Danielle Kranjec

Danielle Kranjec, Sisterhood Shabbat 2/2/2020

Shabbat Shalom. First I would like to wish mazal tov to the honorees today, Dr. Behrmann Cohen, Dr. Helfand, and Pat Weiss. It is my honor to be considered in their company and I am grateful for the opportunity address you today as we come together under both the literal organization of the Sisterhood of Beth Shalom and the broader conceptual notion of sisterhood that binds us together. My dvar today is presented from my heart in their honor and I hope to give all of us a gift in their names, and the names of our ancestors, that will honor Jewish women and their legacies.

Today I would like to speak to you about WOMEN’S TORAH. And what I mean by women’s Torah is beyond a commentary on the weekly parsha from a woman’s perspective, or a feminist interpretation of our traditional texts. I am not just talking about that experience that we all have – or at least that I have – of reading each week’s parsha searching for a woman’s name or even the mention of the word “woman” (of which we had a few this week) -- I am speaking of the ways of BEING, KNOWING, and DOING that are specific to the very broadly-defined identity of Jewish womanhood.

Today I will be speaking in very binary terms that may be uncomfortable for some and are certainly limiting for all of us. One of the legacies of our tradition is a distinctly defined gender binary. Not all humans, and not all Jews, experience themselves in this clearly defined way of male or female, this or that, Person, or other-kind-of-person. I don’t mean to suggest here that man and woman are the only two categories of Jew that can possibly exist in a gendered system. Rather, what I am attempting to offer today is a tikkun (healing, repair) at least for those who do identify with experience of WOMAN and whose knowledge, experience, and wisdom has been subjugated, marginalized, and ignored because of that category. This is not the only tikkun to be offered to our beautiful, imperfect, patriarchal tradition. But it is mine and it is the one I offer today, and I hope you will forgive me for my omissions and errors.

I would like to ask three times WHAT IS WOMEN’S TORAH and I would like to offer three answers in the voices of three different women from our textual tradition in their own words. These questions and answers I offer lichvod, in the honor, of the three women we celebrate today. I believe that we must expand our notion of Torah to include women’s voices, but to more than include them – to center them. To more than center them – to value them. To value them to the extent that we allow them to begin to shape what it means to be Jewish in the same way that men’s voices have for these thousands of years. I am so frustrated that I am beyond frustrated at hearing “well we can’t cite women’s voices because there are just no women to cite.” Friends, I AM DONE. I cannot hear this again. If you are looking for female eighteenth-century Chassidic masters, of course you won’t find them. If you are looking for Jewish female medieval philosophers, of course you won’t find them. We can’t look in the same, standard places in our textual history for women’s voices, because women were excluded from the kinds of literary and rabbinic textual traditions we rely on for so many centuries! BUT WE CAN FIND WOMEN’S VOICES. THEY ARE THERE.

If we are willing to put in the effort and look a little deeper and go beyond the traditional genres which we have accepted as being the genres of Torah, we will find women’s Torah, women’s teaching, we will find women representing their lives in their own words, we will find deep Jewish wisdom.

I am never more depressed in the classroom than I am when I ask, “who can name, by name a woman from Jewish history who did not appear in the Tanakh or live during the twentieth century?” and find that no one can answer the question. How can this be? And it is not that these names are unknowable, indeed thanks to the work of historians, many of them also women, we have actual texts by actual Jewish women with actual knowable names, from across the centuries! We cannot excuse ourselves from the obligation of knowing women’s names and knowing their lives! I am here to offer a tikkun to this!

In honor of Dr. Behrmann-Cohen, Dr. Helfand, and Pat Weiss, I want you to learn today the names of three Jewish women who lived, who shared their lives and their Torah, and whose wisdom deserves to be transmitted!

Women’s wisdom has in many instances been passed down to us in memoir. Jewish women’s memoirs are their own category of mussar, or ethical Torah, in which women have claimed their voice and taken up the pen and holy words to pass on their wisdom and their best interpretation and advice on what it means to be a good person and indeed a good Jew.

In honor of Dr. Marlene Berhmann-Cohen I want to introduce you to my friend Glickl bas Yehudah Leib, also known as Gluckel of Hameln. Glickl lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in German lands, and wrote her eight volume memoirs in her native language, Yiddish. Thanks to the efforts of some of her thirteen surviving children, her memoirs which were intended as an ethical will for her descendants, were saved, transmitted, and eventually translated into first modern German and then into English. While her work is studied in the Ivory Tower, she is not studied in shul. I believe it is time to change this. Gluckl’s Torah is deep, real, powerful Torah. She writes with vulnerability and candor about how to mediate one’s suffering with a practice of gratitude to the Divine:

I know that this complaining and mourning is a weakness of mine and a grievous fault. Far better it would be if every day I fell upon my knees and thanked the L-rd for the tender mercies He has bestowed upon my unworthy self. I sit to this day and date at my own table, eat what I relish, stretch myself at night in my own bed, and have even a shilling to waste, so long as the good G-d pleases. I have my beloved children, and while things do not always go well, now with one or the other, as they should, still we are all alive and acknowledge our Creator. How many people there are in this world, finer, better, juster and truer than I, such as I know of myself for patterns of piety, how have not bread to put in their mouths! How, then, can I thank and praise my Creator enough for all the goodness He has lavished on us without requital!

