January 19, 2019

Make Your Own Haggadah With Gendered Themes

By Amy Powell

Just before Pesach in 2011, the New York Times reported some important news about gender and Passover: The fusty Maxwell House Haggadah, offered free in grocery stores with a purchase of Maxwell House coffee (this year there was one in my matzo box), adopted some gender-neutral language.

Rather than calling G-d a king, they used “monarch,” and changed the four sons to the four “children.”

Today, there are so many varied haggadot with more profound changes relating to gender than simply adopting gender-neutral language. Haggadot exist for a spectrum of observances, age groups and personal preferences, many with updated themes of freedom, plagues, renewal and more.

For those searching for readings and themes — and perhaps not ready to invest in new haggadot — there are many downloadable versions. HBI has compiled a few tools to help you design your own seder with an eye to HBI’s mission of developing fresh ideas about Jews and gender.

For example, JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, compiled numerous  Pesach Divrei Torah, described as “by women, for all,” in a 32-page free download titled Shema Bekolah, Hear Her Voice.

Another resource, is JewishBoston.com and The Wandering is Over Haggadah: A Seder For Everyone, their free and downloadable, contemporary and customizable haggadah. Here, you will find readings and options on anti-Semitism, mental health, immigration, feminism, labor rights, social justice, climate change, racial justice, inclusion, Israel, LGBTQ liberation and more. The contributors include The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), JCRC, ADL, Ruderman Foundation, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Emilia Diamant, JewishBoston.com, New England Jewish Labor Committee and others.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, known as the “Velveteen Rabbi,” created a downloadable haggadah, the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, out of her desire for a seder text which cherishes “the tradition and also augments that tradition with contemporary poetry, moments of mindfulness, a theology of liberation, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression.”

Jewish Family & Children’s Services released two downloadable haggadot related to healing and wholeness: the Chaverim Shel Shalom Haggadah and the Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing Friendly Visitor Passover Seder.

Haggadot.com has a tool called Let’s Make Your Passover Haggadah Together, with a platform that allows you to create a custom seder, using content aggregated from more than 150 individuals, artists and 13 organizations. These can be tailored and either downloaded or printed for your seder.

I’m probably not banning Maxwell House completely. I have a soft spot for a wine stain that may have been created by people who have since passed away. It’s also useful to have multiple copies of at least one haggadah with every single verse of Dayenu! But as the four children remind us, it’s better to have a multitude of voices around the table, asking questions and heightening our awareness of what the holiday means.

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

Learning Activism From Susan Weiss

By Lila Kagedan

marriageanddivorceAs an Orthodox teenager, committed and enthusiastic feminist and newly minted high school graduate from a small town, I found myself studying in Israel at a yeshiva for women for what I thought would be a year of the ultimate Jewish learning experience. I planned to immerse in rigorous study of Jewish texts in a beit midrash, study hall, filled with the voices of women. I excitedly anticipated this year from a very young age and set my sights on what was, to my mind, the best place to study with an unparalleled faculty in a community of what I imagined to be like-minded young women.

I also imagined, when planning for this year and carefully selecting an institution that I would find a spirit of activism, and a shared commitment among the students to discuss and engage in pressing issues relating to women and to the experience of women in the Jewish community and beyond.

This is where Susan Weiss entered my life and changed it in ways that she may not even know.

While the yeshiva provided an amazing cohort of brilliant and passionate women, it was Susan Weiss who created the activist experience for me that I had hoped to find there, that I had dreamed of, that inspired me and that truly led me into a life of activism and commitment to studying and serving women, specifically Jewish women.

It all started when I wandered into her basement office which was housed at the Yeshiva. There was a small sign on the door that read Yad L’Isha and it piqued my curiosity. I was devouring books on women and Jewish law at the time and was curious. I remember seeing Susan surrounded by stacks of papers and books sitting behind a small desk. There were posters on the walls which called for justice for agunot (women chained to dead marriages by husbands who won’t grant a religious divorce known as a get) and her phone was ringing off the hook. I timidly knocked on her door and she raised her eyes to acknowledge me while answering a phone call and writing a note on a nearby notepad, She waved me in warmly. We began talking about her work and I was immediately impressed with her energy and spirit as well as her unwavering commitment to women’s rights as human rights.

