxy sanctions, as any other insight will inevitably lead to sin. --it soon becomes crystal clear that the Orthodoxy being espoused is essentially built on fear and the desire to keep the masses in ignorance.
As for the social aspect of this Orthodox programme, it is effectively one of isolationism, where all who subscribe to the same doctrinal narrowness come together to reinforce the correctness of their own outlook and the error of anyone else’s. Despite the purported message of ahavat yisrael (love of Israel) and kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (all Israel are responsible one for another), the real programme amazingly has at its heart the belief that Orthodoxy is the she’erit yisreal (remnant of Israel), and all those who find Orthodoxy troubling or inadequate to tackle the questions of the day are apikorsim. It takes only a little thought to realise that the true motivation is control, the invention of structures and beliefs, to ensure that without the sanction of the rabbinate nothing goes. 
In this Orthodoxy you will often be told that there are only immutable Truths no personal narratives, yet it soon becomes apparent that no one can agree exactly what those truths are or justify their immutability. The Exodus from Egypt that we love to recount on Seder Night must be taken literally, heterosexual marriage is just perfect, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have no poetic or mythical value whatsoever other than that which the traditional commentators ascribe to them. Those who espouse this type of Orthodoxy are often neither articulate nor lucid, which explains why many of the things they say have little appeal to those looking for authenticity or truth.

Let's be honest. This has always been the agenda of this particular type of Orthodoxy, created in reaction to Haskalah and Reform Judaism, it has no genuine creative source of its own. Its’ task is to oppose by force, not win by persuasion. Since its creation in the 18th/19th centuries it has encouraged generations of Jews to adhere to a belief in Torah-Min-Hashamayim, but has failed to explain what it means by “Torah”, “Min” or “Shamayim” in this context. It has held to the mantra that a Jew with Rabbinic Halacha, with mitzvot, with Talmud, with Shabbat, with tefillin, with the mikva, and with Emunah, has everything to withstand the inducements of assimilation and still transmit his or her faith to the next generation. History is yet to judge. The mantra of course also ignores the possibility that assimilation is not the main problem, but the type and quality of the Judaism that survives.

But I have heard it asked, why are these particular Orthodox rabbis not going to Limmud, surely we live in a world of choice, in a supermarket of ideas? Indeed, and these particular Orthodox rabbis cannot compete.   

Let’s be clear. These Orthodox rabbis believe passionately in the Divine Origins of the Torah, the commitment to Rabbinic Halacha, the sanctity of marriage and family life and the divinely ordained connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. However, they cannot recognise that these principles have developed and changed, taken on different hews and can even now be shaped further while preserving orthodox practice. These Orthodox rabbis believe they alone are the exclusive guarantors of Netzach Yisrael, the indestructible sanctity of the Jewish People. When they promote a systematic denial of all beliefs other than those which they espouse, they undermine their own credibility and simply make lots of people think they are ridiculous. This type of Orthodoxy celebrates a rejection of much that is precious to thinking human beings. For this reason, there is also a subversion of Judaic principles in this approach.

It is agreed that it is absurd to claim that arrogance or fundamentalism drives certain Orthodox leaders to denounce Limmud. This is not the case. Instead, it is their fear, need to retain control, and inability to rise to the challenge. The suggestion that their refusal to participate involves “clarity of vision” and that their “objective is only to defend everything that is precious and vital to Jewish continuity and authenticity” is pure hubris and convinces no one. “Leadership” is also not a real factor. To be a leader, you need followers, and relatively few actually agree with these so called leaders, not even many of their congregants who often humour them and do their own thing. It would be enlightening for someone to take an anonymous poll of those communities over whom these Orthodox leaders claim to have sway. Why do they think so many Orthodox people go to Limmud? They clearly do not respect their Rabbis half as much as their Rabbis might like to think. Let’s be honest.

And it’s not only traditional religious principles that are being abandoned by these Orthodox leaders, they also wrongly assume that to be Orthodox is to support Israel on any issue and no matter what it does. It is asked, what about the passion that Anglo Jewry has had over the years to support Israel? The answer is that passion remains, but ,many have now matured beyond youth group propaganda and are able to take a more nuanced approach to these issues, as many Israeli’s have done. We can admit Israel’s mistakes as well as take pride in its miraculous existence, its acts of righteousness, its strengths, its creativity. We are no angels, and neither is our State. Many attendees at Limmud, are grateful to encounter messages that are different to the ones they might receive each week which tend to tow a certain line, in an environment where people’s underlying sympathy is generally supportive.

