By: Lilly Gelman | Opinions  | 

The Speech that Led to Silence

For three days during my year studying in Midrasha in Israel, while attending a weekend long Tikvah seminar on post-modernism, I completely lost my voice. I don’t mean the hoarseness one gets after a long cold or flu, or the scratchiness that we hear after a two-month summer spent cheering along in summer camp. I mean completely lost. Nothing but a mouselike squeak would sound if I tried to speak.

I remember sitting, through hours of discussion sessions, in silence, trapped inside my own head and unable to share my thoughts and contributions. It felt like a paralysis of some sort. I attempted to follow along by listening to the discussion, but without the ability to participate the sessions dragged on and bored me.

On December 16, 2017, I felt a similar voicelessness. That day I had given a Dvar Torah at Klein @ 9, a community oriented student minyan run in the Klein Beit Midrash almost every Shabbat. I was not naive in thinking that allowing a female student to speak from the podium at the end of tefillah would go unnoticed, but, I had been previously asked to give the Dvar Torah at some point, and this weekend seemed as good as any.

The Dvar Torah generally occurs at the end of davening, after the announcements but before we break for kiddush. The speaker stands at the front of the room, and speaks for around five minutes, usually about something related to the parsha. While it may seem small and unimportant, it is a platform for students to have their voices heard, and more importantly, to feel a part of the community.

The brief Dvar Torah, during which I gave over a thought relating Chanukah to Purim, appeared inconsequential. I may have been the first woman to give a Dvar Torah at any YU minyan ever; nevertheless, giving one at Klein @ 9, a student minyan which prides itself on its open and tolerant ambiance, seemed natural and normal.

Despite the seemingly supportive environment, word of my presentation spread through campus to a higher YU authority. By the next week, women were officially no longer allowed to give Divrei Torah at Klein @ 9, thus making me not only the first, but probably the last woman to give a Dvar Torah at a YU minyan.

While the minyan still encourages women to attend and lead the occasional chabura — a smaller study group after kiddush — and the student leaders of the minyan were not responsible for the decision to prohibit women from giving the Dvar Torah, nevertheless, the decision was made, and I was silenced.

The men of Klein @ 9 and the Modern Orthodox community at large have their voices heard loud and clear, as they echo and bounce to and from all side of religious involvement. While women sit in the back of the Klein beit midrash behind sky high mechitzas, the men lein, daven from the amud, and announce the page numbers.

Halacha may prohibit women from stepping forward in such participatory roles, however, no Jewish law forbids a woman from giving a dvar torah after the davening services have ended. The decision to prevent women from speaking after the minyan stems not from biblical or rabbinic sources, but rather from a patriarchal community mindset encouraged by years of halachically unfounded cultural norms.

The dvar torah at Klein @ 9 could have been the platform needed for women to play a more active role in the community. It could have served as an opportunity for my voice and the voices of the women of the community to sound out where they had previously been absent; yet, someone silenced us, knocking me off my platform and telling me to go sit in the corner. By prohibiting women from speaking at the end of Klein @ 9, the YU community further limits a demographic already pushed to the side.

After this moment, I felt as if I had lost my voice. I do not normally sit silently in submission. I am not normally one to accept defeat and raise my white flag in surrender. Yet I didn’t attempt to fight this—until now. This event is one of many in a string of events and limitations during which I realized the level of marginalization and belittlement of women at YU and in the greater Modern Orthodox community. I have done my fair share of writing and speaking out about issues regarding women in Modern Orthodoxy, but my voice has become strained. Since I have arrived at YU, I have felt my voice becoming scratchy and hoarse until, finally, it has vanished.