A Pluralistic Moment on a Bus in Israel
Having just returned from Israel, I was reminded of how differently some women’s roles are perceived outside of the pluralistic framework that defines my pocket of the American Jewish community. Since I spend my usual 9-5 day surrounded by opinionated power-house feminists, I sometimes forget that most of the world does not know this as their reality, or acknowledge that a diversity of women's roles in religious life or otherwise even exists at all.
So here’s how I was reminded. I’m riding a bus in Kiryat Shmona and practicing the fourth aliyah of parshat Vayigash (the weekly Torah portion) that I was preparing to read for Shabbat. A secular Sephardic guy approaches me and starts a conversation.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I'm practicing the parsha for Shabbat this week. I’m reading Torah.”
“Ha! No you're not.”
“Actually, I am.”
“But you’re a woman!”
“Yes, this is true. But I’m still reading Torah.”
“Okay, fine. Chant it for me.”
So I did. Right there on the bus. And when I finished he said: “I can’t believe it! You are just a little tiny woman! And you can read Torah -- sweet and nice, like a little baby bird!”
Maybe it’s disconcerting that the idea of a woman reading Torah had never entered the consciousness of this Israeli guy. But it’s also somewhat affirming that a spontaneous bus encounter could quirkily challenge his assumptions and, for at least a brief moment, reverse the often espoused idea that Israel is supposed to change and transform us Americans, not the other way around. It’s nice to know that cultural influence can swing both ways. And it’s also nice to recognize that American Jewish women have contributed to expressions of religious pluralism in Israel. Women of the Wall, for example, a Jerusalem-based organization founded by a group of American and Israeli women, challenges the religious status quo by empowering women in ritual practice and providing opportunities for religious leadership that are often limited to men in Orthodox circles.
Learn about Women of the Wall in JWA’s This Week in History.