Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are involved in now?
I’m at Emory University in Atlanta. I’m in a religious studies department and my subsection is Jewish Religious cultures. I study women in fundamentalist religions (although that is a somewhat controversial term.) I study women in Islam, Christianity and Judaism and how we can understand how religious women have agency and a sense of crafting their identity. While feminists in the past have said that religion is only oppressive and patriarchal, we are left with the question of why so many women are religious then? The methodology I use is ethnography, which involves getting to know people, talking to them and finding out about their lives. I'm using my ethnography of Chabad women to find out what is compelling to them about their position in Chabad as women in particular.
So are you focused specifically on Jewish women?
My course work until now has been getting a general feel of the field I’m in. For example, I just took a class where I learned a lot about Islamic feminism which was fascinating because it has a lot of comparisons to how we approach issues like modesty or reading texts through a generous lens. That’s the first two years. My next three years is when I’ll get to work on my specific focus which is about women in Judaism.
When did your interest in feminism start and how has it evolved over the years?
I went to college at Rutgers in New Jersey. I came with no particular background in feminism or religion. In my freshman year I took a class called ‘Women’s Studies 101” and the professor was a Columbian woman. She was very into indigenous women’s spirituality and she actually wrote on the whiteboard a triangle pointing down and a triangle pointing up and told us that’s the Divine giver and the Divine receiver. It made a Jewish star and I remember thinking ‘that is so fascinating’ because I never thought about gender and its relationship to spirituality or religion. My interest in feminism was always intertwined with spirituality. I was always drawn to second wave feminism, which was about women’s empowerment and spirituality. I struggle a lot with third wave feminism which became much more anti-essentialist. It says you can’t define what a woman is and that biology doesn’t determine what is expected of you. And I think aspects of that are important and I understand that it can lead to discrimination and unfair stereotyoes, but to me that loses everything you can gain from digging deper into your gender and who you are. That’s why I was really drawn to Judaism because I felt that it had this paradigm of gender. It matters if you are a man or a woman and that has something to say about your connection with G-d. By the time I was in my Junior year, I had gone to Israel and started studying more about Judaism and started intertwining the two.
Over the past few years, my idea of feminism has evolved into trying to understand what Chassidic feminism is about. What we are saying when we call ourselves ‘true feminists’ is that women and femininity are essential in the process of redeeming the world and revealing Hashem. It’s a feminine process to take something hidden and reveal it. So that’s my current project in feminism - understanding what Chassidic feminism is. And knowing so much about secular feminism, my goal is to make a compelling argument in an academic environment that it is a legitimate form of feminism.
When did Judaism enter your life and how did it impact your journey?
My mom always says I'm a very existential kind of person, always thinking about deeper concepts. In my freshman year of college, I was really struggling - finding my social group, finding my major, figuring out what I want to do with my life.
At some point in college I decided to sign up for Birthright, completely unrelated to any spiritual journey I was on. I always knew my mom was Jewish but I didn’t think it had any affect on me as a person. When I went on Birthright, it struck me that I’m Jewish and I have to find out what that means. So I kept on learning and reading books. The semester I came back from Israel, everyone thought I would be into Reform Judaism, because it’s more egalitarian. But it didn't feel authentic to me and I really wanted the real deal. I met with the Orthodox rebbetzin and she had a big impact on me. After college, I went to seminary for a few years and that’s when things really solidified.
How did your Torah study play a role in your perspectives on feminism and Judaism?
From when I first encountered Judaism, I was really fascinated by textual study and engaging with the text on a deep level. From the beginning, my interactions with Judaism were all about asking questions and digging deeper. At one point, what I was learning wasn’t answering those deeper questions for me, so I read a lot of Aryeh Kaplan’s books. I had a sense that I was really into mysticism and kabbalah but I had no idea how to do anything about that. I had a lot of intellectual questions but also personal life questions about how to find my place and build a family. I ended up in Tzfat at Machon Alte and that’s when everything really clicked for me. All my interest in mysticism found a little more stable grounding. I remember the first maamar I learned (which I later taught for Batsheva’s video series). That Pesach, I lived with that maamar. I thought about it and meditated on it while I ate my matzah. That time period in my life was when I realized that learning Chassidus could take my love for Judaism and my questions and have it actually change my life in a way that I could really ground in doing mitzvos. It also connected with the feminist theory that I learned in college that I found really intellectually stimulating. What was most intellectually stimulating for me in Judaism at the time was learning Chassidus. But then it got to a point that I was interested in a different type of intellectual engagement. I was first introduced to Gemara at Mayanot. Then, when I joined our class with Rabbi Kaplan in Crown Heights, that was a little bit above my level but I started having a sense that I really loved the back and forth and trying to break my head over the Aramaic. But my real breakthrough with Gemara was when I went on the Batsheva retreat in LA and we learned with Rabbi Kesselman. That was when I realized how fun it could be. That was one of my most spiritually high learning experiences.
