Endless Light: A Book Review

Endless Light by Rabbi David Aaron broaches the lofty topic of Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of the Torah. The concepts of Kabbalah are traditionally cryptic, yet this book is highly accessible and not the least bit pedantic. This is mainly because Rabbi Aaron relates Kabbalastic concepts to every day life experiences.

“What’s It All About?” asks Rabbi Aaron in the title of his first chapter. “No sense starting small,” he says. He then devotes the first few chapters to G-d’s reason for creating humanity.

The most significant Kabbalastic concept in this discussion is tzimtzum, the method that G-d, Who is pure spirituality, used in creating the world. It has always been difficult for me to grasp this concept, but Rabbi Aaron brings me a little closer to understanding it, mostly
from his discussion of love.

Tzimtzum here means withdrawal. G-d created the world by making space in His
Endlessness to include our finitude, and He did this in order to give us His Love. We can
best understand this by analogy to our own experiences of love.

When you love someone, you make space in your life to include that person in it. You give
up some of your privacy, freedom, and time when you are committed to loving another
person. You have to give that person space to be himself, even when he gets on your nerves.
Your personal pursuits are not entirely your own anymore; you are sharing them with the
one you love. Of course, since you love the person, it is well worthwhile, but it is making
space for the other nonetheless.

Rabbi Aaron develops the idea of love between G-d and humanity, man and woman, and
parent and child, for several fascinating chapters. As a wife and mother, I found much that
was relevant to my life. Yet surprisingly, I found the subsequent chapters, which explore
the harmony that exists between fate and choice, even more enlightening.

In one of these chapters, Rabbi Aaron comments on the famous Shakespearian quote, “All
the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players.” His only problem with this,
he says, is “the word ‘merely’…disparages our role. We, as the characters we play, are
facilitating the expression of nothing less than love, oneness, and truth – G-d.” He further
illustrates this point with stories, both about ordinary people and from the Torah.

My favorite on the theme of fate and choice was the explanation of Esther’s role in the
Purim story. Esther became the queen of Persia so that she would have the opportunity to save the Jewish people. She had no choice about this; in fact, she was forced into it. It was
her destiny.

G-d also destined that the Jews would be saved. Did Esther, then, have a choice, about
saving the Jews? Yes, she did. She could have chosen to keep quiet before her husband,
and “the deliverance of the Jews would come from some other place” (Esther 4:14). But
Esther chose to risk her life and made an unprecedented appearance before the king to
request that the Jews be spared. And in so doing, she chose to maximize the potential of her
situation and became a heroic participant in fulfilling destiny.

Rabbi Aaron’s conclusion of this section is truly inspiring: “There is fate – a clear direction,
a goal, a plan. What’s going to be is going to be. But how it’s going to happen is …our choice … It is a very basic Kabbalistic idea: The evolution of the world of love will go on no matter what. But you have a choice. Do you want to have a role in it, or not?…What role do you choose to play? The hero? The villain? The protagonist? The antagonist?…That is your choice.”

Another notable chapter is “Me, Myself, and I.” People involved in creative processes will
especially appreciate it. Many creative people find that their art comes through them, that they are merely the vehicles through which some higher force expresses itself. The soul,
which is part of G-d, operates the same way through a person’s character. We may identify
ourselves by our personalities, accomplishments, and life circumstances, but this is an
illusion. These things are the soul’s implements for radiating spirituality. The extent to
which we realize that our identity comes from the soul, from spirituality, and not our
personalities, is the extent to which we will have inner peace. And for the rest of the book,
Rabbi Aaron explains in practical terms how inner peace can be attained.

This is only a taste of the insights to be found in Endless Light. People with all levels of exposure to traditional Jewish scholarship will appreciate its fresh presentation,
juxtaposing familiar life experiences with Torah wisdom. Like much about Kabbalah, Endless Light embodies a contradiction: it is stimulating and profound while simultaneously a fast and easy read.


To order Endless Light, click here.

Rabbi David Aaron is the Founder and Dean of Isralight Institute, where you can explore Jewish teachings in an integrated and comprehensive way.

Readers Respond to the “The Gender of G-d”

From Jennifer Daly in Dallas, TX:

Dear Kresel,

I quite enjoyed your page, very interesting. I was particularly interested in “The Gender of G-d.” It reminded of something that happened a while back. I began to think about converting to Judaism years ago and began going to synagogue to see if it was what I really wanted. Well, it was, but gender politics got in the way. I was disgusted one Shabbat when a woman who was having an adult bat mitzvah ceremony began insistently referring to G-d as “she”. For me it ruined what had otherwise been a beautiful and moving ceremony. It struck me that forcing gender on G-d in this manner was petty — as if to say, “I can’t relate to G-d unless G-d is like me” — as if to force G-d, who definitely transcends human categories, to accept human limitations.

To make a long story short, that experience upset me so much that I quit attending services altogether for quite a while. It was only after living for more than three years without Judaism as a motivating force in my life that I realized how much I missed it. I drifted, I flailed around, and I found that very little was worth the effort as long as I ignored my belief in one G-d and the need to perform good deeds. After moving back to Texas recently, I started hunting around for a good shul. I think I found one and hope to speak to the rabbi this week about beginning formal study. I hope G-d gives me the strength and dignity I need to go through with this.

