Thursday, December 27, 2007
Guest Post by Author - Women from the Fall of Eve to the Full Redemption
It is my pleasure to present this article, written by the author of a new book, The Moon's Lost Light, by Rebbetzin Devorah Heshelis. In it, she tells the amazing story of how she had been bothered her entire life growing up in Bais Yaakov in the Lower East Side by the apparant inequality of women in Yiddishkeit. Her example of constant searching, learning and davening are a tremendous lesson for us. My sense is that this book is different from any other and will begin to truly open up your understanding of this topic through sources from both Niglah and Nistar. You can get ahold of her book from Targum HERE (for 30% discount). You can also read a great review of the book by Meyer Twersky in Jewish Action Magazine HERE.
It’s no secret that women’s status in Judaism is one of the most difficult areas for modern people to deal with. When one looks at the Torah’s treatment of women one gets the impression that although women are considered important - Jewish women are called G-d’s daughters - they are not on the same level as men. There’s even a blessing for men to say for not having been created a woman.
But if women are not equal with men, then how do we reconcile the Torah’s relegating women to a secondary position with our belief in the Torah’s goodness and perfection?
In times gone by this wasn’t a pressing issue. No society considered women entirely equal, but Jewish women were much better off than non-Jewish women, enjoying many more rights and privileges, than their non Jewish counterparts. Furthermore, life had so many more difficult issues to struggle with, like abject poverty or blatant and dangerous anti-semitism. Under the circumstances, pondering women’s equality or inequality was far from being top priority on people’s minds.
Times have changed. The world around us has gone all out for total equality, considering any inequality as unfair and cruel. Suddenly the Torah world found itself in a very difficult position.
Those who were not loyal to Torah had no problem with this.. They said, “Change the Torah and make women equal.” This makes as much sense as saying that if you don’t like the fact that diabetics can’t eat sugar you should change your policy and let them eat sugar. G-d’s laws - which include the laws of the Sages whom He appointed to be his agents - cannot be changed to our likes and dislikes, any more than one can change the laws of physics or chemistry. They all come from the same source. Just as the scientist cannot change the laws of nature, he can only learn to understand and apply them, so the rabbi cannot change the laws of the Torah, he can only show us how to understand and apply them.
How did those loyal to Torah respond? The old world response was “This is from G-d, the Creator of the world who gives all life and existence. If this is the way He wants it, who are we to ask questions on G-d?” Although there is much truth here, the problem was that it required more faith than most people had..
Others who realized that this answer wasn’t enough, pointed out the many positive, and complimentary things the Torah has to say about women. They showed how those who virulently criticized the Torah’s attitude towards women were uninformed and/or misinterpreting things. The critics thought women were being treated as inferiors because they were judging the Torah’s attitude by non Torah standards. For example, child bearing and child raising, doing chesed and being modest are not considered prestigious in the modern world - but in the Torah world they are considered very lofty spiritual goals which place those who adhere to them on a lofty spiritual level. On the other hand, the defenders pointed out, the “feminist” ideals have left most women robbed of those things which would give them real happiness - a loving , loyal, stable, family, that honors their wife and mother.
Yet, while all of this was very true, it still didn’t cover all the sore points. Yes, men and women are by nature different and so it makes sense that they should have different tasks. And yes, the Torah does have wonderful things to say about women. Yet there still remains the fact that there really are some ways in which women do have a secondary position...
If this wasn’t enough to have to deal with, the Talmud and later rabbinic sources sometimes describe women in a way that doesn’t correspond with our reality. For instance, men were seen as generally having intellectual capabilities while most women were seen as has having practical common sense but incapable of abstract intellectual achievements. Traditional Jewish life was designed to correspond to this. Men were expected to learn Torah and women were expected to do practical things.
But the pattern didn’t fit. There were too many exceptions - intellectual women and not so intellectual men.
I was sixteen years old when I began to be bothered by questions on the Torah’s attitude towards women. Having been born to a religious family on New York’s Lower East Side and attended the local Bais Yaakov, I was able to learn Torah commentaries directly from the sources. Being an avid reader with a philosophical bent, I searched for answers, but I couldn’t find ones that satisfied me, not from the modern writers who wrote in defense of the Torah, nor from the traditional commentators. My teachers didn’t have answers for me, nor did anyone else I asked. Eventually, I realized that no one around had the answers I was looking for. Then, out of sheer desperation I did something I thought was very daring. I turned to Hashem and explained that I had done everything humanly possible to find the answers I needed to make me love His Torah, but I was unsuccessful, so I asked Him to give me the answers Himself. Over and over again, I asked Hashem to answers my questions. I prayed at the kosel. I got up for forty nights after midnight and said tikun chatzos (psalms and prayers about the exile and our hope and longing for the ge’ula). Perhaps I fasted too, I don’t remember. Again, and again I begged Hashem to help me.
And He did.
