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"Are You a Rabbi's Daughter?" and Halakhic Authority (or Lack Thereof)

Draft written 11/30/2011 about an event that took place earlier that month.

Rediscovered in 2019. I still remember this incident well! I think I saved it as a draft in 2011 instead of publishing it because it seemed terribly disorganized after I drafted it. It's not really any better now, but I think I'm going to hit "publish" anyway!

On a recent JOC hike, there was a call for mincha. When someone asked what we were going to do for a mechitza, I said that we didn't need one, since the woods in the state park are not a regular place of worship, and that standing off to the side would be sufficient.

Someone then told me that I had to stand in the back, since the women were permitted to see the men but the men were not permitted to see the women. He said that he was a rabbi--he did this "professionally," he added--and that I "had to" go behind the men.

I disregarded him and stood a good seven feet from the nearest man, decidedly off on the side and not "behind" any man. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, "You really know your stuff. Are you a rabbi's daughter?" I said, "No, I've just learned some Torah."

The idea that the only way a woman can acquire halakhic knowledge is through her father, or, if I had been married, her husband, is enraging to me. It is also often true--women who are the children or spouses of rabbis often have greater halakhic knowledge than those who are not. But one should not assume the inverse, that one who has a modicum of halakhic knowledge is necessarily related to a rabbi! She could have acquired that knowledge herself! Using her brain! And the Jewish education that her non-rabbinic parents scrimped and saved and impoverished themselves to provide her!

Any woman accustomed to davening with a minyan in sometimes strange settings (museums, airports, wedding halls, airplanes) would know about not needing a mechitza. Men presumably know less about this, since they more frequently daven at pickup minyans at which nary a woman is present or at which they just totally ignore the nearby women who are not davening. It's crazy/not crazy to me how you can be a frum man and not give any thought at all to the mechitza and have it be an invisible non-factor/non-presence in your life, while I feel like any time I go to shul, I am constantly being forced to see, confront, or literally bump up against it. You know, at shuls where the first row of seats in the women's section, which is behind the men's section, does not leave enough space for a non-dramatic bow during the Amida without literally bumping up against the mechitza.)

Any woman who doesn't want to stand behind men should know that standing next to men is perfectly fine. Gentlemen, just keep your eyes forward, towards mizrach, if you don't want to behold my womanly figure! I am stating this here for the record, as a public service.

Sigh. What a world. Also, don't pull your "I'm a rabbi!" business on me!

I wanted to say, "Just don't look if you don't want to see me" to the rabbi, but I didn't. I just stood there on the side and did my thing. But bullshit on the claim that in a non-mechitza setting (that is, a setting in which no mechitza is necessary), women have to stand behind the men. Seriously, bullshit. We'll stand next to you and you keep your faces in your siddurim/smart phones if our clothed-in-autumn-hiking-attire, several-feet-away presence is distracting/disconcerting/tantalizing to you.

I could also have said, when he said that I knew my stuff, "Well, you don't seem to know yours; where'd you get smicha?" but I'm too polite (except online, obviously) to even think of things like that at the time, not to mention actually verbalize it.

Do you know what else is bullshit? Pointing to your klaf to justify your ridiculous sexist beliefs instead of citing a source. I was all ready to go into simchas beis hashoeva from maseches Sukkah on him, but I didn't.

(Citing a source to support your sexist beliefs is also bullshit, of course. Hello, I am a walking, talking, cognizant human being, standing right in front of you!)

I noted that the other mincha-davening women opted to stand in the back, not in the side. Not sure what that means or says about the situation. More of an observation than anything else.

Note: For anyone who thinks this is atypical, it is not. It is 100% typical of my experiences with davening and learning in most Orthodox settings. Especially mincha/maariv. That really gets men upset! How dare a woman show up and try to converse with HaKadosh Boruch Hu in their holy space?

And, yes, this is what happens when women learn Torah on a high(ish) level. Also, when they combine that with a degree in history and women's studies from Harvard. It is a potent and dangerous combination.

Why put up with this nonsense? Why not daven alone rather than with a bunch of non-egalitarian men?

I think I put up with it to the extent that I do (and I don't always--I almost always opt out of tefilla altogether at this point in my life, and very occasionally daven in fully egalitarian settings) because I haven't yet seen a multi-generation egalitarian community with a high level of Jewish knowledge (meaning, my level would be about average or a bit more than average, but not above the 66th percentile) that retains a sense of rootedness and community. There are communities that have some of those things, but not all of them. And it's pretty rare in the Orthodox world, too. But somewhat more common. I think. I mean, I think more Orthodox communities hit more of those marks more of the time. Rampant, reprehensible sexism is one obvious cost.

I maintain some tiny shred of hope that interactions like the one I had on that recent day will create lasting change. He wasn't upset that I disregarded his "halachic" pronouncement and stood off to the side, instead of behind. He seemed impressed. It was more of an exchange than a confrontation. That suggests that change is possible. He will think (I hope) before sending women to the back next time!

Change is remarkably hard in a situation in which men have all of the power. Even "liberal" men are generally loathe to cede that power to women, even to smart, dedicated women. Some interesting things are happening on the leftward fringes of Orthodoxy (women learning at high levels in multiple institutions, Yeshivat Maharat, partnership minyanim) and in the non-denominational traditional egalitarian community (Hadar--Kehilah and Mechon/Yeshiva, Conservative Yeshiva, Fort Tryon Jewish Center, and other things I don't know about).

But as I said, I also skip communal davening and go to fully egalitarian options when it's too much to bear. I am glad that both options exist for me, and I hope for a world where nobody ever sends women to the back. Ever!

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