Thank you,


Click here for Jennifer’s Home Page

Kresel responds:


Thank you for your complimentary words and for making my point so well. All the best on your journey. If you haven’t already, please check out my husband’s article for potential converts to Judaism, Becoming Jewish.

From Samantha Henry in the UK:

Dear Kresel,

I thought that Jews were made in God’s image? If so then how come God does not have bodyparts?

Also I’d like to thank you for your very interesting site. As a young reform Jew, studying for a GCSE in jewish studies your website not only gave me some great points to include in ansers when giving an orthodox, very religious vie but also left me with a lot to think about. Having been brought up in a feminist environment, with a woman rabbi I haven’t really been given the information about the traditional role of women, only the “they belong in the kitchen” analogy. Your website was higly informational
and very thought provoking, I read the whole thing!

On the other hand I did very much enjoy reading from the Torah on my bat mitzvah, it gave a very liberating feeling, and I felt truly a Jew and connected with God as I chanted my portion.

Thank you again,


Kresel responds:

Thanks very much for your compliments. I’m flattered that you read my whole site – that’s fourteen articles! I hope I have made it clear that a woman’s role is not “just in the kitchen;” we are central in Jewish life.

I really like your question about body parts. Answering it requires me to quote directly from the Torah and explain it in depth, and opportunities like that always excite me. In turn, I hope this bit of Torah study will excite you as well, and you will understand, as I said in “The View from Within,” that more important than reading aloud from the Torah in synagogue is learning It earnestly.

To begin, I would like to emphasize that all humans, Jews and non-Jews, are made in G-d’s image. The Torah teaches us this in the discussion of the Creation of Adam and Eve, and ALL of humanity descends from them. (Jewish identity begins twenty generations later with Abraham.) The verse reads as follows: “And G-d created the human in His image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27).”

Notice that the last clause in the verse refers to the female human, Eve, but that is not the question at hand. You asked about the meaning of the word “image.” Does it imply that G-d has a physical body and that our bodies are replicas? The Talmudic Rabbis teach us that the meaning of that word, which is “tzelem” in the original Hebrew, does not refer to physicality at all. Rather, it refers to our intellectual and spiritual capacities, most specifically our ability to make decisions, our free will.

As I wrote in The Jewish Facts of Life, human beings are a miraculous combination of physical and spiritual.
That we have spiritual capacities, that we can stretch our minds to contemplate the non-physical, that our hearts can soar with lofty feelings and connect to G-d, is what makes us in “G-d’s image.” Often, we take these gifts for granted, but they make us unique in creation. Each and every human being is a microcosm of G-dliness, and that is
why the Rabbi ben Azzai of the Talmudic Era said that the biggest “golden rule” of the Torah is to honor all human beings.

The Gender of G-d

Several women have written me expressing an interest in learning about the feminine aspect of G-d, using the term “Shechina” as a name for it. One of them even went so far as to state that G-d is female. Such a statement is patently false, as are statements that G-d is male. The use of the term “Shechina” to men the feminine aspect of G-d is also erroneous. My aim in this article is to clarify these issues.

My husband likes to say that asking whether G-d is male or female is like a computer program asking whether the person who programmed it is binary or hexadecimal. The terms simply do not apply. G-d is a purely spiritual force and does not have a physical body, and therefore, has no gender. Assertions that G-d is definitely male or female reflect shallow thinking into G-d’s true Nature.

G-d is usually referred to as “He” in Torah and prayer, not as a statement of gender, but simply a grammatical necessity. In Hebrew, there is no pronoun “it.” As in many languages, nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and the appropriate pronouns, either “he” or “she” are used when necessary.

This brings us to the word “Shechina,” which is one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in Judaism. Some people claim that because “Shechina” is a feminine noun, it is the feminine aspect of G-d, but this is incorrect. The Shechina is the presence of G-d’s holiness in a place, person (or group of people), or period of time. It comes to dwell there because of the mitzvohs associated with that place, person, or period of time. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains, “When we say that G-d ‘dwells’ in a certain place or situation, we really mean that a person can have an additional awareness of G-d there. Wherever the Shechina rests, there is an enhanced ability to experience the Divine” (Innerspace by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p. 222, footnote 81.)
One of the strongest manifestation of Shechina in Jewish history was in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This was because it was the site dedicated solely to the sacred services the Jewish people were required to perform there. G-d’s Holiness was so clear to the people who visited there that they were inspired to greater and greater levels of commitment to G-d. In our present day, we can experience some of the Shechina by meeting righteous individuals. The Shechina surrounds them because of all the mitzvohs and self-perfection they have achieved, and in turn, these people are models for us.

