Do I Have Something Yet? And If So, What?

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on December 30, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Genesis 17

9) God said further to Abraham, "As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep my covenant.

10) Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.

11) You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the Covenant between Me and you.

12) And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days…

13) …Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.

When I first encountered Rachel Adler’s 1983 essay, "I’ve Had Nothing Yet So I Can’t Take More," I was a young woman who had been raised in a feminist household and an egalitarian religious community, who had also been recently turned on to religious observance and learning during a year in Israel. How was I to reconcile my new ideas about Jewish law and what it was telling me about my place in the community as a woman, and what my upbringing and intuition told me about my worth and right to equality?

But Adler made the questions all that much harder, because in her fearless and uncompromising way, she drilled down to the very essence of the issue. Opening with a citation of Lewis Caroll that gave her the title of her piece, she wrote:

"Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice very earnestly.

"I’ve had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone: "so I can’t take more."

"You mean you can’t take less," said the Hatter: "it’s very easy to take morethan nothing."

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

Being a Jewish woman is very much like being Alice at the Hatter’s tea party. We did not participate in making the rules, nor were we there at the beginning of the party. We are being invited by Jewish men to re-covenant, to forge a covenant which will address the inequalities of women’s position in Judaism, but we ask ourselves, "Have we ever had a covenant in the first place? Are women Jews?"

Imagine yourself, for example, a woman at a Shavuot service hearing the Torah reading in which the giving of the Torah is recorded. You are following the preparations for the revelation when, suddenly, you are struck in the face with, "And he said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.’" (Exodus 19:15). Clearly, "the people" does not mean you. You try to set that aside, to be caught up once more in the majesty of revelation, but you are jarred as the commandments are proclaimed, one after the other, in the masculine singular, ending with the commandment not to covet a neighbor’s property or livestock – including his wife. You are left standing apart wondering if there is anything God wants you to do and, if so – why doesn’t He tell you so Himself?

When I reread this work, I am surprised – though maybe I shouldn’t be – to see how much of Adler’s later work and thought is already presaged therein.

But what is more, perhaps I also shouldn’t be surprised to see how much of my own intellectual development is influenced by her work, and yet I am. Many times I’ve described the moment when I first encountered this piece as an event that "rocked my world." What I see even now is not only that – though I still experience that reaction, and remember why it evokes that reaction – but also how many of the questions Adler raises, and the examples she brings have helped me establish (more and less consciously) an agenda of what it was I needed to know, to study, to explore, to grapple with, to explicate. While I have been reading and responding, more and less directly, to all of Adler’s work throughout my scholarly career, each time I reread this essay I see newly – anew – again – how thoroughly I have been guided by the path she mapped and charted for us. The questions she raised about women and Torah and covenant continue to resonate for me all these many years later, long after I have been ordained as a rabbi, have earned a PhD in rabbinic literature, and have been teaching rabbinical students for the Conservative Movement at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies for over a decade.

Indeed, my scholarly interests have also lead me to new sources that not only help me respond to Adler’s challenge, but some which perpetuate it, sources she could have easily added to her work (though the ones she did cite were more than adequate to make her point) had she wanted. One of these relates directly to our parashah and the commandment of circumcision, cited above. But I’d like to take (or continue to take) a slightly indirect route to get to the connection.

The Mishnah in Berakhot 3:3 rules that women are obligated to say Birkat haMazon (the blessing after meals). The commentary of the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 20b, however, asks: what is the level of women’s obligation? Does it come from the Torah command of Deuteronomy 8:10 (see just below) as it does for men? Or is it a rabbinic decree, a lower level of commandment in the rabbinic system? Leaving aside the answer for the time being, I want to make note of what the most famous of Talmudic commentators, Rashi and Tosafot, make of these possibilities. Why wouldn’t women be included in the Torah commandment? The verse in Deut. reads: "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you" – and in fact, during the Birkat HaMazon, we say:

We thank You, Adonai our God, for having given a lovely, good and spacious land to our ancestors as a heritage, and for having liberated us, Adonai our God, from the land of Egypt, and having freed us from the house of bondage, and for Your covenant which You have sealed in our flesh, and for Your Torah which You have taught us.