Susan so profoundly impacted my life that a main undergraduate focus of mine, both scholastically and socially, largely surrounded women and Jewish law. When I returned to Israel later to study at the Hebrew University, once more I contacted Susan Weiss to study with her and volunteer for her in a variety of research areas.

Susan gave me a vocabulary for the feelings I had long been feeling regarding the mistreatment of Jewish women and she was actually doing something about it. She didn’t lament the plight of agunot, rather she decided to work towards changing the law. This experience of Jewish study, leading to the eradication of injustice, was a revelation. Susan Weiss truly embodied the concept of “being the change we wish to see in the world” and continues to inspire me to do the work that so desperately needs to be done to fight injustice and to support women. Her passion and dedication for advocating for women motivates me daily in my work, writing and research.

Please join me in welcoming Susan Weiss to Brandeis on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. Come and be inspired by her as I have been.

Lila Kagedan is a research associate at the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law Research Associate.

HBI is proud to host Susan Weiss for a free, upcoming lecture on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. To learn more, please visit our website. Seating is limited, so please RSVP.

As part of a collaboration between the HBI’s Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, supported by the Bridging Voices Program of the British Council, we present a series of invited reflections on the intersection of Gender, Religion and Equality in Public Life from activists and scholars around the world.  Contributors have been asked to reflect upon the ways in which conflicts over gender, religion and participation impact their work and inform their understanding of events in the news.  They are particularly asked to consider how religious norms around gender shape civil policy making, adjudication and women’s capacity to fully participate in public political and ritual life.

A New Form of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community

by Layah Lipsker

It always fascinated me that Jewish law allows for divorce, even without cause. With all the hoopla about finding your “bashert,” the one person who completes your soul, it would seem reasonable for the Torah to prohibit divorce. “Stick it out,” you might think the G-d of Israel would say. “The Chosen People should know a thing or two about choosing right the first time.” And yet, there is an entire Talmudic tractate called “gittin” that describes the Jewish way to get out of a marriage. At the center of the Jewish divorce ceremony is the Get, a handwritten writ of divorce given by the husband to the wife. A religious process that facilitates divorce underscores the Jewish values of self-determination, compassion and forgiveness. For most couples, a Jewish closure to their marriage can be comforting and even healing. But sadly, the legal nuances of the Get proceedings can chain some women to dead marriages and leave them vulnerable to abusive spouses. Jewish law requires the consent of both parties to proceed with divorce, but it must be initiated by the husband. In a growing number of cases, men use the threat of Get refusal as a bargaining chip in financial or custodial negotiations.

Just ask Beth, a single mom in Newton, who recently paid $30,000 to her ex-husband in exchange for her Get. Or Hannah of Marblehead, who fled her Israeli husband more than two decades ago, leaving Jerusalem with her newborn child. Her son was 17 when her husband finally granted her a Get. Despite their civil divorces, Hannah and Beth were considered legally married and could not remarry in a Jewish ceremony until receiving their Gets.

Neither of these women is Orthodox. Get refusal is a domestic abuse issue that exists in every segment of our Jewish community. But for religious women, the stakes are even higher. In the Chassidic community in which I grew up, these women cannot even date without a Get in hand. They quietly resign themselves to lives of loneliness.

For most of Jewish history, a classic “agunah” (literally, chained woman) was a woman whose husband never returned from war. Without a body, there was no proof of death, leaving the woman in a tragic state of limbo, unable to move on with her life. With a rising divorce rate in the Jewish community, women often obtain the status of “agunah” by way of Get refusal, a powerful tool in the hands of an abusive spouse. In Israel, where all marriages and divorces must go through the religious rabbinical courts, the rate of Get refusal by both Orthodox and secular men is climbing. In a recent study, one in three women divorcing in Israel is subject to threats of Get refusal and extortion. Sadly, most of these women are young mothers leaving a first marriage. Without a Get, their future is uncertain.

