Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Feminine Experience

Growing up, I had an unabashedly negative association with femininity. I stubbornly refused to wear dresses if not for special occasions, I shyed away from "girly" hugs with my playmates, and I arm-wrestled (and beat) all the 7th-grade boys at every single bar and bat mitzvah party. My mother had to convince me to wear make-up when I was 15- you get the picture. It wasn't that "female" conventions didn't appeal to me, it was more that I was embarassed by what I thought they represented. In my mind, femininity was associated with weakness, immaturity, superficiality, lack of intelligence, and being overly driven by emotion. From a young age, I wanted no part in any of that.

As I matured, I naturally wanted to explore my femininity more, but I didn't have an identifiable channel through which to do that. It was only when I started to integrate Judaism into my life that I was confronted with my "unique" status as a woman, being that my roles and responsibilities as a Jew stood in stark juxtaposition to the men's. I began to seriously contemplate what it means to be a woman.

For the most part, I found clarity and comfort in the Jewish community. I felt that I had developed a deeper sense of who I was through my relationship with G-d, I loved the joyful atmosphere at the shabbos tables I visited, and I found truth in living for something beyond myself.

But there was something itching just under the surface of my complacent exterior that I myself wasn't even aware of until the initial allure of observant life wore off. I couldn't quite pinpoint where my discomfort had originated until a conversation with one of my close friends allowed these concerns to surface. She was dissatisfied with her standing as woman in the observant community.

"I just don't feel connected to anything higher than the mundane world I interact with," my friend confessed. "Of course I believe in G-d, but men have so many more opportunities to feel spiritual in their day to day lives."

In a way, my friend was right. Men do have more clear-cut opportunities, simply by nature of the fact that halacha obligates them in the performance of time-bound mitzvos. They are required to wrap tefillin, daven with a minyan, and learn Torah on a consistent schedule. Furthermore, the infrastructure of the Jewish community is designed to support these activities.

Women often respond to this seemingly unbalanced dynamic by emphasizing the higher spiritual quality of the feminine soul. We are taught that our souls more closely resemble G-dly attributes and naturally gravitate toward spirituality. We are supposedly less inclined to seek corruption through the material world, but rather possess a natural sensitivity to physicality's potential for elevation. Therefore, we don't need mitzvos to keep us in line.

Although I had always appreciated the beauty of this explanation, I wasn't completely satisfied with it. I certainly didn't feel like I was more spiritual than my male counterparts. I felt that only by furthering my learning and experiences could I arrive at an understanding of my femininity with which I felt comfortable. As a result, my thirst for learning Torah and my interest in immersing myself in Jewish environments only intensified.

As a part of this process, I decided to spend a year in seminary at Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. What I witnessed at Mayanot was completely unexpected- and truly transformative.

The first phenomenon I noticed was that many girls arrived to the program wearing pants or shorts. Then, realizing they were in a "religious" environment, they hastily scoured their luggage for clothing they felt was more suited for a seminary. The next morning following Chassidus class, Rabbi Levinger made a point of individually approaching each girl who had undergone this overnight transformation. One by one, he shot them down for their choice to conform.

"Avodas Hashem (divine service) should come from within," he urged. "Not because anyone else is doing it. Not because of the environment. Not even because halacha says so. Only when halacha starts to mean something to you should you hold yourself to those standards."

It didn't take me long to realize that the emphasis on "internalizing" Torah teachings infiltrated every aspect of the program. We learned Talmud to internalize G-dly wisdom. We sang niggunim to increase our receptivity to G-dly concepts in order that they become internalized. The greatest surprise to me was that we were rarely taught about the Lubavitcher Rebbe in an explicit manner. If we wanted to explore a uniquely "Chabad" approach to Judaism, it would come from our own personal, internal desire to do so.

More and more, I began to understand the reasoning behind this philosophy and how it related to my identity as a Jewish woman. My friend was right when she noted that halacha demands less of us in our day to day life. But it is precisely because of this that we are alloted an even greater opportunity: to demand more of ourselves. The community infrastructure may appear to favor men- but discreetly built into this system is the possibility for us to create our own internal infrastructure- one that is infused with the deeply held values that we have consciously chosen as our own. If I choose to learn Chassidus at a set time each day, it is because I have searched within myself and decided it is truly important to me. It wouldn't be merely because the community expects it from me.

There is a pasuk in Tehillim that states, "All the glory of the King's daughter is within." I never understood what this meant until recently. In addition to the literal implication that women draw spiritual strength from their inner conviction, the term "daughter" often refers to the entire Jewish people. As women, we are the "glory" of our people, demonstrating to the congregation what it means to ignite spirituality from the inside. 

