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Counting the Omer: Freeing my Judaism from patriarchy

Even Girls Can Count?

This week I have, for the first time, begun Counting the Omer (thanks to an excellent Instagram hashtag #taromer started last year by @omerwithtarot, who would’ve thought I would start Counting the Omer through tarot?!!?)

I had never participated in such Jewish rites growing up, as my Jewish roots are both Orthodox, and somewhat severed.

My grandparents on my mother’s side were Orthodox. More than half of my family on that side still are, with a significant proportion being Hasidic. I grew up feeling an enormous amount of love and warmth in a house filled with religious texts, teachings and laws. I went with my safta and saba (grandma and grandpa)) to many simchot (bris, bar/bat mitzvoth, weddings). Until I was about 11 I would even go to synagogue with my saba, often wearing a kippa, the male head covering.

I remember loving the feeling and atmosphere of the intense singing and praying. It was so full of feeling and power.

But then, fairly mysteriously to me, at the age of about 11, or it may have been a little younger. I was told I could either go to the women’s section up in the balcony by myself or stay at home with my safta to prepare the food and the house. I could continue wearing my kippa, like the boys, at home, but not outside the home. When it came time for my brother and I’s bar and bat mitzvoth (they were at the same time as he is a year older than me and Orthodox Jews see girls as maturing younger than boys.)

My brother was given a full Torah portion to learn in Hebrew. I was given a little text in English.

We went to Jerusalem, to the Western wall, my brother was taken to the men’s section surrounded by men celebrating his transition, family members and strangers alike. They taught him to wrap his tefillin, they danced and sang; he was the center of a lot of attention and ceremony. I remember him looking somewhat overwhelmed. I, on the other hand, went to the women’s section and mostly stood around chatting with my female relatives.

I deeply loved and respected my safta and saba. What I took on board from all this was that, in my family’s Jewish traditions, it was for the men to observe the rituals and participate in religious activities: visceral, embodied activities of public singing, dancing, ecstatic prayer, the marking of cycles with ceremony and prayer.

Women’s religious practice revolved around food, children, the home.

My safta and saba, and the vast majority of my religious family, lived, and live, in Israel. I grew up in London, we moved there when I was 4. My mum tried to teach us about Judaism and make sure we celebrated major festivals and understood their meaning. But essentially we grew up in a completely secular household.

I chose to learn about Judaism independently and have always enjoyed studying the Torah, but observance of festivals and the cycles of the year have never felt right to me outside the context of my Israeli family.

As a woman, my independent Jewish practice was cooking, laughing, and taking care of others, and I got very good at all of those.

I developed a relationship to Judaism that was either about being a warm, self sacrificing nurturer; a good Jewish woman, but entirely removed from the texts or practice of the faith itself. And on the other hand, a very scholarly relationship, but entirely removed from my embodied experience, no longer the emotional and powerful experience of the men’s section of the synagogue, not a connection to the cycles of the days or years of the Jewish calendar. As a girl, living mostly in a secular household, I was certainly never invited to Count the Omer, and I didn’t feel I had the right to start doing it for myself as a woman who hadn’t even done enough ‘real’ Torah study to be a bar mitzvah in the traditional sense.

Another aspect of all this was that I grew up knowing very clearly that the esoteric side of Judaism was 100% barred from me. I knew that to be a Kabbalist I would need to have studied the texts full time for decades. In a Yeshiva that was only open to men.

I saw all the people bypassing these laws as deeply disrespecting our traditions. As having no understanding of all that we had suffered as a people to pass on and keep these traditions alive.

It did not cross my mind that to truly keep these traditions alive, it might be an idea to move with the times a little… To open up to new ways of doing things, to tear down some of the restrictions and bring in fresh ideas, fresh blood, fresh fire, fresh water, fresh earth, fresh life. This could also be seen as bringing our traditions some Tiphereth, some mercy, some compassion, some balance.

S’firat haOmer: The process of freedom from mental slavery

S’firat haOmer marked the transition from the barley harvest to the wheat harvest in Temple times, and it also symbolically marks the Jewish people’s psychological transition in the desert from the slave-mentality of their lives in Egypt to that of a free-thinking people in the promised land. It is a mental and emotional preparation to receive the Torah: to prepare to emerge enough from slavery to be capable of a relationship with God for ourselves and for future generations.

