By Israel Drazin
Dina and I were married 52 years ago by a Hasidic rabbi in Germany. His wife and children were murdered by the Nazis. He remarried a woman whose family was also murdered. At the synagogue services on the Shabbat before our wedding ceremony, when I was called to the Torah, women in the women’s section threw candies at me – a custom designed to delight the congregation’s children – but there were no children in the congregation any more.
On the day of our wedding, the rabbi had me wear a white kittel with my overcoat above it, and a yarmalka with my outdoor hat on top of it. He told Dina not to wear a kittle, but an overcoat, and to cover her small hat with a kerchief. I have questions about the kittel and overcoats.
The kittel is a white garment that symbolizes death, purity, and humility. It is used as a shroud, and is worn by many male Jews during Yom Kippur services and at Passover Seder meals, and some men also wear it at Rosh Hashana services, but not women, many of whom dress in white as brides at weddings and at Yom Kippur synagogue services. The kittel reminds the wearer to be pure as the white garment and act properly because one day he will die. What bothered me 52 years ago and still bothers me today is why only men perform this ritual and are encouraged to be pure?
A simple white garment first appeared in Judaism is Leviticus 16:4. The high priest is told that before he enters the holy of holies, an area in the tabernacle and later temples that he could only enter on the holiday of Yom Kippur, he had to remove his splendid clothing and dress in a simple white linen garment. Since then, men, and only men, wear the special white garment, the kittel, on the several sacred occasions. Some people think that grooms don the kittel at weddings to parallel the bride’s white dress so that both appear in clothes indicating purity, but this is unlikely. So, true, the practice began with ancient male high priests, but why can’t women wear kittels in the twenty-first century?
Wearing overcoats is also a problem for me. The practice began in Russia by Hasidim who celebrated weddings outside in the cold Russian weather. They felt closer to God by being under the sky rather than a roof barrier. Thus, as a practical matter, both grooms and brides wore coats. Years later, when wedding ceremonies were moved indoors like ours, Hasidim continued their ancestors’ ways and had married couples wear coats despite being in warm rooms. Many non-Hasidim, not knowing the practice’s origin and thinking it had a pious beginning, started requiring married couple to put on coats. However, recently the custom changed. Now in these pious circles only grooms wear coats. As with the kittel, women are ignored with no concerns about their piety; they are left, so to speak, in the cold.
These are two bizarre discriminatory practices, and they seem to be symptomatic of Orthodox Judaism’s view of women.
Levi ben Gershom (1288-1344), known as Ralbag in Hebrew and Gersonides in Latin, was and is considered a highly respected Jewish Bible commentator and rational philosopher. He wrote that women are intellectually inferior to men. They are mediocre beings between animals and men, creatures that are lower than male children. God created them to be subservient to men, for their sexual enjoyment, for procreation, and to care for a husband’s household. Ralbag expressed the feelings of many men and women of his age, but modern Orthodoxy is not much different.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was one of the most important Jewish figures of the last generation. He served as an advisor and role model to tens of thousands of Jews and was the seminal figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism. In his book “Family Redeemed,” he compares the ideal woman to the matriarch Sarah who is “modest, humble, self-effacing. She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of the audience which is hardly aware of her. She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat.” What is the female nature? “The spiritual essence of man differs from that of a woman…. The woman is both a demonic and Divine crisis personality.” “The eye of the father is focused upon the objective expression of faith, the eye of the mother upon affection and love.” What are male and female roles? “Men and women are different personae, endowed with singular qualities and assigned different missions in life.” Fathers and mothers must teach their children. A father’s “teaching is basically of an intellectual nature. Judaism is to a great extent an intellectual discipline, a method, a system of thought, a hierarchy of values.” Where do women fit in this intellectual hierarchy? “The mother creates the mood (in the family home); she is the artist who is responsible for the magnificence, solemnity and beauty.”
Isn’t it time for Jews to recognize that we must treat women with all the rights and privileges of full human beings?