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Without Portfolio: An Interview with Ruth Devorah Shatkin
Without Portfolio: An Interview with Ruth Devorah Shatkin

Volume 1 , Issue 4

shatkinphotoRuth Devorah Shatkin, conductor, arranger. singer and teacher has emerged into what some have referred to as a ?rabbi without portfolio? amongst baalot t?shuva, returnees to Judaism, on college campuses throughout the metropolitan area and beyond. In this interview with Jewish Review Editor, Sandy Drob, she speaks of her own awakening of Jewish awareness, the interface between feminism and Orthodoxy and the potential for women as spiritual leaders within the Torah observant community.

Jewish Review: Could you tell me a little bit about your current work in the Jewish community?

Shatkin: I do outreach work for the National Committee For the Furtherance of Jewish Education, and in particular for one of the schools associated with it, Machon Chana. Machon Chana is a baalot t'shuva yeshiva, a yeshiva for women who have come back to Yiddishkeit, to Judaism. During the week I teach, conduct small discussion groups and give private tutorials at local colleges and universities, such as NYU and Columbia. On weekends I go to campuses out of town where, for example, I conduct a Shabbaton and advertise the programs of Machon Chana. One of these is a 'Yeshivacation' where during college vacation we invite women to come and learn with us for about ten days and get a feeling of what a yeshiva is all about. During the summer we have what we call an Ivy League Study Program where students can be immersed in a yeshiva environment for a longer period of time.

Jewish Review: So, your work is with people who have very little Jewish background.

Shatkin: Right. Individuals with little or no background or those who are in the process of coming closer to Yiddishkeit, to Judaism.

Jewish Review: Now you are a baalat t'shuva yourself. Could you tell us a little about what brought you to traditional Judaism?

Shatkin: First, to qualify the word baal or baalat t'shuva. Baal t'shuva literally means a?master of return? and it would be kind of presumptuous to say one mastered returning. I would say that would hope to be always in the process of t'shuva. As a matter of fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe has said baalei t'shuva should become tzaddikim, should become righteous, and tzaddikim should become haalei i'shuva. In other words, there is always room to grow, so you should never feel you're a baal t'shuva and have finished your work. But as to your question of what brought me to Yiddishkeit, I was always interested in Judaism. I come from a traditional Reform or Classical Reform background. My mother was always involved in the temple, always involved in different Jewish activities in the community and nationally. I had a very positive upbringing in terms of Jewish identity. We did some rituals at home, sometimes we had candle lighting and kiddish, maybe not on kosher wine, or maybe lighting after the proper hour, but of course, with good intent. And I was sent to Sunday school, which I always liked. I asked a lot of questions, and many of my questions were not answered. When I got older my questions became deeper. I remember in the 7th or 8th grade asking questions about kashruth and about Shabbat which were never sufficiently answered. In fact, the answer I received was usually a pat response like ?that's archaic? or ?that's irrelevant? or ?that's not really something we do these days.? I wanted to go further and I enrolled in a Conservative Hebrew high school. The other students there were younger than I was because they were coming from a somewhat different background but I don't think that really held me back. I took some Hebrew classes and some philosophy classes and got more involved in Judaism. I started reading more books and I decided that when I graduated from high school I would go to a school where there was a Jewish community and that eventually would become a rabbi or a chazzan, a cantor, because I did have a music background and was always involved in plays and musicals and concerts and choirs.

Jewish Review: Where did you go to school?

Shatkin: I went to the University of Cincinnati which has a very good conservatory and is very close to Hebrew Union College, the school for the Reform rabbinate. I sang in the choir at HUC for about a year and a half, and I frequently used their library and took some courses in Jewish musicology. The Hebrew Union College choir was certainly a fine aesthetic experience for me. My whole family began to see that I was interested in this ?Judaism stuff?, and I think my mother imagined me as ?my daughter the rabbi?.

Jewish Review: Was this a positive thought for her?

Shatkin: A very positive thought because she was actually the first woman president of her temple. She was very supportive of my interests in Judaism. Little did she know I would become frum (observant). At one point, I went to visit my sister who was living in Cleveland and she took me to a Jewish bookstore. The owner suggested I read the Torah Anthology, Me'am Lo'ez.

Jewish Review: Isn't that the 18 volume work translated by Aryeh Kaplan?