I am seeing my Counting of the Omer this year as my own process of freedom: Freedom from patriarchal Judaism. A freedom that I hope will begin to enable me to develop a true relationship with the powerful faith of my ancestors. To place that power in my own hands, in my own body, so that I might pass it on.

Day 3 – Tifereth she’be’Chesed

Those who practice a more esoteric Judaism have taken to incorporating reflections and meditations on the Sephiroth of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and their relationships to each other, into the Counting of the Omer.

The way I have come to Counting the Omer myself is through #taromer which is a growing group on Jewitches drawing a tarot card each day and reading it in relation to the Sephiroth for that day. I won’t explain what all this means here but I do recommend having a look at the posts on the hashtag and checking out the website.

Today is day 3 – Tifereth she’be’Chesed – Mercy that is in Loving-Kindness. Tifereth is variously translated as beauty, mercy, compassion, divine balance. Chesed is generally translated as loving-kindness.

Tifereth is a balance, a balance of the heart, a balance between the loving kindness of Chesed and the strength and fiery judgment (Din) of Gevurah, (it is also the balance between Netsah and Hod and Keter or Daat and Yesod, but for today it is the balancing of Chesed and Gevurah that is relevant.) Apologies for a lack of a diagram of the Tree of Life here. My internet is too bad where I am right now to add images… But here’s a link to one.

On day one of the Counting of the Omer we reflected on Chesed she’be’Chesed. On the second day Gevurah she’be’Chesed. On those first two days my reflections were very personal; they were focused on my relatively recent uncovering of the way in which I have been caring for and nurturing others to my own detriment (see above 🙂 ).

I have become very aware that I have been viewing myself as a vessel for the growth and development of others and have thus bypassed my own growth and development; I imprisoned my own creative drives. I constructed a mental and emotional prison for myself and then wondered why I felt like crap. On the first two days of the count my cards were very clear that I need to see the progress I have made and stop beating myself up for not having had good strong boundaries in my loving-kindness. They were clear that I need to see this progress, and release and forgive, both myself, and the unknowing recipients of my self-sacrifice.

Today, although I have not yet pulled my cards, we’ll see what they have to say later, I feel I want to reflect more widely, more politically.

An unbalanced Tifereth that is in Chesed

There is a difference between judgment (Gevurah) through clear sight, through our own powers of discernment, and judgment due to fear and oppression.

Here I am reminded of Winnie Mandela’s (May she Rest in Power) words in relation to patriarchy:

“The overwhelming majority of women accept patriarchy unquestioningly, and even protect it, working out the resultant frustrations not against men, but primarily against themselves, in their competition for men as sons, lovers and husbands.

Traditionally the violated wife bides her time and offloads her built-in aggression on her daughter-in-law. So men dominate women by the agency of women themselves.”

As women, we have often judged and harmed our-selves and each other as an expression of our oppression, instead of those who oppress us.

For me, my relationship to Judaism, an aspect of myself, and my heritage that I love deeply, has been set inside a patriarchal cage. A cage that has oppressed and excluded me from free and total connection to the very thing I love. That has meant that I have judged and not shown loving-kindness to those who thought they could be Kabbalists without decades of study, those who thought they could drive to synagogue, play guitar and answer their phones on the Sabbath, sing or pray in English, have a female rabbi, treat women as equal to men, and still be practicing ‘real’ Judaism. We might see them as my daughters-in-law.

My loving-kindness for Jews was limited to my ‘tribe’, those who had the same backgrounds and traditions as me, whether they kept them or not, those whose Judaism existed in the same cage. I could show merciful and compassionate loving-kindness to them, but I had excluded everyone else.

I tend to avoid the news, but in the last few days news form my homeland has pierced my bubble and I worry that Israel has finally lost its last tiny drop of Tifereth, whether in Chesed or any other sephirah in relation to those they do not see as their ‘tribe’, locked in their cage of perceived oppression. I feel I’ll be coming back to this as the Counting of the Omer continues.









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