Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Controversies You Should Understand: Women of the Wall

If you don't already know about the Women of the Wall, you'll eventually come across it. If you're lucky, you'll run across it in a news article. If you're not lucky, you'll run into it during an angry rant at a Shabbos table.

Yesterday, the Women of the Wall held a special Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel. And rather than arresting them (as normally happens), the police protected them from protesters. Why? Because three members of the Knesset attended. You can read about it at the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA).

Women of the Wall is "a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls [and tefillin], pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel." (From their website.) They have special, arrest-heavy services at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh each month. They may hold services at other times, but I'm only aware of the Rosh Chodesh controversy.

Why is this a big deal? It can lead to a riot. Seriously. Rocks, punches, etc. You'd be surprised. A man may not be willing to walk beside a woman on the street or shake a woman's hand at work, but he can believe that punching a woman in the face or throwing a rock at her is a mitzvah. This is a small minority, but I don't know why we're not placing them in cherem, where they belong. Violence against anyone (whether physical, mental, or emotional) for an alleged violation of halacha is not okay nor is it acceptable in halacha (minus a Sanhedrin), secular law, nor is it behavior befitting a ben Torah. 

So now that we've covered the basics, I'm going to editorialize. You may disagree with me, and that's your right. But hear me out. The condemnation in the community may be the loudest voice, but that doesn't mean it's right (or that it's the right approach to take).

From my (American) legal perspective: If Israel is going to be a democracy, they have no right to have such a prohibition at the Kotel, and they certainly have no right to help orthodox groups to intimidate or harm any woman involved. In fact, a democratic government has the obligation to protect minority groups from intimidation and violence and arrest those who would attack the Women of the Wall. The Kotel is a public space holy to people of many faiths. Why is it okay to do this, but not ban Christians and Muslims? Or, like the Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount, ban the prayer of other faiths being spoken aloud? Shouldn't we next be arresting women who enter orthodox synagogues in pants or tank tops? Just as the state has no right to send in police to enforce the standards of a synagogue owned by a Jewish group, there should be no justification for the police to arrest women at the Kotel to enforce the standards of the same Jewish groups. It's just the right thing to do: police protect people from the riot, not help the riot accomplish its goal of silence and intimidation. That is why we have police: enforce property laws and prevent mob rule. 

My halachic understanding: This is where things get very heated and tricky. The "party line" in orthodox conversations is that this is prohibited by Jewish law. What you rarely hear is that it's not really prohibited (if it is prohibited at all); it's just "not done" in orthodoxy. That doesn't make it against halacha. 

What are the women trying to do? Wear tefillin and a tallit and have prayer services at the Kotel. Not all women who attend these events choose to wear a tefillin or talis. Strictly speaking, women are not prohibited from wearing a tallis and tefilin. Rashi's daughters famously did so. It's just "not done" and it's certainly not obligatory on women. (Arguments against it largely center around it being against custom, if I understand correctly.) According to what I learned, women can choose to obligate themselves in new mitzvot, whether it's davening maariv daily or donning tefilin. However, there is a caveat. A women should only obligate herself in a new mitzvah if she's already fulfilling the mitzvot commanded of her. So if a woman is fulfilling her mitzvot as commanded, I don't have a problem with her taking on non-mandatory mitzvot that have meaning to her. But don't fulfill your mitzvot haphazardly and then claim you want more (that you happen to like better for whatever reason). That's caring only about what you want, not what Hashem wants of you. 

Next we will question the sexual orientation of men who separate challah! Husbands fulfill this "women's mitzvah" all the time. Would we have the same objection to men choosing to do another of the "female mitzvot"? I doubt it. But it's the same thing: it's not done as a general rule. And we all seem to understand why men don't obligate themselves in new mitzvot: they have plenty to do! Yet we degrade women's mitzvot by implying it's "less" and also "less worthy" than the mitzvot of a man. If it makes a man feel more important and "manly" to degrade my obligation in mitzvot, then he lacks a great deal of the qualities required by the Torah. It's comparing apples and oranges. We're different. We have different stuff to do. That doesn't make one more valuable than another or mean there's less work for either. The argument is simply non-sensical to me. And implies he has a lot of problems that have nothing to do with me or my mitzvot. 