Shatkin: Exactly. This will date me because there was only one volume out at that time, on Genesis 1-12. I gulped it up, I read it voraciously. It was something like 400 pages long and it was only on chapters 1-12 of Genesis and I was blown away. I said ?I can't believe Judaism is this deep? and so I said, ?I gotta know more about it?. Back on campus during the spring semester I saw a gentleman with a lending library of Jewish books and there was one book standing up on his table. There were many other books but this one was upright and it caught my attention. I went over to him and saw that it was the very volume of the Torah Anthology which I had just finished reading. The man was quite Jewish looking, he had a beard and was wearing a hat and a dark suit. We ended up sitting and talking for a good hour and a half and I asked him a lot of questions and I actually missed a couple of classes that day. I realized that this was what I had been looking for. He was the first person to give me deep and satisfying answers to my questions. He invited me for Shabbat. Now the Jewish community was a good 20 minute drive from the university and I didn't know anything about an Orthodox Shabbat. Picture my upbringing, usually on Shabbat we made our little kiddush at home and my mother lit her candles and we drove to temple wearing our nicest outfits. After temple there was an Oneg Shabbat and then we would usually go to Howard Johnson's, and sometimes have fried clams and sometimes ice cream and sundaes. That was the Shabbat experience for me. As a child I didn't know what an observant Shabbat was because I had never experienced one. So as a gift I brought them a beautiful decanter of wine ? it wasn't terribly kosher but I didn't know that wine necessarily had to be kosher ? and I dressed up in my nicest pantsuit, I didn't know that there were laws of modesty regarding women's dress. I knocked on the door and a little three year old girl opened it and looked up at me. She saw the face of a woman but one who was wearing pants. She said, ?Are you a girl?? and I said I was, and she said ?why aren't you wearing a dress?? I thought to myself, who the heck needs a dress on campus, you know, I was into jeans, and here I was wearing a pantsuit which to me was all dressed up and I said to her, ?I don't have one,? so she freaked out. She screamed, ?Ima, mommie, this girl doesn't have a dress,? ? she was so sad for me. That was my first close encounter with Orthodox Judaism. And then the mother asked me in and then Igave her the t' refe bottle of wine. I, needless to say, never saw it at the Shabbat table. And then the questions of course came and the answers were certainly more fulfilling than any other answers I had ever heard and just felt comfortable with it.

Jewish Review: You were asking questions about practice?

Shatkin: About practice, about theology, about the soul, about all sorts of things. I don't remember the specific questions. All I remember is that it was a very satisfying experience. It was about nine years ago. That evening they assumed I was going to stay over. I didn't know that you don't drive on Shabbat and the woman started to set me up in a room and I said. ?I'm not staying here? and she said, ?Oh, well we don't travel on Shabbat? and I said, ?I have to sing a solo tomorrow in the Hebrew Union College Choir.? I finally convinced her that next time I came I would certainly stay overnight. After that they invited me very frequently. I went there almost once a week. After a while I wasn't singing so much in the choir. I began to see the choir experience differently. Although it was definitely an aesthetic experience it was not a religious, spiritual experience. I realized that my main interest in becoming a rabbi or a cantor, was to inspire people to worship and to inspire people to further their knowledge about Judaism and I felt that the choir experience was more of a performance. I didn't feel as much of a need to continue in the Hebrew Union College Choir as I did to spend Shabbat in the traditional manner.

Jewish Review: Was there much of a struggle within your mind to decide not to go to Rabbinical School?

Shatkin: Actually there wasn't. As I progressed in my learning about Judaism it just didn't become a question. Although I am definitely a strong personality, an independent person, I wanted to become a rabbi not for feminist reasons, not for being a pulpit personality, but to be a counselor, a teacher, a facilitator in Jewish areas, someone who would hopefully inspire people. Ifeel, I hope, I am able to do that as well as a lay person, and in a certain sense maybe even more so. Sometimes, titles get in the way. If someone is introduced as Rabbi so- and-so, or Dr. so-and-so, it can be intimidating. Sometimes it's nicer to just be a lay person and let them be pleasantly surprised by one's learning and capabilities.

Jewish Review: You also had the ambition or desire to be a chazzan, a cantor?

