Drash on Parashat Va’eira
Rabbi Paul Jacobson
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
A number of years ago, I enjoyed a conversation with a rabbinic colleague en route to Ben Gurion Airport from Jerusalem. My colleague had just celebrated the birth of her daughter and was talking about the challenge of managing her child’s needs, all of which did not conform to any particular schedule. She said, “For the first time in my life I understand why the rabbis exempted women from performing time-bound mitzvoth. It’s not to say that prayer or study or attendance at the synagogue is any less important to me; those things are not only my career as a rabbi, they’re my passion, my life. But for the time being, I appreciate that I don’t have to worry about doing things ‘on-time,’ that I can just be present with my child.”
To clarify, in Jewish interpretations and parts of the Jewish community where separate gender roles are assigned to men and women, women are considered exempt from all but three time-bound mitzvoth – the lighting of Shabbat candles, the tithing of dough (challah), and the observance of family purity laws. My colleague admitted that not knowing when her baby would sleep and wake, when her baby would need to be fed or changed, precluded her from doing just about anything in a timely fashion.
The key though is that this appreciation was only “for the time being.” Further, my colleague appreciated the recognition emphasized by the Conservative and Progressive movements stressing that the original mishnah (upon which the concept of time-bound mitzvoth are based) dictates an exemption for women, slaves, and minors with regards to the recitation of the Shema, and the wearing of tefillin, but not a prohibition (Mishnah Berakhot 3:3).
Once my colleague was ready to return to work, she also found herself ready to return to her religious observance. Incidentally, it was her husband who then stepped in to the role of full-time parent. Not a case of mere “role reversal,” we see today many dads taking paternity leave to look after and raise their children while mums head back to work. Parenting is a shared responsibility, a shared opportunity, a shared blessing. While the structure of “the man goes to work and earns the salary” while “the woman stays at home and raises the kids” is still a reality in many corners of the earth, norms and standards are changing regularly. Specific gender roles in our society today are becoming ever more blurred.
Part of the joy of Progressive Judaism rests in the opportunity, the promise, the potential that exists for egalitarianism in our synagogues and Jewish communities, and that we stress no less than full and complete equality for men and women alike. Mitzvoth remain sacred, important guidelines through which we structure our lives. We celebrate at the right time, in the right season, but we also recognize and appreciate the constancy of change and development in the world around us and throughout the Jewish community.
In the past few months, many of us have been rightly distressed by injustices in Israel, specifically in regards to Women of the Wall, a group of women who gather on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month) to pray together at the Western Wall, wearing tallit and tefillin. In October, Anat Hoffman was arrested. Just last month teenagers Rhiannon Humphreys and Emily Wolfson, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and activist Rachel Cohen Yeshurun were also arrested for donning a prayer shawl and praying out loud. In this day and age of elementary school massacres and gang rapes on buses in India, we would think that there are far worse crimes, far greater matters with which the police should direct their attention than to a woman wearing a tallit and singing her praise to God.
As Progressive Jews, we know and can appreciate that there are those Jews who prefer to accept traditionally grounded interpretations and traditionally assigned gender roles. But ultimately, the Israel that we want to create is an Israel reflective of the brilliance and beauty of a Judaism grounded in equality and sacred opportunity for all. Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance wrote, “We want rabbis to understand that repressing women’s spirituality causes real suffering and sometimes it pushes women away from Judaism. They are trying to maximize their religious expression. They are embracing the Kotel. They are embracing tefilah. We believe that the rabbis and the State of Israel must find ways to encourage this, to say that it is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing. It is a basic human need.”
This Shabbat coincides with Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month of Shevat, an opportunity for rebirth, renewal and rededicating ourselves to the sacred cause of helping to build an Israel free of religious coercion. And at the same time, we repeat the stirring words of Moses to Pharaoh found in Parashat Va’eira, “Let My people go so that they may serve me.” This Shabbat, this Rosh Chodesh, we pray for all of our people – those who appreciate the time-bound, the timeless, and the timely – to be granted the freedom to serve God in ways which emanate meaningfully and purposefully from the depths of our hearts and souls.