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By Rabba Sara Hurwitz, President and Co-Founder of Yeshivat Maharat
The American Orthodox Rabbinate is changing.1 I have been part of the rabbinic clergy team at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale–The Bayit, since 2003, and even in the past almost 20 years, I have watched the job of the rabbi subtly change as the needs of the community in which we serve evolve. As we emerge from the harrowing experience of a global pandemic, the rabbinate is transforming yet again. In order to understand its current trajectory, we must first reflect on where it has been.
The Posek Rav
The rabbinate has been adapting to its constituents for centuries. Consider the image of a turn-of-the-century rabbi. He is accented, deeply learned in tradition and texts, and spends his day studying and teaching in a beit midrash setting. I call him the “Posek Rav,” as his job was mainly interpreting and translating the halkahot, the law of tradition, to a less knowledgeable Jewry. Orthodox Jews who were adapting to modern life needed to understand how to navigate the narrow lines between becoming productive and successful American citizens while holding onto their religious selves. Rabbis had to help their congregants understand how to navigate keeping Shabbat if they were required to work, and with the advent of electricity, there were a whole host of new halakhic concerns.
The PhD Rabbi
As Modern Orthodox Jews became more comfortable in the secular world in the middle of the 20th century, they began to seek more from their rabbinic leaders. Now the image of an Orthodox Rabbi was clean-shaven or had a cropped beard. He dressed in a modern suit and strived to engage more fully in the modern world; secular education became a necessity. This is the “PhD Rabbi.” American Jews saw themselves as intellectuals, placing emphasis on higher education. The rabbis, as well as their training grounds, put a premium on academic pursuits.
The CEO Rabbi
With the increased trend towards a more educated laity at the conclusion of the century, where Orthodox congregants could access translations of gemara, the role of the rabbi shifted once again. Now the rabbi had to build on his Jewish knowledge as a posek and his secular education to become the “CEO Rabbi”: the rabbi multitasker. Adam Ferziger explains: “Some rabbis could even be termed titular CEOs, not only supervising the religious and cultural content of the synagogue-center but also taking responsibility for producing the income and providing the ﬁnancial management that enabled all of the activities and infrastructure to function.”2 To bring a vision for the Jewish community to fruition, a rabbi must be skilled in the management and building of a major organization.
The Pastoral Rabbi
We are now at another inflection point, where the changing needs of the community are demanding that the rabbinate adapt once again. Rabbis must build on their skills as poskim and authorities of halakha, on their worldly knowledge, and on their ability to be stellar managers and visionaries, but now the focus has shifted to the “Pastoral Rabbi.” The 21st-century community is looking for rabbinic leaders who understand their individual needs and meet them where they are, even if it’s outside of the synagogue building. They are looking for a leader who has adapted to the needs of a community that has journeyed through a global pandemic. This community is seeking intellectual and spiritual meaning and is driven by justice and commitment to halakha. The Pastoral Rabbi is someone who can see into the hearts and souls of people and understand the anxiety, pain, and fear facing the Jewish community.
This rabbi sits in the pews with their congregants and meets them at coffee shops or on a walk. Rabbis can be seen with their children on the bimah or pushing a stroller on the way to the park. And, most significantly, the Pastoral Rabbi is also beginning to assert their own boundaries, protecting their own time. Congregants are beginning to see their rabbis in the context of their own pain and traumas and lived lives. It is in this context, as the rabbinate is transitioning to a more human-centered position.
The Human-Centered Rabbinate
A pulpit rabbi is expected to open up the synagogue at 6 am and close it at 10 pm, and when they go home, they remain on call – they are subject to the high and low whims of the lifecycle. This kind of rabbinate is not sustainable for anyone of any gender. To sustain the profession of the rabbinate, the job description must shift to one which allows rabbis to maintain their personal obligations and needs alongside the professional. I am not advocating for spiritual leaders to avoid hard work or to waiver in their commitment to community. Rather, the community must change its expectations of what is possible to achieve in a single day, positively impacting the job for all genders. Maharat is training Orthodox women to be their authentic selves and embrace their unique skill sets. We recognize that women have tremendous talents and the abilities and drive to serve the community, with a commitment to their private lives as well.