Do you think there should be more of a push for this type of in-depth learning for women? Is it something that’s important for all intellectual Jewish women to engage in?
When I’m learning something in English, it’s nice, but it doesn’t affect me as much as if I put in the work to figure out for myself what it’s saying. When I do that, that’s when I feel that it really pays off and that I can use it in hisbonenus, etc. It’s hard to answer this because at this point in my life, my focus is my family and it’s easy to feel like learning is an extra thing and even something I’m not interested in doing. But when I do it, it gives me so much energy and reconnects me to what I love about Judaism. Without learning, my davening is just saying words and it feels like a chore. That’s on a personal level.
For women in the community at large, it's hard for me to say. I think there are important times in life, when you’re single or when your kids are out of the house when you can devote the time. It’s also really important to get the skills, because if you have those skills, you can open a sefer anytime and learn just for ten minutes. There is an amazing woman I know who will just open a sefer and learn for a few minutes, even with her ten kids running around the house. Because she has that skill, she can always just open a sefer and learn a little bit. I think it’s a hard question because there are different personalities, but on a neshama level, everyone needs to be actively engaged in their Judaism. For me, that’s the way to do it. But some women may have another way.
Are there misconceptions you think people have about religious women’s empowerment and how would you respond to them?
I think people see a man doing a public thing and a woman not allowed to do it and see that as a source of disempowerment for women. They see a lack of equality because not everyone in the Orthodox community has the same role. I think in general, in our society, people equate visible signs of equality with justice and gender empowerment. The fact that when people look at Orthodox Judaism and see that the roles are not equal, they assume that that comes with discrimination. For myself, all the things that I saw men doing, didn’t really interest me.The thing that did bother me was learning - the fact that I didn’t have access to learning Gemara the same way that men do or when my husband was in Kollel and there was nothing for me to do. Those things were hard for me and it took a lot of work to look at the deeper meaning behind the differences between men and women and understand why they manifest in these ways sociologically. For example, society today doesn’t value the private sphere and we're seeing now with Coronavirus that everyone is in their house all day and has to and invest in their home and make it a nice place to be. It’s really hard! There are a lot of things about it that are monotonous and it's not as exciting but ultimately the home is where you create the safest space to be yourself. In Judaism, the public space is not the end all and be all of what's valued and I never felt that as a Jewish woman, I wasn’t valued because I didn't have those public roles. Especially since in this day and age we're trying to show that women are valued and that things that women traditionally do are extremely important.
That's why I think learning is part of this, because it's not necessarily gendered the way tefillin is and has more of a social, cultural background. Obviously there are sources that imply women shouldn’t learn, but there are different interpretations of those and a lot had to do with the circumstances that never created space for them to learn. We see throughout history exceptional women that always were able to learn on a high level if they had the opportunity. Now most women can learn on a higher level and they have much more opportunity. It’s not like tefillin which is more of a black and white thing, whereas learning is something that is part of what it means to be a Jew that you can’t gain in other ways.
I watched parts of Unorthodox, because I was really fascinated, and I think a lot of people's misunderstandings about Orthodox Judaism, come from seeing communities that are much more insular than my own, so I can really only speak from my own experience. Especially since the Rebbe certainly changed what it means to be a Jewish woman in the 21st century and saw the ways that we need to prepare for Moshiach by opening up women’s opportunities. I’m very curious to learn more about women in other Chassidic sects and see if that's similar. And I think what you’re doing with Batsheva is realizing a part of the Rebbe’s vision that hasn’t really been put into place yet. There are still misconceptions about women’s learning and ways that it has become very political and that's really a travesty.
Who were your mentors along your journey?
I was always drawn to small classes taught by women. I got connected to Itty Kamenson (through a bizarre series of events) and she had a small shiur with women who came once a week tolearn Likkutei Torah with her. For me, those were the best times -when there was a woman teaching it, someone I can see myself emulating. It’s so different from a rabbi because I know that I'll never be able to have the same educational life trajectories. To see a woman teacher who also has such an inspiring amount of knowledge and understanding of the text. It was so important to me to have had those mentors. It gave me the feeling that I can also teach and share with other people. For me, a big part of my learning was the transition to sharing with others.
What message do you have for Jewish women about their learning?
Wherever a woman is, she can find another woman to learn with. And just commit to it! I think that's the hardest part. At any stage, it's hard to make the time to learn. But in my experience, it brings so much joy, excitement and happiness to create a friendship with another woman over what you’re studying. It opens up a whole new level of the relationship.