Who are we in this story?

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

Nissa Mai, a year fellow at egalitarian learning institute Yeshivat Hadar in NYC, writes about the challenge she feels searching for halachic guidance in texts which fail to account for her.

For the last seven months, I’ve been a full-time fellow at Hadar, which runs a traditional, gender-egalitarian yeshiva in New York City. Given this particular opportunity to spend all day learning Torah, I end up thinking a lot about how three aspects of my identity—female, halakhicly observant, and queer—intersect. What does it mean that the halakhic conversation never previously took voices like mine into consideration? What does it mean when I open the Shulchan Arukh and can’t find a single viable option for how to enact so many parts of what a halakhic life looks like for me?

Six weeks into the program, I wrote this reflection:

This feels radical. And it feels radical that I’m actually in the beit midrash, that the beit midrash is capable of housing women and out queer people ... We who have previously been excluded from the halakhic conversation are now at the centre of it, talking back to our teachers, no longer hypothetical or nonexistent to the [halakhic] decisors, but critical components that the halakha should take into account.

I’m honestly not sure I still feel the same way. While I’ve been talking (and yelling) back for seven months, it mostly seems like I’ll be invisible to the halakha for the rest of my life. The rules are inaccessible and arcane, and I’m not smart or knowledgeable enough to make them account for the existence of people like me. I know that seven months is extremely short! But if I feel so exhausted now, I wonder how anyone who can’t really find space for themselves can keep going for long enough to tackle the impossible project of making more of that space.

Sometimes I want to cry a lot. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that almost every mundane fact of my existence has centuries of halakhot down to the smallest detail, yet, when I try to sort out hugely important parts of my life, I come up with nothing. The minute ordering of tiny profane things—eating, wearing clothing, washing my hands in the morning—give me and my community opportunities to experience and enact our covenant with God. And the gaping hole of big things—what my religious obligations as a 21st-century woman actually look like, how my wedding ceremony will be ordered—are a religious void I try to fill with wispy threads of Google Documents and PDF source sheets, scraps of answers hardly a fraction as complete or satisfying as the streams of words in gold-trimmed books lining the shelves of our beit midrash.

There are so many LGBTQ+ people and so many women at Hadar! And when we look to the tradition, instead of finding affirmation or guidance, we find prohibitions and a pervasive scepticism that people like us could really add to it, assumptions that our desire to fulfil mitzvot comes not from yirat shamayim, fear of Heaven, but rather from shallow attempts to appear pious or gain power. Amidst the voices we take so seriously runs an undertone of exclusion and disparagement. Yet every weekday, we’re still in the beit midrash, trying to work together through texts that don’t believe we can exist, hoping that one day, the language of halakha will be able to hold us and bring us closer to God.

I recently re-encountered this mishnah from Pirkei Avot, Perek 2, and I’ve been finding in it glimmers of hope where I often feel despair:

הוא היה אומר לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה. אם למדת תורה הרבה נותנין לך שכר הרבה. ונאמן הוא בעל מלאכתך שישלם לך שכר פעולתך. ודע שמתן שכרן של צדיקים לעתיד לבוא

- מסכת אבות, פרק ב, משנה טז

He (R' Tarfon) would say, all of the work is not upon you to complete, yet you are not a free person to desist from it. If you learn a great amount of Torah, there will be given to you a great reward. And trustworthy to you is your master, for he will recompense you your labour's reward. And know that the rewards for the tzaddikim are given in the time to come.

I hope we may one day hang mountains where we only have a thread.

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