An interview with Esther Kosovsky, educator, and Tamar Frankiel, President of Academy of Jewish Religion.
“She converted to Orthodox Judaism after being a feminist!?” my colleagues exclaimed to me. “We have to speak with her!” We were discussing the work of Tamar Frankiel, author and educator, whose book The Voice of Sarah portrays the purpose and meaning in the traditional roles for women in Judaism. Drawn by the spiritual depth she felt in the Jewish ritual observances for women and by the unusual strength of character of the Orthodox women she had met, Frankiel underwent the unlikely conversion from liberal Christian feminist to practicing Orthodox Jew.
“As I grew to know [Orthodox women],” she says in a candid description of her experience, my first feelings of condescending pity toward these victims of patriarchy changed to admiration and wonderment. I knew I could never live like that, but I appreciated that they were living a life of integrity with a spiritual richness of its own. That was ten years ago. Today I find myself speaking in much the same way to others as those women spoke to me then. . . . I don’t expect such statements to be any more believable to feminists than they were to me ten years ago. I can only assert that there is truth behind their simplicity.”
The fact that Frankiel, who has taught comparative religion at Stanford, Princeton and U.C. Berkeley, found the message of this gendered belief system so compelling that she left her liberal feminist freedoms in favor of a far more restrictive lifestyle led me to question many of my prior assumptions. And mainly, I began to wonder: Could Judaism, whose “faceless” G-d nevertheless seems to have a very masculine face, really offer women a spiritual life of equal depth and significance to the one it offers men?
The Judaic religion is built on traditional roles for women and men, with elaborate commandments governing all aspects of the observant Jew’s life, from conjugal relations to time and place of prayer. Its very structure depends on man fulfilling his distinct duties and woman fulfilling hers. Men hold the positions of authority as the religious leaders and lawmakers while women are relegated to hearth and home. “Separate but equal,” some may argue, but as far as feminist scholars such as Rita Gross are concerned, Judaism practically tops the list of patriarchal religious offenders. So when Tamar Frankiel, with her background in the feminist and equal rights movements, praised this “separate but equal” tradition primarily because of the position of women, we raised more than an eyebrow.
Among observant Jews, the rabbi is meant to be the final authority on all issues spiritual and mundane, including everything from whom to marry to the finer points of theological debate. So I called Rabbi DavidEdelman, leader of the LubavitchOrthodox congregation in western Massachusetts, to gain some insight into this gendered way of life. As presiding rabbi over a large Jewish community for the last forty-nine years, Rabbi Edelman, I thought, would be well-versed in both the theory and practice of the Orthodox tradition.
“Can you tell me about the traditional roles for men and women in Judaism?” I asked him last December. “You want to know how men and women should be?” he began. “All the answers are in the Torah.” Then he proceeded to tell me about the great Biblical matriarchs and the exalted position of women in Judaism. “Women are more spiritual than men,” he said, to my astonishment. They naturally have a closer connection to G-d. Men need to be reminded to pray. That’s why they have to come to the synagogue. Women can pray by themselves because they pray deeper. And you know, it is said that when theMessiah comes, men will be raised to the spiritual level of women.”
His description stood in stark contrast to the Orthodoxy I had pictured. I had expected Rabbi Edelman to explain why, in Judaism, women are prohibited from chanting the holy scripture; why they sit behind a screen during public prayer; why they are considered impure, unclean and not to be touched every month because of their physiology; and why men utter a prayer every morning thanking G-d for not making them a woman. But the rabbi then told me, “I have six daughters. They never missed out on anything. You should have seen them all together, walking down the street to the yeshiva school—what a picture! They were modest, but they were always nice-looking, with a little lipstick. You should talk to them; they’ll tell you they never missed out on anything!” InYiddish there’s a special word, “nachas,” used to describe the often less-than-objective pride parents can take in their children. So was Rabbi Edelman kvelling [gushing] with nachas? Or had this way of life actually given his daughters a deep sense of self-fulfillment?