If only we poor sinners would acknowledge the everlasting mercy of our G-d who from the dust of the ground formed us into men, and that we may serve our Creator with all our heart, gave us to know His great and terrible and holy Name!

. . . . So dear children of my heart, be comforted and patient in your sorrows and serve the Almighty G-d with all your hearts, in your evil days as in your good; for although we often feel we must sink beneath our heavy burdens, our great L-rd and Master, we must know, never lays upon his servants more than they can bear. Happy is the man who accepts in patience all that G-d ordains for him or for his children. How relevant and wise are her teachings. How sage are her words. We must study her teachings and transmit them. We must remember her name and accept the gift she has given us: an understanding of what it means to be a Jew, to live in gratitude in the midst of our own suffering. Women’s Torah for Gluckl, is gratitude.

In honor of Dr. Ilanit Helfand, I want to share the names and words of another memoirist, again whose texts have been studied in Jewish and secular academia, but whose wisdom I have yet to hear transmitted in shuls and batei midrash: Pauline Wengeroff. Pauline Wengeroff was born in 1833 and her Yiddish-language memoirs tell the story of Jewish women in the Haskalah, that is the European Jewish Enlightenment. Wengeroff was critical of the forced and chosen assimilation of Jewish people into non-Jewish culture, and particularly how this devalued the experiences of women in the domestic realm. We are able to read her words in English thanks to the translations of my teacher, Dr. Shulamit Magnus. Pauline writes evocatively about fashion – not fashion in the sense of what is stylish and what is not, but rather how one’s distinctive dress can be an expression of cultural meaning and connection. She writes about the impact of Russian laws limiting Jewish dress as follows:

Thus, dress represented tenacity, stability, and tradition, and the halo of the sacred bathed in its glow. Only with this background can one understand how the ukase published in the year 1845 by the Russian government affected Russian Jews, how it compelled them to give up their old garb and accommodate themselves to the modern.

The effect on the great masses was as terrible as a catastrophe. The result was fierce anger and only the feeling of their own powerlessness, their defenselessness -- the anxiety of golus -- prevented this exasperation from intensifying into a raging fury. If the Jews had been strong, organized, [and] powerful, then the change of garb would have led to insurrections and revolutions. As it was, however, things remained at painful resignation. People mourned the old garb like a deceased loved one.

More discerning minds quickly grasped that the change to modern clothing was to be just the first step on the road to more comprehensive assimilation, which must reshape not just the forms of life but also the cultural outlook and the transmitted teachings of a specific religion: the customs and manners of the Jewish race . . . .

Thus, the Jewish population had to give up the garb that had become dear to it.

In our highly assimilated American Jewish situation, how could we as Conservative Jews reclaim “the halo of the sacred” in our ways of clothing ourselves and distinguishing ourselves Jewishly in our garb? What do we lose when we blend in? Those here who wear a kippah every day will certainly have something to say about this to me at Kiddush. But for those of us for whom a kippah feels inauthentic, either because of its traditionally male gender designation, or the lack of kippah wearers in our recent ancestry, how can we reclaim Jewish dress in a way that is meaningful, sacred, connected? What is Women’s Torah? For Pauline Wengeroff, women’s Torah is distinctiveness in how we present ourselves.

In honor of Pat Weiss, I would like to introduce you to Rachel Luzzatto Morpurgo, a nineteenth century Jewish-Italian poet. Poetry is another mode which women have historically and continue to rely on to express ways of knowing and being that cannot be expressed in other textual genres. Her poems, written in Hebrew, represent the tensions she felt as a woman, as a writer, and as a Jew. She sought to carve out a voice for herself, and perhaps it is this act of carving, of putting pen to paper, of putting words to emotion, from which we can learn a way of being. She writes in the poem “On Hearing She had been Praised in the Journals”:

I've looked to the north, south, east, and west:
a woman's word in each is lighter than dust.
years hence, will anyone really remember
her name, in city or province, any more
than a dead dog. Ask: the people are sure:
a woman's wisdom is only in spinning wool.

Let us remember her name together today. Rachel Luzzatto Morpurgo. Let’s not confine her to digital classrooms and to secular studies. Let’s celebrate her name and her act of creating as a way of being Jewish. What is Women’s Torah? It is naming ourselves and claiming our name, of giving our words weight and not letting them blow away like dust. It has been powerful me to think about these words and to have the chance to share them here. I hope the visions of being and knowing and doing that I have brought forward have illuminated something new for you about what it means to be a Jewish person, and where we can find strength and meaning in our textual tradition. I hope that these teachings, these learnings, can be a blessing to you, and that these blessings shall increase, and we should all continue to learn in the merit of Gluckl, of Pauline, of Rachel. If the theme of Beth Shalom for the year is “All of this belongs to you,” I want to tell you – indeed, all of this also belongs to you.

We should all go from strength to strength.

Shabbat shalom.