Gender and Torah

Years ago I was asked how my gender as a female rabbinical student affected my relationship to Torah and Jewish tradition. I bristled at this question that seemed to presume that as a woman I must relate to the traditionally androcentric Jewish tradition differently than a male counterpart would.

Surely, as a woman, I must be filled with angst that my voice was completely absent from these holy books that I chose to dedicate my life to – texts that were primarily written by male rabbis for male audiences. At the time I somewhat defiantly answered that in no way did my gender affect my relationship to Torah and that I was no different than a male rabbinical student.

And, yet, years later, I see how clearly my gender has shaped my perspective on Torah and changed the way in which I engage with the material.

The Torah, the Mishnah (The Oral Law), and the Talmud (The Written Law), while full of many beautiful teachings, are also replete with many difficult passages in which the female voice is silenced and women are treated as passive objects by their male counterparts.

In one section of the Torah we meet a woman whose husband, consumed with jealousy, accuses her of adultery. This woman, who is called the sota, a wayward woman, must be subjected to a humiliating public ritual in which she is stripped naked in the town square and forced to drink from the “bitter waters.” If she is guilty, the cursed waters will cause her insides to explode; if she is innocent, she will remain untouched and she and her husband will return home to supposedly live happily ever after.

Nowhere in this story do we hear this woman’s voice. In fact, her voice has been so successfully silenced that often, unless you were looking for it, you might not even notice it was missing in the first place. What does she want? How does she feel? What does she think?

It is specifically texts like this that I find so problematic – stories in which women’s voices have been erased – that draw me deeper into Jewish tradition. I feel called to lean in and listen more closely for those voices, to hear what they might have to say. Through my learning, my wrestling and my rabbinate, I add my own voice to Jewish tradition and join with others in creating a more inclusive Judaism – a Judaism in which all voices are honored and heard.
In closing, I offer a haiku:
i’m in the background.
but look closely and you’ll see,
my lips are moving.

Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the director of congregational learning at the Temple of Aaron in St. Paul.