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Torah Wisdom

Chassidic Feminism

Rabbi Levi Welton


On a warm, adolescent night many moons ago, my friend Daniel Feld dragged me to a slam-poetry bar in the foliaged backyard of some Bay Area establishment. One performer started lambasting believers of the Bible as misogynistic. Her contention? The verse in Leviticus 15:19 which states regarding a menstruating woman, "... anyone who touches her will be unclean."


This was my first night at a poetry bar. To be honest, I had thought I’d hear annoying whimsical rhymes and vexing cryptic sonnets. Instead, I witnessed the sheer power of women and men stripping their souls naked through clothing them in word. But the words of this spoken-word artist offended me. Not on behalf of the billions who consider this verse part of holy scripture. No, I was offended on behalf of my mother. 


Mommy had spent basically my entire childhood tending to the ritual needs of Jewish menstruating women through volunteering to run the “Women’s Mikvah”, nestled in the foliaged backyard of our Berkeley home. As a child, I’d often have to do my homework alone because Mommy -  the “Mikvah lady” - had her nights booked. “Mommy, is it true?” I wanted to ask her as I sipped my Coca-Cola in the shadows of the bar, nursing my feelings. “Do you really think those women you served are “dirty” and defective?”

 

But I already knew my answer. 


I had witnessed her giving it - in oh so many ways - to those who challenged her about it around our Shabbos table. “The Torah teaches that the greatest way to decorate one’s home is through hachnosas orchim (hosting guests),” she taught my siblings and I as we helped her set the table for ten. Like Sarah and Abraham -  the first Jews - her “tent” was “open on all sides” (Midrash Tehillim, Shochar Tov, Psalm 110) and our guests stemmed from all sides of society. College students from U.C. Berkeley, professors, religious, unaffiliated, cops, hippies, Republicans, Democrats...you name it, we had it. Naturally, our table was often full of lively discussion and - even more often - questions. 


So I could surmise Mommy’s reply. 


Far from being "dirty”, a woman's cycle is of the highest spiritual cleanliness. A woman’s menstruation cycle reminds us that it is the ebb and flow - the changes and opportunities - of this physical existence that empower us to relive and “re-know” the poetry of life.  In other words, Mikvah is not about getting clean. It’s about getting alive. By honoring the egg that has been shed - which will never house a human soul -  and embracing the spirit to begin anew, the woman menstruates the wisdom of the highest of priests - that we honor the death of lost opportunity and treasure the life of a new choice. 


The Torah's scriptural and ritual “impurity” (The Hebrew word used in the verse is not "meluchlach -- unclean" but "tamei” which accurately translates as “impure”) is not gender specific nor does it have anything to do with hygienics. Meticulous bodily cleanliness is a prerequisite for using a Mikvah (Talmud 82A), the male High Priest went to Mikvah when he prayed for new life for his people  in the Holy Temple (Leviticus 16:24, and many women and men use the Mikvah in preparation for High Holidays, Shabbat or religious events (Talmud Yevamos 46a).


“The Mikvah is a holy place,” my mother would often tell me. “Hashem listens very closely to what these women have to say. Just reading Tehillim and davening (praying) under the same roof of these women brings many brachos (blessings).”


I knew the poet in the bar didn’t know what she didn't know. And what she didn't know was how much Mommy cared. For it was I who had kneeled in the dirt next to my mother, watching her plant a bustling flower bed in front of the Mikvah. Mommy wanted the women to feel beautiful. It was I who trailed after my mother as she hummed Chassidiseh Niggunim (Chassidic melodies), carrying load after load of fluffy white bath towels up from the Mikvah to our house to wash, dry, and fold with the meticulosity only a scientist like herself could deploy. Mommy wanted them to feel luxuriously special. And it was I who knew that, along with her other accomplishments of wife, mother, PhD, scientist, and office administrator, Mommy wore the label of “Mikvah Lady” with pride. 


For my Mommy, the Mikvah was an exclusive “Girl’s Club”, an expression of her Chassidic feminism. One time, a college-man sitting around our Shabbos table began challenging my mother about the patriarchy, her being a “baby machine”, and the repressive role of Chassidic women. He didn’t know the emotional scar miscarriage had left on my mother. But she smiled, nonetheless. "The more you study Torah,” she replied as she poured some piping hot chicken soup into his bowl, “the more you see how women are the voice of wisdom, of breaking the glass ceiling of possibility, the voice of redemption.” 


The examples of this are of Biblical proportion. The Torah scholar and leader Devorah who adjudicated Jewish law under a date palm (Judges 4:5), the daughters of Tzelofchad who successfully led a revolution for women’s rights against Moses, sanctioned by G-d (Numbers 27:3), the prophetess Chanah who founded the masterpiece of Jewish liturgy, the “Amidah” (I Samuel 1:10, Talmud, Megillah 14a), and - of course - the moment when G-d admonishes Abraham to “listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12). 


