On this Shavuot, we invite you and the teens in your life to take some time to read and discuss an iconic Jewish feminist poem by Merle Feld. This poem is one that we use both with our Meyer-Gottesman Kol Koleinu fellows and with teen group leaders for our programs.
This poem was born out of a dialogue between two Jewish feminists who lived in New York City in the 1980s: Rabbi Rachael Adler, who today is a professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at Hebrew Union College in LA, and Merle Feld, a published poet and playwright who lives in Northampton, MA.
Rachael Adler (at the time the wife of an orthodox rabbi who studied Talmud at their kitchen table) wrote a radical article about the moment that Moses received the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai. She quoted a line from Exodus where Moses gives the order to the people to prepare for the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai using the words “be ready against the third day; go not near a woman.” She notes that this command is clearly spoken to a male collective.
In response, she asks, “Were women present at Sinai?” And also “Are women Jews?”
Merle Feld read and studied Rachael’s article with feminist friends when it was written.
Merle wrote: “I refuse to entertain the notion that we weren’t there. I won’t hear of it. Maybe we have no account of it in our voice, maybe we have to recall or reconstruct or imagine what that moment was for us, but for me, the premise that we were present is unshakable, nonnegotiable.”
Merle’s passion led her to write the poem, “We All Stood Together” which has been called ”the anthem, the emblem” of the Jewish feminist movement and is certainly one of them. It’s included in numerous anthologies, prayerbooks, sisterhood Shabbat services, etc.
Merle’s poem is an example of midrash, a word for the creative interpretation of the Torah – kind of like ancient fan fiction, though some would say it too is part of Torah. The poem addresses the questions of where women were at Sinai, what might they have been doing, who removed them and why and how we reckon with the absence of women’s voices in much of the Jewish textual tradition.
In using the poem with men training to be Shevet leaders we have also discovered that it speaks powerfully to the losses of strict gender roles that impact all of us. Shevet leaders have suggested that the poem for them highlights the importance of breaking the binaries of women getting feelings and men getting facts and figures, or as the poem puts it “consonant, after consonant after consonant.”
To honor Shavuot this year, we invite you to bring Feld’s poem to your Shavuot table. Or even send it as a text to teens in your life and ask them if they have ever read it and what they think of it. It’s a great way to use Shavuot as an opportunity for connecting with your teen through Torah – both the written Torah like the ones in the ark in synagogue and the Oral Torah – which keeps evolving and being added to. The poem expresses the hope, the expectation even, that when we all come together to rejoice in our heritage we can move our tradition forward. May it be so! Chag Sameach!
Please note that one line of the poem contains language which may be offensive to the Deaf and hard of hearing community.
- What do you notice in the poem? What words or images stand out to you?
- Who is the speaker in the poem? How, if at all, do you relate or not relate to their experience?
- What messages do you take away from the poem? What, does the poem have to say about contemporary issues related to feminism or activism or debate about school curriculum?
- How do you understand the last stanza of the poem? What does it mean to “recreate holy time/sparks flying?”
You might share with your participants: For some of you, reading and talking about poetry may come naturally. For others, it might feel unnatural or even unpleasant. I’d like to invite those of you who fall in the second category, to come to this with an open mind, as an opportunity to stretch.