The Drumbeats of Fear

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You’ve seen the video of the bride in Bnei Brak drumming at her wedding. You’ve heard that the Badatz went ballistic after the video spread, and they demanded to know why the electricity had not been shut off in the hall the minute she stepped up to the drums. They decried the wedding band who would allow this abomination to happen. They received their apology and assurances from all involved that they would never let anything like that ever happen again.

Just a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, a local Chassidic rabbi forbade his religious community from attending an event where women told their personal stories in a speech format.

Just this past week in Ramat Beit Shemesh, an ad for a Torah-inspired getaway event had their female presenters’ images removed from the flyer. You might think- what’s new about that? But these presenters are not Charedi, nor were they appealing to a Charedi crowd.

It has become a near daily experience of watching Jewish women of all types being silenced and erased, under the guise of modesty and “Torah values.”

Torah values? Let’s go back and look exactly what the Torah says about these things.

Firstly, if there ever were percussionists in the Torah, it was the women. We have an entire text dedicated to our prophetess Miriam, her timbrels and all the women who joined in musical harmony when they offered “Shira,” a song, thanking God for their escape from Egypt and the splitting of the sea. The Mefarshim go to great lengths to talk about why they even had musical instruments when leaving Egypt. Why did they bring them? Because they knew that God would redeem them, and their faith led them to believe that while they carried their matza on their backs to feed their children, they would need their instruments too. Today, that’s an astounding statement. In the Torah, women were free to express their faith and passion for God through the medium of music.

The Torah offers many times, that the first reason why Bnei Yisrael persists through the centuries is to serve as witnesses for the almighty powerful God. Secondly, is to offer “Shira”- song and praise of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and that offering serves as the light unto the nations.

“Shira” comes in many forms. Sometimes it is music. Sometimes it is prose or spoken word. Personal stories are transformative.

Spending two years publishing the personal stories of women has taught me the incredible power of sharing and connecting. Because when we share the truth that lies within us, the person who hears it learns something. It could be that they recognize that same truth within themselves. Or they learn about something new that informs how they understand what it means to be human.

People who share words of faith inspire others to awaken the spark of faith that lies within them. The connecting to each other through the medium of exploration of dark times can lead to ultimately making meaning, and choosing emunah in Hashem. All of that can create healing and transformation.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the Torah.

Do we not have personal stories of our holy foremothers? We explore their struggles with infertility, personal feelings, ambitions for themselves and their children. Their love lives and struggles raising their families. Their births, and travels, and shame. Their prayers and their goals. All within the prism of navigating their faith. Archetypal models of living with modesty and authenticity, faith and audacity.

Do we skip those chapters in Torah reading on Shabbos mornings? Do we plug our ears when the Baal Koreh utters their words filled with pain, faith or struggle? Do we demand an apology from the Baal Koreh and shut off the lights in the shul? Do we forbid Torah observing people from going to shul on the mornings where our mother’s stories are read? Are only women allowed to hear those specific chapters?

If you think what I am describing is absurd. You’re right.

When the names and faces of Jewish women are removed from media spaces- newspapers, magazines, websites, even wedding invitations-  that is not reflective of Torah values either.

When Yitzchak married Rivkah, the Torah does not say, “Yitzchak, son of Avraham, takes girl for wife.” The Torah did not use only her initials. Doesn’t the Torah explicitly share the names of Rivkah and Sarah in that chapter and go into details about bringing Rivkah into the tent of his mother? The Mefarshim spend a lot of time talking about what it meant to be in her tent, what happened in the tent, and the miracles that existed in that space because of the deep faith of those two women. And we, as Jews, get to stand witness to their greatness and faith for eternity because it was written and we heard that story.

Jewish women are powerful agents of change. Our faith is astounding. It is literally the building block of our nation, currently and historically.

In our generation, our ability to make change is even stronger. Because today, we are educated. We receive high levels of secular and Torah educations. Our opinions are based in study, research, intuition, and deep faith.

Just think of the art we could make. The justice we would seek. The beauty we could create. The leadership that could transform. The wisdom we would share. The role modeling we could offer. The expressions of faith we could beat out on our drums that we’ve carried since Egypt.

But change is intimidating. It is easier to silence strength than to engage with personal transformation. It’s easier to act from a place of fear.

I am afraid, too. Our narrative as a people is built on thousands of years of stories. Each generation is another page in the story of “The People of The Book.” So if you erase Jewish women from the public narrative, what happens next? We internalize our narratives, we define ourselves by our stories. It diminishes our ability for hopeful optimism, for maintaining the values that we have maintained since before Matan Torah. Erasing women has never been our Torah values.

Tanach never sidelined its women. Their stories make our legacy whole. And real.

What happens if we continue to erase Jewish women from our historical narrative? What happens if we continue to allow our values to be corroded by false modesty, hypersexualization, and discrimination?

I am afraid we will no longer recognize ourselves. Certainly, our ancestors would not.

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.