This past Shabbat, I lectured to a wonderful community of men and women on the West Coast, on the topic of: “Judaism, Making the World More Feminine.” It brought back to mind a discussion that took place a couple years ago, at one evening course that I had been teaching here in Toronto . . .

"Chana, I’ve just started attending your courses, and I’m really enjoying them. You’ve opened my eyes to a new appreciation of Torah. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you, and I see you are a modern and enlightened woman.

Tell me honestly, don’t you ever feel Orthodoxy is unfair in its treatment of women?

"So tell me honestly, don’t you ever feel Orthodoxy is unfair in its treatment of women? Aren’t the rabbis degrading to women? Sure, we go through the ancient sources, but how about nowadays? I mean, why can’t a woman, for example, be called up to read from the Torah?" Vanessa approached me for the first time after one of my Monday-evening classes.

Vanessa is a successful entrepreneur who owns a very large retail company selling computer software products in the Toronto area. She is 52 years old, but with her professional, natural makeup and model’s figure—thanks to her strenuous workouts with her personal trainer during her lunch breaks—easily passes for 15 years her junior. Vanessa has never been married; she travels often, and is a confident and articulate woman.

Recently, Vanessa resolved to delegate more of her company’s responsibilities to enable her to enjoy what life offers. High on her priority list of what somehow got neglected during her career climb is her Jewish education, and, in particular, her Jewish feminine education.

Vanessa’s new resolution and her somewhat lighter work week allowed her to implement two new things in her life.

First, she spoke to the rabbi at her Temple, and together with a group of women, began learning for their bat mitzvah celebration, several months away. Weekly, the women meet and are taught the proper chants for the reading of the Torah.

They will be bat mitzvahed in the presence of many family members and friends and each woman will have the honor of being called up to the Torah to proudly recite the three or four verses from the Torah in the traditional sing-song chant. In addition, each woman was preparing to deliver a five- to 10-minute dvar Torah, or lecture, on a prepared topic in Judaism. Vanessa had been practicing for weeks already and was beginning to explore different avenues for her speech.

Vanessa’s second resolution was to attend a regular Torah class that related to her as a woman. She had checked out the Temple’s adult-education programs, but somehow, nothing grabbed her.

That was when she happened on a small ad in the local Jewish newspaper promoting a series on "Feminine Voices" given by a woman dean and offering a "text-based exploration of the lives of great biblical women." The course promised to deliver a "refreshing and provocative understanding on feminine spirituality," as well as "insights in dealing with the daily challenges facing modern Jewish women." It sounded just like what she was looking for.

Vanessa wasn’t acquainted with the group offering these courses, and though they were somehow connected with Chabad—in her mind, an extremely religious group—she decided nonetheless to invest her time in attending one class, and taking it from there. After the first class, Vanessa was intrigued and found herself coming back for more.

A group of women formed around Vanessa that Monday evening, some curious to understand the issue themselves; others, to hear how I would deal with it.

She enjoyed the hands-on source material, the intellectual presentation and, to her surprise, the other participants. Women who attended were as diverse as they come—in ideology, all the way from the extreme right-wing until the far left. Many shared their opinions, some of which she out-rightly rejected as too narrow-minded and illogical, but she, nevertheless, found the communication and sharing beneficial.

A group of women formed around Vanessa that Monday evening, some curious to understand the issue themselves; others, to hear how I would deal with it. It wasn’t an unusual sight. In this course, no area of Judaism was off-limits, and the non-threatening environment encouraged women to open up and explore the issues.

The hour was already late, and I knew that I didn’t have the time to go through a whole lecture on the different roles and missions of men and women. Nor could I elaborate right now on the mystical composition or the cosmic ramifications of each gender. Throughout the course, these ideas were explored and an appreciation was forming. I always stressed the need to go back to the original sources, to remove our preconceived notions and allow each participant to judge for herself.

But for now, Vanessa was waiting for a quick response.