Only someone who has had no decent secular education would listen to a far-left pro-Palestinian speaker and suddenly direct all of his or her sympathies to the suffering Palestinians in Gaza and consider it a terrible a crime of human rights has been perpetrated by building the Wall. Only a fool would have his or her indignation ignited against the so called human rights violations of the checkpoint searches of the IDF, and alleged Zahal war crimes by going to one talk. But it is right to be challenged, to be confronted, by these alleged wrongs. If we really are the Am Segula (treasured people), a Mamlechet Kohanim (holy nation), a Goi Kadosh (Holy Nation), we have a duty to absorb criticism, to sift truth from fiction, and where we have acted wrongly to say salachti (forgive me) and to put things right. How else can we fulfil our divine mission? So screening a far-left film like ‘Poisoned’ about four young men enlisted into the IDF and how it impacts destructively on their lives, is important. 

It is said that no speakers at Limmud can be found to talk about the systematic incitement to jihadist hatred of Jews which is commonplace in Palestinian schools and universities. There is also a complaint that there are no speakers to talk about the “high-calibre” moral code of Zahal, the rapid economic growth rate of the Palestinian economy or Palestinians treated in Israeli hospitals, or the increasing number of East Jerusalem Palestinians in a 2011 survey who greatly prefer being citizens of Israel rather than a new Palestinian state, because Israeli Arabs have more civil rights than anywhere else in the Middle East. 

Let’s be honest. What this complaint really amounts to is that Limmud is not promoting a 100% pro-Israeli agenda. Why should it? Is it not also the case that the proper way to redress any perceived lack of balance is to become part of the “Limmud agenda” rather than distancing oneself from it? The argument works for attending, not rejecting, Limmud. 
The article asks is it a part of Jewish teachings to promote LGBTQ? (Why also does the article not state what that means- fear that these things may be catching?) The answer of course, to date, is no, but it’s not the promotion that is the issue but how Judaism deals with the modern readiness to be honest about ones sexual orientation, rather than to suppress it as in the past. This failure to adequately deal with this issue is particularly problematic for many Jews, regardless of their sexual persuasion. If Orthodoxy does not offer sensible answers and practical solutions to these real issues, another type of Judaism will. It really is that simple. Let's be honest.
It is stated that one particularly eye-catching form of non-authentic Judaism is the bogus mysticism of ‘’ teachings, and that the profound teachings of genuine Kabbala were designed to deepen our grasp of the mystical truths of the Torah and to enhance the practice of mitzvot by a rich symbolism and transcendent meditations. The assertion completely ignores the strong antinomian tendency inherent in all forms of mysticism, including Kabbala. It is simply wrong to pretend that Kabbala was designed for a single purpose, or to suggest that this is the only purpose for which it has been used within earlier Judaism. 

For sure, there is also much nonsense in the popularisation of mysticism, but it is astonishing that an article written by someone who should want to draw people towards faith, does not view the current interest in mysticism as a yearning for dvekeut coming from deep within the human soul, and to seek to capture the wave by directing that interest in a more traditional direction, rather than mock what is of course a straw man. 

It is also important to recognise that much of the so called authentic Kabbala taught in popular Orthodox classes on hasidut and even in some yeshivot is a million miles from what might be called “authentic Kabblala”. Is this nonsense better than that nonsense? Probably not. Let’s be honest.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Orthodoxy does not have a powerful attractive force, but what I am suggesting is that the type of Orthodoxy espoused in the article is massive turn off for many who might otherwise call themselves Orthodox. 

The patronising description of the sincerity of the Chief Rabbi and the other Orthodox leaders who attend Limmud is hard to take seriously, as is the comment that the attendance of Orthodox leaders “creates confusion in foundational matters that require certainty and clarity”. How exactly is that confusion caused? We are not told. Perhaps the idea is that the mere attendance at an event where someone espouses a different view will be taken by some half wit as an indication that the attendee accepts all of the myriad views being espoused? 

This is a common fear expressed by a certain type of orthodoxy. However, if this were a real concern, it would be dangerous for the opposition to attend Parliament unless people felt that they were about to agree with the Government, and no barrister could attend court for fear of being seen to agree with the other side. This type of fear emanates from a community which is unused to difference and genuine dialogue, because where there is dialogue, as in Limmud, it is understood as a matter of course that different people are likely to hold different views. No one would assume because someone attends a talk, he or she will agree with what is being said.

We then reach the “short personal anecdote”. I have a number of my own. I have met Orthodox Jews who consider that the whole of Tanach presents a perfectly consistent picture of Jewish History, deny that before the 18th century there were many Jews who were not orthodox, who think that modern science to a significant degree is fundamentally flawed and that the Rabbis of the Talmud still lead the way in this regard, and that there is no truth outside the Torah. We do not need to ask these Jews where they get these views.  They can only have been inculcated in them by a certain narrow Orthodoxy, which allows many questions to be asked, but only few answers to be given 

One of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Jewry for generations has been to push the boundaries of mainstream orthodoxy in a respectful fashion, without wholeheartedly embracing Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements. In doing so we have consistently and unswervingly succeeded to ensure that the core of Anglo Jewry is affiliated to Orthodox Judaism while creating an environment of sincere questioning which has led to a new generation of thinking and committed Jews who meet at events organised by Limmud, an achievement that other countries observe with envy. Even a brief look at the line-up of presenters and titles at Limmud shows this to be the case. Limmud opens vistas, while respecting boundaries that have been so jealously protected in the UK for centuries.

So why indeed are several orthodox speakers so opposed to other Orthodox speakers teaching there? We have already said: fear, control, and having nothing themselves to say. 

So what is it exactly that I am advocating? To shut down Orthodoxy? Absolutely not. I believe firmly in it. However, openness must be at the spiritual vision.

Let's just give this conference its true name “Limmud”, which means simply learning. As for a certain segment of the Orthodox community, we need to recognise that it will no more attend such an event than it would join a Reform or Liberal or Masorti synagogue on a Shabbat morning. On the basis of current statistics, this type of religion is likely to survive, but will it be productive or attractive to many intelligent, spiritual Jews? Not in its current form. Let's call a spade a spade. Let's be honest.

Dr Harris Bor is currently a commercial barrister. Harris has a PhD in History from Cambridge University and an LLM from London University (QM&W). He has been a visiting scholar at UCL and a teaching fellow at Harvard University. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

dance rehearsal part 2

last friday I went back to the Rambert Dance Company to draw Barak Marshall’s rehearsal. I had such a great time when I was there on tuesday, the drawings weren’t great but cobwebs had been swept from my head, and I just enjoyed the act of just sitting and drawing. as I said in the last blogpost: it was glorious.

last friday. not so glorious.

the joy of being back drawing, rediscovering that pleasure and focus, had passed. and now it was time to concentrate and not waste this opportunity...  I arrived slightly late. not a good start. it doesn’t take much for the traffic on the north circular to slow down to a snail’s pace, and on friday it rained. sigh. “it’s raining. traffic’s an arse. sorry, running late” I texted Barak, conforming to the english stereotype of complaining about the weather as a way of smoothing social interaction....

When I arrived in the studio the dancers were working on the duets part of the piece. Duets. two dancers dancing together. two separate dancers and their bodies, but forming one fluid form of movement. it’s beautiful to watch. it’s a bugger to draw. especially if you are a little bit breathless from running in the rain. (NB: scanner is playing up so decided to photograph rather than scan the drawings. I quite like seeing the sketchbook as an object, but harder to get the white levels right)

I am not a dancer. I do not know the right terms or jargon. apparently last tuesday in the studio they were "cleaning" so Barak wasn’t sure if it would be good to come. I learnt that “cleaning” in dance rehearsals has nothing to do with sponges, buckets, or sweeping away cobwebs, but going over small sequences of dance to refine the particular movements. Perfect for drawing. Friday, on the other hand, they were going to do a run through of the whole piece, without pause. Beautiful to watch, a privilege to see a work-in-progress. Not so easy to draw. The drawings got looser and more scrambled.

 I realise that I drew more dancers resting than at the previous rehearsal. I needed their stillness as a contrast to the movement. 

Part of the piece involves balloons. So balloons needed to be inflated. Obviously person inflating balloons needs to be drawn. 

Huge thank you once again to Barak Marshall and the Rambert Dance Company for allowing me into their rehearsal space and letting me draw. I have had the music stuck in my head in a constant loop. it made for very interesting Yom Kippur background melodies. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

drawing again

recently I have been learning about spreadsheets and databases, marketing copy and risk assessment forms.... I have just started working at JW3, co-ordinating bits of the art studio, putting together events and altogether having a wonderful creative time with some great people. And learning spreadsheets and various bits of software. Bless the elves who designed artifax, that should make work easier and simpler. but bless the patient elf who had to train me to use it. I really shouldn’t, when faced with technology, think I should come up with scenarios that it isn’t designed for, and get gleeful satisfaction when the patient elf says “hmm that’s a good point... I’ll get back to you” (I also am this annoying in Talmud classes)... because I am after all, an artist. And artists, as I hear on a regular basis, are different. in not a good way. 

but today I remembered I was an artist in good way. today I did a series of drawings in a dance studio and it was glorious. My drawings weren’t but the experience of drawing was. Thanks to my friend, Barak Marshall, a guest choreographer at the Rambert Dance Company, I was lucky enough to see the work in progress, sit quietly in the corner and just draw. Barak and I met at an artist retreat, appropriately called Asylum. It was an artist retreat but it was really a gathering of all those who find themselves being cast as different, in not a good way, when they are in any other setting. 

So there I was, in a room full of dancers who could do amazing things with their bodies, while my body was getting used to sitting on the hard floor, getting a numb bum, pins and needles in my legs, and getting ink all over my fingers while struggling trying to capture the fleeting gestures and idosyncratic movements, making mistakes, making a mess, just making... as I said, having a glorious time. 

here are some of the drawings from today. A HUGE thank you to Barak and the people at Rambert Dance Company for allowing me into the private working space of the rehearsal studio. When I draw dancers, and it has been a while so I am a bit rusty, I tend to focus in on one dancer at a time, study their movements and gestures, get into their flow, and tend to blank out the others. After much practice at drawing and seeing I can widen the focus and start to map out the total space and the dance within. but not today. They were rehearsing a new piece for a  performance at Sadlers Wells in October. and from what I can make out from the individual moments the whole will be something worth seeing, without any blanking out. 

warming up with a couple of pencil drawings... I used to draw a bunch of musicians, and one of them always ALWAYS would say: do you have enough lead in your pencil... and then laugh heartily at his own wit. idiot.

...but today I didn't have enough lead in my pencil. I'm the idiot. had to use the fountain pen.

Barak asked me which dancer this was. "it's the one wearing black" I replied....

they were all wearing something black, in some fabulous T-shirty drapy fabric that only dancers can make look casual and elegant.

the water-brush pen makes an appearance.. (btw they did offer me a chair but I juggle so many different pens and pencils and stuff that if I am not sitting on the floor I am forever picking up stuff I have dropped on the floor)

Thursday, 18 October 2012

there is a time for silence, and a time to speak out

it is not a good time to be a jewish woman.

it should be. but it isn’t.

in israel, Anat Hoffman and others are intimidated and arrested at the Kotel. they were singing, saying the shema, and wearing tallitot. Disturbing the peace. They were raising their voices and making their presence felt. Which doesn’t go down too well with the black-hatted bully-boys who are claiming ownership over the public spaces in Israel. 

And here in the UK, in the inside closed world of haredim, it appears that one woman (or possibly more) have been taken advantage of and coerced into improper sexual activities. their leaders have successfully nurtured a culture of mistrust of the outsiders, so they won’t report it, and the cover-ups and gossip thrives. and while we all speculate who the rabbis are. who knew what and why they aren’t saying. or why they are saying some things and not others, and the power games between the various factions continue. Amongst all of that are women who are being intimidated into silence.  

And at the other end of the spectrum on our TV’s Jewish women are being portrayed as tired stereotypes that we wince, cringe, and tweet our disgust. Jewish women depicted as caricatures, and we want to reach for the remote.

turn them off. turn off these jewish women who are loud, brash and inappropriate. they might say something that will make us uncomfortable. remind us of the flaws in the community. Our idealised Jerusalem, Golders Green or Hampstead. 

This is not about the character of Anat Hoffman and whether or not what she did was a deliberate provocative political act or a genuine expression of spirituality. But there is a principle of m’toch lo’lishma ba lishma - if you start to do something for the wrong reason you will eventually do it for the right reason, so don’t examine inner intentions, just do it. That principle is never applied to women and their spirituality. Women have to be perfect before they can protest and be taken seriously. It's not relevant why Anat Hoffman said shema. The fact is that she raised her voice and prayed. Loudly. And if that is something a woman at the Kotel can be arrested for, then there is something very very wrong.

This is not about how consenting or not was the woman involved in the case in GG. This is about women being vulnerable to leadership and authority, not being safe and being used by men in their power plays. If what is said to have happened didn’t actually happen, but is someone causing trouble, why create a sex scandal? Because you can get away with portraying women as silent victims of a sexual predator. This is a consequence of making a virtue out of women’s silence. Women will not be able to come forward and speak when they need to. Either to clear an innocent man’s name, or to verify, expose abuse, and prevent further damage. 

And this is certainly not about any of the individual women who are participating in the Jewish Mum of the Year catastrophe. This is about the context Jewish women are placed in. There is only one way to be a Jewish woman, the particular role of a particular type of Jewish Mother. They are framed in a setting of tired stereotypes to be smothering, brash and dominating. They may be loud but we don’t want to hear them, their voices have no real power. 

This is about women’s voices. The ones who pray loudly. The ones who don’t want to speak but have something to say. The ones who speak in a way that make us uncomfortable. Even them. Jewish women, all Jewish women need unlimited platforms for expression, not relegated to one-dimensional caricatures. This is about Jewish women finding their voices, speaking up, protesting our dismay and anger at how women are being treated.

Because this is about learning to hear a woman say “Shema! - Listen!”