A New Pulpit Rabbi
The changing needs of the community also demand that we expand the definition of the pulpit, ushering in a new era of the “Pulpit Rabbi.” This past year, Maharat graduated nine women, only two of whom were interested in serving an Orthodox synagogue in a year with six new synagogue openings. There are many reasons why our students didn’t pursue synagogue work, but lack of positions is not among them. In fact, there has never been more enthusiasm and financial support directed toward women in synagogue pulpits. Maharat is eternally grateful to Zelda R. Stern whose vision to seed pulpit positions has helped us succeed in filling assistant pulpits.
That said, synagogue work can be draining and difficult, and we encourage our graduates to seek all kinds of rabbinic work across the Jewish communal, educational, and chaplaincy fields. For this reason, Maharat has expanded the way we interpret the word pulpit. I am a shul rabbi and treasure the privilege and responsibility of serving a synagogue community. I greatly value the role of the synagogue pulpit. However, Maharat does not measure its success by how many women we place in Orthodox synagogues, but we do measure it in pulpits. A pulpit is defined as “an elevated platform or high reading desk used in preaching or conducting a worship service,”3 implying that a pulpit is a place from which a person can deliver scholarship and spiritual nourishment as well as model a vibrant Jewish life. By this definition, a woman can use the beit midrash or classroom as her pulpit, from where she can build community, teach, and impact others. Women leaders can be looked up to from many places outside the bimah.
The rabbinate is an ever-evolving profession, and rabbinic training grounds have to be attuned to the changing demands of the rabbi. As one of the newest rabbinical training programs, Maharat had the ability to craft a program that met the needs of rabbis on the ground. We are deeply committed to the ethics of the Posek Rabbi, and most of the student's day is committed to the traditional texts of halakha and gemara. We also support the PhD Rabbi and emphasize academic rigor as well as exposing our students to the big ideas that may be on the minds of the people they serve. We know that our students must be prepared to be the CEO Rabbi, so we provide leadership training, including how to succeed as a manager, fundraiser, and visionary. And we are a training ground for the Pastoral Rabbi who will serve a pulpit but may not preside at a synagogue. We teach students to understand the emotional well-being of others and utilize the language of our Torah to help uplift the spirits of those we serve. While we are not yet sure which rabbi will meet the needs of the next generation of the Jewish people, we will continue to use flexibility and innovation to ensure the relevance of the rabbinate.
1 I have been influenced by Bar Ilan professor Adam S. Ferziger whose research focuses on Jewish religious movements. See “Between Outreach and Inreach: Redrawing the Lines of the American Orthodox Rabbinate,” Modern Judaism 25:3 (October 2005): 237-263 and “Sanctuary for the Specialist: Gender and the Reconceptualization of the American Orthodox Rabbinate,” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 (Spring-Summer 2018): 1-37
2 “Sanctuary for the Specialist: Gender and the Reconceptualization of the American Orthodox Rabbinate,” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 (Spring-Summer 2018):16
3 pulpit. 2022. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 25, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pulpit
By Rabba Sara Hurwitz, President and Co-Founder of Yeshivat Maharat
In last week's parsha, Yosef’s brothers threw him into a pit. As far as I could see, no Mefarshim comment on how long he was in the pit or what he was doing there. Only one Mefaresh, the Daat Zekeinim, tried to describe Yosef’s state of mind:
“While Joseph had been in the pit, wondering how he would ever escape, he had lost his good looks and was not presentable to people who wished to buy a young and able-bodied slave” (Bereishit 27:28:3).
His deep fear marred, even disfigured, his young boyish face.
While few seem interested in Yosef’s emotional state, many are interested in describing the pit, the bor, itself. The Torah says:
יִּ֨קָּחֻ֔הוּ וַיַּשְׁלִ֥כוּ אֹת֖וֹ הַבֹּ֑רָה וְהַבּ֣וֹר רֵ֔ק אֵ֥ין בּ֖וֹ מָֽיִם׃
“and they took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it” (37:24).
