Many of you know by now that I grew up with just a handful of Jews in a small town - so small that we had to bring our own garbage to the municipal landfill because there was no curbside pickup, that local decisions were made at old-fashioned town meetings, and that our yard was bordered by a dairy farm, a horse pasture, and a still-functioning cemetery that dated to the Revolutionary War. We drove 20 miles back and forth to our Conservative synagogue in Pittsfield, Massachusetts several times a week.
By the time I was aware of Jewish life, our synagogue was already egalitarian. (By the way, the rabbi who had overseen the change to egalitarianism in the mid-1970s was Rabbi Arthur Rulnick, who spent a number of years at Woodbury Jewish Center after leaving Pittsfield.) It was completely normal for me to sit with my family, for my mother to get called to the Torah and be in the regular rotation of gabbaim, for my sister to celebrate her bat mitzvah on Shabbat morning, and so forth.
I had heard that in some communities elsewhere, men and women were separated, but that seemed far away and irrelevant to my Jewish experience. I took egalitarianism for granted; it was an integral feature in the fabric of my Jewish life, and anything otherwise would have seemed alien.
Fast forward to the present. I now live in a largely-Jewish New York suburb with no fewer than 18 synagogues and at least two miqva-ot. Of those 18 synagogues, 14 are not egalitarian. This non-egalitarian reality is far more present today than it was 100 years ago in American Judaism. And that is why we need to be clear as to why we embrace equality in Jewish life.
One of the passages that we read in Parashat Pinehas this morning, the one about the daughters of Zelophehad, has some bearing on the relationship between Jewish law and women. To briefly summarize the story, Zelophehad was a member of the tribe of Menasheh who had five daughters and no sons. Although property is handed down from father to son, according to laws set out elsewhere in the Torah, the daughters of Zelophehad plead with Moses and El’azar, the Kohen Gadol (high priest), to allow them to inherit their fathers’ share in what will become their tribal territory. When consulted by Moses, God favors the daughters, and then a new law is introduced whereby women can also inherit, even before the deceased’s brothers. The story is remarkable for several reasons. One might make the case that it contains the seed of egalitarianism. But we’ll come back to that.
First, a little history and a little halakhah.
According to noted historian Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, mixed-gender seating (that is, men and women seated together) is a distinctly American Jewish development. In the 1860s, while Reform Jews in Germany still sat separately in synagogue, like their Lutheran countrymen did in church, American Jews began to adopt mixed seating after the widespread Christian norm in this country. By the middle of the 20th century, mixed-gender seating was prevalent across all the American movements; even many Modern Orthodox congregations sat together as well. (It was not until the 1980s that the Union of Orthodox Congregations began to pressure their mixed-seating congregations to put up mehitzot, to draw a clear distinction between moderate Orthodox and traditional Conservative congregations.)
The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) addressed the issue in a teshuvah (rabbinic responsum to a question of Jewish law) in 1941, in which they permitted the practice based on the fact that “the prevailing attitude about the place of woman in modern society is making it increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional policy of isolation towards women in the synagogue.” In other words, this committee of traditional rabbis said, times have changed, and so have social norms. The committee permitted individual rabbis to allow mixed-gender seating according to their own judgment, even though it seems that the members of the committee were personally against it.
Although seating women and men separately is a long-standing minhag / custom, it is not halakhah / law, and it is not found stated clearly in rabbinic sources prior to the 13th century CE; even Maimonides, who details synagogue construction in his Mishneh Torah, does not mention the mehitzah (barrier between men and women found in almost all Orthodox synagogues).
In subsequent decades, the Conservative movement gradually pursued an egalitarian agenda. In 1955 they had passed a teshuvah allowing women to take aliyot (be called to the Torah, although presumably few did at the time), and in 1973 they permitted counting women in a minyan. Finally, after several years of heart-wrenching dispute, 1983 brought the well-known Roth teshuvah allowing for the ordination of female rabbis, and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s faculty voted to admit women to the Rabbinical School.
