Last Tuesday was International Women’s Day; Sunday is a very important day of learning for women in the Masorti Jewish community. Perhaps a man writes about women at his peril; but it’s also not right not to write.
I grew up with four women role models in the immediate family.
My mother’s mother saved the family from the Nazis. We called her Oma, but her full name was Natalie Charlotte; she was proud of being born a Caro and claimed descent from the illustrious Rabbi Joseph Caro, a heritage confirmed when she married a rabbi. When my grandfather was in Dachau, she, like tens of thousands of other Jewish women in Germany in 1938, challenged the evil powers of the state. She saw off a Nazi officer who tried to buy their home for 10 marks, entered Gestapo offices where the doors had no handle from the inside, and single-handedly repaired the telephone cut off by the secret police. It was above all her victory when the family finally reached Britain.
My father’s grandmother was not so fortunate. But I have spent years studying the letters she wrote from Czechoslovakia, from 1938 until1943, to her children around the world. Her body was eventually destroyed, but not her love, courage or faith. Her final written words were prayers.
I didn’t have the chance to know my late mother Lore very well. But her passion for poetry entered my veins nevertheless, with accounts of her academic brilliance, and her love of dance (which I did not inherit). When I got a scholarship to Cambridge I won from my grandmother the ultimate accolade: ‘You did almost as well as your mother’.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay to Isca, my second mother who brought me up since the age of 5, and who has just celebrated her 93rd birthday, is that whenever we have a dinner for young people, they virtually queue to sit next to her. ‘I loved talking to your mother; she’s amazing,’ they always say. I don’t think they’re referring only to her pioneering work in psychoanalysis and great renown, but to her interest in life and people: her curiosity, engagement and sense of wonder.
I’m not even going to try to write about my wife and two daughters (and son, of course) or my wonderful mother-in-law. I am, after all, outnumbered.
I’ve always felt wrong about the ‘spare rib’ theory of the creation of woman; I was relieved when I discovered an alternative account in the Talmud. According to this reading the first human was androgynous, as the Torah says: ‘male and female did God create them’. Appreciating that the two facets of this dual being could not find companionship face to face, God separated them, one side (not ‘rib’) becoming a man, the other a woman. This apologetic does not, of course, make good the immeasurable loss caused by the overwhelming absence of women’s voices, wisdom, insight and ideas in our classic rabbinic texts, – until the modern period.
Though I grew up in a world where the leadership of all aspects of the synagogue service by men was almost unquestioned, I now feel uncomfortable in such settings unless there is a parallel egalitarian alternative, or at least a balance of options, which can be freely chosen. In the latter circumstances, I can appreciate why there are women and men for whom the long non-egalitarian tradition of Judaism feels in greater continuity with what has been familiar since childhood, with the way our grandparents prayed.
I see the future of Judaism as dependent not on discrimination between the genders but on the depth of commitment to learning, community, Jewish values and spirituality. I am glad to work in a sphere where I have both male and female colleagues and can learn from both.
Thirty years’ of pastoral life have made me deeply reluctant to label any character traits as ‘male’ or ‘female’; I’m much more inclined to think that people are people. This does not mean that everyone is the same, or that life does not bring different experiences and elicit different sensitivities, but sweeping generalisations don’t accord with what I hear and feel.
However, I have, sadly, listened to appalling accounts of brutality, bullying and betrayal, and the victims are far more often women. This outrage goes on in secret or semi-secret all around us, which is why I admire the essential work of my colleague Rabbi Lee Wax in Jewish Women’s Aid. I look with horror on the renewed subjugation women are forced to endure in many parts of the world, sometimes closer to home than we would like to think.
Equality must be an essential foundation of both our civilisation and our faith. It is rooted in Judaism’s most central, basic teachings: that all life belongs to God, that all life is sacred, and that all people are created both equal and unique, in God’s image.