Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday 14 November 2012

When Only The Mechitzah Is Left

One way to effect change in a system that doesn't want or need to be changed is to assert that there is a problem and that a solution to it is urgently needed.  State this often enough and it seems to take on some fact-based existence.
Such is the case when it comes to women's "rights" within Torah Judaism.  The system, such that it is, openly recognizes a lack of equality between men and women and always has.  Inequality does not denote a superiority/inferiority relationship within Judaism but it does seem to within secular liberalism.  For those Orthodox Jews who are enamoured by secular ethics and wish to practice a Judaism that is both traditional but also in consonance with the latest faddish beliefs in the West there is therefore a problem when it comes to how women are treated within Orthodoxy.
The latest missive in this ongoing attempt to create a tempest where there is not even a teapot comes from Rabbi Zev Farber.  The essay starts off in predictable fashion:
In the average Orthodox synagogue, there is not one thing that women do which is part of synagogue performance. Their presence is not felt and their voices are not heard. The paradigm for women’s ritual participation in the Modern Orthodox world must change.
See?  There's a problem and it needs a solution.
Now, when it comes to Conservatism and Reform I can appreciate such a statement.  The very vast majority of those two groups have no religion outside of their temples.  When one removes Shabbos, kashrus, taharas misphachah and in-depth learning from one's life there is aught left except for public worship.  If a Reform or Conservative synagogue insist on being non-egalitarian then it is quite clear that they are excluding women from pretty much all of what they define as Jewish practice.  For them it makes sense to be egalitarian.
But within Orthodoxy?  Let us remember the proper role of the shul in our lives.  It's a place to pray.  Stop,  End paragraph.  Finito.  It is not the centre of our social lives.  It is not the centre of our practice.  Both of those centres are found within the Jewish home which is where Torah lives are most fully lived.  Do women participate in shuli rituals?  Well no, they don't because al pi halacha they have no obligations there.  They do not have to show up for minyan and they don't have to hear krias haTorah (most of the time).  Judaism recognizes that there are some public rituals we perform but these are incumbent on men only.  By starting his essay with a demand to change the paradigm for women's ritual participation, Rabbi Farber seems to be stating his position in a very Reformative fashion: the shul is the centre of our lives.  The home does not seem to matter to him.
Then there is the obvious question to the last statement in the paragraph: Why?  Why must it change?  Why must we look at the secular world and say "Well, they're egalitarian so we need to be to!"?  Since when has that ever been the impetus for a change in our moral and ritual values?
He then goes on to raise another non-issue:
Why is it that the synagogue automatically assumes that the baseline should be no participation and that women need to put themselves out there, at a real risk of humiliation and disappointment, before even the smallest action will be taken on her/their behalf?

This one is easy to answer, as I already noted above.  The synagogue automatically assumes non-participation because it functions al pi halacha, not al pi feminist egalitarianism.  By ignoring this point and presenting the current situation as one of inertia or baseless tradition, Rabbi Farber almost dishonestly presents his point in order to better make it.  In fact, Rabbi Farber's next point is not that he is ignoring halacha but rather, that he finds some parts of it irrelevant.
I would argue that the reason the impetus for change has fallen so squarely on the shoulders of women stems from the fact that we are still living under an antiquated and obsolete paradigm. Although there are a number of Talmudic pericopae (sugyot) that discuss technical questions surrounding differences between men’s and women’s obligations in prayer and related halakhot, this does not really explain the stark difference between the place of men and women in the synagogue. The larger issue, I believe, is sociological in nature.

This is so completely wrong I don't know where to begin.  Is Rabbi Farber not aware of the large corpus of halacha that has developed since the closing of the Talmud that deals with these issues?  Is he not aware of the vast investigations by the poskim over the centuriese into the various roles of men and women in public worship?  Ultimately, Rabbi Farber shows his hand.  It isn't Torah values that guide his traditionalism but modern feminist values.
The sociological realities nowadays are entirely different.
Yes, a society in which women are treated as objects useful only for sex and having babies.  A society in which the killing of unborn babies is treated as a "right" and men and women procreate without creating a stable family unit within which to raise the children.  A society that is debating whether or not mind-altering drugs should be legal because apparently reality is too boring for too many people.  It is those socialogical realities that guide Rabbi Farber's moral compass, not halacha.
To break out of this vicious cycle, we need to shift the paradigm 180 degrees. Instead of saying that since women have never historically participated in public ritual, so each shul and each rabbi will—upon request—think about creative ways to allow women to participate ritually in things that are permitted, we should be saying that all Jews, men and women, can do or participate in any meaningful ritual unless it is clear that halakha expressly forbids this. How to define what halakha forbids will be a question every shul and rabbi will need to answer, but the inertia factor and the women-don’t-do-these-kinds-of-things factor will have to be taken off the table.