In discussions of G-d, the use of either pronoun, “He” or “She,” is not to be taken literally. These words are no different than expressions like “written by the finger of G-d” (Exodus 31:18), “G-d’s hand” (Exodus 9:3), “G-d’s eyes” (Genesis 38:7), or “G-d’s ears” (Numbers 11:1). Jews do not believe that G-d has body parts; it would in fact be heretical to think so. However, the Holy Writings use these anthropomorphic metaphors because they are easier for the human mind to grasp. (See the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides, Chapter 1, §7-12.)

I am, nonetheless, sympathetic to those women whose hearts resonate to a feminine analogy for G-d. When the Torah and liturgy speak of G-d’s mercy, the usual metaphor is of G-d as Father. Certainly it is true that the quality of mercy is maternal as well, but the important lesson is the parental metaphor, not the gender. To make an issue over the grammar is to miss the point entirely. A person would learn far more about the Nature of G-d by contemplating the intangible elements of the metaphor, such as the relationship between parent and child and the characteristic of mercy in general. Stretching our minds to envision a reality beyond the physical will bring us closer to G-d.

Therefore, it is incorrect to define the “Shechina” as the feminine aspect of G-d. Actually, it is not even correct to say that G-d has different aspects at all, although sometimes we read about G-d’s attribute of mercy contrasted with G-d’s attribute of Justice. These terms, like those about G-d’s body parts, are also metaphors. Although human beings may experience G-d’s justice and G-d’s mercy as different from each other, in the reality of G-d, they are one. The Shema affirmation: “G-d is One” means that all things which in human beings are distinct and even contradictory are united in G-d (The Way of G-d by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Part I, Chapter I, §5). Thus, the realization that G-d is beyond all divisions, including feminine and masculine, is the more accurate view.

Mom and Me

Mom’s Letter:

I am a secular Jewish mother of a daughter who is now married to a Hasidic man. Her way of life
is completely different from mine, but we are still close.

Her interest in Judaism started about ten years ago. I did not mind at that time although I never thought she would become Ultra-Orthodox.

I believe parents and children, no matter what age, should love and respect each other.

Often, secular parents of children who still live at home have a difficult time understanding a child who wants to become religious.

If a child is still a teenager (my daughter was not) it can be harder because a teenager’s parents need to have control over their child’s life. The child must understand that his/her interest in becoming religious cannot be fully realized until he/she is not living at home. Parents should not discourage their child’s interest in our religion. Isn’t it much better than some things a child can get into these days?

When my daughter was living at home, she would have liked me to become kosher, but I did not.
She understood that it was not possible for her to be as strictly religious as she wanted, so we
compromised. She used paper plates, bought her own dishes and pots, cooked her own meals, went to shul, visited with religious friends, etc.

Today her commitment to an Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, though it is strange to me, fulfills her, so I can only be happy for her.

My Letter:

If you have read my mother’s open letter, you know that I am the religious daughter of a non-religious woman. And as my mother points out, we are still close.

I’d like to tell you just how close we are. My mother comes to my home every week to help me prepare for Shabbos. She watches my kids, and I cook. When the kids nap, she does dishes as well. Clearly, she is doing a tremendous mitzvah by helping me in this way. Because of her, I am able to bake challah for Shabbos, which, in addition to enhancing my family’s Shabbos meals, is one of women’s three special mitzvohs. There is no doubt in my mind that my mother shares the reward of the mitzvah of Shabbos preparation with me.

Of course, my mother knows she is welcome to spend Shabbos with us. My pre-schooler has extended his unabashed invitation to her many times. “I want YOU to be our Shabbos guest,” he tells her. I know she gets great nachas from this, and I am happy because giving her grandchildren is the best way I know to give her something back for all she has done for me.

One of my rabbis once said that families never break up because of religion. If that appears to be the case in some families, then it means that those families had underlying problems and religion is only an external cause. My mother and I have certainly found this to be true. Loving, intact families stay intact despite all the surprises life sends them. People who fundamentally love and respect each other will find ways to bridge their differences.

From discussions with my mother, I have come to understand that parents’ deepest fear when their children become religious is that they will lose their children. Refusing to eat the parents’ non-kosher food seems to be the ultimate rejection because it disrupts the family dinner, often the only time in which today’s busy families have to spend together. This is not the case at all. If the parent gives the child room to follow Torah Law, and the child does not push his religious views on the family, it is possible to retain strong and happy relationships. You can still have family dinners; you’ll just eat different food on different plates.

The Torah commands us several times to honor our parents. As with all mitzvahs, religious Jews strive to perform this mitzvahwell. This is certainly true for religious children of non-religious parents. As long as both parents and children allow each other to live differently, they can manage to live harmoniously.

If you would like to contact either my mother or me about your family’s experiences, email me. Please indicate in the subject line for whom you intend the letter. To insure your privacy, I will not read any letters for my mother; I’ll merely print them out and pass them on to her.

And for more on this subject, I highly recommend my husband’s article “Sudden Changes,” which has two parts: one for parents and one for for sons & daughters.

Monica Lewinsky and the Daughters of Israel

If ever there was a perfect time to rate news reporting as “inappropriate for children,” 1998 must have been it. I personally get all my news from National Public Radio, which avoided focusing on the sordid details of the scandal and reported only on its newsworthy elements. And still sometimes I had to turn off my radio in disgust. Having said that, readers of this article will understand that I wish to discuss this matter in the most wholesome terms possible.