I began explaining the practical ramifications of a woman being called up before a group of men and how this contradicted the vision of modesty according to Judaism. I told how the laws were made to safeguard a woman’s honor and image, and avoid cheapening or selling her physicality, as is unfortunately so prevalent in society nowadays.

Vanessa understood and partially agreed, but I could see that she wasn’t entirely convinced.

"Vanessa, do you ever light Shabbat candles?" I asked.

"As a little girl, I remember my mother lighting every week. We never kept Shabbat in the traditional way, but every Friday night we ate a family meal together by her shining candles. I have fond memories of those lightings. A moment of peace and serenity."

"Let me ask you a silly question, Vanessa." I ventured. "The Shabbat candles are traditionally lit by the women and girls of the house, unless of course there isn’t one available." The women all nodded as I cited the law. "Have you ever heard of a movement of men vocally insisting on their right to be the ones to light the Shabbat candles instead?"

At the word marketing, Vanessa’s trained entrepreneur ears perked up.

The women smiled. "Of course not. But how does this connect to my question?" Vanessa was beginning to get impatient.

"Just a second, Vanessa. Seriously, think for a moment. Why is it that men are not clamoring for this privilege? You yourself said that it is a beautiful moment, and it is a special mitzvah to usher in the holy day of Shabbat. So why don’t the men argue for this privilege, instead of playing second fiddle to women’s lighting?"

The women’s faces were blank. They didn’t understand where I was heading.

"I’m not sure," Vanessa finally responded.

"Let me tell you of a male that weekly protests this unfair treatment." The women looked curious. "Every Friday, 18 minutes before sunset, I and my three daughters light the Shabbat candles. My youngest, an adorable 3-year-old boy, stands at the sidelines, protesting that he isn’t able to do so—light his own candles, just like his sisters, and is only able to merely 'pretend’ to do so." Vanessa and the others smiled at the image.

"What I am getting at," I continued, "is that perhaps the reason men don’t clamor for this mitzvah—or any of our other special mitzvot, like our special mitzvah of mikva—is because we aren’t marketing ourselves properly."

At the word "marketing," Vanessa’s trained entrepreneur ears perked up. "How so?"

"Well, a 3-year-old, without societal imposed impressions, appreciates the beauty of a woman’s mitzvah. But as we mature, maybe we are buying into society’s unfair expectations that what a man is commanded to do must be important, spiritual and exciting. On the other hand, society screams loudly, what a woman does—hey, that’s just not so important.

"Maybe, what Judaism is saying is, don’t buy into that vision.

"Man and woman are different biologically, psychologically and spiritually. That doesn’t mean one is superior or inferior, but merely that we have different needs and different missions," I continued.

"Maybe it’s time that we remove our biased, adult vision, and we begin to appreciate who and what we are. Let’s teach society, as well, to value a true definition of womanhood, rather than exchanging it for what we are not."

Vanessa looked pensive. "Are you saying that the entire premise of wanting to do a traditionally male mitzvah is buying into society's chauvinistic notion that women’s issues, or in this case, mitzvot, are any lower or worth any less than men’s?"

"I am saying that the purpose of this course is to explore the issues and realize the spiritual importance of each of our mitzvot. We learn from biblical role models, as well, to discover the Torah view on true womanhood. We learn it, understand its value and then we can teach it to the world."

"You mean market it," Vanessa interrupted, "so that perhaps 30-year-olds will also appreciate what your 3-year-old intuitively understood about womanhood and woman’s mitzvot." Vanessa smiled.

"Of course, you can be a partner in this marketing scheme," I smiled, mischievously in return.

"You can be a partner in this marketing scheme," I smiled mischievously.

"How?" Vanessa’s eyes narrowed and her features became serious, as though she was leading a board meeting that very moment. "Do you mean by continuing to learn at this course?"

"Yes, of course, that’s true and part of it. But also by being an active participant—by doing."

We continued speaking a little longer that evening, and slowly, the group began to disperse. I went home very late and exhausted, but knowing, too, that even in Vanessa’s hectic schedule, four days would be enough time for her to buy her own candle to make the world a brighter place on the upcoming Friday night.