In the darkness the building was easy to miss. Low and set back from the road, its only distinguishing feature was the number on the door. Inside, men of all ages congregated beneath fluorescent lights, the air heavy with the scent of instant coffee. Fat tomes lay split to reveal compact lines of Hebrew and card tables were littered with the remains of rugelach and cheesecake.
I had been looking forward to Shavuot for weeks. The espresso fueled holiday of all night Torah study echoed my own passion for communal learning and reflection. Initially, I reached out to the Reform and Conservative synagogues in my area, but was disappointed to discover they did not offer the sort of celebratory study proscribed by our sages. Instead, for inspired lectures on Megillat Ruth and sweeping philosophies addressing the meaning of life, I would visit an Orthodox shul. It would not be the first time I would study with my Orthodox sisters and brothers. I learned Hebrew from an Orthodox Rabbi, and participated in a class exploring the intricacies of halacha at an Orthodox synagogue. For several years, it was there that I attended high holiday services. These experiences proved deeply enriching and I remain grateful for the gentle guidance I received.
On that particular Shavuot, I knew enough to dress carefully in a long black skirt and simple, modest sweater. I wore my silver Star of David pendant and paired dark tights with low-heeled shoes. I arrived enthusiastic, primed for spirited dialogue, and quickly discovered I was the only woman there. Although I was welcomed warmly by one of the Rabbis, the other men present did not speak with me. They chose seats as far from mine as possible, entering into lively discussion with one another, but refusing even to look in my direction. Feeling marginalized, I did not attempt to join their conversation, but I did ask a question of the Rabbi. My inquiry silenced the entire room. I snuck out shortly thereafter, and cruised the empty streets until fatigue overtook me.
It is this experience I recall when I read the words of this week’s parshah, Bamidbar. We have arrived at The Book of Numbers, and not surprisingly it begins with an accounting. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community,” the divine instructs Moses, “…listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:1 – 1:4). It is easy to interpret this passage as defining the people Israel as men fit for combat. Excluded from the census are women, youth, and the elderly, as well as anyone who might not have served his community in battle.
Many voices are absent from our tradition. So much of our community’s experience is not reflected in halachic decisions or the worlds of midrash. Our texts define divinity in strictly masculine terms, and even our prayers aren’t historically egalitarian. While the profile of our matriarchs has grown in modern observance, our Torah presents their stories in a strictly patriarchal context. We are not told, for instance, how Rebekah felt upon leaving her family’s home to journey towards a husband she had yet to meet. Sarah’s personal experience of infertility is missing and we can only speculate on the relationship between Rachel and Leah.
To varying degrees, all major movements within Judaism have evolved towards a more robust inclusion of women. Translations have been updated and in some instances gendered pronouns have been removed. The genre of modern midrash offers a forum for women’s voices. But our ability to alter the record of our past is limited. And in any case, changing the words cannot change history.
Fortunately, ours is a living tradition. The story of the Jewish people is one still beautifully unfolding. Today, Jewish women are proving a visible and potent force in all denominations, directly influencing the trajectory of 21st century Judaism. Strong and diverse voices continue to emerge and our stories are becoming important elements in the collective chronicle of our community.
Your voice is essential. Your experience is relevant. Whoever you are, whatever you bring to our shared tradition, you matter. Your individual journey is as valid a part of our story as that of our matriarchs, patriarchs, sages, heroes and heroines. As they should, our Jewish values have evolved since this week’s parshah was written. Our truth has grown wider and more inclusive. Although many of us may not find ourselves in our traditional texts, we can ensure that our experiences will help inform a strong and sustainable future for klal Yisrael. By embracing our individual identities as distinctly Jewish, we carve a sacred place for ourselves today and support those who will come tomorrow.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.