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Furthermore, this strength of conviction can also grant us the wisdom to know when we should, in fact, challenge the community norms. This week's parsha beautifully exemplified the Jewish woman at her best. Machla, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah advocated for a portion of the inheritance of Eretz Yisroel. They believed in this calling with such passion, to the extent that they challenged the law conveyed by Moshe at Sinai! There was no requirement for them to do so- but they felt- they knew- it was right. Their opposition came not from a place of disrespect for Torah, but because they realized that alloting women a portion of the land was indeed a true expression of Torah that had not yet been revealed to the world.

You might be wondering why all the spiritual exertion I'm talking about is necessary if we are, in fact, already "holy" enough. How does the "lofty" level of our soul fit into all of this?

Well, let's be realistic here. Maybe we are on a higher spiritual level- but right now, we live in bodies. We're still constrained by our bodily limitations, our human failings, our desires that lead us astray. Our neshama's perspective has not yet permeated the fleshy sinews of our human brains. Actualizing our potential to live on our "soul level" requires conscious, consistent exertion. Which is why as women, I believe we should learn Torah (not just attend shiurim, but actually learn), take the initiative to organize our own farbrengens, and embrace any opportunity we can to enhance our spiritual consciousness. If we make the effort, maybe we can get in touch with that "higher" part of ourselves.

Being a woman isn't easy. You have to search within yourself- a lot. But based on what I've experienced, there's a lot more to womanhood than the silly personifications of society. The more I  explore my femininity, the more I realize that stereotypes such as superficiality and intellectual repression are the polar opposite of what G-d wants from me. I've also realized that what G-d does want from me may not be so clear just by consulting halacha. There is a realm of observance that lies within the boundaries of halacha, but expresses itself implicitly- rather than explicitly- to those who search for it.

We may not be granted as many obvious opportunities to engage in "religious" practices- but what that means is we get to create opportunities. We get to be innovators, initiators, and advocates of internal spirituality. 

I couldn't be any happier with my portion. :)


  1. Interesting blog.

    Saying that "men have so many more opportunities to feel spiritual in their day to day lives." is comparing apples to oranges.

    If Mitzvot were finite than it would make sense to say that 2 mitzvot are more than one. Being that mitzvot are infinite it would be tough to argue that men have more opportunities than women. It's funny that you mention Tefillin as the example of the Mitzvah that men get to do everyday. I can only speak from my own experience but the spiritual experience starts and ends within the 1st month or year after Bar Mitzvah. Fast forward 10 years (23) and most guys either aren't putting on Tefillin (even if they still live a Frum environment) or putting it on with the same amount of feeling you have when you brush your teeth in the morning.

    It's funny that you mention "All the glory of the King's daughter is within." because walking down Kingston Ave. (Crown Heights) today I came across an advertisement that uses those words to explain the need for Tzinut ( and making it seem like there isn't any deeper meaning. It really bothered me. So thanks for this blog post explaining a deeper meaning to that verse.

    PS you may want to consider allowing people to post anonymously. It might increase the amount of comments you get.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I do appreciate hearing a male's perspective on this issue. I think a lot of women have the misconception that men have it so much better, when really everyone has their own unique struggles regardless of the "opportunities" they are given to connect each day. Everyone's avodah should come from within.

      However, as much as the knowledge that men also struggle may serve as a consolation, it doesn't really solve the problem of women feeling they lack structure, direction, and clear-cut responsibilities related to their avodah. You bring up a very crucial point that mitzvos are infinite, so really no one has more opportunities than anyone else. The impact of one mitzvo is as great as 1000 mitzvos. But my point is that it doesn't FEEL this way. On an experiential level, we're not in tune with that infinite reality. Not that the point of Judaism is to "feel" spiritual, but our feelings and experiences certainly impact the quality and direction of our avodah.

  2. Hi. You mentioned that as a child, you rejected your femininity and being led by emotions. Do you think your parents had an effect one way or the other? Did your parents encourage you to express emotion in general? Or did they as a rule encourage you to shut down emotionally?

    As men, we are punished by our parents, our friends and the women in our lives for showing anything more than a kind smile. We are expected to wear our faces as a mask, and to deaden our hearts. Little boys are told to "man up" and stop crying, while girls are more likely to be comforted and consoled. Growing up in a family of mostly women, I was insulated from this effect to some extent. I had many friends, but preferred solo activities such as reading, drawing and music, and this also had an effect. Because of this, I see the contrast between the nurturing I received in my family, than many men I think.

    For men, in general, purpose is more important than meaning, and reasoning more important than feelings. We are conditioned not to feel, as men, but instead to look for purpose. I think if you ask most men, their greatest desire is to be useful, purposeful in general (staying busy), much more than any emotional payoff or feeling. Whether this is because of training, biology, or a combination of the two, I cannot say for sure. Blogger, you other talk of the search for meaning, but for me, I was always searching for purpose, and never needed reasons, or meaning. I only needed to know that my actions have some deep purpose. Are meaning and purpose really different?