Rashi famously asks: why was it necessary to say that the bor, the pit was empty and that there was no water?
וְהַבּוֹר רֵק, אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מַיִם,
מַיִם אֵין בּוֹ, אֲבָל נְחָשִׁים וְעַקְרַבִּים יֵשׁ בּוֹ (בראשית רבה, שבת כ"ב):
“The pit did not contain water, but there were serpents and scorpions in it” (Shabbat 22a).
Rashi paints a vivid picture of a dark, empty, scary, snake and scorpion-infested pit. Yosef must have been petrified.
Perhaps prison has been on my mind as I found myself watching Britney Griner’s release from a Russian prison and her journey home. Britney, or BG as her fans affectionately know her, is a WNBA basketball star and two-time gold medal Olympian. Griner's ordeal began last February when she was returning to Russia to finish her overseas season. She was arrested for carrying vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil into the country. BG was tried and sentenced to nine years in prison and was serving her sentence in a Russian Penal colony, where she spent her days sewing, transporting fabric, and other menial labor.
Yosef was also ultimately thrown into prison. After being accused of seducing Potiphar's wife, Potiphar threw him into prison. This time, Yosef finds himself not in a bor or pit but in a beit ha’sohar:
וַיִּקַּח֩ אֲדֹנֵ֨י יוֹסֵ֜ף אֹת֗וֹ וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֙הוּ֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַסֹּ֔הַר
“Joseph’s master had him put in prison” (39:20).
Throughout the story of Yosef in prison, the word used for his confinement is beit ha’sohar. Then at the beginning of this week's parsha, Parashat Miketz, before Yosef tells Pharaoh about his dreams, Yosef is taken out of jail. Here, the pasuk refers to the jail once again not as a beit ha’sohar, but as a “bor,” a pit (Bereishit 41:14).
Trying to make sense of this, Mefarshim offers an array of explanations. Rashi says that the prison is called “Min HaBor” because the prison was actually a sort of pit. Perhaps, some explain, the bor was a night jail where prisoners slept, and the beit ha’sohar was where they lived during the day. Others say that the bor was a more serious form of punishment, like solitary confinement.
I didn’t like any of these explanations, and so when I re-looked at the peshat, I noticed that right before Yosef is freed, both times, he is taken from a pit. He emerges not from beit ha’sohar, from jail, but from the bottom of the bottom. From the place that was dark and scary and filled with the beasts that were meant to instill utter fear: it is from here that he emerged. From utter darkness, he is pulled into the light.
The first time Yosef is pulled from the pit, the Torah adds what I think is an extra word:
וַֽיִּמְשְׁכוּ֙ וַיַּֽעֲל֤וּ אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִן־הַבּ֔וֹר׃
“They pulled Joseph and brought him up out of the pit” (37:28).
Not only did the brothers (or the Midianites) pull him out – but וַיַּֽעֲל֤וּ – the word that implies rising up. And indeed, although Yosef was sold to Potiphar, he rose very quickly to the highest position within his house.
And then, the second time Yosef was taken from prison, again, the Torah tells us:
וירצהו מן הבור, “and they rushed him from the dungeon (the bor).”
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that Yosef came, in his words:
מתוך צרה רוחה מתוך אפלה אורה מתוך נבולן של צדיקים נשיאות, שנאמר (משלי ל) אם נבלת בהתנשא
“out of a narrowly confined space into a spacious area; from darkness into bright light; from the disgrace suffered by the righteous to princedom.”
All of this has been described by Solomon in Proverbs 30:32: with the words “if you have suffered disgrace you will be elevated” (41:3).