Shatkin: The main purpose of that was also inspirational. I felt growing up that there were no personalities who inspired me towards Judaism, it all had to come from within. And I felt that after having asked a lot of questions from rabbis and teachers and not getting fulfilling answers, that maybe in my musical abilities and teaching abilities I could inspire people myself. That was the only reason for wanting to become a cantor, not for performance reasons. In fact, in conservatory I wasn't a performance major and never wanted to be one. It would have meant a break with my personality to sing in front of people as an individual. So I didn't feel a struggle not to become a cantor once I found out that observant women do not sing in public in front of men. By this time I believed that the Torah was God's and I decided that if that's the law, I must be able to use my talents in a proper way. Certainly God is not going to give me something He wouldn't want me to use. Now I do sing for women. Several months ago we had a two day concert and 1,200 women and girls attended each night. It was a benefit for the Bait Rivka School, and it raised $20,000. It was very fulfilling aesthetically and emotionally and just knowing we were able to help so many people. So I do concerts like that.

Jewish Review: You performed?

Shatkin: I actually conducted, and arranged the music, but I also sang two solos in the concert. My favorite forum, however is to sit behind my guitar and .farbreng with women and ask questions, sing songs, rather informally.

Jewish Review: So then in your view there is a place for a woman in Orthodox Judaism to be a spiritual leader?

Shatkin: Definitely, definitely! There is no question, and historically there is precedent for this as well, rabbi's wives and other women. If you look in the Bible you find so many examples of spiritual leaders who were women ? for example, Devorah the Prophetess and Judge. Miriam the Prophetess was a great leader and is actually a precedent for singing and dance. There is a passage in the Torah which describes her during the Exodus: after the men sang their song, Miriam led the women in song and dance. The commentaries bring out the beautiful explanation that her song was on an even higher level than the men's song. The fact that she used timbre's and dance meant that the women had an added dimension of joy. The women had a very intense experience of the freedom from Egypt because of great restrictions on childbearing which they suffered there. You might also recall that if it hadn't been for his sister, Miriam, there wouldn't have been a Moses.

Jewish Review: She was involved in watching and saving him.

Shatkin: Actually in his very conception because his parents had separated and Miriam admonished them that their decree was worse than Pharaoh's because while his meant the annihilation of the boys theirs included the girls as well.

Jewish Review: So then there is room for women as leaders. In our time is it only possible for women to lead women or can women be spiritual leaders and have an im?pact on men as well?

Shatkin: I think this all depends on the forum. For example, at the Shabbatonim that I participate in I speak to men as well as women and men will sometimes come up afterwards and say they were inspired by my talk and ask many questions. I'm not shy to speak in front of men but I will not sing in front of men. Whatever is within the framework of Jewish law I will do. There is nothing Ihave ever heard that says I cannot speak in front of men and Ihave seen women do it, especially in Lubavitch. To me if there is a woman better qualified than a man, she should be the educator.

Jewish Review: I want to talk a little about Judaism and feminism. What is your understanding of the motives which the feminists have when they try to create what they call egalitarian roles for men and women?

Shatkin: I think many people view Jewish ritual or Jewish law as ?chauvinistic? because they have experienced inequality in the secular world. Certainly in secular society there has been a diminishment of the importance of women. Women have indeed been second-class, and because we live in the secular world and see it's discrimination, we assume that's the reason why women have particular mitzvot and certain restrictions in Judaism. I think it is because we see the world with secular or non-Jewish eyes. Now I wouldn't call myself a feminist in the sense of the feminism that has been advocated for the last ten or fifteen year. But recently there is a new feminism, one that is certainly very much in tune with Torah.

Jewish Review: A new feminism?

Shatkin: There are a lot of feminists who will now recognize that there is nothing wrong with marriage and having children. The motto of what I call the old feminism was ?we have to fulfill ourselves in our careers and in the outside world, everything else is not important.? The old feminists tried to equate themselves with men: to have the same duties, the same obligations and the same responsibilities. Certainly I agree we deserve the same pay for the same job; if he is better qualified, he deserves the job, but if I am better qualified, I deserve the job. The Torah certainly will agree with that. But the old feminism as I perceive it was really maculinism because it tried only to imitate a man; it didn't make the attempt to enhance what is uniquely a woman's. Now that feminism has come around to a somewhat more traditional attitude towards women, the Torah perspective is in line with much of it.