I couldn’t help wondering what Rabbi Edelman’s daughters were really like. Would I find them to be meek or subservient, with a narrow scope of interests centered around teething and bread making? Would they be restless in their restricted sphere, with all the freedoms of the modern world tempting them from just around the corner? Would they be passive and accepting of their lot, reluctant to question, challenge or reform, fearful of retribution from an angry G-d or a conservative rabbi? Or was Rabbi Edelman accurate in saying they really hadn’t missed out on anything? My curiosity piqued, I arranged to meetEsther Kosovsky, one of Rabbi Edelman’s by now, at least to me, illustrious daughters.
Esther Kosovsky is the director of the Jewish Educational Resource Center in western Massachusetts, mother of eight and wife of a rabbi. We met in the Springfield yeshiva school, the very school that the rabbi had mentioned. Walking down the hallway, alive with sounds of children singing Hebrew songs, I was struck by her quiet confidence and self-assurance. She was all that her father had described her to be. Not only was she attractive, but there was a light in her eyes, an unusual serenity and vitality. As she spoke about her love, appreciation and respect for this gendered tradition, I found myself reflecting on the great Biblical matriarchs—the Sarahs, Rebeccas and Deborahs who had deep spiritual passion and
had served G-d with valiant devotion, powerful faith and rare wisdom. As I glanced around the book-lined office, the white-bearded Lubavitch rabbis seemed to smile and twinkle at me from their picture frames on the wall.
Unlike Esther Kosovsky, most of the women I have known are women who grew up in the wake of the feminist movement, beneficiaries of many newfound and hard-won freedoms. But in spite of all the opportunities available to us, most of us have had to grapple with insecurity, confusion and self-doubt around our role, position and even spiritual path in a world of shifting values. In grocery stores and newsstands around the country, magazine racks sport colorful arrays of women’s magazines, all eager to help us navigate our perplexity with “how-to” recipes for finding fulfillment in work, relationships, sexuality and motherhood. In light of the simple confidence of these Orthodox women, I began to consider what had been for me, at least up until now, an inconceivable question: Could it be possible that women adhering to a traditional feminine role in this patriarchal religion might actually end up having more inner strength and higher self-esteem than women free to explore an infinite number of lifestyles in the postfeminist world?
I listened carefully to what Esther Kosovsky and Tamar Frankiel had to say as we talked about some provocative and pointed issues. Their unswerving conviction in their own rich experience as observant Orthodox women speaks for itself.
INTERVIEW WITH ESTHER KOSOFSKY
AE: In Judaism, is G-d male or female?
ESTHER KOSOVSKY: In Judaism, we’re not supposed to have any image of G-d because G-d is beyond human form. I don’t view G-d as male or female, even though I may say “he.” In the Torah, when it says, “And G-d spoke,” it’s put in a masculine form, but the word “G-d” is really genderless. The Torah was written in Hebrew, the language of G-d, and one of the beauties of Hebrew is that everything is gender-oriented; there’s no nongender. Every word is a masculine word or a feminine word, every color is a masculine color or a feminine color, every number is a masculine number or a feminine number. It’s either one or the other. When we talk about a chair, we use a masculine pronoun for the chair. Does that mean the chair is masculine instead of feminine? No, and we don’t ascribe human qualities to a chair. I’m not comparing G-d to a chair at all. My point is that the Hebrew language forces us to choose one gender or the other. If Hebrew had an “it,” that might be what G-d would have used, but G-d chose masculine and it’s never bothered me.
AE: In the Talmud [Rabbinic commentary on the Torah] it is said, “What is characteristic of men is not characteristic of women and what is characteristic of women is not characteristic of men,” and in Orthodox Jewish life, men and women have very distinct roles to fulfill. What is the significance of having these separate roles for men and women?