The President’s behavior was appalling. Even Americans are not too jaded to be shocked by this type of abuse of power. But I contend that the scandal symbolized the betrayal of something deeper than America; it is the betrayal of femininity.

Monica Lewinsky is probably a very typical American young woman. Raised on liberal values in the post-feminist era, she was reared to believe that her destiny is in her own hands. A woman can make her own choices in today’s world: about her career, her relationships, her body . . . but did anybody ever tell her that she could determine the course of her own spirituality? Perhaps if someone had taught her that spirituality is the highest form of self-empowerment, she might have behaved with a greater moral consciousness.

This is the state of today’s young Jewish women. They are bright, ambitious, and educated in every subject, except in their own heritage. The pride and joy of their parents, they earnestly march into the universities and into careers only to discover that positions of power are still dominated by men who see women first and foremost as objects for physical pleasure. And in many cases, the women succumb to the men’s pressuring, for few have strong enough senses of self and morality to resist power and charm. Is this feminine liberation?

Orthodox Jewish women are not feminists in the usual understanding of the word, but we know that the Torah is pro-feminine. With our strict separation between genders and a dress code that de-emphasizes our bodies, we seem alien to most young Jews today. After all, “separate is inherently unequal” in American tradition. Today’s Jews do not realize that in their native tradition, the word for “separation” and “holiness” are one and the same. When men and women stay separate, the intimacy of the relationship of marriage is heightened to the point of holiness. Tragically, most Jews have no understanding of holiness at all, for it is something that must be experienced to be understood.

The word for the ceremony of marriage in Hebrew shares its root with in the word for “holiness” or “separation.” When a couple goes through the Jewish marriage ceremony, they become consecrated to each other in the same way as a holy object is consecrated to the service of G-d. Everything about their relationship is considered a sacred service to G-d, and every contact outside of the separateness of their relationship detracts from the holiness. Contrast this to secular America, where relationships between the genders are treated casually. In a recent poll of teenagers engaging in intercourse, love was not among the motivations for becoming active, and the most-commonly reported result was regret. (Paul Harvey News and Comment by Paul Harvey, WABC, January 1998)

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (1742-1792) said, “The greatest pitfall Jews face is to forget that they are the children of the King [G-d].” (Bais Aaron by Rabbi Aaron II of Karlin, p. 146d) The strongest defense against immorality is self-esteem. If I value myself, I most certainly would not engage in behavior that degrades me. And what could be more self-affirming than the consciousness that the self is a soul, a tiny extension of G-d, divine and eternal? Not until people embrace themselves as the beloved children of G-d will they behave in ways that express His Ultimate Morality. If Monica Lewinsky had recognized herself as a child of G-d, she, and thousands of young women like her, would not have stumbled in grievous sin.

© Copyright 1998, Karen Housman

I have been blessed to know many teachers through the years who have helped me learn these concepts, but for this article, I would like to acknowledge my husband, Mordechai
, and my teachers at She’arim College of Jewish Studies.

A Positive Expression


I just saw your site. It’s pretty interesting. I had a question I thought you might be able to help me with. This morning, I read in the morning service something that said “Thank you G_D for not having made me a woman.” Why does it say that? Can you shed some light on this for me?


Kressel responds:

Dear Sophia,

I’m very glad you asked that question since it’s one that many people have. The blessing does appear to be phrased in a disturbing way if you are unfamiliar with its context. I hope I will be able to clarify it for you.

This blessing is fourth in a series of twelve blessings Jews say every morning. Actually, the phrasing of all the blessings in this group hides their meanings somewhat. For example, the first, “Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night,” is an expression of gratitude for having woken up to another day. That the rooster can recognize the dawn and crow is a remarkable thing, but it seems simpler to say, “Blessed are You, Hashem . . . for allowing me to wake up today.”

The blessing you asked about follows two others with similar phrasing: “Blessed are You, Hashem . . . for not making me a non-Jew” and “. . . for not making me a slave.” These are the only three blessings in the group, and indeed in all of Jewish liturgy, which bless Hashem for not making us as something. It does seems strange; why do we thank Hashem for what we are not when we could simply thank Him for what we are?

The reason is that these blessings are more than they appear to be. They are expressions of gratitude for the mitzvohs we have, and each of the people mentioned in each blessing has more mitzvohs than the one preceding.

As you may know, mitzvohs are commandments from Hashem, specific actions to perform and specific prohibitions to adhere to in the service of Hashem. Non-Jews have seven mitzvohs to follow, which is far fewer than the number Jews have. Since it is proper that we should be grateful for the mitzvohs we have, we bless Hashem for not placing us in a situation in which we would have had fewer.

