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Re’eh: The Power of Inclusion

08/30/2022 09:51:00 AM


Rabbi Ezray

Sometimes you look back on something you experienced and realize it was far more significant than you understood at the time. I had that experience as I finished college. I decided to study at an egalitarian yeshiva in Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement to see if becoming a Rabbi was the right path for me. The program I chose to attend, Midreshet Yerushalayim, was housed at the same place where the Rabbinic students for the Jewish Theological Seminary studied, and some of our classes were together.

When I chose this program, I had no idea we were amid a historic moment. It was the year the Seminary voted to admit women into Rabbinical school and the months leading up to the vote were tense as several of the students were adamantly opposed. In my program, there were some women who were studying classic texts, waiting for the decision so that they could either realize their dreams of becoming Rabbis or continue to be disappointed and thwarted. I remember their tears when the decision was made, and the next day several of the students opposed to the decision let us know they would leave in protest.

          While women becoming Conservative Rabbis was a historic moment, the impact rippled in ways I could not anticipate. I was witness to how women’s voices changed how we learn and understand our sacred tradition. That changed me in ways I could not have imagined. Let me give you an example. In that year before women were officially admitted, I took a Bible class with only males; it was just the way enrollment ended up. I remember us coming to the terrible and important story of the rape of Dinah. We read the text and you could feel the discomfort in the room; it is such a devastating story. We read the commentary, some of which blamed the victim, and we moved on to the next section. No one voiced the questions that should have been asked and explored the discomfort that needed to be expressed. Two years later, as I began my studies with women fully integrated into Rabbinical school, I had a mixed gender Bible class, and we came to the same story. As we read the story, the women lifted Dinah’s voice that was absent in the text. Building on a Midrashic tradition which filled in gaps in the story in ways that taught new lessons, they gave Dinah, and all women, voice. They got angry at the commentary that blamed the victim. Their sacred interpretations lifted Dinah’s story as paradigmatic of the violence and discrimination against women that was swept under the rug, both then and now. It was a “Me Too” moment decades before that movement gained its strength. The story was a catalyst to explore identity, power, and gender. The class turned the patriarchal framework on its head and brought things to the surface that changed me and our Jewish community. It is work that is ongoing.

          Inclusion changes us for the better and exclusion diminishes us. With sadness I thought about all the voices, interpretations, and insight from past generations that we lost out on. So much has come out in recent years: women’s voices impacted how we understand leadership, God, and Jewish law. We should never lose voices that enrich us all.  

          For all that we are products of a patriarchal society, and it is indeed a piece of our tradition we must reckon with, inclusion has deep roots in our texts as well.  Female heroines and protagonists and voices of interpretation are keys aspects of our history. Women throughout history have been scholars and there is a long line of Jewish women who developed prayers and traditions. This week’s portion contains an important detail.  In the verses where we are instructed to bring offerings and celebrate holidays in the place where God’s name will dwell (most likely Jerusalem – although it is not specifically named) we are told that we should be accompanied, “With your sons and daughters and your male and female slaves, along with the Levite in your settlements.” (Deut. 12:12) This is a verse of radical inclusion, both of gender and those economically disadvantaged.

Put yourself in the place of the daughter, servant, or societal member who was included. You are seen. You are part of something. You aren’t marginalized and told you could not participate in the most important acts of community and faith. I believe that it calls upon us to struggle with ongoing legacies of exclusion and seek to live the value of inclusion. Let’s ask the challenging question of who has been excluded and how we might do a better job of inclusion. 

          Inclusion changes us for the better and exclusion diminishes us. Inclusion encourages creativity and experimentation. It provides an opportunity to revisit the past, both to see those we may have overlooked and what we can learn from their stories, and to find inspiration as these stories seep into our souls. Today I would like to share the story of an incredible woman, Sarah Schenirer. I had no idea who she was until Professor Naomi Seideman spoke at CBJ a couple years ago, and her story is incredible!

Sarah Schenirer was born to an observant family Poland in 1885 and while taught some Torah texts in Yiddish by her father, she felt constrained by the restrictions on women and had a burning desire to learn Jewish texts and practice Jewish life like the men did. Describing that passion, she wrote that fathers and sons travel to meet the rebbes, “And we stay at home, the wives, daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty festival. It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual meaning that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women's galleries. There is much crying by elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogues, the young girls stay chattering; they walk away from the synagogue, where their mothers pour out their vague and heavy feelings. They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further from the synagogue they go, further away, to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy.”

          Sarah Schinirer teaches us what it feels like to be excluded and names how we lose people from community when we exclude. She found ways to learn. She was trained as a seamstress but found opportunities to teach.  She was a divorced woman at a time when women rarely got divorced. She found ways within the system to bring about change. She convinced the Belzer Rebbe to allow her to establish schools for girls. What began as a Kindergarten of 25 students, grew into the Bais Yaakov system of schools. She loved teaching Torah and used songs, plays, and dancing as educational tools. Within 5 years, there were 7 schools, with 1,040 students. By 1933, there were 265 schools in Poland alone, with almost 38,000 students. It was all about teaching Judaism with heart. In 1939, there were about 250 schools established, and over 40,000 students in Bais Yaakov schools

          On the 15th of Av, I shared a journal entry from a young woman about the little-known holiday Tu B’Av, a day when the young women would borrow white dresses, go out to the fields and dance, meeting the men who would potentially become their husbands. I love a holiday about love and creating opportunities to meet people. I love that it is a holiday where the women are the driving force.

But Sarah Schenirer took the holiday and turned it on its head. She celebrated it with the girls of Bais Yaakov not as a holiday to find a husband, but as a holiday of female empowerment. Naomi Seideman brought the journal of Hodo Movshowitz, who described Tu B’av in the resort town of Skawa, Poland where Bais Yaakov held a summer program in 1932. Describing a nighttime hike up a path into the forest, she wrote: “One hundred and fifteen of us go step by step, hand in hand, along the path, Mrs. Schenirer first among us, our hearts beating with extraordinary joy.” A campfire was lit and then Sarah Schenirer, her face lit up in the firelight, began to speak to the girls. She described the, “Secret place, the small and hidden flickering flame within each of us,” and that, “Many waters cannot extinguish love,” as the fire leapt and dry twigs flamed out in the grass.  After Schenirer finished speaking, the girls were overcome with the urge to sing. Movshowitz recorded: “No power in the world could stop us.” They sang, the fire in their eyes growing more radiant. They added wood to the fire and the flames leapt up ever higher. As the night progressed and the flames glowed, the girls felt moved to get on their feet, and began to dance, hand in hand, with Schenirer among them, whirling until everything disappeared but the dance. “The dancing lasts for a long, long time,” she wrote, “We dance as we accompany Mrs. Schenirer home, and only then do we ourselves go to sleep.”

This is the power of inclusion. It is the voices that have been lost that we need to reclaim. As we explore the Bible, when we lift stories like Sarah Schenirer and women who challenged authority and brought new insights to our sacred texts, we reawaken the sparks in our own hearts. We find our callings, overcome odds, and realize dreams. We stand on the shoulders of giants whose voices cannot be lost. Let’s honor them, learn from them, and create a culture of inclusion. 

Thu, September 29 2022 4 Tishrei 5783