Anything You Can Do…

by Rebecca Einstein Schorr on 31 July 2012 @ 5:30 pm

I can do … differently.

Yes, I know that is not how the song goes.

But it has been my approach towards issues of gender equality for as long as I can recall. Today’s post Headcovering Confusion at Ramah Dorom (over at ePhilanthropy.com), has opened up the conversation across the internet. And I, as usual, have a very different take on the issue.

*********

Cue the dream sequence music:

Rabbi Laura Geller was our Scholar-in-Residence. As part of her presentation, she wanted me to put on a full-size tallit rather than the atarah style that I have worn since the day I became a Bat Mitzvah.

As Rabbi Geller became more and more insistent, I grew more and more agitated. I tried to don the tallit, but it was too large for me. No matter how I flipped it or folded it, I was drowning in the fabric.

“I just don’t feel comfortable wearing this,” I repeated again and again. “But you must,” insisted Rabbi Geller, “It’s the only way for you to really be an authentic rabbi.”

“You don’t understand. If it was up to me, I’d cover my hair with a tichel.”

A collective gasp from the crowd. Chaos ensued. And then…

Rebecca…the baby’s awake.

My relationship with religious garb is a complicated one. I wear a tallit when I am leading services because it is traditional for the shaliach tzibur to do so. If I am not leading the services, I wear my tallis if I am in a place where it is customary for a woman to do so. A woman is not obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit, but, according to a number of authorities including Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, is not forbidden to do so. However, not all liberal synagogues have adopted this custom. And although I love my tallitot (my mother created both of mine) and have been wearing one for nearly 26 years, I must admit that I am still not altogether comfortable with women wearing them.

As for a head covering, I have gone back and forth on this one. When I was in my first year of rabbinical school, I commissioned a couple of crocheted kippot to match the design that my mother has needlepointed on my atarah. Though I had never worn a head-covering before, I felt very strongly that a rabbi ought to wear one. I wore it when I prayed and I wore it during learning. But I never really felt comfortable. During the High Holy Days of my second year at HUC, the kippot went missing. Poof! Just like that, they disappeared. I figured it was a sign.

A few years later, I revisited the kippah issue but this time opted for a wire kippah. It felt more feminine. More me. Except…that it wasn’t really me. I still felt as though I was forcing myself to grow comfortable wearing something that was really male garb. And so, with no ceremony, just stopped wearing them a couple of years ago. On those occasions when I have found myself in a Conservative shul, I fish one out of my armoire because I just can’t put a doily on my head.

I find it interesting that I admitted, in the dream sequence, to a desire to wear a tichel. Not a sheitel, but a tichel. I have written before about my feelings about covering my hair with a scarf. To me, wearing a beautiful wig defeats the spirit of the law, though upholding the letter of it. (And I’m not the only one who feels this way.) Yes, a woman’s hair is technically covered by the wig which fulfills the problem of ervah (nakedness). However, today’s wigs look so real that one might not be able to tell that the woman’s head is covered. And that defeats the whole purpose.

(the entire post originally posted in 2009 on Frume Sarah’s World)

************

For most liberal Jews, this is not only not a big deal, but it is completely archaic and has no “relevance” to their lives. Cover one’s head with a scarf or, God-forbid, a wig?? We don’t do that. But why don’t we? If a woman wants to cover her head in the liberal community, why is the “go-to” article a kippah, which is historically worn by men, rather than a scarf, hat, or some other historically female item?

Being equal does not, nor should it, mean being the same. It means being…equal.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brianna Soloski 31 July 2012 @ 7:41 pm at 7:41 pm

I’m reform & don’t cover my head, nor would it occur to me to do. However, I am friendly (but not friends with) with some of the Orthodox families in my community through my work at the Jewish Community Center and often wonder why the hair they choose to cover their heads with is often better than their real hair…

Reply

2 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 01 August 2012 @ 4:22 pm at 4:22 pm

Traditionally, the practice of covering the hair is based in the Torah and is a practice of modesty. It is NOT to make a woman unattractive. So the wearing of a beautiful wig fulfills the obligation of covering one’s head. The fact that a wig may be more lovely than one’s real hair is a completely separate issue.