The next blessing, “for not making me a slave,” requires a bit of explanation. Obviously, slavery does not exist in Western civilization, but in Biblical times, captives of war became slaves. Before you become indignant about the injustice of this, you should know that the Torah forbids cruelty to the slave, and the Torah delineates extensive laws on how to treat a slave (Exodus 21:1-11.) The Jews of that period treated their slaves more humanely than any other nation in those times and, notably, more humanely than many other nations that held slaves centuries afterward, including America.

Non-Jewish captives who became slaves to Jews in this manner were required to keep some mitzvohs. For example, the Torah requires everyone living under a Jew’s domain, non-Jewish slaves included, to refrain from performing those tasks which are forbidden to Jews on Shabbos (Exodus 20:10.) Thus, non-Jewish slaves, by virtue of living in a Jewish home, observed the prohibitive mitzvohs of Shabbos. As a result, they kept more mitzvohs than regular non-Jews, but still fewer than Jews, so they are in the middle of this list. Interestingly, Jews who became slaves to non-Jews were still obligated to say this blessing because they were still obligated to keep mitzvohs. This proves that the blessing is for the mitzvohs, rather than a statement about the condition of slavery, and by extension, womanhood.

Now we come to the blessing you asked about – “for not making me a woman.” A free Jewish woman is required to do more mitzvohs than non-Jews and slaves, but because of her responsibility to her children, she is exempt from certain types of mitzvohs. (For an in-depth explanation of this, see my article On Equality.) Therefore, a free Jewish man has more mitzvohs to fulfill than anyone, and with this blessing, a Jewish man expresses his gratitude for his mitzvohs. A woman expresses her gratitude for her mitzvohs with the blessing, “. . . for making me according to Your will.”

Now, you may still be wondering why all these blessings are phrased in the negative. Perhaps they could be phrased, “Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe, for making me a man” or “…a woman.” Rabbi Kohn of the Jewish Renaissance Center explained to me that this is because such statements would be arrogant on our part. The Hebrew word for “man” implies a high level of righteousness. (The Biblical commentator Rashi explains this in his analysis of the use of the words “all the men” in Numbers 13:3.) Can we claim to be such righteous men and women that we deserve all implications of the term? Even people who are righteous enough to deserve the term would not proclaim it because it would be boastful. So, we bless Hashem for the mitzvohs He gave us to help us reach our spiritual potentials without arrogantly claiming to have done so.

My husband taught me an additional reason women say, “…for making me according to Your will,” while men say, “for not making me a woman.” After the creation of Adam, Hashem said, “It is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make him a helper opposite him.” (Genesis 2:18) That “helper opposite him” was Eve. Thus, man without woman was in an undesirable, incomplete state. Until the formation of woman was complete, Hashem’s will was not fulfilled. Thus, women represent the fulfillment of Hashem’s will while men do not, and our blessing reflects this.

I hope this clarifies the issue. As I said, it is one that troubles many people, so if you or anyone reading this has further questions about it, please email me.

The Essential Ingredient

One question I have been asked in response to this site is how I can find fulfillment in the Traditional role of homemaker.

“Maybe you can tell me what makes an Orthodox woman’s life so wonderful compared to what I have,” wrote one reader, “I don’t spend all day cooking, cleaning and taking care of babies.”

It was obvious to me that the author of these words had never had children herself. If she had, she would not have overlooked the most important feature in running a household: love. Because we love our husbands and children, doing things for them is pleasurable. Conventional wisdom tells us that when we put love into our cooking, the food tastes better. Love is the essential ingredient. Love
makes even the dullest of tasks more tolerable.

I love my husband and children, and I know that it’s good for us to live in a clean house, so I clean it. I don’t enjoy it as much as snuggling with my kids – one of the perks of my job – but when I clean, I know that I am doing something that will benefit those I love, and that has emotional reward.

One model for this in Torah is our forefather Jacob. Jacob loved our foremother Rachel so much that he worked for her father for seven years to be able to marry her. The Torah states that those seven years of work “seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.”(1)

This seems contrary to what we would expect. Seven years seems quite a long time to wait for someone you love. Most people find that time spent waiting for something passes so slowly it’s unbearable.

This was not the case with Jacob. His love for Rachel motivated him to such a degree that his long period of service to her father became an abbreviated labor of love.

Contrast this with another example from Torah. One of the tortures the Jews underwent as slaves in Egypt was that they were forced to do back-breaking labor that was impossible to complete. The
Egyptians conscripted the Jews to build storehouses on swampland which could not support the structures. Progress was impossible; everything the Jews built sank into the ground.(2) Nevertheless, the Egyptians would not release the Jews from this pointless and grueling task.

The psychological effect of this was more cruel than the toilsome labor itself. There is nothing more demoralizing than meaningless work. The Egyptians did not need or want the storehouses. Their sole
purpose in giving the Jews back-breaking work was to afflict them. Denied the opportunity to feel any sense of accomplishment from their efforts, the Jews were effectively embittered.

Baruch Hashem, the work of a Jewish homemaker is far more like Yaakov’s work than the Jewish slaves’ in Egypt. Dishes from dinner may refill the sink shortly after the pots are done, an hour’s work on an attractive meal may turn into nothing but scraps, but satisfied faces around the dinner table will remain. My toddler might throw toys all around the room I just cleaned, but I’d be wrong to feel that my cleaning was for nothing. My home is a place for my beloved family to live and grow, and seeing that they are happy in it makes it worthwhile.

