Religious women hindered by matzah ceiling, rabbi says

Anyone familiar with the great Jewish texts knows of the Pirke Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers).

But what about the Pirke Imot — the ethics of the mothers?

That's the big question Tirzah Firestone set out to address in her new book, "The Receiving."

Part history lesson, part philosophical rhapsody, Firestone's book levels a battering ram to the entrenched patriarchy of traditional Judaism. The author will be in the Bay Area next week to promote "The Receiving."

Based in Boulder, Colo., Firestone doesn't come off as the battering ram type. She's the mother of three, a clinical psychotherapist and an ordained rabbi affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement.

She's also a learned kabbalist, having devoted much of her life's intellectual pursuits to the subject of Jewish mysticism.

But when it came to the low profile women have endured throughout Jewish history — particularly regarding spiritual matters — Firestone found herself fired up.

"I began writing the book feeling a good deal of anger," says Firestone. "In other traditions, like Catholicism and Islam, there have been many women who were guiding forces. Where were our women?"

Firestone's search led her to write about seven remarkable women, all spiritual leaders spanning the course of Jewish history, among them Malkah of Belz, Dulcie of Worms, Asnat Barzani and a sage from talmudic times named Beruriah.

"These women were linked by a profound faith in God," she says. "They lived out their spirituality as homemakers, activists and clairvoyants, but none complied with the model that women don't belong in house of study."

Moreover, none of them managed to break the matzah ceiling that traditionally prevented women from full participation in Jewish spiritual life, particularly when it came to the study of Torah/Talmud.

Firestone points out that the women she profiled were as devout as any yeshiva bocher, but were often forced to seek out spirituality in other places.

"In the Middle Ages, women were very superstitious," she notes. "They wore amulets, circled the bed, called on angels to make sure the challah rose right. They were groping for substance they didn't have access to in the beit midrash."

Fortunately, Firestone herself did not face that problem. Growing up in an Orthodox home, she recalls bristling at the limits she felt were placed on the women around her.

"By the '60s and '70s, women did have more opportunities to learn and study in the Orthodox community," she says, "but not to be ordained. My own family doesn't see me as rabbi, but to me it's second nature that women need to be leaders."

Once she reached adulthood, Firestone explored other faiths and disciplines. She became a certified Jungian and developed a thriving private practice.

"Paradoxically, it was through those journeys that I came back and revisited Judaism," she recalls. "I appreciated it anew."

After founding the Jewish Renewal Congregation of Boulder, Firestone wrote a memoir entitled "With Roots In Heaven."

Her new book is more a work of pure scholarship, with extensive footnotes testifying to years of research.

The title "The Receiving" is the direct English translation of the word "Kabbalah."

Firestone found that as she progressed with her writing, her inflamed feminist ire receded as respect for her subjects grew.

"As I continued to write about the lives of these women, I saw they had no time to be angry," she says. "They were too busy studying and teaching. Their good will and industry was contagious."

Firestone's bottom-line message: Judaism has for too long been top heavy with a male-dominated, heaven-gazing spirituality. The flesh-and-blood earthbound spirit of Shechinah (the feminine face of the divine) deserves equal time.

Firestone hopes her message will help restore balance in an unbalanced world.

"People are so anxiety ridden these days. This book advocates carving out an interior place of faith and calm. It's difficult to do but we must keep doing it, and remember that God is right here."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.