But this is why I personally don't take vows to take on new mitzvot. There is always something more for me to work on in the areas I'm commanded. I don't need more mitzvot, I need less if I'm ever going to get this right! I also know that I stumble frequently. There is no need to obligate myself to something I will inevitably mess up later. I mess up my own stuff just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Prayer services are held every day at the Kotel. Playing devil's advocate for the terribleness for women attending minyan at the Kotel: Often the women's side can't hear the service(s), even if a co-ed group stands beside each other at the mechitza (speaking from experience). Women's tefilah groups exist in orthodox and non-orthodox congregations, whether those groups focus on reading Tehillim together or having a full Torah service to allow a learned bat mitzvah to read from the Torah to other women. Should these groups be banned automatically from the Kotel when we allow them in (some of) our shuls?
Sidenote: If you're a conversion candidate, I don't recommend that you attend (or mention attendance) at a women's prayer group unless it's strictly a Tehillim session. While most rabbis I know of agree it's not "wrong," it's "suspicious" and may show "tendencies" of a future of going "off the derech." Didn't you get the memo that women's participation in any mitzvah "above and beyond" is a warning sign of future rebellion?)
But women reading Torah to other women? Women holding a Torah scroll? Women leading davening of other women? I'm not aware of anything wrong with that, though the minyan-specific parts wouldn't be said. My guess is that a Women of the Wall service does hold that women can "count" in a minyan, but even if they didn't, is there something halachically wrong with them saying the parts for minyan at the Kotel, where there is clearly going to be at least a minyan of men present? Those parts of the service aren't supposed to be said without a minyan, but I'm not aware of a prohibition against women saying them. In fact, many orthodox congregations allow women to recite Kaddish loudly (loud enough for the men to hear) during their time of mourning, though they may require "saying" it rather than "singing" it. More shuls allow women to bentch gomel during the Torah service, though saying it from their seat. 

Why do all of the "egalitarian" ideas above become a null and void argument for the Women of the Wall because most (if not all) of the participants are not orthodox Jews? If orthodox Jews could do it, I see no reason why non-orthodox Jews can't. Add that to the legal argument above, which I think is the proper approach for government authorities. I am particularly disappointed in the statement by the Rabbi of the Kotel: 
"The rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, condemned Tuesday's prayer service. In a statement issued to the media, he said the women brought 'brothers against brothers in unnecessary confrontation' and noted that the wall next to Robinson's Arch has been designated as the area for women's prayer services. 'The Western Wall is the only place shared by all the people of Israel -- and it is not the place to decide or express a world view,' Rabinowitz said. 'I urge anyone for whom the Wall is dear to do whatever he can to keep disputes outside the plaza, and leave the people of Israel one place where there are no demonstrations, clashes and hatred.' "
Isn't protecting the demands of one Jewish group against another Jewish group a "world view" that shouldn't be "decided or expressed" at the Kotel? If that's the case, then both groups should be banned from the Kotel. Or, as befits a democracy, let them both attend. If people wish to protest, they should have the right to do so peacefully. Instead, the group he supports is the one creating demonstrations, hatred, and violent clashes. Not the Women of the Wall. 

Doing what you think is right might lead to a riot. See, for example, the Civil Rights Movement. However, as in the Civil Rights Movement, it is categorically wrong for the oppressor to lay the blame for his actions at the feet of the person intimidated. "She made me spit on her because she wore a tallis at the Kotel (or wore a tank top or had her picture in the newspaper)" should never, ever be allowed to be a justification for conduct in violation of the law, halacha, and being a mensch. You are responsible for your own bad conduct and the chillul Hashems created by it. So own up to it.

