The rabbis taught: "Sins between man and God are atoned for by Yom Kippur; those between man and his fellow, Yom Kippur does not atone for, until he appeases his fellow" (Mishna Yoma 8:9). But how does one atone for an ideology that has failed to achieve its aims? How does a worldview atone for its errors? How is it to be forgiven? Our generation had hoped to bring to the Jewish world, through feminism, a mutual respect and closeness between men and women. Have we succeeded?
At the beginning of the Hebrew new year we encounter the amazing character of Hannah, mother of Samuel. In despair and despondent at being barren, jealous and contending with her rival Peninnah, suffering humiliation and scorn by Eli the high priest - from out of this desolate state is forged a revolutionary figure who bequeaths the power of quiet prayer to her people, prayer that serves as a channel for the yearning to bond with the Divine Presence that fills the world. The strengthened soul transforms a "woman of sorrowful spirit... who spoke in her heart but her voice could not be heard" (I Samuel 1:13) into "a woman standing upright who prays to God" (1:26) and praises Him for "raising up the needy" (2:8).
What was Hannah's emotional and spiritual state such that she "cast her words upward" (B. Brachot 31b) and was answered? What brought about the derivation of many important halachot based on Hannah's prayer (B. Brachot 31a)? This spiritual and intellectual greatness was preceded by an emotional profundity and deep covenant between Hannah and her husband, Elkanah. "Why do you weep, and not eat, and grieve so?" (I Samuel 1:8), wonders the man who witnesses her suffering. He reminds her of his unconditional love for her, which consists of emotional closeness, empathy for one who suffers, accentuation of joy in what there is that mitigates anguish over what is lacking.
Over the past decades we Jewish feminists have focused too much upon technical halachic equality, easily misused to serve as a fig leaf that conceals tremendous alienation between men and women. If counting women in a minyan or calling them up to the Torah does not bring about an increased emotional closeness between men and women, a decrease in the phenomena of bachelorhood, divorce, sexual licentiousness and loneliness; if it does not strengthen us against addictive self-absorption, and encourage respect for the sexual difference between boys and girls and a greater effort to reconcile the two (a challenge akin to the Splitting of the Sea among today's youth); if we do not take responsibility to provide work for women who are older or more frail; what have we gained by these halachic rulings?
We have transgressed in focusing upon technical equality over the years instead of directing ourselves and our sons and daughters toward developing relations characterized by friendship and fraternity, between man and wife in the home, men and women in the workplace, the study hall and the synagogue. I pray that the gates of peace between men and women be opened, and that the new year brings with it a covenant of closeness and partnership.
The writer lectures at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. In 1989, she became the first Israeli-born woman to be ordained a rabbi. She served as public relations director of the Masorti Movement in 1997, and as dean of the Schechter Rabbinical School from 2005-2009. Her book, A New Life, on the religious philosophy of A.D. Gordon, was published in 2007.
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