Shabbat Surfing– Rabbis on the Runway?


We’ve been neglecting our posting the past few weeks. Something about real work needing to be done. But before it got too out-of-date I did want to recap a particularly interesting series of posts in response to Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman’s report controversial report “Matrilineal Ascent/ Patrilineal Descent: Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life.”  In the report, Professor Fishman and her co-author argue that particularly in the more liberal streams of Judaism, “When it comes to gender equality or gender balance, contemporary American Jewish life is caught between a rock and a hard place.  Boys and men as a group are not attracted to feminized Jewish activities and environments.”

Rebecca Honig Friedman wrote in response on the Lilith Blog, “as someone who focuses so much on Jewish women’s achievements, I can’t help but find the “feminization of Judaism” a point of pride rather than worry.” She also doubts that the “takeover” is as complete at the elite levels of Jewish life, where many major communal leaders are men wielding the greatest power.

The conversation got interesting on different level when an unnamed blog posted about the same story and used a photograph of a woman rabbi who was, as others have put it, “a bisel zaftig” and the questionable title. “Tilting the Scales.” (The post has since been removed.) The reductive implication was that men were fleeing Judaism because of dowdy female rabbis. Meredith Kesner Lewis at MyJewishLearning pointed out the offensiveness of the post, but then went on to ask,

But it does raise a larger issue. For whatever reason rabbis, particular females, aren’t known for being overly attractive…isn’t it important that our leaders, our public representatives, carry themselves not only with religious and moral ethics, but also with a concern for appearance? They are the outer face of Judaism to the rest of world.

This elicited a reply post from Rabbi Jill Jacobs at jspot.org, where she pointed out that while she sometimes “cringes

…when I walk into a rabbinic meeting at which all of the men are wearing suits, but some of the women are dressed in flowy skirts and casual shirts.  But male rabbis get by just fine with their paunches and shlumpy clothing–only the heaviest and shlumpiest suffer for their looks.  Women, on the other hand, are critiqued for every hair out of place and for every spare pound.

She adds, “And before Meredith’s post, I had never thought to worry about whether my tallit was flattering. . . never mind what one does about tefillin hair.”

Kesner took Rabbi Jacobs’ point in a follow-up post and asserted that, “most people who wear tallitot and/or kippot, male or female, do think about the garments’ look and their appearance in them. If not, there wouldn’t be hundreds if not thousands of different colors, shapes, and sizes.” Interestingly, she takes her argument a step further to question what the aesthetic for women should be with egalitarian Judaism?

My problem comes when women assume that being egalitarian means doing that which used to be masculine. I try to embrace both egalitarianism and femininity at the same time. There are plenty of more feminine tallitot that are specifically meant to fit a woman’s body. By wearing this type of garment, one could both fulfill the obligation of the mitzvot and celebrate being a woman. In the process they would truly be displaying the value of hiddur mitzvah, making the observance of a mitzvah beautiful.

Where do you come down on the issues?

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