“The Three Weeks” and Mourning Sexism in Jewish Tradition

The very first time I marked the holiday of Tisha b’Av, I was in rabbinical school, and I hated it. I hated it because it brought me face to face with the sexism that still permeates a religious and spiritual tradition I freely chose and deeply value.

From July 9th through July 30th (this year), the lunar Jewish calendar marks the Three Weeks, a period of mourning the destruction of the central Temple in Jerusalem, site of the most basic spiritual technologies of the Jewish religion, a system of priestly tending to the animal sacrifices that brought the people close to God and atoned for their sins. Beginning with the fast of Tammuz, commemorating the day when the Romans breached the city walls surrounding Jerusalem, and ending with Tisha b’Av, the day that launched the Jewish people into what some Jewish communities still call galut (Exile), the Three Weeks are marked by collective mourning customs. For example, some folks refrain from hosting or attending celebrations, like weddings, and cutting their hair (I wonder, how will we distinguish between these mourning practices and COVID-19 precautions?).

During my first days in rabbinical school, I walked to the Kotel (the Western Wall) on the night of Tisha b’Av, ostensibly both to observe how Israelis mark the fast and to participate in one of the central customs of the day, hearing the chanting of the scroll called Eicha, or Lamentations. Our teacher described the scene we would encounter: a strange, perhaps cognitively dissonant mix of joyful, neighborly reunion and sincere, wailing sadness. The melodies of Eicha from all the cultures in which Jews have steeped ourselves would compete for primacy in our ears, and our eyes would behold a mixed multitude of Jewish families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and levels of observance.

It was partially true.

I was immediately immersed in a sea of diverse, Jewish human beings, all there to mark a day that has come to be associated not only with the 70 AD destruction of the rebuilt Temple, but also the 587 destruction of the first Temple, along with dozens of other communal calamities that occurred on this same date throughout Jewish history, including the expulsion of the Jews from England, France, and Spain, and the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. While a sense of sadness undergirded the gathering, there was also an air of communal connection, and even resilience, in the ordinariness of the way people greeted one another in front of the massive stones that once bolstered the architecture of the great temple.

But there was a catch.

What our teacher neglected to take into account was the stark, binary sex- and gender-segregation at the Kotel. Upon our arrival, we had to separate, men to the left, women to the right, if we wanted to approach the ancient stones, the cracks between them stuffed with the desperate pleadings and heartfelt thanks of thousands of people who left their notes for God, or Tradition, or History. No room for nonbinary people, no way to approach the wall united as a community, no way to avoid the division. Dressed in a long skirt so as not to “stand out,” I entered the women’s side only to find a jumble of children of all ages, tired and over-tired, playing and bickering and whining and falling asleep. Women of all ages and shapes and sizes chatted amiably toward the back of the enclosure while toddlers tugged at their skirts; those closest to the stones swayed in rapt, private prayer, their personal siddurim (prayer books) clutched to their breasts. But any Lamentations I heard were isolated, individual experiences.

Over on the men’s side, my male classmates later reported, were great tables spread with velvet cloths and inked parchment, the words of Eicha scribed therein. And men with beards and men with shaved faces chanted hauntingly, in Iraqi melodies or Polish melodies or Spanish melodies, the ancient poem of mourning. Beautiful and sad and mournful and heartfelt: all words these men used to describe what it was like to hear the tunes chanted by bass and baritone and tenor voices.

Frankly, most of my male classmates and faculty downplayed the experience, and I caught flack for being such an “angry feminist” about the night. Ever since, it has been so difficult for me to separate the mourning of Tisha b’Av from the many ways that Jewish history has pushed women to the sidelines or denied us positions of full leadership.

It’s the Three Weeks again, and Tisha b’Av approaches, and I’m still ambivalent.

19th century Reform Rabbi David Einhorn provocatively celebrated the fires of Tisha b’Av, likening them to the fiery top of Mount Sinai, a source of revelation. He rejected what he viewed as the outward performance of devotion (animal sacrifices) in favor of the edification of the soul through religious worship in prayer. Even in his prayerbook, Olat Tamid (“Eternal Sacrifice,” 1872), Einhorn writes of the pain of the Temple’s destruction as the metaphorical growing pains of the people Israel. “The one temple in Jerusalem sank into the dust,” he wrote, “in order that countless temples might arise to [God’s] honor and glory all over the wide surface of the globe. The old priest-dignity and the old sacrificial worship were swept away, in order that the whole congregation, as its original destination required it, might become a priest, and offer up those sacrifices which are more agreeable to thee than the blood of animals, than thousands of streams of oil sacrifices of active love of God and man” (Olat Tamid, service for Tisha b’Av).