Jewish Review: So what you are saying is that the role distinctions should not be obliterated between men and women but the roles that women have should be respected and given the same status.

Shatkin: Definitely, and one who is knowledgeable in Torah would say, and not in a patronizing way, that the Torah looks at women in a sense as being higher than men. There are many allusions to this in the Psalms, and other books of the Bible. Perhaps the first is in Genesis where Sara has to banish Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham asks God whether her decision is an appropriate one. God tells him ?sh'ma b' kola,? ?listen to her voice,? Rashi and the other commentators state that the voice of prophecy in Sara was greater than that of Abraham. And remember that Sara is the archetypical Jewish woman. And it says later on in the Talmud, Bine Y?teira Nithra B?isha that there is an additional level of understanding that is endowed to a woman. Now I do not mean to belittle men, certainly there are aspects of men that are superior to those of women. What we have to realize is that God made man and woman as complimentary, as supplementing each other, and not to feel that he has what we should want and what we have he should want. We have to co-exist and compliment each other.

Jewish Review: You have been speaking about Biblical personalities. One of the feminist critiques of Judaism is the view that during the Biblical period there was much greater respect for women than in Talmudic times, and they argue that during the Talmudic period many attitudes about women that were prevalent in Greece and later in Rome were absorbed into Rabbinic Judaism. These were originally alien to Judaism but eventuated in the attitude which led to the prayer thank God l am not a woman and the attitude that women shouldn't learn, that they aren't intelligent, etc.

Shatkin: That's interesting. I never heard that particular argument. First of all, God tells us in the Torah that we are a holy nation and holy has a connotation of separateness. If there are spiritual or character traits that are not positive, then it is forbidden that they seep into Jewish culture, especially if it is something that is idolatrous. So any negative outside forces are certainly not permitted. Jewish law is such as to prevent them from seeping in. I think the argument you speak of rests on a misinterpretation, a lack of understanding of the deeper meaning of statements either in the prayerbook or the Gemarrah. By the way, we seem to focus only on those quotes which are seemingly disparaging about women. We don't look to find that there are many that speak disparagingly about men as well. Let's examine one which you spoke of the morning blessing which says ?Blessed ... who has not made me a woman?, which seems to be very negative, especially if you take it out of its context. If you look before it there are two other blessings, the one directly above it, ?Who has not made me a slave? and the one before that ?Who has not made me a gentile?. These blessings indicate how many commandments a person is obligated in, in ascending order. For instance, a non-Jew has the seven Noahide Laws, so thank you God for not having made me a gentile because I have more ways of connecting with you. The word ?mitzvah? is related to the word ?tzavsa?, which means connection. A man is thanking God that he is not only connecting in these seven ways. Then a slave or a servant has additional mitzvot even if he is a non-Jew living with a Jewish family. And a woman is obligated by all of the negative commands and by all of the positive commands that are not ?time-bound?, so she has even more ways of connecting. Now technically a man has the most mitzvot, the most connections. And you could say if we as women don't have these connections this makes us inferior or diminishes our role. However, we learn from our tradition that a woman's nature is such that she automatically has these connections to God without having to be asked to do additional external things such as wearing the tzitzit and t'fillin. We learn that the mitzvah of tzitzit, for example, derives from the Torah's command ?and you will see them and remember my commandments and you will do them?, the third paragraph of the Sh'ma. There are many commentaries which point out that a woman simply does not need to see tzitzit to be reminded of Hashem, she does not need the external reminders as a man might. In the different natures of a man and a woman, maybe there is a level in which a woman is more sensitive than that of a man. Again going back to time-bound commandments which women are exempt from, a woman has a time-clock built within her. If she is a healthy person she has a monthly reminder that she is not in control of her body, so innately even the least sensitive woman knows that something is going on within her that is derived from a force beyond her ... and that in a sense sanctifies time within a woman. A man does not have this biological clock, and needs the time-bound mitzvot to achieve what a woman achieves naturally. Ishould point out, however, that there are really only a few mitzvot that women are not obligated in. Many of the so-called time-bound mitzvot women have taken upon themselves throughout history, such as listening to Megillat Esther on Purim, hearing the blowing of the shofar, etc.

Jewish Review: So you're saying that it is really only from the man's limited perspective that he is thankful for not being a woman?