So here’s my hopeful chidush: at the moment when Yosef has reached rock bottom, literally and metaphorically, when all hope seems lost, and he is surrounded by fear, it is then that he is able to emerge. His emotional state was in the pit. It is the experience captured by King David is Tehilim 40:
לַ֝מְנַצֵּ֗חַ לְדָוִ֥ד מִזְמֽוֹר׃
קַוֺּ֣ה קִוִּ֣יתִי יְהֹוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֥ט אֵ֝לַ֗י וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע שַׁוְעָתִֽי׃
וַיַּעֲלֵ֤נִי ׀ מִבּ֥וֹר שָׁאוֹן֮ מִטִּ֢יט הַיָּ֫וֵ֥ן וַיָּ֖קֶם עַל־סֶ֥לַע רַגְלַ֗י כּוֹנֵ֥ן אֲשֻׁרָֽי׃
וַיִּתֵּ֬ן בְּפִ֨י ׀ שִׁ֥יר חָדָשׁ֮ תְּהִלָּ֢ה
For the leader. A psalm of David. I put my hope in the LORD; He inclined toward me and heeded my cry. He lifted me out of the muddy pit (bor), the slimy clay, and set my feet on a rock, steadied my legs. He put a new song into my mouth,
When someone reaches rock bottom, be it with regard to addiction, mental health, stress, or a general sense of desperation, we often think that this is the end of the road. And yet, the very experience of rock bottom, of being at the bottom of the pit, means that there is only one direction to go in, and that is upwards. When there are no alternatives, it is then, perhaps that we can begin to hear that soft still voice, be it the voice of God or the inner voice that is ready to accept help.
I don’t know what Britney Griner’s state of mind was right before she was released. But I imagine that there were plenty of days that felt like she was in an empty cold, serpent-filled pit. There must have been days of darkness. I heard that before she was sentenced, waiting at a detention center, she was offered a chance to toss around a basketball. She refused.
But, BG’s wife, Charlene advocated; her team and fans, and the White House fought, and finally, in a prisoner exchange, the American government brought Britney home. Days after she came home and reunited with her family, she finally spoke, “The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith.” That phrase dug deep, and implied that she was at a low; and yet, as soon as she emerged, she began to look towards her future. At the first possible moment, she picked up a basketball for the first time in 10 months. And she recently announced that she would indeed be playing basketball for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury this season. And perhaps even more importantly, she will be using her new platform to help reunite Paul Whelan, an ex-marine who has been in Russian custody, as well as others, with their families.
There's a beautiful Midrash and Gemara in Berachot cited in Parashat VaYechi, that describes an older Yosef walking past the pit into which he was thrown. Yosef doesn’t cry out with anger or bitterness. Rather, he makes a berachah: “She’asah li neis,” “Thank you, God, for the miracle.” Yosef understood, in retrospect, that the bor, the pit was not the end of his existence but the beginning of the rest of his life. It is why the gemara also suggests that Yosef is freed on Rosh Hashanah (Rosh HaShana 11a-b). He emerged not from a beit hasohar, from jail, but from the pit. And he was able to recognize the place not as a prison but as a new beginning.
On this Chanukah, when you light your candles, when that first light emerges from the blackness, from the darkness, shining forth, let that light guide you upwards; let it help you emerge from whatever pit or hole you have fallen into. Let the light bring you toward a new beginning. From darkness, light is born.
By Rabba Sara Hurwitz, President and Co-Founder of Yeshivat Maharat
Last year, a woman from the Modern Orthodox community reached out under the pseudonym “Tali,” expressing disappointment that leaders from her community are often silent:
You might not realize it, but every time there is a high-profile case, victims and survivors are watching you, looking for your response. We are evaluating whether your community - our community - is a safe place to report what we have never reported before. To share what has been silenced over a period of years.
Victims are often not the focus of the story of abuse. Even in the story of Dina, where the Torah explicitly tells us that Shechem “took her and lay with her by force” (Genesis 34:2), the narrative shifts to everyone’s reactions. The story is concerned with the aftermath: Yaacov, her father’s silence; her brothers, Shimon’s and Levi’s, zealous and violent behavior. Although the Torah itself criticizes Dina’s brothers’ violent behavior, murdering the people of Shechem, they are the only ones who defend the victim.
It is Shimon and Levi who get the final word of the story. (34:31)
וַיֹּאמְר֑וּ הַכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ׃
Like a zonah, a prostitute, he will make our sister.
