Friday, July 19, 2013

We Were All At Sinai. (Women, Too.) - Va'et-hannan 5773 (Summer Sermon Series #4)

Today’s topic is egalitarianism, the principle that men and women are equal under Jewish law. This is an especially hot item today, given some high-profile recent events in the Jewish world. 

The curious thing is, I thought that the argument over women’s roles in Judaism ended thirty years ago! I grew up in a Conservative congregation that counted women as long as I could remember. My mother served for years as a gabbayit and frequently read Torah. Temple Israel became egalitarian in 1976, when Rabbi Waxman’s wife Ruth was called to the Torah, and chanted the haftarah as well. I never thought that in 2013 we would still be talking about it.

And yet we are, perhaps largely due to the activities of Women of the Wall, the group of women, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist, that meet regularly every Rosh Hodesh for a service at the Kotel, the Western Wall. I mentioned last week that in their first service since the Israeli Supreme Court officially sanctioned their service, including the wearing of tallit and tefillin and praying together out loud, a large group of Haredim (often but inaccurately called “ultra-Orthodox”) attempted to obstruct them by harassing the 350 worshippers and boxing them out of the Kotel plaza by busing in yeshivah girls at 6:30 AM. WoW has kept the issue of egalitarianism at the fore in the wider Jewish community, both in Israel and here.

Judaism’s segregation of women and men into separate and unequal roles is a long-standing tradition, but one that we should work even harder to reverse. After all, we live in a world in which women are a majority of college students. They may not yet earn as well as men, but nobody thinks twice today about female doctors, lawyers, CEOs, or politicians. Why should the situation be any different in the synagogue?  In a world in which women are presidents and prime ministers, how can we countenance denying them equal leadership roles in matters of faith?

And while the majority of our ancient books - the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), rabbinic texts - reflect the position of women in the eras in which these books emerged, we no longer live in those times. Halakhah / Jewish law has changed throughout the ages to reflect new social realities, and it should continue to do so today. There is a rabbinic principle in halakhic analysis called “shinui ha-ittim,” loosely translated as, “times have changed.” Sometimes, we have to account for the fact that the world continues to move forward, and what applied yesterday may not still be valid today. As a people, and indeed as a species, we mature, evolve, we learn; so too do our laws and customs.

So why was it so surprising, for example, when one of the new members of the Israeli Knesset, Dr. Ruth Calderon, a professor of Talmud at Hebrew University, gave a Talmudic lesson to the Knesset at her swearing in? The original Hebrew video of this on YouTube has had over 200,000 views, a very large number for a relatively small Hebrew-speaking population. (Here is a version with English subtitles.) It is a beautiful and heart-warming speech that I urge you to view. 

It is surprising because we are still in a transitional time, a time in which many quarters of the Jewish community still reject full female participation in Jewish life, still do not call their daughters to the Torah in acknowledgment of becoming bat mitzvah, still segregate women on the other side of a mehitzah, which can be as minimal as a curtain and as extensive as a complete wall, and justify all of this with the apologetic statement that “women are on a higher spiritual plane, and therefore do not need the mitzvot to which men are obligated.”

Of course, this has been the custom for hundreds and maybe thousands of years, and I do not wish to cast aspersions on the way that others worship, because then I would be just like the Haredim that are trying to obstruct WoW. However, times have changed. Women and men share much more than they used to, and not just the workplace. Statistics show that among younger couples, men are far more likely today to stay home with the kids while the wife works, and to share in running the affairs of the household. We are living in fundamentally different times. And we here in the Conservative movement more readily acknowledge the changes in gender roles in the wider society, and reflect them in our Jewish practice.

Those that say that we in the Conservative movement have gone off the traditional rails because we have enabled womento participate fully are right only with respect to history. But in terms of halakhah’s response to modernity, they are the ones who are wrong. And we have traditional sources on which to base our elevation of women in Judaism.

As a simple example, there is a clause found multiple times in the Talmud that is relevant here. It goes like this:
שאף הן היו באותו הנס
She’af hen hayu be’oto ha-nes.
Literally, it means “since they (feminine) were part of the same miracle.” It’s used in three places: once in reference to women’s obligation for reading Megillat Esther on Purim (Megillah 4a), once in reference to women’s obligation to light Hanukkah candles (Shabbat 23a), and once referring to women’s obligation to drink four cups of wine at the Pesah seder. This last one is most applicable today, as we read the Ten Commandments. Women must drink the four cups of wine because they were redeemed from Egypt along with the men. Well, the Torah also tells us (Exodus 20:15, e.g.) that kol ha’am, all the people, witnessed the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. The women were there, too, and as much a part of that seminal, covenantal moment as the men.

