Ask the Rabbi

Ask the Rabbi with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet..

Woman’s right to symbols

Dear Rabbi,

I’m a religious woman who wears tefillin. I don’t understand why only men should be allowed to use physical Jewish objects such as tefillin, kippot, tztizit and get to read from a Sefer Torah. Why are women seen as inferior, even prohibited from singing?

Jenny

Dear Jenny,ASK THE RABBI 2

First, instead of simply declaring that women are ‘seen as inferior’, it may be fairer to ask whether this is the conclusion to be drawn – or whether there are other approaches to understanding the differentiation of the genders in Judaism. I’m not going to answer every point in an area where there is considerable debate and variance of approach – that would take a longer column – but instead want to leave you with some thoughts. The fact you wear tefillin – just like the daughters of the great medieval commentator Rashi did – points to more options than the rest of your question implies.

The traditional view is that mitzvot are essentially an obligation – which means they can be onerous and testing and are not meant to engender any sense of greater privilege or status per se. Women were exempted, according to the Talmud, because they often have extra family and social burdens and frankly don’t need to be overloaded.

Further, it is suggested in many sources that women are often more spiritually open than men and can find their divine connection in a somewhat less structured frame. Does this thinking reflect some of the norms of the ancient world more than the 21st century? Perhaps. But the reality is that gender roles and sensibilities are still, in the modern era, often differentiated as between men and women. Research shows that in 2015, even working women end up doing the greater share of housework!

My advice is to find and express your individual pathway to spiritual fulfilment, as you appear to be doing, without needing to be dominated by a sense of grievance – that gets in the way of enjoying one’s Judaism!

Guilt makes me keep shabbat

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve kept Shabbat since I was young and love having the day off. But I’ve begun to feel like I do it out of guilt and fear rather than enjoyment. My husband also keeps Shabbat and, when we have children, I’ll want to observe it too. But to be honest, I want to stop keeping it for now. The only thing stopping me is guilt. What do I do?

Laura

Dear Laura,

During the course of a life, many things can change and our emotions and enthusiasms wax and wane accordingly. Shabbat is no different in that we may well experience very different levels of motivation and enjoyment over time.

You already recognise that you’ll want to observe it when you have children for their sake. That tells me you understand the benefits and blessings that Shabbat can bestow – and the stability it offers for family life. What you are going through now sounds like a crisis of motivation, with which anyone can sympathise. But this is an instance where the head needs to rule the heart. It is important to take a step back and realise that if you stop now, it may be extremely difficult to reclaim later.

From the way you describe your circumstances, this will also have real impacts on you, your marriage, and your future children. Your sense of guilt – or fear of the spiritual consequences – is probably your gut feeling telling you to proceed with caution. Nevertheless, that guilt should not be your main driver – as the real nub of this is the cost of letting go for one who has and continues to observe Shabbat. My advice is to do nothing for now – don’t overthink this.

Try to find new and creative ways of enjoying the day. This may involve getting away or spending Shabbat in other communities, or trying out a different shul. Maybe the set routine of Shabbat can be mixed up a little to create a sense of newness. You can also have friends round for many types of socialising apart from the standard Shabbat meals.

Finally, don’t forget the famous observation by the secular author Ahad Ha’am: ‘More than the Jews have kept Shabbat; the Shabbat has kept the Jews!’

Reasons for tattoo taboo

Dear Rabbi,

Does Judaism forbid tattoos?

Scott

Dear Scott,

Tattooing is against Jewish law. There are many reasons, including the fact that the Torah wants us to distance ourselves from practices that were emblematic and highly significant religiously in the ancient pagan world.

In addition, some rabbis recently highlighted that Jews were tattooed against their will by the Nazis, which should compel us to avoid willingly being tattooed.

It seems to me that the very association of this act with the savage, inhuman cruelty of the Nazis may make tattooing counter-intuitive for Jews.

However, one needs to emphasise one critical point: that under no circumstances should the fact that a person happens to have a tattoo be a reason to restrict their participation in the Jewish community – whether for ritual roles or burial in a Jewish cemetery.

Despite what many well-intentioned Jewish parents may have told their children, having a tattoo does not prevent one from being fully Jewish!