The sentence structure is twisted all around just so that the final word can be “our sister.” They were not concerned by the public; the surrounding nations, and what they would think of their family. Their focus was on the victim. On their sister. Yaakov, on the other hand, is concerned about what the surrounding nations will think of him. He is angry at his sons, saying עֲכַרְתֶּ֣ם אֹתִי֒, you have brought “troubles upon me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.” Yaakov is focused on what they will do to his “house.” He is more concerned with his own safety and, even more so, his own reputation than defending his daughter.
But why would Shimon and Levi describe their sister as a zonah? Rashi seems equally disturbed and offers a confounding interpretation that I want to unpack. He reinterprets the word zonah not as a prostitute but as hefker or abandoned.
Meaning, as understood by the Siftei Chachamim, Shechem treated her as if she was property that was hefker – ownerless and abandoned.
The concept of hefker has multidimensional halakhic and colloquial uses, often used when an object or property becomes abandoned or ownerless. Perhaps then, what Shimon and Levi are saying is that when we are silent, when we don’t come to the defense of victims, of our brothers and sisters, we abandon them. They are hefker in the sense that no one in the community will take responsibility for their well-being. It is like the declaration that we make every Passover; after we perform a search for chametz, we declare:
Kol chamirah vechami’a de’eeka birshuti dela chamitey udela viartey udela yadana ley libatel velehevey hefker k’afra de’ara.
All chametz and leaven that may be in my domain which I have not seen and which I have not destroyed or whose existence I have no knowledge of, shall be nullified and be deemed null and disowned and deemed valueless like the dust of the earth.
How can we deem our sister valueless and like the dust of the earth?
But there is another side of hefker. Halakhically, once something is deemed hefker, it is not meant to be ignored and devalued. The goal is that the object becomes the responsibility of someone else, who must ensure that the object or property is claimed, either by the original owner or through providing a new home. And that is what Shimon and Levi are demanding. We must not leave her abandoned. It is up to us, her family, and her community to take responsibility. If she remained in a state of hefker, we would be able to turn away from her, as if she was merely dust of the earth. But by claiming her as one of us, as “our sister,” we are also helping to claim back her value, declaring to the world that she is no hefker, no longer valueless. She must become our responsibility.
So must victims of abuse become our responsibility? I get it; supporting victims is not a simple task; after all, “there are two sides to every story.” While that may be true, when a victim does speak out, we have a communal obligation to listen. Too many people remain silent out of fear that we – be they leaders or bystanders – will not believe the victim. As leaders, we have the opportunity to signal that we do stand with victims through writing or speaking about abuse from the pulpit; we can create clear reporting policies so victims know what to do when abuse occurs; we can provide training on how to recognize abuse, and how to report it. There may be times when we will need the courage to proactively reach out when we see signs that something may be wrong. Not all victims of abuse will seek out help – some will suffer in silence, unable or unwilling to find help. We are morally responsible for helping and we need to create a community of intolerance towards any kind of abuse.
In my rabbinate, I have learned that there are times when there is nothing I can actually do. Of course, if it is a case that is mandated to be reported or a woman (or person of any gender) is in danger, there are clear protocols to follow. But other times, she just wants us to see her and hear her. Perhaps the victim has chosen not to go public out of fear of disrupting their or their family’s lives. (This feeling is often amplified if the victim is already a parent and doesn’t want to disrupt their children’s lives.) Perhaps they are not ready to face the pain and humiliation that may be inevitable. Sometimes, there isn’t even an action step other than looking directly into her eyes and saying, “I believe you. I am sorry that happened to you. I am here if you need support.”
Victims want to know that we care. When we speak out, we signal to others that there is a safe person who will listen to their story and who will help them on the path toward healing. Our world could use more of Shimon and Levi's courage.
Dina was silent. She didn’t have the words to express her trauma. Yaakov was silent. He was too concerned about what others would say and think. Shimon and Levi made a strong statement - this kind of abuse and behavior will not be tolerated. Our sister will not be abandoned. Victims need us to come to their defense and not remain silent. We cannot abandon these victims. They are not hefker.
