By Mira Niculescu
I never saw myself as a feminist. That’s because I never had to. I was born in the 1980s in Paris into a secular family. I was raised by an old angry Romanian intellectual (my father) and a nurse/social worker who was really a hidden intellectual (my mother). I never had to be a feminist because all the battles, it seemed, had been fought for me: I grew up in a world where women could dress as they liked without being called names, where they could work as they pleased without being seen as bad wives and mothers, and choose what they wanted to do, who they wanted to be, and who they wanted to be with, without anyone having the right to interfere in these choices.
Thanks to the battles fought by women before me, I was able to purse a trajectory and a career in which I, as a woman, was fully empowered. I got to do everything men had been doing for centuries: I learned Gemara, completed a doctorate under conditions Virginia Woolf could only dream of, and became a Torah teacher and certified Jewish meditation teacher.
Pragmatic Ideologies: How Our Experiences Shape What We Believe
Yet I never considered becoming a rabbi. This position didn’t come from any ideological basis for me. I have had female teachers and friends who are rabbis within all the denominations, and I think they are doing a fantastic job. For me, it was not an ideological issue, but rather an autobiographical one: coming from a family in which my father didn’t embody the traditional patriarchal role—he neither earned money nor drove a car nor built shelves—while my mother assumed all those roles (in addition to the traditional women’s tasks of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children), I was trying to become a woman. And for me, a congregational leader ought to be a man. Rather than being a feminist, I wanted to be feminine.
Yet all the while I was aware of how much our ideologies are shaped by our lived experiences; how much our belief systems, which we defend so ardently, are often nothing much more than our sublimated psychological needs. I always knew that my not wanting to be a woman rabbi was, rather than an ideological position, a very subjective one, based on my own personal needs.
Yet here I am, in October 2019, about to start learning in Beit Midrash Har’El, founded by Rabbis Daniel Sperber and Herzl Hefter, the first beit midrash in Israel to give Orthodox semikhah to both men and women. Everything I had been running away from for years, when I was learning at Drisha, sitting in close proximity to the first class of Yeshivat Maharat in 2012, has come back to confront me. Why would a woman who never wanted to be a rabbi—and still doesn’t—pursue the path of semikhah?
It seems that my needs have changed—and that is because it seems that the feminist fight may not be finished, after all. I draw this conclusion from my own experience.
As a woman teaching Jewish meditation, I’ve often noticed a remarkable difference in the way students relate to me as compared with my male rabbi colleagues. The latter, from the start, are automatically given all the credit. Their title, together with their gender, seems to guarantee the seriousness and the Jewishness of what they are doing.
I, by contrast, have had to overcome obstacles to gain a similar level of authority. My Ph.D. or my being a long-time student of Jewish thought don’t seem to make a difference. I am a woman—a young woman, and a single woman at that, not even a rebbetzin—and immediately all the clichés are trotted out. I have been asked: Am I doing some kind of yoga? Is this some kind of New-Age thing? Do I really know what I’m doing? Is it Jewishly approved? Is it halakhic?
Only after hearing me speak and teach would people trust me. While my male rabbi peers were given credit lekhat’hila (from the beginning). I often noticed that I became legit bede’avad (after the fact). Whereas they had to screw up for people to start doubting their skills, I had to work really hard for people to start believing in mine.
An Oxymoron? Being a Female Torah Teacher in Paris
It is even more so in Paris, where female Torah teachers are still rare and where opportunities for women to study are still in their early stages. I remember that once a man came to a Jewish meditation class where I was presenting the inyan hashkata, the “subject of quieting,” by the Piaczesner rebbe, a hasidic meditation technique developed by the students of Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro in Poland in the early twentieth century. This is a wonderful contemplative method aimed at quieting the body–mind in order to retrieve inner clarity before asking God to help us fix our middot, our personality traits. The Piaczesner rebbe is largely unknown in France, as he hasn’t been translated. Therefore, I had brought a source sheet, so that frummer (more religious) participants could be assured that this was, indeed, Jewish.
In came a man, with a dark suit and an open shirt, respectfully wearing the serious black kippah, someone not very religious, as he had told me in a previous conversation, but trying to get closer—and taking things very seriously.
In a lovely old Ashkenazi shul in le Marais, the old Parisian Jewish neighborhood, we sat around the table with the Hebrew text and its French translation. We did everything by the book. There were no cushions, no incense, no candles or the like. This was not the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was very mindful of the symbolic boundaries of a generally more traditional French audience. But it wasn’t enough. The man left the session looking very uncomfortable. The next day I wrote to him an email, saying I was checking in, as he seemed to have left distraught. He replied simply, “Could I have the source for this text?”
I sent him the reference, including the chapter and page number, with a link to where he could buy Derekh Hamelekh, the source book for the text.
I never heard from the man again.
A Stamp of Approval: Playing my Part in the Play
This experience made me realize two things: First, if I want my word to reach as many people as possible—which, I believe, is the goal of any teacher—it will be helpful to have the stamp of approval of a male Orthodox rabbi, which I’m going to ask for. Second, it may be useful to get my own stamp of approval too, my own credential—and that is semikhah. It probably still won’t be enough for many Orthodox Jews, especially in France, but if that’s the case, I can do nothing for them.
In the meantime, for those who believe a woman can indeed get Orthodox semikhah, the degree will help me take my place on the stage of Jewish religious teaching. Some call it “a seat at the table.” I call it “a part in the play.”
Fundamentally, though, this is not the main reason I’m pursuing semikhah. I’m doing this because I want to learn and grow. I want the tradition to go “through me.” I want its languages, texts, mindsets, and voices to flow through me and transform me, as I carry them toward others and toward the future.
I still don’t want to be a rabbi in the sense of leading a congregation. I’ll leave that to the men. I still want to feel like a woman, for what that means to me. I want to let the men play center stage, while I play hidden Rivka behind her veils, the invisible-but-not-so-invisible crown around, behind, or above her, on the other side of the mehitzah. I want to keep watching the sea of white tallitot swing gently, as I sing along, invisible, with the shaliah tzibur to create the harmony.
Then, of course, when I teach, I’ll be center stage too. Just not in the same place, not at the same time, nor in the same roles. After all, aren’t we meant to be complementary, so we can play together on the stage of life?
Dr. Mira Neshama Niculescu earned her Ph.D. in sociology of religion at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and learned Torah as an art fellow at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. She is a licensed Jewish mindfulness teacher from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and teaches Jewish meditation at Pardes and Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality in Israel. She can be contacted at https://www.miraneshama.com/.
Why would a woman who never wanted to be a rabbi—and still doesn’t—pursue the path of semikhah?
If I want my word to reach as many people as possible—which, I believe, is the goal of any teacher—it will be helpful to have the stamp of approval of a male Orthodox rabbi.