Saturday, October 8, 2011

The missing son

At the yeshiva I attended, girls learned Talmud by reading off a xeroxed page. 

Some people wouldn't think twice about that because they didn't like studying it in the first place. 

Me, I found the language a little difficult. But once I got to the gist of the issue, I enjoyed it quite a lot. It's very absorbing. What should we do? What is that based on? Where exactly did you get that source? You can't beat the ancient rabbis for their sharpness of mind. If you look at what they're saying objectively, it is fascinating to watch the reasoning unfold. Especially if you cross-reference the statements with other texts to better understand the context.

The only thing that bothered me was the xerox thing. Why couldn't I read from the text itself? Answer: the yeshiva was ultra-Orthodox and we weren't supposed to. The xerox was a workaround, or so I was told.

It bothered me. It did. What is the difference? Why do I have to be treated like a "second-class citizen?"

Because boys are commanded to learn, so they can teach the traditions. Women are not. 

I was not exposed to the lengthy debate over this as a kid. There was no "Rabbi Google" for me. Had there been I would have found discussions like this, which explain pretty well the concerns the Rabbis had about teaching women Torah in the first place, especially the Talmud. Concerns that the modern Orthodox community has addressed and largely overcome. 

No, I couldn't really ask about any bothersome question much. Because to ask more than once, after you'd been shushed, was disrespectful. Unless you were just too stupid to understand, in which case you could be forgiven.

As I get older I see more and more that my daughter was right about something she said a long time ago. I was being critical of religion. She responded, "Mom, the problem is not with religion itself. It's the people who mess things up."

Religion is the same as any large social institution. The people who dare to question are at risk of being silenced by those who hide behind the rules. Of course there are good religious people and they can tolerate lots of questions. But there are also fairly bad ones who try to shut you up to keep their power intact.

And yet - it's not only about a few bad apples who ruin the bunch. The problem is the very structure of large social institutions, their inherent resistance to change, that squelches good and important questions. In the movie "Contagion" we see the caricature of a blogger who purports to tell "the real truth" but who stirs up the suspicion and scorn of the government. (True, he was a scoundrel, but the suspicion has to do with the fact that he questions the official version of the facts.) 

Routinely, wherever you look, employees who question the status quo risk being tossed for their "disgruntled" attitude, for "stirring up trouble." As do social critics. As does anyone who dares to refuse to play along automatically. Despite living in a free country, the very fact of belonging to a group makes it difficult to challenge the way it functions.

At the Passover table we read from the prayerbook about the "Four Sons" (of course not the Four Daughters, who presumably are serving the food), each of whom absorbs the tradition in a different way and each of whom gets a specially tailored response. There is the Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Simple Son, and the Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask. Three of the four are fine. The Wicked Son is bad because he rejects the tradition outright.

Looking at the prayerbook I wonder which of the Sons represents me. The answer is - none of them. There is a missing Son, the Son I was, the The Questioning Son (Daughter). But the Questioning Son is not in my prayerbook because questioning is "scoffing," and should only be addressed if there is a chance at winning the questioner over to tradition. Rabbi David Gottlieb exemplifies this approach:

"We are all confronted with people who scoff at the Torah. We often have to decide if and how to respond. The book of Proverbs teaches us that our primary responsibility is to improve the critic by our response."

Today on Yom Kippur I was somber. Of course I worried about G-d's judgment. But there was something else too. I realized that I am a questioner. That I will always be a questioner. That being this way puts me outside the community of faith I was raised in. That this makes me feel bad. But that I will never, ever give up my right to think, to wonder, to ask. And that even though there are those who understand that I mean well, there will also be those who say "Hakhei Es Shinav" and call me The Wicked Son.

I am not the Wicked Son. I am the Questioning Daughter. And I am not planning to leave the table anytime soon.

As Judgment Day closes and we clear the spiritual decks, I want to take a minute and thank all the people who have supported me in asking the tough questions. Good luck to all of you on your journeys, and may you accomplish great things this year.