A Feminist on Yom Kippur

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Writing for Sh’ma (here) in 2005, Martha Ackelsberg (Political Science, Smith College) asked, “How Can a Feminist Like Me Enjoy a Liturgy Like This?”

My secret is now out: I actually enjoy the Yom Kippur Avodah Service. How can this be?

How can a committed feminist and havurah Jew — one who does not feel especially comfortable in most synagogues and who has long been unwilling to pray for the rebuilding of the Temple or the restoration of sacrifices —find herself, often, deeply moved by the words of a liturgy that evokes not only the sacrifice of animals, but the spraying of their blood around the Holy of Holies in a ritual from which women were totally excluded? ***

As a small child, visiting an Orthodox shul with my father and grandmother, I was fascinated by these descriptions and by the prostrations of the rabbi and cantor on the bimah. * * *

So, despite my modernist and feminist sensibilities, I often read the Avodah service with a sense of longing for a time when communal ritual made a fresh start possible, when teshuvah had not only personal but also collective possibilities. Sometimes I am comforted by a friend’s comment that Yom Kippur may never have been about being totally cleansed, but more about “turning a page.”  To turn to a new page, he pointed out, does not mean erasing or throwing out the pages that came before; it simply means accepting that it’s possible to start again. I can let go of the past (even if my sins are not physically sent off into the wilderness); I can choose to begin again.

The short column is worth a read.

-Bridget Crawford

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