Shatkin: Now, I don't know what kind of kavannah (intention) the man has when he makes this b'racha. If he thinks ?I'm better than a woman? when he recites it then his kavannah is wrong and its arrogant, but we all have our faults and arrogance can be one of them. I think that its important to be aware of the fact that men and women are simply different. On the most obvious level they are different physically. Now, according to the Kabbalah, everything in the physical world is a mirror of something in the spiritual realm, so if our physical bodies are different we are different spiritually as well. There is a tradition that originally man and woman were created as one being, like a hermaphrodite. and only later separated by God, and there is a statement, I believe it is in the Gemarrah, to the effect that this is a good thing because men and women are so different that if they weren't originally one they would never be able to come together.

Jewish Review: I want to ask you about teaching women Talmud in the context of Orthodox Judaism. Is there a place for a woman who has such an interest?

Shatkin: There is certainly a place for women to study Torah in general. The Torah is God's gift to the ?House of Jacob and the children of Israel?. The commentators say that the ?House of Jacob? refers to the women and the ?Children of Israel? refers to the men and the Torah was actually spoken to the women first. Women, therefore, have as much obligation to learn Torah as men do, if not more since they are the ones who raise and educate children, and here I am speaking about raising them both after birth and while they are in the womb. Jewish mysticism actually teaches that a woman can influence her children by the way she acts during pregnancy and even before conception, if you stop to think about it ?conception? is even a beautiful word in English, it is a word which has spiritual as well as physical connotations. We see precedent for the mystical view I'm speaking of in the Torah itself where we find that Rebecca was pregnant with the twins Jacob and Esau. There is a Midrash which tells us that every time she went near a place of idol worship Esau would kick whereas every time she would go near a place of Torah study Jacob would kick. So we see that there are many reasons, some not altogether obvious, why women should study Torah. We should certainly know more Torah than we need to know merely for proper observance, but even this is a great deal of Torah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that it should only be that men would truly know as much as women have to know. As a matter of fact our own school, Machon Chana, was founded by a woman Sara Labkowsky. So if you want to talk feminism, here is a woman who at the young age of 22 created a school which has reached out and taught Torah to literally thousands of young women. She once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe about the school and his response was that the education of women was, at least as important as that of men.

Jewish Review: But aren't the women discouraged from pursuing certain subjects such as Talmud?

Shatkin: I don'tthink I've ever seen a woman discouraged from any particular subject, but I think it is fair to say that less emphasis would be placed on Talmud. Certainly halakha (Jewish law) is emphasized. Chasiduth, philosophy, Bible, the prophets, Jewish history are all encouraged because they are all necessary for leading a full Jewish life. Now I have studied Gemarrah (Talmud) and no one ever discouraged me from doing so, and when I was in S'fad in Israel I studied Mishnah in Yeshiva Machon Alta with an excellent teacher who had no qualms about teaching women Talmud. Interestingly, though the class in Mishnah was not nearly so well attended as the other classes which were offered, a choice which the women made for themselves. I can say from my own personal experience that I have a greater joy in studying the more mystical aspects of Torah or Chasiduth than I do in learning Mishnah or Talmud. Now we don't study Torah just for the joy we get from studying it, but there may be different predispositions on the part of men and women just as there are generally different verbal and math aptitudes between the sexes. We find lesser interest amongst women in Gemarrah at our summer program. Now this is not to say that there aren't women who are very interested and capable in Talmud and they should be and are encouraged to pursue such study.

Jewish Review: Is there an Orthodox Jewish feminism, perhaps because some people within the Jewish world have absorbed some sexist attitudes?

Shatkin: Well there are many people who are Torah observant who are in sympathy with feminist ideas. Some who believe they are Torah observant have clamored for change, for women to be obligated in many of the mitzvot that are generally reserved for men. The question I ask of these women is this: are they fully observant of kashruth, of Shabbat and. if they are married, the laws of Family Purity? Now if they have indeed reached the pinnacle of observance of these mitzvot I would say go ahead. gezunter heit, take on more mitzvot. There is historical precedent for this. We know, for example, that Rashi's daughters put on t'fillin. Now certain feminists would infer from this that women are allowed to put on t'fillin. But what we must remember is that these women were Rashi's daughters. They were raised in a pure Torah environment and they were obviously keeping all the mitzvot they were obligated in. Now I would say that for a fully observant woman who feels the feminist need to take on the commandments that men are obligated in that they should go ahead. I have never heard anyone say that if you?re a tzodeket (a righteous woman) that you should not even became more of one.

