For a long time now I have rejected most ritualistic observances of Judaism. It started with a growing feminist consciousness in my early twenties, which vehemently decried anything in Judaism remotely connected with the oppression of women. I did marry and did so under a chuppah but refused outright to have a Mikvah on the basis that it was a patriarchal ritual reinforcing the idea that women could be “unclean” in law, a law made by men to regulate the lives of women. I also refused to do that circle thing where the bride walks around the man seven times. Later, I ensured my daughter was called to the Torah in the same way as her brothers for her bat mitzvah. I do attend services at Kolainu, the secular humanist congregation.
I am still at a loss to understand the power of orthodoxy over our community. I have, despite these not uncontradictory and rigid opinions, not waned on my views of orthodox Judaism. It’s not just the sexism angle, but also its anachronistic and irrational dogma which makes me often scorn orthodoxy. After spending six months in Israel last year, these views have been emboldened. However, as time goes on, I find myself softening a little when encountering some aspects of Jewish ritual. This shift took place even before I read Naomi Reagan’s books and even before the plethora of Netflix shows and documentaries on Jewish orthodox sects.
It was over ten years ago now, after my grandfather died and my grandmother moved from the family home to an apartment, that I spent hours in their home, combing through cupboards to make sure nothing important from their past had been discarded. They were not religious people, having ceased religious practice after surviving the Holocaust and losing their entire families. They were people with little material possessions and none of monetary value. But they were traditionalists. And, there on the shelf, were a pair of humble shabbat candles, delicately engraved with a Magen David. Just a simple pair of candlesticks made from stainless steel.
Soon, a ritual started every Friday, where I would light the candles using my grandparents’ sticks. I didn’t light them before shabbat came in, “to welcome the shabbat queen” (sneer and pull face), but at the table with my family. I even sang the Mount Scopus tune of the Bracha. I could refute an allegation of sexism by submitting that the ritual of female candle lighting is an intimate female empowering experience. I could say it is a non-gendered ritual open to all. Yet they would both be lies. I was lighting the candles every week as a Jewish mother and because it was nice. Spiritual. And I did it consciously with my grandmother’s sticks to do what all those had done before me and connect the past with my present.
More recently, I embraced yet another Jewish female ritual: challah baking. I’m not ready to join those mass challahs bake things that look like they could be in The Handmaids Tale. I don’t think I’ve crossed over to the dark side. But even if I have turned a somersault, maybe it’s something to celebrate. Baking challah is a thing now, I know. My twenty something niece and her friends do it. There’s a Facebook group for it. But I came to it before it was a thing and even before the baking craze of COVID. And there’s a reason I do it. It’s healing. I first baked challah after hearing Dr Carol Gilligan, a feminist activist and NYU professor speak about how baking challah weekly changed her life. And it does. You have to pause and be home weekly. You can turn the music up, knead out the aggressions, bang, chat, roll and sing your way to creating something beautiful.
When you get older, you get wiser. And when you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you just stop overthinking and do it. If it is intellectually endorsed and ideologically sound all the better for me, but it’s not what keeps me performing these rituals. I don’t regret the rituals I never performed, but I am not going to stop performing the ones I have discovered and love. And I’m open to discovering new rituals. It’s my meaning and it’s yours too. I wont judge (mostly). Go for it.