By Rabbi Jeff Fox, Yeshivat Maharat Rosh HaYeshiva
I am finally able to leave my parents’ house, and I am moving in with the woman I have loved for two years. We are both shomer shabbos and kashrus. My friend told me that since we are living like toeva we should just eat treif. I don’t think I could ever break shabbos, but I am not sure what we should do. I know that we are not supposed to live together, but we still want to be frum. Can you guide us? I know this sounds weird, but should I go to the mikvah?
For the past many years, I have received questions from frum Jews who happen to be gay. They are trying to navigate a minefield of Jewish Law and Jewish communal expectations. Some seek particular halakhic guidance and some simply need a compassionate ear. Too often, when these questions are raised with sincerity, humility and openness, they are received with outright rejection and even hatred.
In these pages, I share a few questions that I have received from individual women that demand deeper communal consideration. While I do not provide my responses here, these letters demonstrate the struggles and pain these women face every day. Even without clear answers, we must show compassion in considering these questions, a quality essential to halakhic decision making. I have removed all names and, in some instances, changed small details in order to maintain anonymity.
I have been married for twenty-five years and our youngest is about to finish beis yaakov, bs”d. I have been waiting for this moment to tell my husband that I am gay. I know that he will want to wait to leave me until she has a shidduch, but I don’t know if I can live like this anymore. I would rather not put some of these details in writing, but I have a female partner that I am in love with… What do you recommend?
It is sometimes difficult to understand just how trapped gay individuals feel in unfulfilling heterosexual relationships. These individuals fear harming their children’s marriage prospects, which can be paralyzing in ways that those outside the community don’t fully appreciate. How might you advise this woman, likely in her early forties, as she plans her next steps? What considerations must be balanced?
Interestingly, people seem to find my contact information when the time is appropriate. This young woman shares a story that is all too common:
I just got married three weeks ago. During my kallah classes I told the rebbetzin that I thought I was gay. She told me that many young women have doubts before they get married and that I would learn to love my husband. The wedding night was terrible, and now I know that I am gay. Someone told me to reach out to you even though we are not in the same kind of frum community.
The continuation of this note described the physical and emotional pain of this young woman’s wedding night. She was eventually told by her husband’s rebbe that she must be doing something wrong. Imagine being told by an authority figure in your community that you do not understand your own body or your own soul. What damage does this cause a fellow Jew, and how can her feelings be acknowledged?
In this brief piece, I only share emails from women, but the men in these relationships are also not physically or emotionally satisfied. The pressure on a woman to marry a man, even when she knows or suspects she is gay, can lead to disastrous realities for both the men and women. Here is a young woman writing even before she is married:
I just told my mom that I don’t want to go on any more dates because I think that I am not attracted to boys. She told me that I must be confused. I have a few friends who got married and they seem to be happy, but one has told me that she has a female friend who helps her have orgasms. Do you think I should still date boys?
One of the realities of living in the closet is that people engage in risky behavior, including promiscuous sex, drugs or self-harm. The experience of living a lie every day leads to anxiety, depression and, God forbid, suicidality. This girl has nowhere to turn; no one from her own community will even listen to her question.
While I wish that her parents could be more supportive, I understand that we all operate in a universe with a very specific imagined path for our children. If only we could imagine another narrative for our children. If only an alternative halakhic discourse could provide hope for these young women.
A common thread through all these painful questions is that the women are turning to me, an Orthodox rabbi, because they are invested in building a Jewish home, grounded in religious life. These women are not interested in leaving the community or the demands of halakha. In fact, the opposite is often the case. They simply want to do their best to build a Jewish home that will be filled with the light of Shabbat and, if blessed by Hashem, the joy of children.
The excerpts above are a fraction of what I have received from women around the world. It is certainly the case that other rabbis also receive these kinds of questions, some of whom respond with dismissal or condemnation. How might the rabbinic community create a new discourse built on the awareness of these kinds of questions that is grounded in halakha and mesora?