EK: I view it as almost like an orchestra, where every piece has its own role. If they all play the best that they can, understanding that they’re only a part of the orchestra, then together they will make a wonderful concert. There is a beauty when everyone understands what their own strengths are and when their strengths are called for. I think when you are confident enough in where you are, who you are and what your role is, you can appreciate the strengths of the other gender. You do what you do well and they can do what they do well. There are differences that we can’t ignore–in the way we were created and how we react. We’re better suited for different roles. But I think what is most important is having confidence in knowing that I have to be the best that I can be within my limits, knowing what my limits are and accepting them and growing within them. That takes great strength and understanding. Then you can have a completeness of the genders. If you’re going to think, “Well, it’s not fair that I can’t do this,” or “I have to do that,” then no one wins.
AE: The prevailing view today among contemporary men and women is that there shouldn’t be any differences between the sexes, that through the women’s liberation movement, we’ve discovered our fundamental equality and now we can finally put the archaic bonds of patriarchal traditions behind us. This view holds that any religious tradition that advocates separate paths for men and women, if looked at carefully, is really designed to keep women in the position of second-class citizens. Feminist religious scholars such as Rita Gross say that the ideal woman in Orthodox Jewish culture is meant to adhere to the same role that has kept her oppressed throughout history, that has stunted her capacities and her ability to contribute to the world. I’d like to ask you what you think about some of the arguments that are used to support this radical feminist view that Judaism is really one of the worst patriarchal offenders. I hope it’s not too much, but I have five points that they raise that I thought I’d ask you about all at once. Okay, here goes! Why is it that of the 613 commandments of the Torah, only a small fraction are considered essential for Jewish women to observe, while men are required and also privileged to follow them all? Why is it that one of the most revered commandments, chanting from the Torah, is reserved for men only? Why is it that the spiritual leaders, the rabbis, are all men? Why do women sit in the back of the synagogue? And why do Jewish men say a prayer every day thanking G-d for not having made them a woman?
EK: I was waiting for that one! But let me start with your first question. We can’t just say, “I do eight mitzvot [commandments],” or “Well, I do twelve,” or “Oh, I do a hundred and seventy-two.” You walked in today and smiled; you know, that’s a mitzvah. You were pleasant to someone else. There are very fewmitzvot that men do that women cannot, and there’s a practical reason, not a spiritual reason, why women don’t do the others. What are the mitzvot that women are responsible for? For the kashrut [dietary laws] and the home. That’s a huge role. It’s not just being the cleaning lady and the washerwoman. It’s a big thing, making sure that the fuel we put into our bodies, which gives us the energy for our lives, is the food that G-d wants us to have. Women light theShabbas candles, and although it’s incumbent on both the man and the woman, why would I not want to do it? It’s a beautiful mitzvah. Why would I deny myself a commandment that brings spirituality and warmth into the home?
Women today say, “It’s not fair, I want to wear tefillin [phylacteries, ritual prayer ornaments] because, as it’s recorded in the Talmud, this great Rabbi’s daughter wore tefillin.” My response to that is: When you’ve done everything you can as an observant woman and you still want to do one more thing, fine, then you can take that on–but in the privacy of your home where you’re doing it because of you and G-d, not because you’re doing it to show other people that you can. If you’re going to do an act just to be defiant, then there’s nothing to it. There’s so much meaning behind these things, it’s not just the act. You see, it’s not about equality, it’s about understanding your role. My father’s always said, “Why should women be equal? They’d have to come down a level to do that.”
AE: Did he mean that women are seen as being better or more spiritual than men?
EK: Yes, women are viewed differently. Men wear a yarmulke [skullcap] on their head as a constant reminder of G-d’s presence. The Yiddish word yarmulkemeans “fear of heaven” or “fear of the king.” Women don’t have to wear one because women have a natural understanding. Similarly, circumcision is a physical sign of a bond between man and G-d. Women don’t need a physical reminder that G-d expects certain things from them because they are born with a spiritual sensitivity. These explanations come from the Talmud; they weren’t just thought up to counteract modern society.
AE: Some feminist scholars would say this kind of explanation is a rationale for keeping women down, denying them privileges like reading from the Torah. What do you think?