At the end of the day, the Women of the Wall should not be a big deal. This unnatural obsession with enforcing the modesty of women is worrisome and looks more and more pathological the longer I hang around the orthodox community. And it's one of the major reasons I am not more "right wing." Though there are many right-wing orthodox people who view these issues reasonably and in proper perspective in comparison with the other mitzvot, these people are overwhelmingly not speaking against the major violations of modesty and derech eretz of the loud, hateful, and sometimes violent "modesty police" in orthodox communities around the world. Their leaders are doing a particularly poor job, usually supporting the poor behavior. And I can't imagine being around people who don't feel the Torah is worth defending against that kind of behavior. Every community has its faults, but I highly value the ability I have, as a modern orthodox woman, to speak about these wrongs and chilul Hashems without fearing that I or my family will be ostracized for it. 

"Your silence gives consent" - Plato

Monday, March 11, 2013

Wint...errrr...Pesach Is Coming!

But don't fret! 

Pesach does not have to be as scary as everyone makes it sound.

Really, truly... preparing for Pesach is not that hard. If you don't have children and regularly sorta-clean your house, you should be able to clean for it in an hour or two. (Kashering the kitchen may or may not take significantly longer, depending on your kitchen and what you believe is required to kasher it for Pesach.) 

Five things to keep in mind:
1. Crumbs are not a "kezayit." They're garbage. Ask Aish if you don't believe me.
2. Neither you nor the dog will be eating any chametz that may or may not exist under your fridge, car seat, or heavy furniture.
3. Don't take "unfit even for a dog to eat" quite so literally. Case in point: the standard is not "poisonous" in most communities. As Rabbi Soloveitchik famously said about a dog who ate toothpaste, "Your dog is crazy." As interpreted by rabbis I know, "You trust a dog to tell you what's fit for a dog to eat?!"
4. Just because you're required to search for chametz doesn't mean you actually have to FIND any. You're not required to hide any. If you insist on hiding some token chametz, please remember to write down where you hid them (and don't make them bigger than a kezayit!).
5. If you pay a person to spend hours vacuuming the pages of your library, I will nominate you for involuntary commitment to a psychiatric ward.

See? Aren't you more relieved already?

I'm not the only person who says that Pesach prep should not give you a mental breakdown.

If you're uncertain about your community's "theoretical" standards for Pesach (because many OCD-inclined people choose this mitzvah for their entry to the Extreme Machmir Awards), discuss these posts with a friend, mentor, your rabbi, or any other Passover-celebrating Jew you may have access to (if you lack those other resources).

Fair warning: if you're loud-mouthed about how relaxed your Pesach prep was, don't be surprised if people refuse to eat in your house. They could even refuse on principle if you "follow the rules" but your method looks "different" (for example, kashering your kitchen counters instead of covering them). But on the other hand, never be surprised if someone refuses to eat in your house during Pesach. People be cray-cray. A fair number of people refuse to eat in anyone's house during Pesach.

#ProTip: the best part about converting is that you get to choose your minhag. Trust the Sephardi about kitniyot! 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

UPDATED: The Hidden Costs of Orthodoxy

Everyone agrees that living an orthodox life is expensive. However, it's more expensive than you imagine it will be. (Keep in mind this post does not take into account conversion costs.)

You know the regular expenses:
Keeping kosher is expensive
  • Start-up costs to turn your kitchen kosher by nearly tripling your kitchen supplies
  • Kosher meat
  • Kosher cheese (especially if you're cholov yisroel)
  • Not always having a generic brand available kosher
Raising kids is expensive
  • Private school tuition, especially when there isn't any competition in the area
  • Kosher-friendly daycare/babysitting
  • More clothes to get destroyed/outgrown and replaced: tzitzit and kippot in particular
  • Wedding costs for those children. Yes, you're probably going to have to save up more than a house downpayment.
High Holyday "tickets"
  • The laws of tzedakah are complex and depend on your individual circumstances. But that is an automatic deduction of your take-home income every year for the rest of your life.

But there are some costs you may not have thought about. 

