Writing in the Forward, she tells us that she was raised in a totally secular household. Both parents are Jewish. Although her father believes in God, he apparently does not practice Judaism in any meaningful way. Her mother leans towards atheism!
Her first experience with Orthodoxy was at age 14. She went on a retreat where she was inspired by the people, “the passion, the sense of community, the music, and intellectual discussions”. But she was dismayed by what she perceived as the “sexism, rigidity, countless rules and frightening Torah passages”.
But the positive overcame the negative. Upon her return home she wanted to keep kosher. That was denied her with a slam dunk “No!” from her mother. Which she punctuated with a pork chop dinner.
She is now conflicted she and describes herself as a fence sitter. As a feminist, her politics and philosophy are more in line with those of the Reform Movement. But she does not relate to Reform lifestyle which lacks the sense of belonging she finds in Orthodoxy. A sense that is aligned with her the strong identity as a Jew. A sense she has always had.
After she got married she eventually joined a Reform synagogue. There she appreciated the focus on social justice and other of Reform’s trappings. But she missed being part of a community. Shul members had little to do with each other once services were over. Inviting someone over for a Shabbos meal on a Friday night just did not happen. The one time she tired, she was turned down because that was hockey night on TV!
As her son’s Bar Mitzvah approached she wanted more. And convinced her husband to join an Orthodox ‘outreach’ community near her home. There she found what she was looking for and became observant.
But her intellectual honesty did not leave her alone. The problems she always had with Orthodoxy remained with her. Even though she got used to sitting behind a Mechitza, she never felt comfortable being separated from ‘the action’. She admired the other Baalei Teshuva in her community who embraced Orthdoxy without any apparent reservation. But she could not let go of her issues. And to top it all off she still remains unsure of God’s existence.
Neilia Sherman is resigned to her ‘fence sitter’ status and is staying put in the world of Orthodoxy. And ends off with the following:
In the end, my Torah-observant friends offer me a great feeling of security and belonging. I feel uplifted by their desire to do what is right, and inspired by their unwavering trust that God will never let us down. If I can’t believe it myself, it is comforting to be next to people who can.
As I indicatedI admire this woman’s intellectual honesty. And frankly I am not sure what to say to her to get her off the fence. Perhaps there are a few things.
Her questioning of God’s existence is a function of the fact that His existence cannot be proven. You cannot prove the spiritual by physical means. All you really have is belief. But it is not a belief without substance. There are plenty of reasons to believe that do not require empirical proof. There is a lot of evidence of God’s existence albeit not conclusive proof of it. Beliefs can thereby be as strong an indicator of existence as physical evidence can be.
With respect to her feminism, that is probably the hottest topic in the world of Orthodoxy today. One might advise her to join Open Orthodoxy where feminism is a huge influence and widely worshiped. But Open Orthodoxy will not take her out from behind the Mechitza that separates her from ‘the action.’
Obviously the emotional uplift Neilia Sherman gets from Orthodoxy is worth the sacrifice of compromising her feminist values. That’s why she’s there. My hope is that she can resolve her inner conflict by reevaluating her feminism with respect to Orthodoxy. And perhaps come to the realization that her role of a woman in Judaism does not look how equal she is to a man. It is about how to best serve God. Which has more to do with what God requires of her and less to do with the equality of the sexes.
One becomes completely fulfilled as a human being; as a Jew; as either a man or a woman. That happens when one knows they are following God’s will to the best of their ability. There is an element of equality though.To the extent that each sex succeeds in their obligations to God is to the extent that they are equal in His eyes.
Whether or not she accepts my understanding of how a Jew can best serve God, thinking, intellectually honest people like Neilia Sherman are the kind of people I like. And I’m proud to have her as a member of the tribe.