Rebellious Jewish women are hard to escape. Or, at least they are today.
The first one we encounter is Sarah who in this morning’s Torah reading has an uneasy feeling about the environment in which she is raising her son Yitzchak and the influence of his half-brother Yishmael. When she decides to take matters into her own hands and demand that Avraham throw Yishmael and his mother out of the house, Avraham is distraught.
וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃
Hashem, though, immediately intervenes and assuages Avraham’s fear with the words Jewish husbands still live by to this day:
כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ
The theme continues into this morning’s haftorah as well. There we read of another woman similarly dissatisfied with the status quo. This time it is Chanah and she is troubled not by the pernicious influences on her child but by her inability to have one. On her next trip the Mishkan in Shiloh she offers a tefilah so impassioned and so out of the ordinary that Eli, the Kohen Gadol, thought she must be drunk.
וַתַּ֨עַן חַנָּ֤ה וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲדֹנִ֔י אִשָּׁ֤ה קְשַׁת־ר֙וּחַ֙ אָנֹ֔כִי וְיַ֥יִן וְשֵׁכָ֖ר לֹ֣א שָׁתִ֑יתִי וָאֶשְׁפֹּ֥ךְ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
...וַיַּ֧עַן עֵלִ֛י וַיֹּ֖אמֶר לְכִ֣י לְשָׁל֑וֹם וֵאלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל יִתֵּן֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣לָתֵ֔ךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁאַ֖לְתְּ מֵעִמּֽוֹ׃
Both women felt a call to action, a need to fight back against circumstances that were cruel or unjust. Both were questioned. And both were vindicated by no lesser an authority than HKB”H Himself.
The women of the ghetto were fighters as well.
I refer not to the women of Warsaw in the middle of the 20th century, though there were many Jewish heroines there as well. I refer instead to the Jewish women of Rome in the 16th century and for three hundred years thereafter.
Unlike the ghettos of the Nazis, the ghetto of Rome was not intended to kill, but to convert. Created by Pope Paul IV on July 12, 1555, this four block area on the bank of the Tiber river was prone to incessant flooding. Restricted to buildings of no more than 5 stories, conditions in the ghetto were both cramped and squalid. Unlike the Polish Jews of the 20th century, however, Roman Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto freely during the day as long as they returned before the gates closed at night. Indeed, the hope was that they would come and go. For at each entrance and exit of the ghetto stood a glittering Church whose purpose was to remind each Jew that there was a way out - a ticket to a better life - all a Jew had to do was convert.
And if those buildings alone weren’t reminder enough, beginning in 1570 Jews of the Roman Ghetto were subjected to a type of torture unthinkable to today’s religious Jews. Not only did they have to sit through a sermon most Shabbos mornings - but they were forced to hear one every Shabbos afternoon as well. Following lunch Jews of the Ghetto had to report to a designated meeting spot from which they were marched to a church or an oratory, where a Chistian preacher - often for as long as two hours - would use the weekly parsha to support a chirstological reading of the Torah and exhort his Jewish audience to convert. Legend has it that a custom arose amongst Roman Jews that at the end Shabbos lunch they would pass out pieces of wax. So that before leaving their houses for the afternoon sermon, they could stick them firmly in them in their ears.
While it unclear as to whether that small act of rebellion actually took place, the rebellion of the ghetto’s women is well documented. Amongst the many acts of degradation imposed upon Rome’s Jews was exclusion from the guilds - and thus from any type of commerce with their Christian neighbors. There were two exceptions. The better known is money lending. The lesser known is the purchase and sale of secondhand clothing. Yes, long before the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, Jews were in the schmatta business and it was just about the only business they could do.
As you might imagine, then, the Jews of the ghetto could almost never get their hands on textiles that were new. Instead, they had to suffice with those that were worn, ripped, and ragged. And while the Jews of the Ghetto may not have been terribly bothered by the fact that they couldn’t wear the latest and greatest fashions, the inability to get new textiles impacted not only the fabrics they used as clothing, but the fabrics they used for their shul. And to this, the Jews of the Ghetto took great offense. It is one thing to dress oneself in a shirt or a dress that is worn through with holes. It is quite another to dress a Torah or an Aron that way.
And so, the women of the Ghetto took matters into their own hands. They charged those in the schmatta business with finding the finest and most elegant secondhand clothing on the market regardless of its condition. Then they’d take what was once a beautiful gown and patch up a hole with an intricately embroidered design. They’d then repeat that design over and over again throughout the fabric so that the original patch became an indiscernible piece of a breathtaking tapestry.
Today, the lower level of the Great Synagogue in Rome is home to the city’s Jewish museum. And there one can find over 900 such mantels, gartels, and parochets - one more stunning than the next. Each a testament to a Jew’s unwillingness to accept the circumstances thrust upon her by outside society. Perhaps even more fascinating still, though, is what happens upstairs every Shabbat morning. In accordance with the accepted nusach of minhag Romi, after Torah reading each shabbat and before the beginning of musaf, the Chazan reads the mi-she-berach for those who devote themselves to working on behalf of the community. While the words are slightly different from ours, they begin like we do in blessing those who take care of the shul, those who come to make a minyan, those who take in guests and those who look after the poor. But then they add a prayer which has no corollary in either the Ashkenaz or Sephardic siddur but has been in the Roman siddur for hundreds of years. It says:
Today the serious threats to our values and way of life do not come from the altars of our local parish church. And, despite the serious uptick of anti-semitism from both the right and the left, that isn’t our greatest impediment to perpetuating a Torah way of life either. Rather, it is the assault on the sanctity of time and of space, on the value of family and of friendship, on our ability to connect with one another, and on our capacity to make room in our lives for an Other bigger than ourselves. Today we don’t have to go to a house of worship to be bombarded with such influences, because we bring them into our own houses at 100 megabits per second.
It goes without saying that the answer is not a return to the proverbial ghetto. It is not to cut ourselves off or to surround ourselves with walls. But it is also not to sit back and do nothing. We must seek out those pieces of society’s fabric which are beautiful and make use of them. Indeed, we might even adorn our Torahs with them. But at the same time, we cannot be blind to the ways in which the very fabric of society is being ripped and torn right in front of our eyes.
It is time now to marshal the strength of our forefathers, and particularly that of our foremothers, to push back against circumstances that undermine our ideals. It is time now, on Rosh Hashanah, the Yom HaDin, to resolve that this year we will do more for ourselves and for our children, to embroider the ever expanding holes we see around us and turn the rags of our children’s world into an exquisite work of art.
מי שברך אמותינו שרה רבקה רחל ולאה הוא יברך את כל בן או בת ישראל שעושה מעיל או מטפחת לכבוד התורה... הקדוש ברוך הוא ישלם שכרם ויתן להם גמולם הטוב ונאמר אמן