There is one important love relationship I have not yet mentioned, and that is the love between Hashem and humanity. The love parents have for their children is the closest analogy we have to
understanding Hashem’s love for us. Motherhood certainly deepened my appreciation of it. (I discuss this in my article “On Equality.”) But I am also someone’s daughter, and there are lessons to learn from this relationship as well.

I love and appreciate my parents for all they have done for me. As a result, I feel a very natural compulsion to do things that will honor, please, and benefit them. When I recognize that Hashem is my Parent, I feel that same compulsion.

These feelings, both for our earthly parents and for our Creator, are instinctual. Babies begin to demonstrate loyalty and affection for their parents before their minds are mature enough to grasp the
parent-child relationship. Similarly, our souls yearn to honor Hashem, even if we do not recognize our dependence on Him on a conscious level. It is not possible to fully understand Hashem‘s influence in our lives, but as we grow spiritually, we come to recognize and love Him more, and in consequence, we desire to express that love. Our means for doing this are the mitzvohs.

Many, if not all, of the chores homemakers do are themselves mitzvohs. Nourishing our families with the meals we cook is a mitzvah. Preparing food for Shabbos and the holidays takes on an additional spiritual dimension because it will be used in festive meals. Cleaning one’s house creates an orderly environment which is conducive to inner clarity. This is true at all times, but the thorough housecleaning we do before Pesach (Passover) to make certain there is no chametz (leavened products) within our possession symbolically cleanses sinful tendencies from our souls. And of course,Hashem entrusted us with the care and development of the precious souls of our children, a vital mitzvah which ensures the continuation of the Jewish people and Tradition. “Cooking, cleaning, and taking care of babies” become much more than mundane activities with the recognition of Hashem.

We homemakers take pride in the fact that our work is a holy service to Hashem. We do not see it as degrading; quite the opposite, performing these mitzvohs allows us to elevate ourselves and our households. And if the actual work bores me sometimes, which happens to everybody occasionally, I stimulate myself with a taped discussion of Torah ideas as I work. It’s even a mitzvah for me to give myself a break when I need one. After all, taking care of myself is intertwined with my love for Hashem, my husband, and my children. As Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?(3)” But let us not forget the second half of that statement which warns against selfishness, “But if I am [only] for myself, what am I?”(4) It is my right and responsibility to feel good about myself and my work, but if I were doing it only for me, if there were no love of another motivating me, ultimately, my life would be unfulfilling.

1. Genesis 29:20

2. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 11a

3. Pirkei Avos 1:14

4. Ibid.

Singular Opportunities

Shalom Kresel,

I just found your site and am enjoying it very much. I am feeling torn as to wearing tallis. I do not see it as a matter of equality, rather as a beautiful way to envelop yourself and make a quiet place to focus on davening. Is that so bad? I would like to know the Biblical references that require men to do this and that forbid women to do it. Is this in the Torah?

Of course I see your point about giving birth and the impact of childbearing/raising for women but unfortunately that is not always to be for some women. I certainly agree with you about the importance and equal status of women’s role focusing on raising children. Unfortunately that’s not something that Hashem has blessed me with, and while I can believe in miracles, I have to be realistic-I’m single and 42.

I am trying to make a decision here about tallis, feeing torn that it is “men’s” clothing but there is also a part of me that sees that it can be gender neutral. Can you help me come to a better understanding of this. Thank you. Also, can you keep my privacy by not using my name in your posting? Thank you!!!

Kresel responds:


Thank you for giving me time to answer you. As the head of a Jewish household, my time for composing is limited.

Actually, the theme of this letter is time. The reason women are exempt from certain mitzvohs is because running a home takes up so much of their time. As you’ve pointed out, you’re single and you don’t have the same time constraints. But believe it or not, your situation has its advantages!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happily married and wouldn’t want to go back to being single. Hashem undoubtedly created marriage and parenthood because these relationships require us to be on our best, most giving and loving behavior. Life as a partner in a marriage and as a parent offers tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth. You’ve read some of my thoughts on this in “On Equality.”

Therefore, you are right on target when you ask why you, living without the time constraints of a married woman, should not perform a mitzvah like wearing a tallis. Even more important is your broader question: how does a single Jewish woman fit in – spiritually and socially – to our very family-oriented religion?

As I stated in “On Equality,” women are exempt from the mitzvohs which proscribe that a certain action be performed at a certain time. Tallis is one of those mitzvohs. Women are exempt from tallis because tallis is a time-oriented mitzvah.

I understand that you feel that wearing a tallis would deepen your prayers. Actually, in the Jewish Tradition, women have such a natural connection to prayer that they do not need a tallis to achieve this. Because women are not obligated to set times for prayers, their prayers can be completely spontaneous, an outpouring of the heart, said at any time of day – even over the housework. This sort of outpouring is considered a woman’s unique capacity for prayer.

