As a woman born and raised in the latter half of the 20th century - in the midst of what is now known as the “2nd wave of modern American feminism,” I thought I stood at the shores of freedom. The opportunities, at least compared to what I knew about the generations who came before me, seemed limitless.
A number of years ago, while researching this wave of modern American feminism that reached its zenith in the mid-60’s and early 70’s after being sparked by Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, I conducted a google search in an attempt to find resources that perhaps were missed in the standard academic databases, yet what I found (and far too easily) were numerous websites raising up hateful and hurtful challenges to the great strides that women and men have made in this country over the last half century. Now at first, I thought to dismiss this material outright as marginal and barely influential at most. But then a comment made by my daughter as her father and I were preparing to host our annual Passover seder caused me to rethink my initial dismissal.
In preparation for our seder, I took out the table linens, left them on the dining room table, and then left for a leisurely and long bike ride. My first outdoor ride of the season. Upon returning, my then 9-year old exclaimed – “come look mommy” as she walked me in to see the beautifully ironed cloths now neatly adorning the tables in our dining room. As her father was standing just feet away from us, I couldn’t resist commenting how great a deal this was – “Mommy takes out the linens and Daddy irons them.” To which my 9-year old responded in an all-too serious and knowing tone, “yes – but that’s not right.” Surprised, I probed further – “what do you mean ‘that is not right?’” to which she replied, “mommies are supposed to do the ironing.”
“Mommies are supposed to do the ironing” -- Such a comment from a child raised in a household where frankly neither parent did much ironing. More significantly, my children regularly saw their father doing household chores. Due to the nature of our work schedules (namely my working weekends and having a weekday off), our children saw their father doing these chores far more often than they actually saw me doing these same chores. So where did that ‘ironing’ comment come from? It certainly did not come from what was modeled in our home. And, it wasn’t really at all about the ironing. It was and is all about stereotypes and images which so many of us thought we had conquered, but which clearly impact us in a way far beyond our consciousness. So much for standing at the shores of freedom.
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is one of 4 special Sabbaths that are intended to prepare us for the holiday of Pesach (yes, pesach is just over 4 weeks away!). On Passover, our tradition calls us to draw into our collective consciousness the experience of journeying through the parted waters out of Egypt and into freedom. As Americans we value our freedom and consider elements of such freedom – such as justice, liberty, and equality - as fundamental rights. But, I wonder, do we simply play lip service to these values? How often do we challenge ourselves to step through the mucky waters to work for the ongoing expression of these values?
When it comes to equality between men and women, we have reason to be proud of our Reform heritage. As early as 1846, in a report to a Rabbinical conference held in Breslau, our leaders of that day proclaimed “it a sacred duty to express most emphatically the complete religious equality” of women. Again in 1885, the formulators of the Pittsburgh Platform stated that Reform Judaism would never reach its highest goals without giving equal voice to woman and man. In 1922, the faculty of the Hebrew Union College resolved and the CCAR affirmed that it could not “logically and consistently” deny the privilege of ordination to women. – 1922! That being said, however, practice did not follow its idealistic impulse.
It took a progressive Rabbi in Germany (not America), a free thinker and one of the founders of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the international Reform arm, to grant ordination for the first time to a woman. It was 1935. In 1930, after completing the Rabbinic program at Germany’s liberal Rabbinic seminary (the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums), Regina Jonas was denied the right of ordination. Despite the fact that academic and Rabbinic giants of her generation (including Leo Baeck, Julius Guttman, & Ismar Elbogen among others) all attested to her competence, she was denied ordination. Finally, in 1935, one of her teachers, Rabbi Max Dienneman, in an act of defiance of the seminary’s decision, agreed to confer independent ordination upon her which allowed her to finally be able to function formally and officially as a Rabbi. She did so until her death at the hands of the Nazis in 1944.
With such precedent, why did it take us Americans so long – why was it not until 1968 that a woman was formally welcomed onto the path towards seminary ordination here on American shores? Examples abound of women who were functioning as Rabbis in America long before they were acknowledged as such – women such as Paula Ackerman and Ray Frank; but once again the ideals of equality and justice that we hold so dear came long before the institution of practical change.
Real change takes time, indeed. It takes as much patience as perseverance to enact change. Recall the Israelites who are about to journey through the Reed Sea are not the same individuals who will have the privilege of entering the promised land. The Biblical narrative acknowledges that a generation must pass to allow for changes in outlook, social mores, and behavior. These are vital changes that must occur in the community before the Israelites are able to understand what their freedom from bondage means and the responsibility such freedom entails. We are slowly learning how arduous the journey really is.
Considering that women gained the right to vote in this country just a hundred years ago, great – indeed incredible – strides with regard to real equality have been made. If I was an adult during the years of my childhood, I wouldn’t have been able to obtain a credit card in my own name. And, I certainly would not have had the opportunity to stand on a bema in the capacity I do today to deliver a sermon such as this. My children have had and will continue to have opportunities that were not available to even my generation. Yet at the same time, the accepted images and stereotypes with which I was raised that I had hoped would not impact my children are still floating just beneath the surface of all the strides that have been made, and in a very real way limit our present-day redemption.
Images and stereotypes can and should function in a positive manner in society. We model some of our best behaviors on the images to which we are exposed; but when those stereotypes impinge on our choices – on our freedom to choose to be the best we are able to be, when they hold us in bondage, then we limit our ability to live up to the responsibility that redemption requires of us.
As we mark celebrate Esther’s bravery and activism this Monday night, and as we prepare for Pesach in the weeks ahead, let us remain cognizant of our responsibility to ensure that the values and ideals of equality for which so many have worked throughout history are continually acted upon in our world.