Judaism, the Women's Version

For her latest book Aliza Lavie researched the forgotten contributions that women have made to Jewish tradition throughout history.

The clothes and the jewelry, like the covers of the prayer books and the inscriptions on the women's amulets, tell the story of Jewish women down the generations. Aliza Lavie has traced their history and customs and collected every detail she could in order to shed light on the role of women in Jewish ritual and in the community. The result is a new book, "Minhag Nashim: Masa Nashi shel Minhagim, Tekesim, Tefilot Ve'siporim ("Women's Customs: A Journey of Jewish Customs, Rituals, Prayers and Stories" (Yedioth Books, Hebrew).

Historically, Jewish activity centered around men. The burden of obligation fell on them: checking the house for chametz before Pesach, carrying the lulav on Sukkot, standing next to the mohel at their sons' ritual circumcision and praying in the main chapel of the synagogue.


Lavie offers up the photographic negative of this image, describing the heritage and the creative endeavors of Jewish women. She describes the bat mitzvah in various communities, not the bar mitzvah, the naming ceremony for baby girls, not the brit milah of the boys. She replaces the familiar figure of the rebbetsin, the rabbi's wife, with forgotten female leaders.

Academic studies contain some information about Jewish women. Avraham Grossman's "Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe" (Brandeis University Press ), for example, posits that during the Talmudic period there were mohelot and shohatot, women ritual circumcisers and slaughterers, respectively. But Lavie focuses on social history, interviewing elderly women from different Jewish communities about customs they remembered from childhood. In some cases she found corroboration in texts, such as a story by the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim featuring a woman cantor.

The Hebrew word minhag refers to a religious custom practiced regularly by a specific Jewish community. In her research Lavie discovered that women once created and revived customs, but that at some point this stopped. "The exclusion of women," she says with a smile, using the Hebrew term, hadarat nashim, that came from nowhere a few months ago to dominate headlines in Israel, "did not begin a few weeks ago. It has existed in Judaism for centuries, at least."

As an openly feminist observant Jew, Lavie knows the subject well, but her research may have led her to the deep roots of the exclusion of women in Judaism. In Italy she found evidence of women religious scholars during the Renaissance, in the 16th century, who taught and were well-versed in halakha, Jewish religious law. She wondered why they disappeared.

Lavie, 47 and a mother of four, lives in Netanya. She has a doctorate in communications, she teaches the subject at Bar-Ilan University and is a member of the Council of the Second Television and Radio Authority. Until recently she was also one of the main activists in Kolech-Religious Women's Forum, which describes itself as "the first Orthodox Jewish feminist organization in Israel." She has also moderated programs on religion and tradition on Channel 1 state television.

As a child, Lavie often visited her grandmother in Jerusalem's Bukharan neighborhood. The grandmother, who immigrated from Afghanistan in 1920, could neither read nor write; Lavie would take down phone numbers for her by drawing circles to represent the value of each digit. But being illiterate did not keep her from being knowledgeable about Jewish tradition, from knowing the prayers and from being a community leader, someone who looked after widows, orphans and the aged.

Above all, though, what Lavie's grandmother represented for her granddaughter was an unmediated connection to God. One day Lavie decided to drop her other pursuits to research women's direct communication with God over the centuries. In 2006 she published "A Jewish Woman's Prayer Book" (Random House, 2008 ), which made U.S. bestseller lists and won a National Jewish Book Award.

"I was sure I was asking for it, that I would be slammed, criticized," Lavie says, "that people would ask, 'Why is a woman who doesn't cover her head writing about prayers?' But people connected with these female texts." Perhaps her focus on the emotional side of Jewish culture accounts for the fact that Jews from all streams, from Reform to ultra-Orthodox, including the wives of prominent yeshiva heads, were drawn to the book.

After "A Jewish Woman's Prayer Book" appeared she began receiving prayer books, photo albums and family Judaica items from readers. "Some were upset that prayers they knew from home, or traditions from a certain community, weren't in the book," she recalls. "Even my mother, who was born in Romania, asked me why there was nothing about the Romanian community. But what could I do? Women's customs didn't catch on there."

The new book surveys customs from East and West, from North Africa to Europe. Many of the rituals, naturally, have to do with pregnancy, childbirth and the mikveh, the Jewish ritual purification bath. She describes, for example, amulets that women wore when one of their number went into labor, and that were placed in the beds of infants. In Morocco, women were guarded during labor and ceremonies against the "evil eye" were held that included readings from Scripture and the singing of piyutim, or liturgical songs.