Actually, the model for all prayer was a woman who prayed in exactly this manner. Her name was Chana, and we read about her prayer in the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 1, verses 12: “And Chana, she was speaking from her heart; only her lips moved and her voice could not be heard…” Chana’s method of prayer is the Scriptural source for the laws about the silent standing prayer known as the “Amidah.” Like Chana, when we make requests of Hashem, we whisper them intimately, yet stand with respect. This is the power of a Jewish woman’s prayer. It flows from within us and does not require the external stimulus of a tallis to deepen the experience.

The spontaneous prayers that come from your heart are dear to Hashem. However, you may also find tremendous inspiration in the prayers composed the Talmudic rabbis. Ideally, I think prayer should include a combination of both. There are specific parts of the prayers in which we may insert our own words, and it is worthwhile to take advantage of them. The power of prayer is as boundless as Hashem‘s mercy.

When I was single, I prayed far more often than I do now. I used to feel guilty if my daily prayers didn’t include some of the Pesukei D’zimra, a series of Tehillim (Psalms) which praise Hashem. Now that I’m a mother, if I say the Amidah, it’s a very good day. A satisfactory one includes only Birchas Ha Shachar (the morning blessings).

Recently, I had an experience that showed me that I had no reason to feel guilty over my level of prayer in my single days. The women on my block get together once a week to say Tehillim. The entire Book of Tehillim (150 Psalms) is divided up into 24 booklets. Each woman prays from as many booklets as she can until all the booklets have been completed. This way, we complete the entire Book of Tehillim in the space of about half an hour. After we finish, we pray that our reciting the Tehillim should help sick people to heal.

You may already know that the Hebrew in Tehillim is very difficult. If I receive a booklet I’m unfamiliar with, it will take me a long time until I struggle through it. But sometimes I receive one that I know, and that’s often because of the prayers I used to say when I was single: the Pesukei D’Zimra. It is a pleasure to recite those familiar and inspiring words. And to think I used to feel that I wasn’t praying enough! That showed me how unwarranted my previous guilt was, and furthermore, how likely it is that the guilt I feel in the present is equally unwarranted. One never knows the benefits her prayers will bring her in the future.

Another major way a woman can connect to Hashem is by learning Torah. Learning Torah is not a time-bound mitzvah; a person can and should learn Torah at any time of the day. Thus, women are not exempt from the mitzvah of learning Torah. However, there are a few mitzvohs that take precedence over learning Torah. One of these is taking care of one’s children. As a mother of young children, most of the Torah I learn is at home: with my husband, on audio tapes, and over the Internet. However, when I was single, I spent far more of my time learning. I even spent a full year at a women’s seminary where I learned seven hours a day. It was one of the most spiritually productive years of my life. I heartily recommend that you find shiurim to attend and become an avid scholar. Learning Torah is unquestionably the wisest way to use your time to connect to Hashem. Where do you live? Please let me know and I will do my utmost to help you find some learning opportunities.

Another freedom you have is the freedom to travel. I’m a strong advocate of “community-shopping,” visiting Jewish communities and experiencing their approach to life. I discuss this at length in my article The Kindness of Strangers. Hosting guests is a big mitzvah and Jews all over the world perform it enthusiastically. There is nothing like experiencing Shabbos with other Jews. As an unmarried person, you are a very easy guest to host. All you have to do is call an Orthodox synagogue and ask for Shabbos hospitality. Your options will be wide open!

Insofar as your social concerns, be assured that “sisterhood” is strong in the Orthodox Jewish world. Since we live our lives effectively separate from all men other than our husbands, we spend quite a bit of time with other women. As a result, our relationships with each other are deep and strong. This is even more true for unmarried women than for their married counterparts, since you do not have the responsibilities of family pulling you away from socializing.

I hope you will find these areas of Jewish life satisfying. Certainly they are not the only ways for a single Jewish woman to connect to G-d and to other Jews, but they are some of the more significant ones. There are so many permissible ways to express your spirituality even if you are not yet a mother. There is no reason for you to feel so deprived that you must seek out the questionable practice of putting on a tallis.

And I have one more point to make about this. I understand that your desire to put on a tallis does not stem from a feminist/political agenda. However, in Judaism, there is a concept called Maras Ayin. This means that a person should refrain from doing something that could be misconstrued as forbidden behavior. For example, if I serve non-dairy creamer in a fleishig (meat) meal, I must keep the creamer in its container so that everyone will see that it is non-dairy. I may prefer to put it in a pretty serving dish, but people might mistake it for milk and “follow my example” i.e., do what they think they saw me do, and serve milk with meat.

Wearing a tallis is something like this. Even if you are doing it from a pure motivation, it has taken on connotations of feminist rebellion. Therefore, if you want to be a true servant of Hashem, then it is best that your behavior does not even hint of rebellion. Distance yourself from appearances of wrong behavior, not so much for fear of what people will think, but because they might learn the wrong lessons from it. On the other side, perform the mitzvohs proudly, even when people laugh and criticize you. You cannot go wrong by doing something right.

Please stay in touch. I’d love to help you find a more Traditional Jewish environment.