  • You're generally restricted to areas with a higher cost of living. Even in small communities, the housing within walking distance of an orthodox synagogue is not going to be in the cheap part of town. 
  • You will likely have more children than you would have if you had remained secular. The lesser-discussed aspect of "Keeping Up with the Steins" is that there is more pressure to have larger families. While an only child is becoming the norm in the secular world (says the only child blogger), it is still relatively uncommon in the frum world. It's not unheard of, but people are going to assume you have an only child because of medical issues, not as a personal choice. So multiply your expected child costs from above by 2 or 3...or more. You'll get some discounts for multiple children (assuming you can get them accepted to the same school), but it's not a significant savings.
  • Holiday costs. You think about this, but rarely think about it. Buying matzah each year is always surprisingly expensive, even after I've done it for almost a decade. Your food costs in general will be much higher for every holiday and probably Shabbat as well. Travel, cleaning for Pesach, purchasing wine regularly, etc. The little things can add up significantly.
  • Job sacrifices. You may have to take a lower-paying or less prestigious job because of Shabbat restrictions. You may have to take a higher-paying job you don't like as much because you need to pay dayschool tuition. 
  • Vacation sacrifices. If you don't work for an organization that follows the Jewish calendar (or closes on Jewish holidays), you will use your "vacation" days for holidays. I personally know many people who use all their paid vacation days to cover holidays and still have to take personal, unpaid days to get all the holidays...and that doesn't include taking off for chol hamoed. And we all know how "vacation-like" holidays are, so good luck finding that relaxation intended to create a revitalized and refreshed employee. You may also be responsible for finding people to cover for you or even to pay for that replacement. On the other hand, if you work on the billable hour system, then only Gd can help you come the High Holydays. Don't lose your job.
  • Hidden dayschool costs. That "Annual Dinner" is several hundred dollars per plate, and it's not totally "voluntary." "Suggested donations" are rarely ever "voluntary" when the dayschool is involved. 
  • Aliyahs and honors in synagogue. Personally, I am very bothered by the concept of "auctioning" honors. I understand that this can generate a large amount of money for the synagogue, but the very concept makes me cringe. However, it's not just holiday honors that are paid for. You may be expected to make a donation for aliyahs. There may be a "suggested" donation amount for it, possibly even extra for getting mishaberachs. This is a good question to ask when interviewing a new shul. 
  • Social events. $15 for a synagogue dinner here, $40 for an event there, $75 for a shul fundraiser there. If your shul is like the ones I've attended, almost no "social" event will be free. If you can't afford to go to the shul social events, you will eventually feel isolated from the community (speaking from my experience in two communities).
  • Mikvah fees. After you're married, you could be "donating" $10-40 per month to the mikvah for its use. 
  • Buying books. I view this as primarily a start-up cost, but the "maintenance" costs of your library will certainly be higher than the average secular consumer. However, in my experience, the people who make this a major expense would have done so even if they were secular (though maybe not as costly in absolute terms). People like me would spend ridiculous amounts of time and money expanding their library even without Judaism, and the bibliophile nature of Judaism is usually a major draw of conversion to begin with!
  • Women's haircovering costs. If you're female, you've probably considered this cost. However, you have likely underestimated the maintenance costs. Even if you stick to the "cheap" haircoverings such as hats, berets, and tichels, you're going to need to "update" or replace items every few years. Sheitels are more complicated than I'm familiar with, but know this: they're expensive, and they don't last as long as you would hope. Or you lean too close to the stove and melt the cheap synthetic one. They'll need to be replaced every few years as well. The costs you're definitely not thinking about are dying sheitels, getting them cut, or getting them styled for special occasions. 
  • Clothing alterations. A commenter has suggested this, but I don't believe alterations are necessary to make clothing tznius. Also, this is a problem the conversion candidate should have considered from the time he or she became tznius. The only times I've found alterations to be necessary are with formal clothing, such as formalwear, and alterations would be necessary even in the secular world (though perhaps not quite as much). That's my 2 cents. If anyone knows of situations I'm not considering, please comment below.
  • Traveling around Shabbat. This is often more of an annoyance than a cost, but I don't have kids yet, and I could see how that could easily change once kids are involved. It's an annoyance that I can't go somewhere "just for Sunday," I need to plan it around Shabbat as well. And if I'm now going to be away for Shabbat, I need to find accommodations and meals. When you're more than one or two people, you likely won't be as comfortable asking to stay in people's homes, and thus may need to pay for a hotel. (Remember that you're limited to hotels that have alternatives to electronic keys!) Perhaps flights are more expensive if you fly to include the whole weekend, but I'm less knowledgeable about that. Driving costs should remain the same, though you still have the annoyance of your travel times being dictated for you. 
Can you think of any other non-obvious costs of the orthodox community?