Lavie devotes an entire chapter to minhagim related to Rosh Hodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon according to the Jewish calendar. According to tradition the day was given to women as a holiday when the Temple was established.

Much of Lavie's journey in quest of women's customs was in Italy, where a pluralistic community developed that was accommodating to female creativity. On one such visit she was accompanied by Yonatan Bassi and his wife. They visited synagogues in Venice, Padua, Ferrara and Rome. Bassi, who was the head of the Gaza disengagement directorate, has extensive roots in Italy. His great-grandfather Isaac Pardo was the rabbi of Verona in the 19th century, and Bassi's parents were born in Italy.

Lavie discovered that the earliest bat mitzvah was attributed to Rabbi Pardo's synagogue, from which the custom spread. It was a communal ceremony, held each year on Shavuot for all the girls who turned 12 in the course of the year.

"The girls wore white and entered the men's section of the synagogue during the procession, accompanied by a choir ... The rabbi blessed them," Lavie relates. The Song of Deborah (from Judges 5 ) was sung: the prophet Deborah was a role model for girls.

Bassi relates that his mother, who is more than 100 years old, still vividly remembers her own bat mitzvah.

"The customs created legitimate spheres of activity for women in places forbidden to them," Lavie explains. "Some couldn't participate in synagogue services because they didn't know Hebrew. Others were forbidden to leave their homes, for reasons of safety, during periods when gentiles posed a threat. But they did go out to pay visit women who were ill or who had recently given birth."

The arbiters of religious law in the communities developed sensitivity toward the women's rituals and rarely intervened in them, Lavie notes. "That ability has been lost," she says angrily. "Nowadays, when women want to pray in a circle of women, read the Scroll of Esther together or dance with a Torah scroll, the rabbinical establishment intervenes. Who gave them the right? In the 12th century, the granddaughters of Rashi were not prevented from laying tefillin. It was the same in Germany, where women carried the lulav and studied halakha in the 16th and 17th centuries. Women were even counted in a minyan" - the prayer quorum of 10, traditionally limited to adult Jewish males - for a brit milah. It was only later that they were excluded."

Rabbis, she says, became insensitive to women's customs and roles as a result of internal and external developments affecting the Jewish community, including the Sabbatean movement, the Haskalah, Reform Judaism and secularization. "The response was to grow rigid and insular," Lavie says. "And women were always the first to pay the rice. [As a result,] most of us are not familiar with women's customs. My grandmother knew more about Judaism than I do. The first time I organized a serious Pesach seder I went to buy an instruction book. But for my grandmother, it was in her soul."

Lavie determined that most of the erudite women who were leaders, like her grandmother, had a supportive father - and usually no brothers. "In Afghanistan, where my grandmother grew up, boys learned in a heder, sitting around a table built on top of a stove. Her father let her sit underneath and listen."

There is evidence of women leaders from a number of Jewish communities throughout history. In 17th-century Kurdistan, Osnat Barazani was known as the "Tannaite woman," referring to rabbinic sages in the Mishnaic period. Her father founded a yeshiva in the city of Mosul (now in northern Iraq ), and she herself was a scholar and a poet. Her father forbade her husband from asking her to clean and cook. She succeeded her husband as head of the yeshiva after his death.

Lavie also mentions Freiha Bat Rabbi Avraham, a mid-18th-century poet from Morocco who wrote in Hebrew and was considered an authority on halakha. Bertha Pappenheim, one of the most famous of Sigmund Freud's patients ("Anna O." ), was a leader in her community.

"I ask myself why these women have been forgotten," Lavie says, "and whether there were others like them. The more the rabbinical establishment dominated the religious sphere, without leaving room for women, the more the renewed women's space was scorned."

In her view, women themselves are partly to blame. "We sinned against the creativity of our mothers and grandmothers," she says. "They took what there was in their domestic space, in the kitchen, and that became their pen and quill. At Shavuot, they baked the signs of the festival: Jacob's ladder, or a hamsa" - a hand-shaped talisman. "That is a type of creation that is an alternative to study, and I find it delightful. They were excluded and marginalized. But they were the ones who passed on Judaism."

Has she backtracked from her previous feminist posture? She says she now believes less in the radicalism of Kolech, the organization she left. "I am looking for a joint discourse within the religious space, despite its problems," she notes. "In the past, some of us were ashamed of this folklore. We demanded egalitarian feminism. Women wanted to wear a tallit [prayer shawl] and enter the synagogue. I say: Sorry, but I want to be in the women's section. All kinds of things went on there that we ridiculed. Let's see what was really there."

Michal Patel