EK: You know, it’s like when you buy a new appliance that you have to assemble. If you go to instruction number twelve and it says insert slot A into hole B, you’ll say, “I don’t know what sense that makes. This is a dumb machine!” and you’ll take it back. Whereas if you said, “I want to use this machine—let me go step by step and then I’ll understand,” when you come to step twelve it’ll make sense to do what they tell you to do. If you’re going to approach Judaism by saying, “Okay, let me check everything along the way and make sure everything makes sense to me, and then I’ll believe in G-d. Then I’ll accept this spirituality and grow with it,” you’re going to find problems. I wouldn’t mind if some things were different. But if you accept the work of G-d and the word of G-d and that He treats us as equal in many respects and greater in some, then maybe I wouldn’t mind putting ontefillin, but I don’t need to identify myself any more strongly as a Jewish woman.
AE: Why is it that women are relegated to the back of the synagogue, separated by a screen from the place where the Torah is read? And why don’t women have their own version of the men’s prayer–“Thank you, Lord, for not making me a man”?
EK: Well, the back of the synagogue is not the back of the bus. Our modern view is to think that the back of the . . . is bad. It’s just separate. When it comes to prayer, you have to ask: What is your purpose? The purpose of being in a room with other people praying, rather than praying by yourself, is that the prayers of the many will help generate your prayer up to G-d. If you’re distracted by other people, then not only are your prayers not going up, but you’re dragging other people down. So, at the time of prayer we sit separately. You can feel that you’re participating even if you are separate–I’m not going to make a blanket statement that Orthodoxy is bad or observancy is bad because women are relegated to the back. The synagogue rituals revolve around men, and the role of the cantor and the rabbi are male roles because of the rules of modesty and practicality. It’s not considered modest for women to sing in front of men because, as I mentioned, when we’re praying we want to make sure that we put our attention upward, not sideward. So a woman rabbi or a woman cantor is an issue. [The rules of practicality come from women’s childbearing role, which exempts them from certain time-bound commandments.]
You asked about the morning prayer that men say. It’s part of a whole series of morning blessings where we thank G-d for everything he’s given us–for giving the rooster the wisdom to crow so we’ll know when to get up; for giving vision to the blind because when we’re sleeping, we’re as if we were blind; for giving us strength, clothing, etcetera. Then the final three blessings are a progression–we’re thanking G-d for the ability to serve him as much as we can. We thank G-d for not making me a non-Jew. We thank G-d for not making me a slave. We thank G-d for not making me a woman.
You see, non-Jews were given seven commandments, the universal laws of mankind. So we thank G-d that he made us Jewish so that we have more than those seven. Jewish slaves were exempt from certain commandments because they could only do the commandments that would fit into their master’s schedule. Then there’s one more group that has fewer commandments than men, and that’s women. So men say, “Thank you for not making me a woman so I can have even more commandments to do.” This is the rationale, and it suits me okay. But even if it wouldn’t, I’m not throwing away the tapestry because of one misstitch. It’s not enough to make me say, “Well, how chauvinistic, if that’s in there I can’t accept anything.” Why can’t I accept everything? So my prayers in the morning go a little quicker because I skip out that line and a half. It’s one of those things that gets so much attention–it’s as if it’s in twice as big a font as everything else in the prayer book. But, I know, it makes for good conversation.
AE: In Judaism, the women’s spiritual role centers around the family and home. Can you still fulfill your potential as a Jew if you’re not married and don’t have children?
EK: There is a great bent in Judaism toward marriage and children because we have a responsibility for the next generation. It’s not that a person who’s not married is doing anything wrong–if you haven’t found your soul mate yet, that’s not a problem. There are other ways you can continue to grow. Study on your own is also a wonderful thing. But a person whose goal is, “I never want to get married and I never want to have children,” needs to rethink what their priorities are because otherwise something will be left unexpressed.
AE: Andrew Harvey, a well-known gay spiritual thinker and author, writes that in many traditions homosexuals have been especially revered as visionaries and priests. “Homosexuals,” he states, “were seen as sacred, people who, by virtue of the mysterious fusion of feminine and masculine traits, participated with particular intensity in the life of the Source.” Tamar Frankiel told me that homosexuality is considered an abomination in the Torah. What do you think of Andrew Harvey’s statement that homosexuals may actually be more open to the call of G-d?