Rashi makes note of the linkage in the verse between enjoying food and giving thanks for the land; women were not given shares in the initial division of the Land of Israel, and hence might not be included in this commandment. The Tosafot, a group of scholars who lived approximately two generations later (some of the Tosafists are in fact Rashi’s grandsons), are not satisfied with this answer for various reasons, and propose instead the following:

Rather, one can say that the reason is because it is written, "for Your covenant which You have sealed in our flesh, and for Your Torah which You have taught us," and women are not obligated in either covenant or Torah.

In context, it seems clear that what the Tosafists mean by "women are not obligated in…covenant" is that women are not circumcised, something which is obvious both from the verses from our parashah cited above and indeed from the very nature of circumcision itself. This is what the liturgical passage means when it refers to "the covenant You have sealed in our flesh," which is meant to directly echo Gen. 17:13. Through circumcision, God’s covenant with Jewish men is quite literally cut into their bodies, at the very spot that marks them as male and as potential fathers of more Jewish children.

But as a female reader (not that a male reader couldn’t or shouldn’t also have this reaction), several things leap out at me here from Tosafot’s comment:

First, the abbreviation of "brit milah" to "brit" allows for a slippage in meaning – the author(s) may mean that women aren’t circumcised, but the wording of the statement allows for a broader meaning: women do not have a part in God’s covenant. Covenant is not with the Jewish people, but with Jewish men (or, put differently, Jewish men make up Jewish people and vice versa; women are not part of the people in their own right).

But second, if that covenant is marked most prominently by circumcision, then even if women are included, perhaps they can never represent it to the same degree men do. I was born a few years before second wave feminism truly took off, and before new rituals for welcoming new-born Jewish daughters started to be created and become common. No such ceremony marked my birth. By the time of my own first pregnancy, not knowing yet if I were carrying a son or a daughter, there was no question that this child’s birth would be marked ritually, no matter the gender. If it were a boy, then of course there would be a brit milah, but if it were a girl (it was!), then what should we do? The common name that was developing then and which is most frequent now for such a ceremony is simhat bat ­– celebration/rejoicing of a daughter. But I wanted more than rejoicing. If my child were a son (as my second is), he would be not only named, but initiated into a covenant. My daughter needed to be initiated into the covenant as well. At a minimum, I had to call this ceremony not a simhat bat, but a brit bat, and it had to incorporate language of covenant. But – there was, and still is, this tricky matter of the covenant that is sealed into my son’s flesh, but not my daughter’s. Would I have done such a thing to my son if I didn’t believe that we are commanded to do so? I don’t know. Why would I even want to do something comparable (if there is anything comparable) to my daughter if there is no command to do so? But I also wondered then, and wonder now: what can we possibly do ritually for our daughters that is as powerful, as obvious, as undeniable, that proves beyond a doubt that they too are forever after part of the covenant of ALL the Jewish people?

And third. Where Rashi links Land and obligation, Tosafot link covenant, Torah, and obligation (and circumcision). Women’s exemption from "brit," whether understood narrowly (circumcision) or broadly (covenant), is connected to their exemption from Torah; their exemption from Torah is linked to their exemption from "brit." Covenant and Torah are intimately linked; one created the obligation for the other, one reinforces the other. One of the most significant social changes in modern Judaism, one that encompasses nearly the entire spectrum of modern Jewish denominationalism, is the opening of Torah study, even at its highest levels, to women. As women gain access to Torah, do they thereby gain access to covenant? Or do they, as Adler suggests and I have found here, encounter their marginal status, their questionable covenant, over and over again?

Even with my PhD and my rabbinic ordination, it is scary but necessary to ask: just how much have I got now? How much more is there yet for me to have so that all of us – ALL of us – are truly equals at the covenantal tea party?

Shabbat shalom.