Even amongst the Orthodox, there are variances in practice and even the meaning behind the practice. While ultimately observant women do it because God commanded it, many have other reasons why they find it meaningful.

Reply

3 Jody 31 July 2012 @ 7:58 pm at 7:58 pm

I am conscious of the chakra at the top of my head, symbolizing the opening to G-d. I want to be open, and to allow my head to “open” unto the divine.

I want freedom, not stricture. You should celebrate holiness as it speaks to you. Sorry, I know this isn’t acceptable.

Reply

4 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 01 August 2012 @ 4:31 pm at 4:31 pm

Personal practice is such an individual thing. And I know that when I am praying alone, I sometimes yearn for that very same type of space. Praying outside often provides that for me — EVEN when wearing a prayershawl in such a setting.

Being Jewish, however, also brings with it certain communal practices. Certain outward signs are closely attached to our people throughout the ages. Fringes on the corners of our clothes, for example, have been the cultural norm since Biblical times. HOW the fringes are affixed, and to whom, have changed and evolved over the years. While I embrace the general notion of personal autonomy, there is a holiness in observing a mitzvah that has been hallowed by the generations.

Reply

5 Pamela Gottfried 31 July 2012 @ 10:56 pm at 10:56 pm

Oh, I love this piece. Thank you for sharing again, b/c I missed it in 2009.

I don’t have time to recount my long-lasting, tumultuous relationship with ritual garb. All I can say is, I don’t believe that expressions of personal religiosity can be mandated or deemed authentic by anyone. If these are expressions of the relationship between a person and God (bein adam l’makom), then they are nobody else’s business. For example, whenever people tell me a story about eating non-Kosher food and add, “Oh, sorry rabbi. No offense,” I always say, “What you put into your mouth is between you and God, and does not offend me.” (Does this happen to you, too?) And then, for good measure, I remind them, “We are much more likely to go to hell for what comes out of our mouths than what goes in, don’t you agree?” How you cover your head, or hair, what kind of talit you wear, or whether you wear one at all–none of this speaks to your authenticity as a rabbi. Can you share YOUR Torah (wisdom) with others most effectively in a way that helps them grow and flourish? That’s all that matters.

You are my rabbi!

Reply

6 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 01 August 2012 @ 4:35 pm at 4:35 pm

You’re my rabbi too!

I have a similar response because, of course, folks always make some sort of half-apology as the pork is en route to their mouths.

“I don’t judge you…but God does.” or some variation thereof.

I like how you follow it up, though, and might try that, b’sheim omro.

*****

So let me ask you this: are you suggesting that no individual ought to be obligated to wear a head-covering, prayer-shawl, etc. when in a synagogue during a worship service?

Reply

7 Pamela Gottfried 01 August 2012 @ 5:51 pm at 5:51 pm

First of all, there is this great thing called “rabbinic math,” that allows for all kinds of biblical begat chapters (genealogy) to make sense and puts Isaac’s age at 37 at the time of the Akedah. So, I wouldn’t quibble over a few years. Sometimes, for kicks, I remind my now college-age students that I was wearing talit & tefilin when they were wearing diapers. They make a big pretense of not believing me.
I am not suggesting, God forbid, that we shouldn’t don kippot & talitot for the purpose of bima access (aliyot, leading services, etc.) if that is a communal norm, which is called k’vod tzibur, for honor to the community. Having an aliyah or leading the community in prayers is a privilege, and if a woman prefers not to put a talit over her shoulders for this purpose, she is free to forgo these honors. And I recognize the authority of each of my pulpit colleagues to decide for his/her specific community what those standards/norms should be.
But for individual practice, as an expression of personal religiosity, or whether a woman wants to accept the obligation (mitzvah) of talit/tefilin–that’s not something that can be mandated by another person. The stories I have been reading in the comments section about people placing kippot on women’s heads and suggesting that certain garb confers legitimacy or authenticity. That’s coercion, and as I understand it, we are not permitted to coerce others to observe mitzvot. Also, there are well-mannered ways to ask people to respect communal norms. Maybe Dale Carnegie should be required reading in Rabbinical Schools…

Reply

8 Steve 05 August 2012 @ 3:41 pm at 3:41 pm

B’shem omro, in this instance, might also be Jesus of Nazareth. I believe he is cited in the Christian Scriptures as noting that what comes out of a person’s mouth is more important than what goes in.