EK: I can only speak from the Jewish viewpoint. In the Torah, the most sacred group, the Cohenim, or priests, were required to be married. The Cohen HaGaddol, the high priest, could not perform the most important service of the year on Yom Kippur if he was unmarried. If there happened to be a high priest who wasn’t married, that service wasn’t done. The Torah states that homosexuality is something that’s not condoned, so in Judaism, there really is no place for looking up to that type of lifestyle.
AE: Tamar Frankiel was a feminist before she became an observant Orthodox Jew. One of the things that had attracted her to Judaism was that many Orthodox Jewish women she met seemed to have a self-confidence that many women who were in the women’s liberation movement didn’t have. It’s a little ironic that the Orthodox women seemed stronger to her, in light of the fact that so many feminists see Judaism as a patriarchal religion where women are treated like second-class citizens–where men are seen as having all the privileges, like studying and praying, while women are relegated to the home, to raising children and baking bread.
EK: Even in my childhood, I never felt that feeling of “second-classness.” My father would study Talmud at home and he’d say to me, “Come, let’s do this together”–studying with a girl, whoever does such a thing? But I never thought it was strange. My father always accepted us as intellectual people with whom he could have any kind of discussion, and he expected an intelligent response. My mother was the same. You know, I bake my own challah [braided bread] because it’s something I enjoy doing. It’s not because I’m forced to do it. Some people because of their own unease feel, “If you’re baking challah, it’s because you have to, and isn’t that terrible! You’re so downtrodden!” They think that they would feel downtrodden, but the nurturing in my family was and is amazing. I’ve never had the chance to feel downtrodden.
AE: That’s very unusual. It’s so common for women to have been made to feel “less than” or “not equal to” in so many ways.
EK: Right. But I think there gets to be a time when we have to get over it. You know? I’m serious. You were teased in the second grade–you’ve got to let go of it sometime. When I was young, maybe I thought I wasn’t given the same opportunities, or I felt like I was in the back of the bus every time I went to synagogue. So, I say let me study and learn, and maybe I’ll find out that it’s really not the way I thought it was then. It’s a lot easier to grab on to something like that and use it as a way to explain why you haven’t progressed. Make the effort to understand or try it for a while; really learn about it. For every Talmudic quote of a rabbi who said, “Don’t talk to women,” we can find three quotes exalting women. We can find the matriarchs, we can find role models. There are plenty of examples if we want to look in the proper way.
AE: It’s said that in the time of the final redemption, when the Messiah comes, he will be a son of David, a “ben David.” Do you think it’s possible that the Messiah could come back as a woman, as a daughter of David?
EK: I’m more concerned with bringing the Messiah then being the Messiah. People think, “Who, me–the Messiah? I don’t think so!” But it gives a lot to people to think, “I could help bring the Messiah.” It’s a lot more helpful than worrying about whether it can be a ben David or a bat David [daughter of David]. The reason that we say ben David is that the Messiah is called “the king,” and by Jewish tradition, a human king is a man. So to me, that’s pretty much set in stone. But the Talmud also tells us that it was by the virtues of thewomen of the generation of Moses that we merited leaving Egypt, and that by the merit of righteous women today, we will merit the Messiah. So I think it’s better for everybody to be concerned with that; there’s a lot of power in a statement like that!
AE: What led you to convert to Orthodox Judaism after being a feminist? That seems very unusual.