Of course, almost all costs and "suggested donations" are negotiable. However, don't expect as much of a discount as you'd like, if any at all. Being middle class or below in the orthodox world practically guarantees a few slices of humble pie a year.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

So Much Can Change in Two Years

Being unemployed, my life often feels like Groundhog Day. I don't always keep up with the date, and I count myself lucky if I know the day of the week. (And that's probably only because of Shabbat.) Because of this, I almost missed the significance of Sunday, March 3. Two years ago, this day changed my life in ways I never expected.

When I started this blog in October 2010, I was a full-time law student with three jobs and working on the Law Review. Less than six months later, one of the two closest friends I'd had by that point in my life passed away, just as he was helping me plan a whole new life in New York City (where he was originally from). 

The two weeks after his death were one of the lowest points of my life, though there is stiff competition for that title. After Ilan's passing, the "truth" came out about the rabbinical issues I didn't even know I had. A bully tried to ruin my life and any chance I had of converting. Thankfully, I had already planned to leave that part of my life and start anew in New York, but that doesn't mean it hurt any less.

Less than two months after that, I graduated law school and moved from CA to NY. Me, two boxer dogs, a 3-legged cat, and everything I owned in a sedan. I hadn't even seen my new apartment before I moved in. Thankfully, I was now living about 15 minutes from my best friend, but other than her, I didn't know anyone. It was the best chance I ever took, and I've started from scratch several times in my life. Ilan's friends knew that he had planned to help me acclimate to the community he had left, so they stepped up and took me in. I experienced more kindness from strangers in my first year in NY than I have experienced in my whole life. 

That support was needed when the poor economy kept me unemployed for almost a year. Eventually, I found a job I loved, and six months later, the economy stuck again...causing me to be laid off. Another 8 months of unemployment later, I'm not sure that I ever see myself practicing law. Thankfully, I'm ok with that, and I've found a field that can include law, but more importantly, will make me happy on a regular basis. Two years, and only 6 months of employment. Oy. This is a hard blow to the self-esteem for anyone, but I've always worked at least 2 jobs since the age of 19. I haven't taken it so well.

But while the professional side hasn't gone as well as I had hoped, my personal life has changed so much in two years that it's hardly recognizable. 

Based on estimates I received from my old conversion "situation," I couldn't expect to be converted before turning 30. At the time when I moved to NY, I was 27. Today, I'm 28, converted, and married. From zero to 60 in 18 months.

Two years ago, I had lost one of the two best friends I'd ever had. I was stomped upon by every person involved in my conversion up to that point. I feared I would now be blackballed from the RCA conversion courts. And I still had to finish my law school finals and coordinate a cross-country move with three pets. There was a lot of crying, needless to say.

I came to New York in the summer, and the rabbis weren't around for the conversion court over the summer. I finally got things rolling when the school year began and I had finished the bar exam, and I had to deal with the investigation of the accusations against me. I was asked to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. I had no expectation of converting before 30. And I was unemployed and quickly running out of money. Things were bad. 

When Chanukah came, I was in very bad spirits. My roommate reassured me that it's always darkest before the light. While she was right anyway, she was proven partially-psychic when the approval for my conversion came erev Shabbat Chanukah. I expected several more beit din meetings ahead of me, so I was shocked by the news.

Come January, I was converted. I didn't know what to do with myself. We had parties, but I wasn't ready to start dating. I got the much-loved job in February. By the time of the year anniversary of Ilan's death, things in my life were so much better than I could have ever hoped for. I felt like my life had undergone a 180 degree change.