Over the course of the next several months, Yeshivat Maharat will engage in a deep analysis of the question of same-sex attraction between two women within the parameters of halakha. As a rabbinical school that ordains women, we want to address the questions that are most relevant for our core mission. I hope to show that these questioners are not trying to step out of the halakhic system but are actually trying to find ways in. I am confident that we will be able to articulate a path forward that expresses both a fealty to halakha and an understanding of the needs of gay Jews.
By Rabba Sara, Yeshivat Maharat President and Co-Founder
I don’t like to stick out. I don’t enjoy a lot of eyes on me. After I step down from giving a sermon, I want to retreat. I certainly don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to myself. And so it makes no sense that I would even consider wearing a kittel, a white outer garment usually worn by Ashkenazi men on Yom Kippur. In my synagogue, women often have the tradition to wear white. But none, as far as I know, wear a kittel. And yet, I feel drawn to the idea of wearing one for the very reason that it is a ritual garment that draws attention away from the individual, and transforms Yom Kippur into a communal experience, where we are all dressed alike. It’s the image that we sing out in the seminal prayer, Unetaneh tokef:
וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן
all creatures shall parade before you as a flock of sheep.
All of us, dressed alike, indistinct from one another, just like a flock of sheep, will pass under God’s staff, our heads bent in prayer.
What is the origin of the minhag for men to wear a kittel? The Rema (Orach Hayyim 610) does not connect the experience to sheep, but to angels and to death:
יש שכתבו שנהגו ללבוש בגדים לבנים ונקיים ביוה"כ דוגמת מלאכי השרת וכן נוהגין ללבוש הקיטל שהוא לבן ונקי גם הוא בגד מתים ועי"ז לב האדם נכנע ונשבר
There are authorities who write that it is the practice to wear clean white garments on Yom Kippur, to resemble the ministering angels. It is in fact the practice to wear the kittel, which is white and clean and also serves as a garment for the dead. Through its use, a person’s heart becomes submissive and broken.
First, the Rema associates wearing white clothing with angels, who also wear white. When we wear a kittel we elevate our status to that of angels, bringing ourselves one rung closer to God. And then, the Rema explains that the experience of wearing a kittel stirs our minds to consider our end of life, as some people choose to be buried in a kittel. Thinking about death propels us to think about our lives. Being angelic and focusing on the inevitability of death turns our focus away from worldly needs and towards our spiritual striving.
Yom Kippur is a day when we leave behind our physical selves, focusing all our energy on prayer. Refraining from food, drink, and bodily comforts such as wearing leather, applying oil, and having sex, makes us more like angels. Angels, by definition, are not corporeal, and the prohibitions are meant to help us rise above our bodily needs, so that we can focus on returning to our pure essence, to become angelic. The Maharal of Prague paints this picture:
All of the mitzvot that God commanded us on [Yom Kippur] are designed to remove, as much as possible, a person's relationship to physicality, until he is completely like an angel (Drashot Maharal for Shabbat Shuva).
Therefore, we too must stand before God in simple white clothes.
And so, shouldn’t women have this opportunity to tap into their angelic selves as they pray?
The Mishna Berurah (610:16), commenting on the Rema quoted above, clarifies that although women do wear white, they do not have the minhag to wear a kittel:
ונוהגין שגם הנשים לובשים בגדים לבנים ונקיים לכבוד היום אבל לא יקשטו עצמן בתכשיטין שמתקשטין בהם בשבת ויו"ט מפני אימת יום הדין ואין נוהגות ללבוש קיטל
It is the practice for the women as well to wear clean white garments to honor the day. However, they should not adorn themselves with the ornaments with which they adorn themselves on Shabbos and Yom Tov because it is necessary to be in awe of the day of judgement. It is not the practice for women to wear the kittel.
The Magen Avraham goes one step further, saying that women don’t even have to wear white garments because they can never be like angels:
דוגמת מלאכי - ולפ"ז אין הנשים לובשין לבנים דאין יכולים להיות כמלאכים
To be like angels - and therefore, women don’t wear white, as they are not able to be like angels.