In my experience as an agunah activist, I see women willing to give up financial resources or their right to child support in order to escape bad marriages. The future of these women and their children is compromised, often in the name of Jewish law. As a passionate feminist and observant Jew, that is deeply troubling to me. I am grateful that the rabbinic community is joining forces with advocates to promote solutions for Jewish families. One preventative measure is the use of a prenuptial agreement, requiring a Get if there is a civil divorce. The halachic (Jewish legal) prenup was co-authored by Dr. Rochel Levmore, a rabbinical court advocate, and my partner in creating a website to support agunot and educate women on the Jewish divorce process. As a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I am working with the HBI and Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Boston Bet Din, to create “The Agunah Taskforce of Greater Boston.”

These prenups have been upheld in civil courts in New York and Connecticut. However, not all rabbis require couples to sign the prenup, and this solution is only a preventative measure. Sadly, a systematic rabbinic solution to the agunah problem remains elusive. It is within the power of a rabbinical court to free a woman by invalidating the original marriage contract, thus eliminating the need for the Get (a process known as mekach taut). A rabbinical court can also annul a marriage without the consent of a recalcitrant spouse (hafkaat kidushin). These powers are used sparingly, however, and must meet nuanced halachic standards. Most women suffering from Get refusal have no access to halachic resolutions and some have recently turned to social media to exert pressure on their ex-husbands. In New York, two rabbis were arrested and charged with kidnapping and torturing a husband refusing to grant a Get. These rabbis were hired and paid by the wife, who hoped to finally end her own suffering. In the absence of systematic reform, women will resort to dire measures to obtain their freedom.

Total consensus on a perfect solution may be impossible in the current climate of Jewish legal debate. Nonetheless, I say, “bring it on.” The recent rise of female Torah scholarship adds much needed fuel to the halachic conversation on issues that affect women. Debate is not the problem. It is part of the solution. Our goal must be to create a large enough network such that women threatened with Get refusal will have a place to turn. We must find rabbis who will release them from their dead marriages, and defend their future children from the pernicious claim of illegitimacy under Jewish law. As a mother of four daughters, I cannot afford to stand at the sidelines of this debate. Neither can you.

Please join me on Thursday evening, December 12, at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham, to learn more about what is being done to support women suffering from Get refusal, and how you can help. I also invite you to join me in New York on Sunday, December 8, for a daylong conference on Women and Jewish law, sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. If you would like more information on either of these events, please email me at layah@brandeis.edu.

Lipsker_LayahLike good Jewish women everywhere, Layah Kranz Lipsker wears many hats. She is co-founder and educational director for Chabad of the North Shore, and is currently a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. As a mother of six, she wears her favorite hat at home in Swampscott.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Journal.

Civil unions won’t break the chains

by Netty C. Gross-Horowitz

marriageanddivorcesmJewish marriage and divorce ceremonies in Israel and the United States, have become news items lately. Obtaining the get , a divorce document, given by the husband of his own “free will,” is handled differently in each country but the root of the problem and its eventual outcome are often the same. It’s hard to say where things are worse in these two large centers of Jewish life; one country won’t get involved in religious disputes; the other country, which views religious law as the law (in these “personal status” matters only) won’t enforce the law.

The heart of the trouble in both cases is in the interpretation of a certain biblical verse, (made for ancient gender identities and interpreted over the centuries by Orthodox rabbis and scholars,) in which only the husband can decide to terminate the marriage by handing his wife a get. (In medieval times, it was established that a wife has to accept the get.)

Continue reading (link opens to The Times of Israel).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Times of Israel.

Netty Gross-Horowitz is a journalist who worked for many years at The Jerusalem Report. She is the co-author, with Susan Weiss of Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War, published in the HBI Series’ on Jewish Women and Gender, Culture, Religion and Law with UPNE.

HBI is proud to host Susan Weiss for a free, upcoming lecture on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. To learn more, please visit our website. Seating is limited, so please RSVP.

As part of a collaboration between the HBI’s Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, supported by the Bridging Voices Program of the British Council, we present a series of invited reflections on the intersection of Gender, Religion and Equality in Public Life from activists and scholars around the world.  Contributors have been asked to reflect upon the ways in which conflicts over gender, religion and participation impact their work and inform their understanding of events in the news.  They are particularly asked to consider how religious norms around gender shape civil policy making, adjudication and women’s capacity to fully participate in public political and ritual life.

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