TAMAR FRANKIEL: Yes, it is. When I was teaching comparative religion at Stanford, I met the man who would later become my husband. He was returning to the Jewish tradition after not having been an observant Jew. First, I found the practice of Shabbatvery attractive. It was a richer, more meaningful way of life. I had no intention of becoming Orthodox and I still don’t like the labels, but I undertook a Conservative conversion and then found that I was much more deeply attracted to the observance than even the rabbi who converted me! My husband was attending Orthodox services. I would go with him and really rage at what I felt was the inequality of women, but at the same time I felt the authenticity and the depth of the people who were there. So I started talking to the women who had been involved for a long time. They were very strong women. I was sort of shocked by their perspective on life, by their confidence and by their ability to manage their lives. They were not the oppressed, second-class citizens I had thought they would be. It was a process of coming to a depth in my own spiritual practice and reconciling that with what it means to be a woman and to fight oppression. I had to find a way to express my own voice. That’s how I ended up writing The Voice of Sarah. It became clear to me that there was another way of seeing things besides women as “feminists and liberated” or “oppressed and religious.”
AE: You described being attracted by the confidence that the Orthodox women expressed. Did you not see the same confidence among women in the feminist movement?
TF: I didn’t see much spirituality among the women in the feminist movement. The women whom I knew at that time were politically oriented, and even when I met women who were religiously involved in some way, it often seemed as if they were trying to be like men. After meeting Orthodox women who had a sense of their own being, I realized that we really have to think about whether there is a gendered quality to spiritual work and whether taking the man’s role really serves women. The Hasidic women I met had a long tradition that’s been passed down to them of how to be with G-d. Doing the simple rituals and observances that they did, which were private, not political, was extraordinarily satisfying to them. They had a sense of their own purpose, and they didn’t seem to need to do what their husbands were doing. Of course I asked, “Are they just brainwashed?” But over a period of years of knowing many of these women, I realized that, no, they really weren’t. They really did have a sense of deep satisfaction.
AE: When I was describing your championing the Orthodox way of life for women after having been involved in the feminist movement to a feminist friend of mine, she commented, “I know what that’s all about”–the implication being that you must be someone who has sold out or even gone off the deep end. Have you encountered that response before?
TF: Oh yes, sure.
AE: How did you explain your attraction to this traditional and more restricted role to your feminist colleagues in a way that convinced them that you hadn’t gone crazy?
TF: I’ve found that a commitment to something that is deep and profound gives you a center from which you can do other things. Sure, there are things you cut out of your life. But I found that once I cut them out, for the most part they really hadn’t been nourishing me anyway. It’s the spiritual work that’s nourishing. And what I saw among the Orthodox women whom I respected was a realization that we are all in this together and if we don’t help each other–men and women–none of us will advance. There is an organic sense among these women that we’re all responsible for each other, for the community and particularly for the future, for the next generation. Judaism insists that women be involved in what is called “the redemption,” which means the perfection of the world. It can’t be done only by men. The tradition is that it was because of the righteous women that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, so it’s going to be because of the righteous women that the final redemption will come. It can’t be done without the women, and that means that women have a crucial and unique role according to even the most traditional interpreters of Judaism.
AE: By saying to women, “You have a responsibility for the redemption of the world,” the tradition calls on women to take their spirituality and their own lives seriously. There’s something very moving about this way of cultivating that sense of dignity and spiritual responsibility.
TF: Yes, absolutely. I’ve seen it among many of the Hasidic women. They take themselves seriously spiritually and see themselves as having a responsibility. Even if it sounds genderist or sexist, I think women do have to take seriously the question: If women are supposed to have a special role and it’s not exactly what men are doing, and it is supposed to be helping the whole world, what is that role?
AE: It’s a complex question. In your book, The Voice of Sarah, you also wrote, “I think we need to face the potentially disturbing question, “Is it possible that some forms of spirituality are more feminine and some are more masculine?” What do you think about that now?
TF: I grew up with a strong belief in equality, and the feminist movement enhanced that. I’m not sure what it would mean if we took it seriously that there might be very different things that people need to do in order to grow spiritually. In Judaism, I think what’s meant by “a woman’s place is in the home” is that the inwardness or spirituality of women develops in a different way than the inwardness of men. My husband seems to think that men just wouldn’t do any inner work at all if they didn’t have to be out there in groups davening [praying], doing the more public thing. I think that’s a little extreme, but—
AE: Is that a Jewish view, to say that women would gravitate toward an active relationship with G-d even if they didn’t have an outward structure, whereas men wouldn’t?
