An Open Letter to My Daughters

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>Dear Sara and Ruthie,


I know you're both very busy, so you may have missed two stories in the news over the summer. Maybe you would have overlooked them anyway. I know; religion isn't your thing. But I really need you to pay attention this time.

The Catholic Church put the ordination of women as priests in the same category of offense as pedophilia -- and in the process sounded a lot like one of the foremost authorities on Jewish law, who had recently said something equally nasty about ordaining women rabbis. For this eminent scholar, it fell into a legal category so terrible that a person should choose death rather than perform the act. I must admit, I usually ignore these diatribes. After performing some 200 weddings, 400 bar and bat mitzvahs, and too many funerals, it's never occurred to me that I have been committing a grave sin. If I have learned anything in the last three decades, it is not to get derailed by those who try to delegitimize me.

But I feel a sense of dread that we might be leaving you a world that is still not safe for women or men, a world where important and powerful people can take away your choices with the stroke of a pen. And you might not even know what had hit you.

Don't roll your eyes at me. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this has nothing to do with you. You're not Catholic and you're not Orthodox. You're liberal Jews, the children of liberal rabbis, raised by feminist parents to believe in a level field for everyone who works hard, lives with integrity and plays (mostly) by the rules. Well, I feel somewhat chagrined to be changing the playbook on you this late in your youngish lives, but you are going to have to get out your marching boots, roll up your sleeves, and get to work because the right of all people, especially women, to follow their God-given passions and gifts is simply not secure. Perhaps it never will be. You have to start paying attention. You have to start galvanizing your friends. You have to start supporting candidates who will fight for your rights and make sure they are in positions of power. It's not that I'm giving up, but it's your turn now.

I know you think your world looks fine, and in many important ways it is. Everywhere you go, you see women and men working side by side. Your colleges and graduate schools were filled with men and women in equal numbers. So are your workplaces. Truth to tell, there are more women than men in some of your work places. Yes, there has been the occasional difficult moment of harassment or of uncertainty; was he promoted because he is a man? Is he making more money because of his gender? But mostly, you shrug it off and work harder. And I have applauded those impulses and delighted watching both of you seize the opportunity to do what you love without letting anything--or anyone--stop you. I am hugely proud of both of you.

I do worry, however, that you've had it too easy and that privately you laugh a little at my feminism, that is, when you are not rejecting it out of hand. Do you think it is just one more thing from the '60s, like bell bottoms and tie-dye shirts? Perhaps you see it less as shallow than irrelevant, maybe even a little embarrassing. You believe you can have it all--the femininity and the power--without having to give up anything or do very much to get there. You are strong without having to build muscle, which is, after all, not very attractive. Maybe you think I built the muscle for you. Maybe I thought so too.

It doesn't matter that you don't want to be priests or rabbis. There are young women who do because they love their God and their communities and they want to serve both and believe me--you don't want to live in a world where they can't. You want--you need to live in a world where all people can follow their dreams and make choices about their work and where no one regards those choices as abhorrent. I worry that when you read statements like those of these religious leaders, you dismiss them out of hand as the ravings of fringe fanatics. I assure you they are not. The men who issued these statements about women clergy are not the Taliban. They don't live in Afghanistan; they live in places like Rome and Riverdale. They are mainstream religious leaders. They are telling you that women clergy are dangerous, so dangerous that those who would ordain them cannot be tolerated. Their language is violent.

They will not disappear. They will pursue their efforts to shape the world in a way that prevents women from having female role models in powerful, leadership positions. And while I believe that their words distort the very essence of what it means to be religious and are the definition of everything unholy, I am not at all comforted by the certainty of my belief. I need you girls to get angry on your own behalf and behalf of everyone everywhere whose future is at risk. You ignore these religious leaders at your peril.

I have noticed that, while you don't embrace everything about my generation, you do like a lot of my music. Perhaps this song from the "movement" will come in handy now (and, by the way, I'm happy to pay for the boots):

Freedom doesn't come like a bird on a wing. Doesn't come down like the summer rain. Freedom, freedom is a hard-won thing. You have to work for it ,fight for it, day and night for it, and every generation's gotta do it again. Pass it on to your children, mother. Pass it on to your children, brother. You have to work for it, fight for it, day and night for it, and every generation's gotta do it again.

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Rabbi Joy Levitt is the executive director of The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

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