In each case, the teshuvot examined by the Law Committee found a halakhic basis on which to permit the forward movement. For example, the permissibility of women’s aliyot is indicated in the Talmud, even though it states that “we do not do this because of the honor of the congregation.” In a world where women can hold the highest political offices, be CEOs, doctors, lawyers, judges, and so forth, calling a woman to the Torah can only bring honor to a congregation.
However, the issue would never have been addressed had there not been efforts on the part of the women to bring it to the table. In the case of mixed seating, for example, Sarna cites an anecdote of women at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC who boldly started sitting downstairs with their husbands, against synagogue policy.
Now, back to the daughters of Zelophehad, about whom the midrashic collection Sifrei comments (responding to Numbers 27:1 in today’s parashah):
Vatiqravna benot tzelofehad:
The daughters of Zelophehad approached:
Since the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was divided amongst the tribes, but not to the women, they gathered to consult.
They said, “The mercy of God is not like the mercy of flesh and blood [i.e. men]. Men are merciful to men more so than to women, but God is merciful to all, as it is written [here quoting Psalm 145, which we know as Ashrei], “Verahamav al kol ma’asav” (His mercy is extended to all).”
The motivation of Zelophehad’s daughters was to ensure that they were treated properly, that they received that to which they were entitled. And they had to ask for it, to bring their case all the way to the top. Had they not pursued their rights, they would not have received their father’s land.
And their case was a landmark! Immediately after the story, the Torah amends its own law to say that when a man has no sons, his daughters inherit his property.
And this is the way it has always been in Jewish tradition: women who want to participate in Jewish law as men do must pursue it.
Dr. Elisheva Baumgarten, in her visit a few weeks ago for the Lillian Schiowitz Memorial Lecture, presented our congregation with several wonderful lectures about women’s roles throughout Jewish history. If you missed her appearances that weekend, shame on you!
Her best lecture was the one after Shabbat services, when she pointed out that there is evidence that a number of women donned tefillin in the Middle Ages in Europe. Although there is no proof supporting the oft-told legend of Rashi’s daughters’ having done so, nonetheless it was indeed an extant practice, especially in the higher economic strata. Rashi’s grandson and bar plugta, one with whom he often disagreed, Rabbeinu Tam, points out that a woman who puts on tefillin should say the berakhah, just like a man.
As with the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, the women forced the issue by entering an area of law from which they had been excluded. And this is just how egalitarianism unfolded in the Conservative movement.
And, of course, we are still evolving. The need and desire for egalitarianism, especially in this period of rightward movement within Orthodoxy, is still with us. Temple Israel is a haven for equality here in Great Neck, and as such we must continue to revisit and refamiliarize ourselves with the principles that validate the ways in which we express our Judaism. Nothing should be taken for granted.
And that applies to everything that we do here. One message that we learn from today’s parashah is this: we have within our hands the capability to shape our tradition such that it is more meaningful, more powerful, and more helpful to all of us.
In one of the teshuvot from the Law Committee about mixed seating, Rabbi Jacob Agus quoted Ahad Ha-Am:
“Some day perhaps we may feel the need of a new tradition: we may want to understand the natural process of its evolution. We may then have a new Maimonides, who will codify the law from the historical point of view, not on the principles of an artificial logic, but on the basis of the order in which the various laws emerged in the course of an age-long development.”
He is here more or less supporting the Positive Historical School that became the Conservative movement, and then he goes on to criticize secularists, or perhaps even the Reform movement of his day:
“Instead of critics who declare that the Shulhan Arukh [the authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law] is not our Torah, we may have a new type of exegete, whose aim will be to discover the source of its prescriptions in the psychology of our people, and to show why and how they grew out of the peoples’ material conditions and mentality, or were adopted from the outside, under strength of need or favor of circumstances... But, we shall no longer feel compelled to regard all the minutiae of our inherited tradition as laws and precepts binding on us everywhere and for all time.” (Ahad Ha-Am, Essays, East and West Edition, p. 70.)
His point is this: we have an allegiance to our tradition and its laws. But we are also modern people, with the need to reinterpret for our times in a historical, social, and psychological context.
For me, it could not be any other way.
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, July 16, 2011.)