Angels, according to this interpretation, are gendered, and women are not like angels. And yet, women and men stand together in prayer, with our feet glued together -- like angels -- during the kedusha prayer. What’s more, the Torah contains references to women as angels, such as in the Book of Zecharia (5:9), where two “women came soaring with the wind in their wings.”
וְהִנֵּה שְׁתַּיִם נָשִׁים יוֹצְאוֹת וְרוּחַ בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם, וְלָהֵנָּה כְנָפַיִם, כְּכַנְפֵי הַחֲסִידָה.
The reality is that many women do wear white clothing on Yom Kippur, and I believe that wearing a kittel transforms regular white clothing into angelic ritual garments, a prayer uniform of sorts, where a community harmoniously joins together to pray with one heart and soul. Angels raise their voices together, unified in their goal to serve God, homogeneous, with all distinctions erased. So too, when we don a kittel, we are left humbled in our whites -- stripped away of any distractions of the external world. The kittel allows us to retreat into ourselves, while at the same time join as one with our fellow daveners.
A Reminder of Death
The Rema goes on to say that wearing a kittel breaks our hearts, as it reminds us of “a garment for the dead.” Although the deceased are wrapped in “tachrichim,” a shroud made of pure linen, some have the custom to also be buried in their tallis and kittel. And so, on a day when we reflect on our lives, and the way we hope to live, we also confront death. The kittel is meant to remind us of the fragility of our lives, and both men and women must confront this inevitability. It is for this reason that the Magen Avraham, as well as the Be’er Hetev (who quotes the Magen Avraham), says that although women do not have to wear white clothing, they are permitted to wear a kittel “so that their hearts will be broken.”
ומ"מ הקיט"ל יכולים ללבוש שיכנע לבם
Reality on the Ground
There is halakhic precedent for women to wear a kittel. And the reasons that men wear a kittel are relevant to women as well. Shouldn’t we strive towards standing like angels before God? And shouldn’t we, too, be reminded of the unpredictability and fragility of life? Perhaps putting on a kittel is not necessary to achieve these goals, but it seems that for those who would like to adopt this minhag, it has the potential to transform our prayer experience. Indeed, women who do wear a kittel have told me that it really does help elevate their tefilah. When I asked women on Facebook to share their experience with wearing a kittel, the responses included the following:
“I like the idea of wearing white as we seek to repent and get our sins out, but, unlike all women I know in Israel, I don't actually have any white dresses. The kittel solves that problem.”
“It takes the focus off clothing for both me and others, it feels angelic.”
“I love wearing a kittel on the High Holy Days... It eliminates all focus on clothing and creates a special elevated aura, as it should be.”
“I see it a little as a uniform for Yom Kippur prayer and it makes everybody look like angels.”
At the same time that I was researching the halakhic permissibility of wearing a kittel, I was also examining my soul, deciding whether I should wear one. As part of my research, I decided that I needed to buy one, try it on, see how it felt. I walked into our local Judaica store, and asked the proprietor if I could see his kittels. “What size?” he asked. I hesitated, thinking that I could pretend that I am purchasing it for someone else, one of my children, perhaps. Somewhat embarrassed, I answered, “I am not sure. Can I see a few?” “Is it for you?” he asked. Not judgmentally or critically, but with kindness, as if women often walked into his store to purchase a kittel for themselves. He made it feel so normal. Later, when I tried the kittel on, the lace collar and lining felt angelic, pure, and feminine.
So, last year I did wear a kittel. At first, as the Kol Nidre service began, I felt self conscious. Unsure. I looked around and noticed that people were doing exactly as they should -- they were focused on the words. Of the auspiciousness of the day ahead. And within minutes, the kittel was no longer my focus either. I poured my heart and soul into my tefilot for the year ahead, amongst them, the hope to pray as one with my kehila, and not feel separate. And this year I hope that many more women will join me, fulfilling the Magen Avraham’s suggestion that wearing a kittel will help “break your heart” open to the possibility that our tefilot and connection to God may be just a bit deeper with the help of a white angelic kittel.
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