Last semester, I decided to balance out my senior engineering courses with a class from the Jewish Studies department. I thought it would help me keep my sanity, so I innocently signed up for the Women in Jewish History course. As a recently Reformed-turned-Orthodox Jewish woman, and somewhat of a Jewish history fanatic, I thought the class would be cake… and easy ‘A’ to boost my GPA in the second-to-last semester of college. The entertaining thing is that after taking the class, I felt much more confident about my grade in Engineering Systems Analysis & Design than I did about this Jewish Studies course. I know, it didn’t make much sense to me either, but let me explain what happened.
I realized that I was going to be in for an interesting ride from the get-go, when my professor (who shall remain nameless) proclaimed as a statement-of-fact that the Torah is not a divine work, but rather a collection of stories written by many different authors and gradually compiled over a long period of time… the so-called “Documentary Hypothesis.” Funny, since the very word ‘hypothesis’ itself implies that you don’t really know what’s going on. And so from day one I discovered that the “Jewish Studies” class that I thought I had enrolled in was in fact a “Secular Examination of Jewish Stereotypes” class.
Now, if you look at the course as if it was actually a class on identifying the stereotypes surrounding Jewish women, it actually did a fantastic job. During the duration of the semester, we dug up every possible scenario in which Jewish women might conceivably have been oppressed in some way, shape, or form. I sat and watched in horror as the Matriarchs were labeled “subservient” to their husbands… never mind the fact that it says quite clearly in the book of Genesis that G-d told Abraham to listen to Sarah. I watched in disbelief as the Jewish women of Talmudic times were described as “chattel,” or the privilege-less property of their fathers and husbands. We moved forward in history to the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and the class celebrated the assimilation of Jews into the “learned” communities around them. Jump forward again to the waves of immigration from Europe to the US and we recall the “happiness” of the women watching their husbands and sons throw their Tefillin overboard to start a new life in America, “free from outdated laws and traditions.” Another hundred years go by, and the “oppressed” women of Ezrat Nashim are fighting for “the rights” to wear those very same Tefillin. Then comes the first female rabbi, a large leap forwards for the women’s rights movement within the religious community. After all, why shouldn’t women have an equal opportunity to do all 613 commandments? Never mind that men have more commandments and responsibilities because they screwed up, because that isn’t taught in Jewish Studies classes…
Now in modern times, there are plenty of Jewish women to celebrate. We learned the names and stories of countless political activists, leaders, and artists from good Jewish families. We also learned that they were successful “because they assimilated” and left those good Jewish families behind.
Is this really what “Jewish Studies” has come to?! Our college graduates enter the world thinking that in order to be a good Jewish woman you have to act like a man, and in order to be a successful Jewish woman you have to act like a Gentile?!
Now back to the beginning, to the reason why I struggled more in a Jewish Studies course than in senior engineering classes… It’s because I don’t agree. I don’t buy into this whole “pretend you’re someone else” way of life. I’m an observant Jewish woman, and I fully intend to not only live my life as such, but to succeed as such. And so I disagreed, and I argued, and I raised my hand to tell stories of the Jewish women that are really worth celebrating: the Matriarchs, the prophetesses, Rashi’s daughters, the women of the Moranos, and the observant Jewish women of this day and age who succeed in their careers with their faith intact. I tried to shed light on the real female heroines of Judaism: those who are willing to sacrifice their lifestyles, their wealth, even their homes for the sake of Torah. Above all else, the women worth remembering and celebrating are the ones who have given their lives in the name of G-d. You want to study Women in Jewish History? Study those women… Study Rivka Holtzberg… That would be a Jewish Studies class worth taking.
Author’s note: I ended up getting an A in this class. Due to dissenting opinions, my grades averaged to a B-. The fact that I received an ‘A’ shows just how serious this class was. Jewish Studies in colleges such as mine has sadly become a joke.