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Women’s Issues: Two Letters


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

NOTE: Last week, due to a transmission problem, we received the response to two letters prior to receiving the questions. We regret the inconvenience that this has caused our readers. This week, we are printing the letters, and next week, we will print the second response.

As Jews and Americans, we have a special obligation to show our gratitude to Hashem. This obligation takes on special significance this year. Baruch Hashem, we have been witness to yeshuos Hashem – the salvation of G-d. While we could have expected terrible calamities to befall our brethren in Eretz Yisrael as the war was raging in Iraq, HaShem protected them. And while the pundits all predicted a bloody battle and the use of poisonous gas on our American forces… or at the very least, a second Vietnam, Hashem granted them a stunning victory. May He bless us, our brethren in Israel, our President and all those who courageously battle the forces of evil.

Letter #1

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

I hope this letter finds the Rebbetzin and her family well. Your column is a weekly tradition at our Shabbos table. Your remarks and heartfelt comments are always right on the mark and open up views that one needs to ponder and take to heart and act on. You also know the “secret code” to understanding the true meaning of the Midrashim and enlighten those seemingly cryptic texts with the full illumination of your wisdom.

Some years ago, my wife and I had the wonderful privilege of hearing you speak on a Motzei Shabbos in Park Slope, Brooklyn. That next day, we visited you at a book signing for your book, “The Committed Life.” I am hoping that you will be able to shed some light on the following query:

How do we understand and deal with the “Orthodox” feminist groups? These organizations are bent on feminizing the traditional davening services. They bring halachic proofs and actually practice giving aliyos to women and have women read the Torah for other women and have women lead P’sukei D’zimrah and other parts of davening that do not require a minyan of adult males. All of these female participating roles are done in the presence of a “minyan” of adult males and with a kosher mechitza.

We know Judaism assigns a very special role to women and allows women to lead the Jewish nation and to teach Torah. But it seems to me that these organizations are forgetting that although the Jewish woman’s role is unique and privileged, it is very different from that of a Jewish man and serves a different purpose. It has been explained to me that since women today are in the professional arena and no longer need to rely on a husband for support and sustenance, that women should be accorded a more prominent role in the synagogue services.

With prayers for your continued success and good health for you and your family.

Letter #2

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

You won’t remember me, but some years ago, I heard you when you spoke here in our small Jewish community in California. I grew up Reform – my parents were not at all observant. Our Jewish affiliation was mostly limited to the High Holidays and special occasions like confirmation - bat mitzvas. I married a young man whom I met at Berkeley who came from a similar background, and because we knew no better, we were quite content in our Judaism. And then you came, awakened us, jarred us, and shook us up! When  you left, we knew that we had to make changes in our lives. When we read your book, “The Committed Life,” we decided we could wait no longer, but would have to begin to study and make a commitment. It’s been a long journey. We joined a small Orthodox synagogue and are now kosher and Sabbath observant.

Initially, our families were very negative, thought we had joined a cult, fought us on every level. My mother particularly resented our not eating in her home, arguing that if we were so religious, how is it that we don’t keep the fifth commandment of honoring parents.

Last year, G-d blessed us with an adorable baby girl. She is truly a gift – the most precious baby you could ever want to see. Since her birth, the tension in the family has, Baruch Hashem, eased. My parents love the baby and that makes up for everything. But my mother still gives me arguments - cutting remarks that denigrate our faith and our life style. Her pet peeves are women’s issues. My parents have always prided themselves on their liberal philosophy. In our home, tolerance of other people’s lifestyles was sort of the religion in which my parents taught us to believe..

My mother is a very strong feminist, and can’t for the life of her understand how I, a graduate of Berkeley, a professional, can accept the inferior position to which women are relegated in an Orthodox service. Last week, she engaged me in an especially hostile confrontation. She wanted to know why women can’t be called up to the Torah for an aliyah - to recite the blessing. I tried to explain our laws of modesty to her and I reminded her of the days when I used to go with her to Temple and see the women dressed to the nines walking up for an aliyah as if they were walking up a runway in a fashion show.

I told her that the Torah dictates that the synagogue should be an oasis of spirituality, a place to connect with G-d, a place in which to pray – a most difficult goal to achieve while attractively dressed women stroll up to the bima. Amazingly enough, this answer sort of satisfied her (at least she didn’t have too much to say on it), although she did remark that not every woman who is called up is attractive or dressed provocatively. But she conceded that enough of them are.

But then she came back at me with, “Why can’t women be counted in a minyan? After all, for that they can remain in their seats; they don’t even have to be heard.

I tried to answer her on that count as well, but she was totally dissatisfied with my response, and for a change, we found ourselves at an impasse, once again embroiled in controversy. I know that there are real burning issues out there – with what’s going on in Israel, and the personal dilemmas that people are confronting regarding health and just earning a living, so I hate to bother you with such nonsense, but the more I think about it and the more people to whom I speak, the more I come to realize that feminist issues have become major points of contention in many circles, so I would really appreciate it if you could address this issue of minyan. I think it would be very helpful to many people in many communities.

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