It’s masterful, really, the way Einhorn waxes poetic (and sympathetic) about how it might have felt, for our ancestors, to smell the smoke of fire upon the mountain and realize it was no longer the offerings of the priests turning into “a pleasing odor” for God. He paints a lamentable picture, indeed, of the existential uncertainty of a people robbed, and violently so, of its primary means for communal celebration and the processing of historical, collective trauma, of its most significant system for making meaning out of the ineffability and ephemerality of human existence. And yet, he moves rather quickly to an Enlightenment-fueled idealization of individualism and an emphasis not on physical ritual but spiritual uplifting. The brain and the heart, as it were, instead of the fat surrounding the kidneys.

Well, I want it both ways.

I want to mourn Tradition and critique it. I want to mark Tisha b’Av, and these Three Weeks, while railing against the sexism of the very sacred scroll I have literally cradled, like a baby in my arms.

Lamentations begins, “Eichah! Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow” (Eicha/Lamentations 1:1).

Why a widow?

Because, in ancient Israelite society, a woman without a husband was without means, without protection, without a place. And, while Jewish tradition long made innovations to protect the most vulnerable — including the use of a ketubah, a marriage contract, that ensured minimum financial sustenance for a woman whose marriage ended — there are many places where our tradition remedies an individual case while leaving systemic laws that leave women vulnerable unchallenged and untouched.

Even those remarkable sisters, the “daughters of Zelophehad,” who a few chapters ago made the case for inheriting their father’s landholding, in the absence of any sons to stake a claim, did not persuade Moses, or God, to remodel inheritance laws, removing sex or gender as a criteria for inheritance at all. Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, we read of how their choice of husbands was restricted to men in their father’s Israelite clan (Numbers 36:2–12).

I believe that the Jewish spiritual tradition is full of promise and potential; it motivates me to feel both insignificantly small, and humble, and to feel simultaneously loved, and responsible. But there are many promises left unfulfilled to me, as a queer woman who cares about sex and gender inclusion for all human beings.

It’s beautiful to me to read of stories like that of Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the women who preserved their father’s name in history and who inherited his land portion in their lifetimes. But I read that story alongside verses that treat women as less than full human beings.

For example, in this week’s discussion of the severity of breaking an oath, we read of a leniency for women. For, “If a man makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” (Bamidbar/Numbers 30:3). A woman is so bound by her own words only if she has no father or husband who objects, even after the fact of her declaration (ibid. 4–17). The Torah tells us twice that such a woman is forgiven for failing to fulfill her oath (ibid. 6, 9), and I guess that’s great. But I would much prefer to read that God declared such restriction on a human being’s self-determination anathema to what it means to have been created in God’s own image, from male to female (and all in between).

Early Reform Jewish leaders, before there was anything called a “Movement” or a “denomination,” eschewed or modified ancient liturgy pining for a return to the Temple. In some ways, I am like those Reformers: I do not wish to return to a solely patriarchal version of Jewish tradition that prizes hierarchical ancestral claims and relegates women to the courtyard of the Temple (and leaves no space for nonbinary and queer folks to fully and meaningfully participate in Jewish life).

Yet, I have so much compassion and pathos and empathy for my ancestors who sang, and for my siblings and cousins among the Jewish people who still sincerely sing, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our lyres, for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors,for amusement, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’” (Tehillim/Psalms 137:1–3).

Jewish liturgist and poet Alden Solovy writes, in “The Temple,”

Do not mourn
For the lost priests.
The tribes mourn for you.
They mourn for you who have forgotten
That God’s people are one.
Ephraim and Judah,
The Levites and the daughters of Zelophehad,
Ask why we still divide the House of Israel,
Why we still cast judgment,
Why we spurn each other with anger. […]

Tear your clothes
And sit in ashes
If you must.
Then, rise up!
Rise up and listen to God’s call:
Love My People Israel,
Love all of My People Israel […]

I’m not angry about my first Tisha b’Av anymore, but I still lament what might have been: a dark walk through the Old City’s alleyways opening to a lit pavilion, the stones of the Kotel shining beneath a firmament of stars, the desert unseen and yet a deeper shadow, felt, just beyond the border of the light. A mixed multitude of human beings, all with a spark of God-light within, all different without, approaching a place where so many have poured out our longings and our hopes and our dreams, where some have had prayers answered and others have left, bereft. I lament that we did not gather there, swaying in doubt and fervent belief, to hear the words of Eichah, in every tambor but one tongue, influenced by cultures that represent both Exile and Home, together lamenting not only what was, but what never was, what should have been.