Many followers of traditional Judaism swear up and down that the only three positive, time-bound mitzvot / commandments to which women are obligated are making hallah, lighting Shabbat candles, and going to the miqveh, and they are exempt from all others. They are wrong. This is a mistaken understanding of rabbinic tradition, and the Talmud mentions many other mitzvot to which women are obligated in addition to the three I have identified above. Here are just a few examples: Berakhot 20a-b and Eruvin 96a suggest that women may put on tefillin; Megillah 23a states that a woman may read Torah before the congregation; Menahot 43a states clearly that women are required to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, etc.

Reading in the larger sense, the fact that women have traditionally been excluded from the performance of many mitzvot is more about sociology than what is found in traditional Jewish sources. The rabbis defined a woman as something less than a man, in the same boat with children and slaves, because that is how women were understood in Israel and Babylonia 1500 years ago, and in so doing they exiled women to the other side of the mehitzah.

The Conservative movement has, since the mid-1980s, encouraged women’s equal participation; we have ordained female rabbis since 1985. The vast majority Conservative synagogues are egalitarian.

Given how times have changed, it is therefore upon us to continue the struggle to bring women to the same status in Jewish life as men, to offer women the same opportunities for participation as men have traditionally been given. How can we do this? By continuing to call our girls to the Torah as benot mitzvah, to teach female members of our community to be shelihot tzibbur, prayer leaders, and Torah readers, to encourage women to take on other mitzvot traditionally thought of as masculine, such as tallit and tefillin, and generally to provide more opportunities for women as well as men to participate fully in Jewish life, on equal terms.

And by the way, it is not only the Conservative movement that acknowledges this. No less an Orthodox authority than Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the pre-eminent halakhic decisor of Orthodoxy, gnashed his teeth and invoked the inflexibility of halakhah in the face of modernity when he conceded in a 1976 teshuvah (rabbinic answer to a halakhic question; Iggerot Moshe OH 4:49) that women may indeed put on a tallit, blow the shofar, and shake the lulav, and recite the appropriate berakhot. Not that many women in Orthodoxy do these things, but in theory, they can under Rabbi Feinstein’s authority. (To be sure, this was not a concession to the Conservative movement. Rabbi Feinstein elsewhere insisted that Conservative synagogues are not synagogues, and that Conservative rabbis are not rabbis.)

This is Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, when we begin the arduous process of healing and rebuilding in the wake of Tish’ah Be’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year and the commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Today we read the first of seven special haftarot that speak of redemption, as we look toward Rosh Hashanah and the holiday cycle of Tishrei. And there was a hint of reconciliation from Orthodoxy this week: the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement this week against the protests that have taken place at the Kotel. While not exactly endorsing Women of the Wall and their struggle, the carefully-worded document includes the following:

Recently we have witnessed a frightening exacerbation of internal discord and an ominous intensification of inflammatory rhetoric. We have heard vile insults, offensive name-calling — including the inciteful invocation of the name 'Amalek' — and vicious personal attacks emanating from all sides on the various troublesome issues that we now confront. We have even witnessed physical violence. Indeed, in recent months we have seen precincts of Jerusalem’s Old City, in the shadow of the destroyed Temple for which we mourn today, become a venue for provocation and insult, rather than a place of unity for the global Jewish community.
We urge all Jews to celebrate the diversity of our community, whatever our ideology or choice of head covering. Each of us — men, women and children — is a cherished member of our people and we must educate all members of our community to honor and respect each other. We pray that all will one day soon glory in the rebuilding of our nation and our Temple.
OK, so it does not exactly say, “let’s build an egalitarian section at the Kotel.” But it is a statement against sin’at hinnam, the causeless hatred for which the Second Temple was laid waste on Ninth of Av in the year 70 CE. And that should be what Shabbat Nahamu is all about. We are all in this together, and we cannot let our internecine theological disagreements drive us apart.

We were all at Sinai. Women and men. So says the Torah. And we are all equally permitted to partake of the full extent of what Jewish life offers. We can live and worship comfortably alongside those who do not accept egalitarianism, but we must continue to stand up for equality in Jewish life. Let us hope that the rest of the Jewish world will soon be willing to daven alongside us as well.

Next week, we’ll talk about Israel.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 20, 2013.)

This is the fourth installment in the seven-part Summer Sermon Series, in which we are discussing the essential Jewish values that we at Temple Israel highlight in our approach to Judaism. This is our vision of Jewish life; the first three installments are:

3. Engaging with Torah

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