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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
This week we are reading Parashat Shmini from the book of Leviticus. From Shmini, we take most of the laws about kashrut – which animals are considered kosher and which not. It is an ancient anatomical guide, speaking of scales, fins, split hooves and chewing of cud. These biblical laws were appropriated by the Rabbis, who devoted thousands of pages in the Talmud to dissect the restrictions to their most specific minutiae, theoretically conceptualising every single possibility of food gone wrong and spiritually contaminating our kishkes.
Traditionally, the rabbi’s main engagement with the community was through kashrut. Their door would be knocked constantly by congregants with freshly slaughtered chickens, a feast of feathers and blood. They were desperate to know whether the bruise on the carcass rendered tonight’s supper treif, unkosher. Rabbis had their brains picked about pots being mixed, spoons falling in the wrong place, and meat not being salted meticulously enough. One of the most important sermons of the year, that of Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover, was not about freedom, but rather about how to kosher your saucepans for the holiday! Till this day, Orthodox rabbinic ordination is given to candidates who pass the examination on the laws of meat and dairy, mixtures of kosher and non-kosher food, and the salting of meat. That’s it, all it takes. It really makes you reflect on what it really means to be a rabbi!
From this, we would be quick to assume that rabbis held absolute control on how kashrut was effected in the Jewish kitchen. We could envision a complicated “communal infrastructure” that historian Hasia Davis likens to a pyramid of kosher power. At the top of the pyramid were the rabbis and rabbinical courts, who adjudicated on problems of kashrut. At the bottom were individual women’s at their home who, according to traditional gender divisions, were in charge of buying the food, cooking it, and serving it. They were the “front line sentinels of observance”. In the middle of the pyramid stood the manufacturers of kosher food, the Manischewitzes and Rakusinses, who had to respond both to the rabbis and to the housewives. This would fit perfectly with our generalised view of the woman in traditional Jewish society. Always at the bottom, always ordered and controlled, with bodies eternally enslaved to the strictures of men’s laws, with no real space for spiritual and religious participation and assertion. But in her excellent essay, Kashrut: The Possibility and Limits of Women’s Domestic Power (1), Rabbi and Scholar Ruth Ambusch-Magder points to a very different picture.
The author notes that as much as rabbis wanted to infiltrate the kitchen to oversee the rigorous applications of their laws, the kitchen was nonetheless a woman’s realm. Each housewife was the queen of her home, and by default, the supreme authority over her kitchen. Thus, there was a dissonance between the rabbinic ideal and the practical way in which women carried out halachah in their day to day lives. Women were the ones making decisions on which opinions to follow, which questions should be taken to the rabbis, how stringently to apply the rulings, or whether to ignore the laws altogether. Additionally, even though women were barred from the house of study, they were actually encouraged to learn about the laws of kashrut. I remember when studying in yeshiva that questions about food laws needed to be addressed not to the Rosh Yeshivah, the Dean, but to the Rebbetzin, his wife.
Ambusch-Magder notes that at the time when the Enlightenment and the rise of Progressive Judaism began to weaken the absolute ties tradition had on the Jewish household, it was ultimately the women who determined the level of observance or interpretation the home would be ruled by. Thus, even when sons and daughters decided to rebel against tradition, it was the mother who decided whether the home should stay kosher, whether Shabbat should be observed and celebrated through food. On the other hand, when the husband and children wanted to maintain the rigorous observance of halachah, their hands were tied if the wife refused to maintain a kosher kitchen. We therefore see that the kitchen was a stage where women were ultimately able to express their power and hold the baton of decision-making.
On a similar note, there is a study conducted by anthropologist Susan Starr Sered from Bar-Ilan University on traditionally-observant Sephardic women is Israel and their kitchens(2). The women she interviewed were all illiterate and born in Middle-Eastern and North African countries. Being denied access to the holy texts, to the “literate male oriented ‘great tradition’”, one would be quick to assume that they had an insignificant role in religious and spiritual life. When studying them, she became aware that we needed to re-interpret what constitutes Jewish religious practice. Is Judaism about going to shul, praying from the siddur, studying Torah, rigorously upholding the Law? For these women, certainly not. The rituals and sacred space which we come to see as pre-eminently Jewish are only peripheral to the religious mode of those she interview. Sered came to understand that for these women any activity was potentially sacred, and food preparation became a “quintessentially religious pursuit”. The kitchen became the centre from which sacrality was concentrated and radiated, and literacy was not an intrinsic part of religious life.
For Sephardi women, Judaism is about relationships. Firstly, about relationships with other people: family, friends, neighbours, community, and then towards the Jewish people as a whole and towards good-hearted non-Jews. Secondly, it is about a relationship with God. By feeding others, all these relationships are strengthened, bonds are created. Maintaining relationships is what God wants humans to do. There is no bigger mitzvah than feeding the hungry. Their religious world is domestic, meaning that it revolves “around symbols, myths, rituals, institutions, and theology that are used by the women to safeguard the health, happiness, security, and well-being of people with whom they are linked in relationships of caring and interdependence.” Sephardi women “participate in the holy by caring for their kin; they care for their kin through participating in the holy”.
Scholars have noted that one develops the deepest attachments to tradition “in the domestic spheres”. In the kitchen, through tastes and smells, the child internalises his or her identity as belonging to a specific group, to a history, a set of beliefs, and customs. According to Sered’s study, it is the home, and not always the Cheder, where we learn to be Jewish. When these elderly women prepare food, “they consciously use food to strengthen their descendants' bonds to Judaism”. Food becomes imbued with the “holiness of the ancestors”, and women hope that in feeding others with it, “they will ingest their ancestor’s faith”.
When these women were asked about what we do on Rosh Hashanah, or when someone dies, they consistently answered by mentioning the foods they prepared. Shabbat, the holidays, and special life-cycle events were made and created through specific foods served on each occasion. It seems that it is the men who rested on the Sabbath and the holidays and not the women, since they were stuck in the kitchen cooking before the festivals and then running back and forth serving others during the sacred time itself. One could argue that this points to women’s “auxiliary role” within this male religious system – they only help out and have an intrinsically lower status. But as Sered points out, “such an approach unnecessarily and inaccurately reduces women's religious expression to drudgery and spectatorship. From the perspective of the women of this study, the fact that women prepare for holidays means that it is the women who are the ritual experts, the guardians of law and tradition, the ones with the power to make or create, not simply to participate”.
Progressive Judaism has significantly changed the role of women. Our women stand on the bima, lead communities as rabbis, and are the scholars teaching in the houses of study. But it is wrong to assume that until we came along, women were the oppressed, devalued, silent bystanders of Judaism, a religion of men. Doing so is granting ancient misogynists their victory retroactively. No, women have always been at the forefront of Judaism, shaping tradition in the ways which were meaningful to them. Women used their social roles to exert power, to achieve holiness in their own terms and to enjoy self-realisation. They were leading a parallel battle, and always emerging undefeated. Furthermore, today that we have women in the pulpit, perhaps it is time that we men went into the kitchen as well.
(1) In Food and Judaism, Creighton University Press, 2005.
(2) “Food and Holiness: Cooking as a Sacred Act among Middle-Eastern Jewish Women” by Susan Starr Sered , in Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 129-139
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