TF: Yes, that’s right. That wouldn’t be true for everybody, but women don’t seem to need those external structures to grow in their spiritual life the way men do, although they may be helpful.
AE: Can you describe what it is about women’s roles and their particular rituals, laws and prayers that brings the awareness of G-d into their lives and gives their lives a deeper meaning and a broader context?
TF: The rituals that are marked out for women have to do with directly bringing spirituality into the physical. Men have certain physical symbols that are supposed to help them do that, like putting on tefillin, [phylacteries, ritual prayer ornaments] and wearing the tzitzit, the fringes; whereas women’s mitzvot[commandments] are directly connected to the body, to the physical, to giving birth and all the women’s processes. It sanctifies these physical processes for women. Women don’t have to set foot outside their own home to create everything that Judaism wants women to do. And when you do set foot outside your home, it’s to expand that into the community. It’s like an inward center that radiates outward. But a woman can’t just do the rituals and take care of the kids and expect magically to feel as though she’s living a spiritual life. If a woman is doing that, she’s living a traditional life but not necessarily a spiritual one.
AE: The laws governing marriage and intimate relations seem to be meant to foster a coming together between men and women that is based on each person independently worshipping G-d in everything they do. The relationship described is very beautiful—intimate, loving, respectful but not sentimental. You’ve explained the philosophical basis as, “When husband and wife unite at permitted times . . . their union reflects the union of masculine and feminine in the divine. This is a special kind of holy act: two people in their physical being and their natural energies reflect the culmination of the divine creative process, making a unity from what had been a duality. . . . Only in the union between man and woman can we touch with our own natures the process that the whole world is about: to come together, to overcome our separation, to be one.” Can you elaborate on how this teaching for men and women helps us realize divine union?
TF: Judaism affirms that you can come together in these ways with respect and love and, yes, it is unsentimental. You are manifesting something that goes way beyond our ordinary consciousness. It goes into the depth that unites everything. The idea is to go beyond the personal and the feelings of the two people at any given moment. Maybe they’ve been doing really well. Maybe they’ve been having a lot of difficulties, but they’re able to overcome them. It affirms that possibility of union even in the midst of all our conflict and division.
AE: There are relative differences between men and women. When it comes to ultimate realization or union with G-d, how significant do you feel these differences between men and women are?
TF: These differences in conditioning don’t mean anything when you get to the ultimate. An important part of the Jewish spiritual path is ratzo vashov, running and returning. You run to G-d and then you come back. This means you can achieve experiences of union, but you’re always almost instantaneously brought back into your physical reality. So, even when a person achieves great heights in spirituality, when the person brings it back down, so to speak, they’re going to again be speaking through their own conditioning.
AE: Many different teachings, like Judaism, say that fully embracing our womanhood or our manhood will enable us to realize our full spiritual capacity. Could there be another approach that, without denying the differences between us, allows us to focus on our essential unity and then discover naturally and freely what the differences between the genders are?
TF: Experiencing unconditioned reality is one thing; gendered reality is another—whether you can “freely and naturally” discover it or not. But when I pray or meditate, I’m not the least bit interested in these issues. This has absolutely no relevance when I open up my prayer book or when I sit down to meditate. I am just concerned with either contemplation, speaking from my heart or the different kinds of work one can do in those contexts. I think being concerned with that kind of identity while I’m involved in a specific practice oriented toward my relationship with G-d would be completely distracting. I don’t know why anyone would want to do that. When you’re doing your spiritual work, contemplating the One, that’s what prayer is supposed to be all about. But bringing it back down, then we have to realize that we are in gendered bodies and we do have societies that treat us in certain ways according to our gender and expect certain things of us. And then we need to deal with these issues again. We don’t stay up there in a spiritual state. G-d wants us to create that state here on earth. I think the important question is: How can we best create a world where divinity is realized. Because from the Jewish point of view, that’s ultimately our job.