Reply

9 RabbiShaul 01 August 2012 @ 10:44 am at 10:44 am

I really appreciate this post. It rings truthful and authentic to me.

It is completely refreshing!

I can totally relate with your sentiment, and with your desire not to conform with the “box”… Kudos to you and much Hatzlacha.

Reply

10 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 01 August 2012 @ 4:43 pm at 4:43 pm

Thanks, Rabbi.

I feel fortunate that my parents. both RFB (Reform from Birth), understood Reform Judaism to be an approach wide enough to embrace all that our Tradition has to offer. Did our Shabbat mirror that of the one seen in an Orthodox home? Not exactly. But refraining from going out, from doing homework, and spending Friday evening with family or in shul was still an authentic Shabbat.

I came to adulthood believing that no Jewish practice was forbidden to me simply because I practice a more liberal approach. And now?? I continue to seek, as my parents continue in their personal practice, to seek a closer relationship to the Holy One through mitzvot and acts of goodness.

Thanks so much for your thoughts!

Reply

11 Steve 05 August 2012 @ 3:49 pm at 3:49 pm

RFB (Reform from BIRTH) is technically incorrect here. Your mother’s family was “standard Brooklyn Jewish” until they moved to California and joined a Reform synagogue (Mom was 7). My family was “standard Brooklyn/Los Angeles Jewish” until I was 6, when we affiliated with a Conservative shul. I was 9 when my family moved to Pacoima and became involved in a Reform congregation. It is accurate to say that both of your parents were reared from pretty early Elementary School within the Reform Movement.

Reply

12 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 05 August 2012 @ 10:30 pm at 10:30 pm

RFC — Reform from Childhood.

Better??

Reply

13 Jessica Hutchings 01 August 2012 @ 11:38 am at 11:38 am

Love this! You are so brilliant!
I have struggled with the kippah issue in these past few years of leading from the bema and studying in Cantorial school. I’ll never forget my first day at cantorial school; walking in and realizing I was the only woman without a kippa on (and with long hair, I might add..lol). I really struggled with it… It just didn’t feel like ME. One of my classmates said I shouldn’t wear a tallit without a kippa.. I agreed, for a while. I purchased a wire one. (I am a young and trendy person, I didn’t want to lose myself in a satin, suede, or even crocheted kippa, and the wire and jeweled ones feel more authentic to who I am.) I started wearing it when I taught religious school, when I davenned, and if I ever acted as the shaliach tzibur. I still didn’t feel 100% authentic wearing it… So I stopped. When I went in to interview for my current position, I wasn’t wearing one. As the Rabbi walked me into the room to meet the search committee, he planted a royal blue satin kippa on my head and said, “You need to wear this, they won’t take you seriously if you aren’t wearing a kippa.” As uncomfortable as that made me, with respect to the rabbi and the institution, I struggled to hold the large slippery kippah on my head as I sang and spoke with the committee. When I got the job, out came my beaded kippah whenever I approached the synagogue doors. What is interesting is, during religious school, only the boys are required to wear kippot… And I get frequent questions from the girls as to why I wear one because it’s a boy thing. I don’t believe it has to be a “boy thing”, and I explain why anyone can wear one. This year, as my gift to each Bat Mitzvah, I am giving them a small wired and beads kippa. They can choose whether or not to wear it, but I believe they should feel it’s just a “boy thing”. I still struggle with the kippa. It doesn’t always feel comfortable upon my head. I always wear it in the synagogue and when I teach… But not always at school, and this summer, unless it’s Shabbat or Chag, I’ve walked into my synagogue office without one. I’ve sported a thick scarf like headband to see how that felt… It actually felt even more authentic to me than the beaded kippah. I guess, we are always learning and evolving so our practices and ritual garb can too… Right? A thought on women wearing tallitot: While a woman is not obligated to wear it, I do think if a woman voluntarily takes on the obligation, it is admirable. I also feel, if a woman is called to the Torah, she should touch her tzitzit to the text of the Torah, and therefore would need to be wearing a tallit as her ritual garb. It doesn’t need to be a tallit gadol or a tradition blue and gold or silver, it can be feminine and personal to that woman… I do agree that equal doesn’t mean the same, but if we are taking on the equal obligations, we should express a similar statement with our ritual garments.

