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Leora Tanenbaum

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Religious Enough for You? Women Light the Holiday Fires

Posted: 12/21/08 02:45 PM ET

When Orthodox Jewish families light Hanukkah candles this evening, will the women light too? More than how many jelly doughnuts and chocolate coins can my kids eat before they feel sick (answer: more than you can imagine), I wonder how many stringently observant Jewish women will take advantage of the fascinating loophole that permits them to participate in this ritual.

Most Jewish women in the liberal denominations (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist), as well as in modern Orthodox communities, are delighted to light the candles (even though this means more melted wax to contend with later). But there remain too many holdouts who prefer to have a man or even a boy over the age of 13 light on their behalf.

Under normal circumstances, halakhah (Jewish law) stipulates that women are exempt from fulfilling time-bound obligations--presumably because historically they have been too busy tending to household and child-related responsibilities. Over time, this exemption has unfortunately become understood by many leading Orthodox authorities to be a prohibition. But there are a few exceptions to the exemption: lighting Shabbat candles, drinking the four cups of wine at the Passover Seder, listening to the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim... and lighting the menorah on Hanukkah.

The Talmud tells us that women have an obligation to light the candles "for they too were included in the miracle" of the holiday. In the second century B.C.E., the Syrian-Greeks stripped the Jewish minority in their midst of their right to observe Judaism, on pain of torture and death. A tiny army, the Maccabees, led a revolt. The miracle was that after the Syrian-Greeks had ransacked the Temple in Jerusalem, only a lone canister of oil, enough to light up the Temple's menorah for one day, remained. Yet it actually burned for eight days. Perceiving this as a miracle and a sign that God was watching over them, the Maccabees were so energized that they went on to conquer the Syrian-Greek army.

Medieval rabbis explained that women "too were included in the miracle" in that they too were persecuted. But one medieval rabbi offered a different line of reasoning: it was because of a righteous woman that military victory against the Syrian-Greeks was at hand. Legend has it that before being married, brides were forced to be intimate with the Syrian-Greek governor. When the daughter of the high priest, Judith, went to the home of the governor, she shrewdly fed him cheese until he was overcome with thirst; then she gave him wine until he fell asleep. When he passed out, she beheaded him, causing his army to flee. In commemoration, there is a custom that women refrain from work during the time the Hanukkah lights are burning. (Women, take note: oil burns much longer than wax.)

Orthodox Jewish women know all of this. Today's Orthodox Jewish women are the best Judaically educated women in all of history. Over the course of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, there has been an explosion of desire of Orthodox girls and women to study their sacred texts in depth. They know the halakhah. They can cite the Talmud upside down and sideways. And many are speaking up, drawing from their extensive knowledge to collect their religious rights.

Yet there is a profound disconnect between the Judaic knowledge that women have attained and their ability to put that knowledge to practical use. Many are afraid to take on religious rituals, even uncontested ones like lighting Hanukkah candles.

This is not just a Jewish phenomenon. In fact, many devout Christian and Muslim women have also relied on male religious leadership their entire lives and have become reflexively dependent on men, even when they themselves, or other women they know, are knowledgeable about their religious tradition. Many assume that that they are forbidden from certain practices or leadership roles, when in fact they are not.

When they turn to their sacred texts, Christian and Muslim women are often surprised to discover that much of what has been withheld from them, because they are women, is rooted in misunderstanding and error--or a deliberate power grab on the part of men who have reserved for themselves the status that historically has come from serving God.

When Catholic women ask why only men can be ordained as priests, they are told that women are unable to act in persona Christi--they cannot represent Christ--because they do not resemble Jesus Christ in his maleness. But Jesus never said anything about maleness--or about a priesthood. The claim that priests must be male is not based on the Bible, since the priesthood was created only in 313, and it contradicts the Christian idea that all who are baptized are in the image of God (imago dei). The Pontifical Biblical Commission conceded over thirty years ago that there is no valid scriptural reason not to ordain women, but the Vatican silenced its conclusions. There is no reason for women to be shut out of the ordained priesthood. They are shut out only because the pope wants it so.

This is why the National Coalition of American Nuns went public last week in their endorsement of women's ordination and Roy Bourgeois, a renegade priest who is expected to be excommunicated by the Vatican because of his support for female priests. A total of 113 nuns signed their names to a letter addressed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful Vatican agency, in a campaign led by the Women's Ordination Conference.

Likewise, in nearly all mosques in the United States, women are segregated from the men (as in Orthodox synagogues). In many mosques they sit upstairs in a gallery, far from the action, unable to see or even hear the imam; in other mosques they sit in a separate section behind the men with a physical barrier demarcating the spaces. In some cases women are relegated to a different room entirely.

But the physical barrier between the sexes did not originate with the prophet Muhammad. True, during his time the sexes were separated during prayer, but the prophet did not require a barrier between them. Moreover, there is no verse in the Qur'an or the hadith (collections of traditions of Muhammad) establishing the need for a barrier. Today, progressive scholars insist that separating the sexes has no legitimate basis in Islam. A few brave women have stood in the back of the men's section, refusing to budge, to stake their claim to equal access.

Devout people of various faith backgrounds have a tendency to mistake stringency for piety. And many people--including many women themselves--believe that women should be excluded from full religious participation in order for the religious experience to be authentic. But a growing number of devout women today are enthusiastically embracing Bible and Qur'an study. They are taking back their faith intellectually. And the more they learn, the more they discover that they love their tradition and want to honor it as faithfully as they can--which means being full, active participants, if not leaders.

 

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