Are you looking for your bashert? Try The Shiduch Connection!

My deepest thanks to my teachers at She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women, especially Rebbetzin Marci Jablinowitz for her shiurim on Chana and prayer, and Elana Friedman, whose words of encouragement provided the basis for this article.

Born in 1968

I was born in 1968, ten days before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., two months before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and at the height of the Vietnam War and all its controversy. My first political memory is of telling my mother, “Nixon is the president” and her correcting me with, “Now Ford is the president.”

The America I grew up in was one of cynicism and disunity. Loyalty to America was not something I though about much while growing up, nor did the people I knew. Patriotism wasn’t cool, not for politically-minded teens of the 80’s who identified with the rebels of the 60’s. For the rest, the majority, I think apathy was the dominant feeling. Most of my peers were excited about making money, but I don’t think that was out of any deep appreciation for America and its ideals.

It was in the summer after my freshman year of college that I encountered a motto that became the dominating theme of my life for the succeeding years, if not until the present. It was a saying on somebody’s T-shirt: “Spirituality is the highest form of political activism.” That sent me on an intense and sometimes painful search which led me right back to my own backyard. Like Dorothy’s return to Kansas, a girl from a liberal Jewish New York family returned to her roots; I am a Hasidic Jew today. I wear a wig and long sleeves and skirts even on the hottest days of summer. When I ride the New York City subways, I usually have eyes in my prayer book.

That’s what I looked like on the morning of September 11, 2001 at about 10:00 am. The first tower had already fallen. I could not believe my eyes as I looked at the solitary tower from my elevated train station. Fifteen minutes later, as the train crossed over the Gowanus Canal, I heard a terrible gasp from all the passengers. I don’t know what they saw. Perhaps it was the second tower falling. Perhaps it was the billowing cloud of ash and debris that enveloped us when all train service stopped and we each made our way back home. Whatever it was, everyone on that train got up to see it, but I thought it was more important to keep my eyes – and heart – in my prayer book.

It seems a bit uncanny to me now, but a few weeks before September 11, I had a profound insight than increased my own sense of patriotism dramatically. My husband and I were listening to a radio show called “The Golden Age of Radio” which was airing one of their frequent features, World War II propaganda. They are presented as radio dramas, and are clearly one-sided, but they give you some sense of the mindset of the people in that era.

The show that evening was a rebroadcast of a 1940’s show that was a documentary about Nazi propaganda. Mainly, it was a warning about the danger of rumors. Just as the Fifth Column caused the defeat of France, this wartime show warned that America too could be full of Nazi-sympathizers whose aim was to demoralize other Americans by speaking negatively. The show conveyed to me the importance of loyalty to the United States, which, as I said above, was never a big part of my value system. I have always thought of World War II from the Jewish perspective, not as an American. It was staggering thought that there could be American citizens actually aligned with and working for the Nazis. Whose loyalty could be so skewed?

The show made it clear that in wartime, unity is all-important. The famous photo of American civilians celebrating in the streets on V-Day flashed through my mind. I could remember no time in my life like that, with that degree of national unity. The closest thing to it in my memory was the resolution of the hostage crisis.

On that summer evening in 2001, America was not yet at war, and I could not imagine it being at war. But the situation in Israel had been as volatile as it is now, and my thoughts turned there. Religious Jews understand the strife in the political state of Israel to be symbolic of a much deeper crisis which exists on a spiritual plane. It is written that the sin that keeps us in exile is hatred amongst ourselves, in other words, our lack of unity. And what is the parallel to the Fifth Column, the rumors which caused France to fall to Germany? Lashon HaRa or gossip. If we speak negatively about each other, we undermine our own unity, and cause ourselves to lose both spiritual and political wars.

Speech is powerful and should be used wisely. Freedom of speech is one of the main freedoms we enjoy as Americans, and the purpose of this essay is most decidedly NOT to discourage it. In Jewish Law, when there is a need for criticism, there are specific rules to follow, all of which are designed to correct the behavior while maintaining the person’s dignity. It is the only way for criticism to be truly constructive. And so, if someone feels America must be criticized, that criticsm should be in the spirit of building up and not tearing down.

Fundamentally, we have much to be grateful for in America. There are some serious mistakes in its history – the framers of the Constitution were themselves slave owners, although I do think the Constitution is the greatest set of secular laws ever written. As a religious Jew, I am especially grateful for the freedom of religion it guarantees me. That is an anomaly in the history of our exile, although there were times and places in which Jews enjoyed religious tolerance. One thing I do know: the
terrorists who attacked my birthplace and home on September 11 last year would not allow my children with their yarmulkes and sidelocks to live the carefree lives all children deserve. But America guarantees that they can, and that, says this pacificst, is worth defending.

And so I would like to conclude with my favorite and fairly unknown verse of “America the Beautiful”:

Oh beautiful for pilgrim’s feet

whose firm impassioned stress

a thoroughfare for freedom beat

across the wilderness.

America, America,

G-d mend thine every flaw.

Confirm thine soul

in self-control.

Thine liberty in law.

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