Reply

14 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 01 August 2012 @ 4:45 pm at 4:45 pm

It’s all about the struggle šŸ˜‰

Reply

15 Steve 01 August 2012 @ 3:41 pm at 3:41 pm

A thoughtful…and thought-provoking…piece.

Those who know you will not be surprised that your math is a little off. Since your Bat Mitzvah service was in February, 1984, you have been wearing a talit for more than 28 years.

Reply

16 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 01 August 2012 @ 4:44 pm at 4:44 pm

In my defense, I wrote this in 2009. I think the math would have been correct back then.

Right??

Reply

17 Steve 05 August 2012 @ 3:38 pm at 3:38 pm

Yes, the math was correct when the piece originally appeared.

Since you did note that the article was a reprnt, I will agree that you are off the hook

Reply

18 Eliana Light 01 August 2012 @ 5:00 pm at 5:00 pm

Thank you so much for directing me to this beautiful post! I can relate to your struggle, because for me it’s always been about being comfortable as well as doing the ritual at hand. I too like playing around with scarfs, hats, and even headbands (and I cannot stand doilies!) and I still haven’t found the best tallit shape. However, I know a lot of female friends who stopped wearing tallit a while after Bat Mitzvah because it just didn’t “feel” right for whatever reason. And even though I respect their decision, I can’t help but think “darn, there goes another one.” For me it’s about balancing choice and comfort with a sense of obligation, which is a tricky word for me in general. I know a lot of men who think women should be able to count fully as long as they take obligation for all time-bound mitzvot on themselves. I’m not sure how I feel about that, for men or women. Thank you again for your insight!

Reply

19 Pamela Gottfried 01 August 2012 @ 5:55 pm at 5:55 pm

Eliana, your post (that you linked to your comment at ejewishphilanthropy) was incredible, thoughtful, well-written and heartfelt. I am glad that you found Rebecca’s piece, too. She is one of my rabbis (and friends), and I know someday that you will also be my rabbi. I hope we’ll continue to talk about these challenges and balancing acts for years to come!

Reply

20 Batya 05 August 2012 @ 2:16 pm at 2:16 pm

Interesting post. I’m not getting into the actual issues, since we relate differently to Torah Law. But way back when, over a hundred years ago, my great-great grandfather in Poland opposed wigs, saying they went against the spirtit of the Law and insisted the women in the family cover their hair with hats and scarves.

Reply

21 RabbiShaul 09 August 2012 @ 3:07 pm at 3:07 pm

going back to your response to my comment:

I appreciate your recognition of your RFB upbringing, that “allowed” you too have a –shall we say– healthy approach to non-conventional approaches. (making sense ;0 ?)

I feel kind of the same way…but kind of on the flip side. I grew up MFFB (moderately frum from birth)..but the strength in my upbringing was the fact that my parents were so “normal” and not caught up with shenanigans and politics.

As a result, I am comfortable being an Orthodox rabbi, with a Reform Chumash in my shtender and a Conservative one in my study. For me, it’s not about the movement or the “whole,” but rather the individual and the specific.

Again–thanks for this post…maybe one day I’ll right the “reverse” version…

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: