Somewhere along the line, after you have begun to return b’teshuva, people begin to teach you things. They murmur aloud the blessing over a new fruit or the Mediterranean Sea, word by word, so that you can hear. They tell you sweet stories that their fathers told them after kriyat shema, that sank into their memories back when they were drifting off to sleep. They hold your hands as you shake the lulav back and forth. They quote psukim fast and translate them slow, so that you will understand them.
And they teach you other things, too: things you must know in order to belong. You learn, for example, that money comes to those who deserve it, that activists are lazy and entitled, that people who do not fit should peer inside and fix themselves. You learn that feminism corrupted women and destroyed traditional morality; you learn that you are physical by nature, intuitive by nature, that the world of the intellect is not meant for you. You learn it all in softer words, of course, because you are just beginning to return b’teshuva and cruelty would scare you away.
You are struck by the beauty of it all: this simple life, overabundant in song and food and love. Layered in texts, founded on divine word. Full of the laughing children and the lush trees you never saw when you were young. Your cup runneth over. You learn to pray in earnest. You try on head coverings and laugh with pride. You drink it in like water.
Most of all, you love to learn. More than in prayer, more than at the Shabbat table – no matter how white and pressed the tablecloth – it is here, in the questions and conversations that ripple like sunlight through the beit midrash, that you feel the presence of God. You feel as though your mind, so long squandered on lower things, has been invited to join a rich and sacred dance. You know that you will have to leave after a year, after two. You do not want to leave. You are busy being part of the conversation, learning holy languages and feeling their lushness on your tongue.
Yet you will have to leave. Leaving is what women do: not just women who return b’teshuva, but all women, creatures who are physical and intuitive and good at taking care of other people’s needs and good at bearing a heavy burden. You will not sit and learn through shiur hey, vav, zayin. You will get married and have children and get a job that you hope does not make you want to die. You are exempt from learning so that you can breastfeed. You are exempt from prayer so that you can change diapers. Your kindness is more important than your learning.
Maybe after a while, after you have worked and cooked and cleaned and tried to be good, you wonder what exactly they taught you along with Torah – and why you listened. You wonder: if learning is our sacred act as Jews, why do we all leave after a year or two of midrasha, why do we all feel as though we know nothing?
You start to get angry. And through all the remarks they taught you at the Shabbat table, your old self that held up picket signs in front of the White House begins to surface. You begin once again to see the armchair communist, naïve and furious, dressed in rags and political philosophy, that you thought you left behind when you first lit Shabbat candles. This time she has a sign in only one arm. In the other she is holding a Chumash, brandished like a weapon.
What would happen, she asks you, if you were to stay in midrasha? No one in the family would work. There would be no school administrator, no trained accountant to support the household. You and your husband would learn all the time and live on pennies. You would no longer banter about grades or professional achievements with your guests. Your whole bourgeois society, your whole religious Zionist sector, would collapse. You would have to make do on a wing and a prayer. Your world would change.
Good, she says. They have built this edifice on the backs of women. They have given sacred trappings to a cult of wealth. This is not a world of Torah. Better it should fall apart.
You do not want to agree with her. But you have returned b’teshuva, and you are the kind of person who is forever trying to do what is good in God’s eyes. You did not learn the passage that commanded you to be a political conservative, nor to be generous and ignorant. You learned the passage that commanded you to love Hashem and follow in the ways of His Torah. You read the cautions against false idols. You know that you must choose life, that you may live, you and your seed.
That night, you sit until midnight and learn Gemara alone. It is not shiur zayin – but it is a beginning.