Jewish Review: Many feminists object to the laws of Family Purity on the grounds that women are thought of as being unclean as a result of menstruation and therefore must immerse in the mikvah.

Shatkin: This also is the result of a misunderstanding. Not only am I not insulted by the mikvah but I feel that it can bring much beauty to married life. Feminist women sometimes clamor that women are deprived of spirituality because they are not part of a minyan. However, if these women knew the intent and spiritual depth of what immersion in a mikvah meant they would be unable to speak. Ritual immersion is a very private, inward spiritual experience. This is in contrast to the synagogue which is very public and external. Now the Torah unabashedly states that a man is more outward, more public while a woman by nature is very private. The public nature of man is such that he needs the outward mitzvot of tzitzit and t'fillin. These are external reminders. Now a woman is more inward. In The Psalms we read ?Kol K'vuda bat Melech P'nima,? ?theglory of the king's daughter is on the inside, within.? Now I would ask those who object to mikvah to truly open themselves to this mitzvah and learn about it thoroughly from a rabbi or a woman who is knowledgeable in the laws of Family Purity.

Jewish Review: It's often said that the mikvah sanctifies the very creative role which is unique to women and which makes them closer to God.

Shatkin: Exactly. One other thing is that a woman has to be spotless before she enters the mikvah, so its wrong to think that the institution of mikvah was devised by male chauvinist men to make women clean. The water is to sanctify, not to cleanse, and the woman is spotless when she enters to assure that nothing will interpose between her and the sanctifying waters, even to such an extent that if there is a bit of adhesive from a BandAid, it must be cleared off.

Jewish Review: Are there many women like yourself in the Orthodox community or are you in some ways unique?

Shatkin: I would say that we are all unique in some ways. But there are a lot of very talented and interesting young women: dancers, doctors, nurses, lawyers who are contributing their talents to Judaism.

Jewish Review: But is there room for other women, who like yourself, want to be a leader, a teacher of Torah, a ?rabbi without portfolio??

Shatkin: Yes definitely. There are a lot of very interesting women in Orthodoxy today. We're very lucky because of the great growth in the baal t'shuvah movement. In the Gemarrah we learn that there is a great advantage to the haul t'shuvah and it even goes so far as to state that the place where a baal t'shuvah stands even the greatest of tzaddikim cannot stand. The Rebbe always emphasizes the great need to bring the background, talents and interests of the baal t'shuvah into the service of Judaism.

Jewish Review: Perhaps as women are afforded more opportunities in the secular world, those who become baa1at t'shuvah may bring to their Orthodox experience more than they would have 50 or 100 years ago.

Shatkin: Absolutely, there's no question that that's true. Each generation brings with it different needs and different talents. Now we hope that this generation is the generation in which the Mashiach will come, and if this is, God willing, the case, then perhaps all of this flurry of activity and energy on the part of both men and women is a sign that the messianic era is close at hand. A woman coming into Torah Judaism does not have to go back 100 years. After all, it is divine providence that she is living in this generation and has these talents and aspirations which should not be discarded but which can and must be brought into her Jewish life.

Jewish Review: Let meask you a question that is relevant to many of our readers. How did your parents react to your decision to become a Torah observant Jew?

Shatkin: I am extremely fortunate that I come from a very wonderful, loving family. If anything this has definitely enhanced my relationship with my parents. At first they thought I was crazy, that my Judaism was just a shtick. But they soon realized that this was me and that I am able to bring my college education with me into my Jewish work. Now as a Torah observant Jew I have become even more close to my parents. This has resulted from the Jewish values which I've become connected with. My parents are proud, they see what I am doing, that it is good for me and good for people around me. They see that I am a vibrant member of a community and not just people's stereotype of a chasidic person chuckling in a corner with a book. Now at first my Judaism was foreign to them but now they see what it means to me and they give me support and 1 have a loving communicative relationship with them. The mitzvah Kibud Av v'Em ?Honor thy father and mother? is a command from God and this applies all the more to the parents of the baa1ei t'shuvah.



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