As my daughter’s bat mitzvah approaches, I find myself confronting unexpected issues. Not clothing or caterers or guests, though those things are complicated enough. No, instead, I am banging into obstacles in the form of religious practice–what I will do and what I won’t, and most confusing of all, why.
Judaism, like all religions, is full of strange practices. On Sukkot we build an outdoor shelter in which we take our meals for eight days. We shake a lulav (an arrangement of palm frond, willow, and myrtle leaves) in the four cardinal directions. On Yom Kippur we don’t wear leather, and many wear white. In mourning, we rip our clothes and sit on low stools. Some sects swing chickens over their heads in the time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Like other traditions, there are special foods for each holiday, too. In synagogue worship, people touch the Torah with their prayer books, kissing the word of God. When they go up to read from the Torah, they use the fringes of their prayer shawl (tallit) to touch those words and kiss the fringes.
Almost all of these practices make me uncomfortable.
I don’t mean that I wish no one would do them (well, maybe we could call a halt to the chicken-torture), but that I, personally, feel odd about them. I’ve never been a Torah-kisser; for me, this is the worship of an object, and I don’t worship objects. I understand what the object represents, and maybe if I believed in God and had reverence for anything beyond customs and traditions, this wouldn’t bug me.
Some things I just never learned to do at all. My father, of blessed memory, taught me never to do a thing unless I did it “properly.” He meant well. But this has led to forty years of me avoiding things I might look foolish doing, things I won’t do right first time out of the gate, or things that are just weird (see lulav shaking).
Then there are issues of egalitarian worship. Judaism, like other religions you know, has traditionally treated women as second-class. Sure, they make up fancy mollifying reasons for this, explaining that men and women have different roles. But of course, that’s bullshit. Nowadays, women can be rabbis and cantors, they can be synagogue presidents. They read from the Torah and shake their lulavs all over town.
One way that many women have embraced their inclusion is by wearing a tallit and a kippah (yarmulke) to services. These are usually “girl” versions of the garments (because what girl doesn’t like pretty things?). So the prayer shawls come in many colors and diaphanous fabrics, and lots of women wear something on their heads made of wire and beads, a shiny, feminine version of a yarmulke.
When I spoke to my young, progressive rabbi about this, he made an excellent, reasonable argument. Head coverings and prayer shawls are required of all Jews that go up on the bimah (think stage) to engage with the Torah. So that includes women. Totally reasonable and logical.
But. For me, these garments are male. I am thrilled to be invited to the game, but why should I put on men’s clothing to play? Does that mean that being female is still problematic, that I must put on man stuff to be accepted? No, is the answer, go buy the women’s versions of these items. Except that these things are akin (for me) to the aisle of pink toys at every big box store. It’s insulting. I hate, I mean really hate, those beaded things people wear on their heads. They’re worse than the stupid doilies synagogues always offer women. They are distractions–look at the pretty shiny hat, young lady. I feel almost as though there’s something they hope to slip past us while we’re bedazzled by our beadazzled stuff.
Still, the rabbi’s reasoning makes sense. My husband said that the synagogue, then, ought to have women’s tallits available to borrow the way they have men’s piled up outside the sanctuary. The rabbi agreed that this is an excellent idea.
But now I have complicated matters further, because my daughter really, really wants me to read from the Torah on her big day. Am I just being stubborn? Am I an atheistic traditionalist like my father before me? Is my discomfort as basic as worrying about how I will look?
I have a month and a half to figure it out. Wish me luck.