It didn’t happen all at once. It took many, many years, but little by little I found the pieces that when put together created a dazzling puzzle - a puzzle which revealed a glorious Divine plan. It was no wonder that no one I knew had the answers to my questions, for those answers were in the area of Torah known as “sod”, secret. There was a great secret about women that was related to the future. But it wasn’t just the future. What almost nobody knew was that this great change in women wasn’t going to start only when Moshiach comes. It had already started!
I put what I found out into a book called The Moon’s Lost Light - A Torah Perspective on Women from the Fall of Eve to the Full Redemption. When Rabbi Zev Leff read my book he said, “It’s phenomenal! How did you do it?” The answer, of course was that I didn’t do it. It was all siyata dishmaya - assistance from heaven. It wasn’t me, it was Hashem taking me by the hand and showing it to me. Hashem answered my prayers.
But as I said, it didn’t come in a day. The process took over twenty years. First I found out from some of the tradition commentaries that I read that women’s inequality was coming from Chava (Eve’s) sin. That meant that women’s lower status was not how it was originally meant to be, and the way things are now is not the ideal. This in itself was comforting. It showed that Hashem “agreed” that women being unequal was not how He really wanted it to be.
Then I found out about the verse in Jeremiah 31:21 which prophecizes that women will become equal with men. Literally the verse reads “nekevah tisovev gever”. There are many explanations of this phrase, but the deeper commentaries explain it to mean that in the future females would have equal spiritual perception with men. (Later I found out that it also means that women would learn Torah, and would become eqaul in other ways as well.) But this still didn’t make sense to me, because as far as I could see women already had equal spiritual perception with men. Finally, when I was about 40 years old I read an amazing book called Kol HaTor. Written by a student of the great Gaon of Vilna, it contained his secret teachings on what would happen before the redemption.
This book explained that from the year 5500 (1740) the powers of the redemption begin affecting the world, and that everything that will be in the full redemption enters the world little by little from this period onward, growing stronger as time progresses. In other words, the “future” equality of women which the commentators had spoken about had already begun to materialize. That’s why the Sages descriptions didn’t always suit our reality. We were living in a different reality, the reality of ikvesa demeshicha, the turbulent period before the coming of Moshiach, and this reality things were different.
There was something else I learned as well. Kol HaTor said that the powers of evil would rise to fight against the progress towards the ge’ula. The more the powers of redemption would enter the world, the stronger the forces of evil would grow. As I found out from my chassidic reading, these sources, called klipos, outwardly resembled the holy forces, using the same powers but for opposite goals. Elsewhere, the Vilna Gaon said that the klipa, the impure side would come before the holy side. And that was just what had happened - it explained feminism perfectly.
But that wasn’t all. When I looked at Jewish history from the year 5500 onwards I saw that this pattern was affecting everything. Zionism, haskala, and every other change in Jewish life was all connected to this.
I was so full of this amazing discovery that I was bursting with it. I told it to anyone and everyone who would listen to me. People were absolutely fascinated.
Fascinated? That’s not even the word. I remember speaking to a group and one young lady literally jumped out of her seat. Eventually, I wrote down what I had learned in a book, adding more and more interesting details along the way. For instance, the book explains that even throughout most of world history, when women had a lower position, they were equally important and beloved in their essence. The book also speaks about the blessing for not having been created a woman, and the women’s blessing for having been created according to Hashem’s will, which has many secrets in it. According to kabbalah, women parallel and resemble the Shchina, Hashem’s presence in this world which is compared to a mother. Whatever happens to the Shchina happens to women and vice versa. Paralleling the Shchina isn’t a put down, it is one of the greatest (although sometimes difficult) honors there could be. Women’s lower position is because of the Shchina’s lower position, and when the Shchina rises, so will women.
The book brings 192 sources to substantiate these teachings. It has approbations from Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, Rabbi Dovid Goldwasswer, Rabbi Zev Leff, and Rabbi Michel Twersky. Many other leading talmidei chachamim, including Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon of Lakewood, personally told me how much they like the book. The publisher is Targum-Feldheim and it can be obtained from book stores or from the Targum website.
So if you’re interested in a different approach to this subject, happy reading.
Update from D. Heshelis on 4/6/08:
About three months ago, there was a post here on my book, The Moon’s Lost Light. It caused quite a stir mainly amongst two readers. Because I do not have an internet connection I could not see the comments directly. Some of them were forwarded to me and I answered them, but there were other comments that I never saw.
Recently an acquaintance came across this post on a Google search and he printed and gave me the entire dialogue. For the first time, I became aware of questions and comments which I hadn’t answered. I am very sorry about this because my failure to respond may have deprived people of answers they needed to see and perhaps left them wondering if there were any answers. It is therefore important for me to inform the readers that my silence was not intentional. Presently, I am very busy preparing for Pesach and responses take much longer than most people realize. But I hope to answer a pertinent point after Pesach. Dixie Yid will אי"ה inform you when and where they will be posted.
A wonderful Pesach to everyone,
Update 6/23/08: Rebbetzin Heshelis has responded to the loose ends left by the comments. You can read her detailed responses to many of the comments, including to Chaim and Ariella in particular. In a few days, there will be a short version of some of these responses as a new post.
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