Two anecdotes have been on my mind lately, begging to be shared.
Story #1: Before my husband and I had children with their own needs and schedules, we usually went to synagogue together. At one point, we often attended a small synagogue with a rabbi who was from a more “right-wing” religious community than we. I was a little shy initially to tell him that I was teaching Talmud in a local coed yeshiva high school, as women learning Talmud was likely not something he had encountered much or would encourage—but he never gave me grief about it, and I appreciated his continued respect.
Until one week, during the rabbi’s dvar Torah at seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal), he mentioned a particular interpretation of a difficult halachic (legal) issue that I had heard and liked, but which I had never seen in its original source. So I raised my hand and asked for the source. His response, in front of everyone, was, “Oh, it’s on the page in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law]. Your husband can show you.”
Like a knife, those words. Your husband can show you. Cutting me down, in front of all those people. He knew I taught Talmud. Did he think I was so unqualified, so insufficiently educated in halachic literature, that I couldn’t look up a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch myself? To my mind, implying that I couldn’t find the source on my own also implied that my entire life of learning and teaching Torah texts of all kinds was a farce. My studies weren’t real; my value, my life’s passion, wasn’t real. My husband would have to show me.
The husband in question, though even more averse to confrontation than I, took one look at my stricken expression and whispered, like some sort of knight in shining armor off to rescue Jewish feminism in distress, “I’ll handle it.” (I got quite a bit of support from other members of the synagogue who were there, too!) And he did go speak to the rabbi, and reported back that he was sorry for offending me, but really didn’t see what the problem was. “That’s just how we talk in my community.” Just how we talk. I couldn’t get over that. How could he not have realized what he was saying? How could that just be “the way they talk”?
As years passed, I told this story over and over, relishing both the rarity of this sort of experience in my life and the reactions I got from every audience: Everyone was always on my side, horrified at how he had spoken to me.
Fast forward about seven years, to Story #2.
I had transitioned from Orthodox high school to adult education, and while I loved my job and my students, I was perpetually self-conscious about being an Orthodox teacher of Jewish texts in a non-denominational setting. My students came from all walks of Jewish life, and I tried very hard to guide them in their learning without imposing my personal beliefs or even practice—despite the fact that one of my subjects was halacha.
As it happens, I rarely tell anyone what to do when I teach halacha anyway: I love the texts and the analysis, but when someone invariably asks for the practical bottom line, I tend to direct them elsewhere. So at Drisha, like anywhere else, when a student would ask a practical question, I would suggest that they refer the question to their preferred halachic authority.
Except once, I slipped.
Despite my respect for my students and their varied Jewish lives, despite my commitment to sensitivity and care in how I portrayed myself and my subject, I said it. Someone asked a question, and I smiled and said, “Ask your local Orthodox rabbi.”
Was it a big deal, really? I don’t know; I hope not. I caught myself immediately, and apologized, and I hope those who, though not Orthodox, were quite committed to their own streams of halachic practice, knew me well enough not to take it as a dig at their chosen halachic authorities. But I was mortified.
Maybe the connection between these two stories is obvious when I tell them together like this, but my eureka moment didn’t come until several years later. I was telling the “local Orthodox rabbi” story (why is it that humans like to retell their own embarrassing stories?) and heard myself saying, “It’s just how we talk; I’m just used to the phrase!”
And something clicked. I heard, in my words, the voice of that rabbi who didn’t understand why I would take offense at “your husband can show you”—because it was just how he talks, just what they say in his community.
I had to forgive him, after 10 years, because I realized that I was him. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect me. It wasn’t that he didn’t realize, on some level, that I taught Talmud and must also have a grounding in Shulchan Aruch. It was simply that for a woman to do these things was so far outside his frame of reference that he couldn’t possibly be conscious of my reality every second. And I had to be OK with that. How could I ask him to put himself in my world at every moment? To retain consciousness of everything he knew about me, and always be sensitive to all of it, from all directions, when most of his existence was in such a different framework?
The same way that, for someone so used to teaching and learning in Orthodox settings, it could be difficult to hold myself to others’ frame of reference all the time, without falling back to my comfort zone and expressions.
And you know what? I probably slipped other times too, in ways I didn’t even notice. I just hope my students understood, and forgave me, and didn’t take offense.
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, we all become more thoughtful about interpersonal relationships—but rarely, I think, do we really consider deeply how to repair our interactions at a root level. We expect apologies and deeper respect from others, and hopefully offer our own apologies and resolutions to be more sensitive and respectful in our future interactions. But perhaps we should also all take a step back and realize that not everything is an offense in the first place.
Not everything requires an apology. Sometimes we were being respectful and sensitive. Sometimes, two people are just coming from such different places with regard to a particular issue that even the words they use are completely different. What we need to do then is not to apologize for the offense, but to give each other the benefit of the doubt that offense was not intended, and strive to ask the questions and offer the explanations that will help build true understanding of the other.