Which, of course, reminds me of the Rabbi Ferris joke about the man who dies and sees two lines outside Heaven’s gate. “What’re the two lines for?” he asks the guy in front of him. “Oh, this line is for all the men subservient to their wives. Y’know, compromise as the key to marriage. But that line,” the guy pointed to the second line which only had one soul standing on it, “is for the men who were able to successfully stand their ground and miraculously keep their marriage and their manhood.” 


“How’d he do it?”


“We don’t know,” the guy shrugged his shoulders. “None of us can muster the courage to ask him.”


Looking up and down at the millions of men on the first line, our hero states,”Well, I’m gonna go find out.” He trots across the fluffy clouds to the second line and tentatively asks,“Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to interrupt you or anything but we’re all wondering the same thing. How’d you do it? How’d you manage to be a real man amongst men, not listening to the voice of your wife?”


The man turned, scowled, and said, “Don’t ask me. My wife told me to stand here.”

But, all jokes aside, my mother never considered herself subservient to the patriarchy, in Judaism. “Just different,” she’d say. “Men have their Mitzvos and women have ours. Sometimes our religious realms overlap and sometimes not. It’s ok to be different.” Maybe that’s why my Mom was a “Trekkie”, a fan of the Star Trek TV shows featuring people with different backgrounds and skills all working together to go where “no man has gone before.”


Indeed, in the Torah,  it is specifically the women who have led my people toward the frontiers of redemption. As it states, “In the merit of the righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt'' (Talmud, Sotah 11b). Perhaps that’s why Ruchie Frier, a chassidic judge in New York and the face of an all-women’s Chassidic volunteer ambulance corps, recently commented, “If you have Torah, you don’t need feminism.” 


But, for my mother, feminism is Torah and celebrating femininity is celebrating the Divine.  Hence, the Divine Presence is referred to with a feminine word “Shechinah” (See Zohar 3:272b, and Sefer ha-Maamarim 5689, p. 89 (Maamar Lecha Dodi), the Shabbat is referred to as a “Queen”, (Talmud, Shabbat 119a), and one’s spiritual identity is birthed via matrilineal descent. (Jewish Law, Even HaEzer 8:5). “Mother’s Day is every day,” Mommy would often say.


“In the Torah,” my mother schooled the young college-man, “We’re not the “house-wife” but the “house-life”, the “Ekeres HaBayis” - the dominant life force in the microcommunity aka the family. This includes women without children or husbands. Being a Chassidic feminist doesn’t mean we have to strive to occupy every male role or think we need to climb the rungs of a secular societal structure predicated upon systems of misogyny. On the contrary, we are daughters of Chava (Eve) and above the systems of men.”


I remember wondering what she meant. "What systems of men?” Then I went away to Yeshiva and learned that exile is synonymous with the rise of male energy and redemption synonymous with the rise in female energy. (Mammar Lecha Dodi, 1954). Hence, it states in the Talmud, “When the Jews were exiled, the Shechina went with them, etc.” (Talmud, Megillah, 29a). The era of “Golus”/exile is punctuated with war and the need for good to conquer evil whereas the era of the “Geulah” (another feminine word)/Redemption is personified with peace and revealing the goodness within the evil. Hence, Beruriah schooled her husband not to pray for the death of evildoers but to pray for their return to goodness. (Talmud, Berachot 10a). 


My mother would sometimes laugh and say, “The very fact that Chava (Eve) was formed second is proof that evolution equals progress.” Or, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught upon founding the Lubavitch Women’s Organization in 1953, the feminine way of conquering the world is not through brute aggressiveness but through “distinctive feminine traits” of modesty and “innerness” which more effectively access power, from within. As it states, “The glory of the king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:14).” And as it states, “God gave more understanding to women than to men” (Talmud, Niddah 45b). 


It used to be that it was men commanding women what to wear, think, and do. Now it’s women telling women like my mother what to wear, think, and value. “But isn’t feminism all about granting autonomy and space for a woman to choose for herself?” my mother would ponder out loud.


“When I chose to stop teaching microbiology to focus on raising my children, I was met with horrified gasps and protests from my so-called more liberated peers. “ My mother smiled again at the college student. “But isn't that societal pressure for me to conform in itself a form of oppression?” He sat there, as still as his untouched chicken soup, his eyes lit up with that look of someone pondering a thing they had never considered before.


I was a teenager at the time, having just a few moons prior been taught by my mother about the “birds and the bees.” So a lot of the conversation, history, and cultural references went right over my head. But the image of my mother standing up for being a Chassidic feminist - in her own way and whether it was popular or not -  is a Shabbos memory I'll treasure forever.


The poet E. E. Cummings once said,"Write poetry, for God's sake, it's the only thing that matters.” For me, it is the Torah that matters and the Torah of my mother and father that matters most. 


Therefore, I don't mind if people will lambast, contend, or say what they will. For I will walk in the path of the Torah scholar Rav Yosef ben Chiya who said upon hearing his mother’s footsteps, “Let me stand before the approach of the Divine Presence '' (Talmud, Kiddushin 31b).

Rabbi Welton and friend

Rabbi Welton and friend.jpg

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