A week later, I met my husband through Ilan's mother. 

Now, at the two year anniversary of Ilan's death, I realize how much a life can change in just two years. And quite honestly, I think I'm ready for it to slow down. It's surprising to me how life continues after tragedies. Life goes on, except for those who know the sad events of years past. I suppose we're all that person at least once or twice a year.

But, because my life resembles Groundhog Day, I didn't know the date. I knew it was coming, but I mixed up the days. I unknowingly spent Sunday in a very happy way: spending time with nearly-free books, my new husband, Doctor Who, and a comfy couch. The happy moments of normal life, a life that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't known Ilan Tokayer...and then befriended his family. 

Gd works in mysterious ways indeed. How can the happiest and saddest parts of a life be so intertwined? So much has happened to me in two years that I'm both excited and frightened of what the next two years might hold. If you're having similar rock-bottom situations, be comforted by how quickly the positive can be revealed or created. 

May 2013 be a year of revealed good.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Milestone: 500,000 Blog Views!

Yesterday morning, the blog hit a milestone I never thought I'd see: half a million views (not including feed views). Half a million. Do you guys have nothing better to do with your time than read my rantings and ravings and speculation? Guess not. I hope you've found something that helped you, since I started the blog because I had no one to help me.

But really. I'm amazed. And humbled. And mostly shocked. I really haven't been paying attention to the blog's statistics for more than a year, and I only noticed I was at 499,750 on Saturday night by chance. 

Because I'm a statistics nerd, here are some stats:
First post: October 20, 2010, so the blog is almost 2.5 years old.
Blog site views: 501,500-ish
Facebook "fans": 494
Feed subscribers: 343 that I know of.
The U.S. is responsible for approximately 68% of my traffic, and nearly 10% come from New York City alone.
Major traffic sources:
For some reason, "best cholent recipe ever" is the leading search engine inquiry.
Total money earned from advertising: $383.48. I wouldn't quit my day job if I had one.
Total donations from blog readers: $88 and two wedding presents.

If you want to compare these numbers to the prior milestones I marked, check out the old posts:

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Etiquette of Wishing Someone a Good Shabbos

In a small community, the etiquette of saying "Gut Shabbos" or "Shabbat Shalom" is so obvious: you say it to any Jew you meet on the street. In New York...this is not so clear cut. 

Based on rants to various people and their responses, everyone seems to agree that, in principle, it is still good manners to greet every Jew with Shabbat (or yom tov) good wishes. However, in practice, this can be difficult when you're seeing 60 people on the way to shul and you don't know 4/5 of them. In a small community, you'll likely know (or at least recognize) almost everyone you might give good wishes to. In large communities, the greetings get more awkward both because of the number required and the increased stranger factor. 

And who goes first? It's a vicious form of chicken. "Is she looking at me? Should I say it? Will she say it first? Oh crap, I think I just heard her mumble it! CHAG SAMEACH!" after she has already passed you by.

Adding an even further wrinkle into this conundrum of awkward is when the two people approaching each other are of different genders. In some communities (or as individuals), men may not give a greeting to a woman or respond to a greeting from a woman. In my own community, I have had awkward situations where I've greeted men with Shabbat shalom and they've looked at me like I've slapped them. You can't always tell by clothing which people will take it poorly. In my experience, the yeshivish and chassidic people in my community are generally very happy to return my greeting warmly. But you always run into people who feel my behavior is untznius. This makes me even more nervous to speak to a stranger when I can't predict who will have a bad reaction.

So what do you do? When I lived in small communities (or was traveling abroad), I was excited to wish everyone a Gut Shabbos, but now that I'm in the NYC area, I find that I mostly give strangers awkward smiles and then quiet good wishes if they look friendly. And many times, I just look away and keep walking, just like everyone else. I think that's not right, but some days you just don't have the strength to put yourself out there.

Any particularly awkward stories you'd like to share? Or ways to deal with this without constantly doing the awkward turtle?