A vicious cycle?  Yes, following the tradition and the halacha as developed by our poskim is just that, a vicious cycle because it offends secular sensibilities, just like telling young women to pay for their own birth control if they're going to work for a Catholic institution does.  The difference between secularism and Judaism is one of rights vs responsibilities.  Rabbi Farber is very concerned about the rights of women but when it comes to responsibilities he's somewhat more silent.
Women do not want to read from the Torah because men do; women and men both want to be called to the Torah because participating in the reading of the Torah is considered an honor (kavod) due to the great respect all Jews have for the Torah and the Torah scroll.
Sorry but this is not something I'm buying.  I recall years ago the Conservative synagogue in my hometown held a rancorous vote on whether or not to go egalitarian.  After the feminists carried the vote many of them were asked what days they'd be coming out for the early morning davening.  They all snorted and said that they had no interest in actually coming out to daven, they just wanted to know that they had the same rights as the men in case they did decide to come out.  Feminism was initially about equality and dignity for women, true, but the movement long ago morphed into a philosophy based on socialist bovine feces and endless jealousy of imagined "male privilege". 
It is totally unfair to create a society in which access to the Torah is considered the greatest honor, bar women from it, and then turn around and ask what their problem is.

Myself, I live in a society where access to the Torah is through learning and daily practice.  It is no further away than the nearest sefer.  The greatest honour is raising a Jewish family faithful to the teachings of that Torah.  Should I not be suspicious when someone says that they will only feel a connection to their culture if if is altered to meet their personal specification? 
Ultimately, Rabbi Farber's essay reads like something someone from the JTS or HUC could have written after a visit to an Orthodox shul and an exposure to authentic Orthodox tradition.  The "Judaism" he is looking for is more consonant with the UTJ than it is with Orthodoxy.  Perhaps he should stop trying to straddle the fence and, having admitted his preferences, join the group that meets his secular aspirations instead of continuing to pretend that he is contributing to genuine Orthodoxy.


Anonymous said...

I suppose it's flattering that many un-Orthodox people think of themselves, and want to be thought of, as Orthodox. After all, the term itself was coined as a form of criticism! Having one's cake and eating it, too, has somehow become a social ideal.

AztecQueen2000 said...

The problem is when the mechitza leaves shul.
I live in Boro Park. A bus runs between two Orthodox neighborhoods. In that bus, it is a policy that women sit in the back. Unless there is a sefer Torah on the bus and a minyan, this is inexcusable.
In front of some shuls, women cross the street when men are coming out so as not to mingle with them. I didn't know that was forbidden.

Mike S. said...

I think you underestimate the extent to which agitation for change in the synagogue is driven by the routine lack of respect shown to women in other areas of communal life. Like the Rav hamachshir of a mikveh who not only tolerates the shomeret humiliating the women in various ways, but won't even speak directly with a woman about the situation. Or rabbis who complain to women that their dress is inappropriate because "it turns me on." Or the "parallel" father/son and mother/daughter learning sessions where the former is text study and the latter arts and crafts.

Atheodox Jew said...

Garnel, I have a number of comments on your comments, which if you don't mind I'd like to make the subject of a post on my blog.

I imagine you wouldn't object, but I think it's always sporting to introduce oneself first. Even in our anonymity, we're people after all, not just opinions!

Best, AJ

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Mike S: I think all the examples you've brought are deplorable and should not be tolerated. However I also think giving women aliyos through a creative ignoring of halacha won't solve that problem. The solution to idiot men is to rectify their behaviour.

Atheodox, thank you for the heads up. I'll be sure to check out your post.

Mr. Cohen said...

My New Hashkafah of Shidduchim :-)

My new hashkafah of shidduchim is thanking and praising HASHEM always :-)

Even when my dating experiences are far from pleasant, I realize that HASHEM is guiding my life with His infinite wisdom and abundant love, and exact precision that only He is capable of :-)

HASHEM always knows what is truly good for me, even when I do not :-)

Often what I need most is atonement and humility, so G_d gives me those precious things through unpleasant dating experiences :-)

I now realize that I must always thank HASHEM for ALL of my dating experiences, because even the worst dates are for my eternal benefit, because they provide me with precious atonement and humility :-)

Tractate Avot teaches that the reward for a good deed is proportionate to its difficulty; by giving me difficult dating experiences, HASHEM is providing me with greater reward for Olam HaBa, in addition to precious atonement and humility :-)

G_d loves me even more than I love myself, and He would never give me an unpleasant dating experience unless it was for my eternal benefit in both Olam HaZeh and Olam HaBa :-)


Thank you for all my dating experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant or mediocre :-)
You are always guiding me with endless wisdom and love; You always help me and give me everything I need :-)

I regret all the times I complained;
instead of complaining, I should have been busy thanking You.

Mike S. said...

Logically, you are right; one thing has nothing to do with the other. But emotionally, when one is repeatedly on the wrong end of such behavior, it is natural to push back at male dominance in general. Also, when rabbis are either disrespectful to women or tolerate such disrespect from their communities it diminishes their credibility in teaching halacha regarding different roles in public prayer.

Atheodox Jew said...

Hi - Well, it took longer than I expected (that's life for ya), but here's my response to your post.


Atheodox Jew said...


Just in case you missed it, I posted in response to your critique.

Regards, AJ