Difficulty Revising Historical Attitudes About Gender Equality

By AARON HOWARD | Jewish Herald Voice • Thu, Nov 09, 2017
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“For the observant Jew, the Torah is the eternal word of G-d. If one wishes to build a life based on Torah and Halakha, one can go on two paths. One path is the conviction, in the words of Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Michael Rosenberg that “the eternal word of G-d must speak to our contemporary challenges.” This path embodies the idea that Halakha is ever expanding.


The other path is Halakha as an essentially fixed and closed permanent system. Medieval Jewish commentaries are privileged over the modern. Any ideas and values, tainted by the non-Orthodox or secular world, are rejected. There’s no reason to update Halakha to adjust it to the spirit of the times.

Both approaches might agree change can come about only within well-recognized halakhic mechanisms. That’s where Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg base the discussion in their book, “Gender Equality and Prayer In Jewish Law” (Ktav). Thus, when it comes to an issue, such as equal roles for men and women in Jewish communal prayer services, the question isn’t about inclusion or exclusion, per se, as much as it is to analyze the basic halakhic positions related to gender and prayer. And, “to be able to share a unified halakhic conversation, despite divergent practical conclusions.”

Rabbi Tucker is co-founder of Mechon Hadar, an educational institution in New York that emphasizes intense Torah study and egalitarianism. Rabbi Rosenberg is professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass.

From the outset, the authors announce they have no intention of cherry-picking positions in order to bolster a defense of egalitarianism. They quote Tosefta Eduyot (2:3): “A person should strive for intellectual and religious integrity when studying Halakha, rather than engaging in a haphazard search for opinions – whether lenient or stringent – on which to hang one’s hat.”

The authors are careful to clarify issues they include in the scope of the book: the role of gender in selecting a prayer leader for public prayer and the role of gender in counting a minyan. The authors are careful to elucidate what issues they will exclude, such as the mechitza in a prayer space.

This journalist does not have the required depth of background to knowledgeably comment on each of the sources the authors used.

That said, on the question of whether a woman can serve as a prayer leader, certain traditional lines of thought emerge. The starting point is a baraita (text contemporary with the Mishna) in Tractate Megillah (23A): “All are called to the seven [sections read from the Torah], even a minor, even a woman.” However, the sages say: A woman is not called to the Torah ‘mipnei kevod ha tzibbur’ [because of the honor of the community].

“This is Halakha rooted in social realities and protocols,” write the authors. Commentators like R. Avraham min HaHar invoked the sages when he said, although women and men have an equal obligation in the reading of the Megillah, women should not read because of kevod tzibbur [the honor of the community]. If they did, it might suggest ignorance on the part of the male congregants. Further, R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin wrote in a contemporary opinion, “It is insulting to the community for it to seem as though there are not enough men who know how to read Torah, and that is why they summoned women.”

The authors pose an interesting question: Can a community waive its “honor?” Yes, opined no less an authority than R. Yosef Karo. The Beit Yosef also thought if kevod tzibbur was the sole concern, a community could “forgo its honor” and proceed with an otherwise problematic practice. Following the Beit Yosef’s opinion, a particular community could “waive its honor” in order to allow women to read Torah regularly.

The authors note not all authorities agree with the Beit Yosef. The Bakh (R. Yoel Sirkis), for example, argued kevod tzibbur is not a prerogative that can be waived.

Maybe, that’s not the real issue, assert the authors. In communities where men and women are educated equally in Torah, there’s no dishonor in having women read Torah in the presence of men. The contemporary Israeli commentator R. Daniel Sperber argues the human dignity of women (kevod haberiot) overrides kevod tzibbur, when women are excluded from rituals. And, might excluding women from Torah reading denigrate the status of Torah reading as a serious activity, itself, if women continue to be excluded? The authors admit their own leaning: The exclusion of women from public roles poses a great risk to the ongoing dignity and vitality of Torah in an increasingly egalitarian world.

On the question whether a woman counts in a minyan, it appears the classical commentaries left us no specific rulings. It wasn’t until medieval times when we get rulings that clearly exclude women.

Once again, the authors raise an interesting question: How is it women were excluded from serving in a minyan, yet included in the obligation of martyrdom (a primary issue for Jews in medieval times)?

The authors raise a more pointed question: Although a gendered definition of minyan may have matched the standards for seriousness in the broader society in medieval times, what are the consequences of perpetrating that reality today?

The authors cite the contemporary opinions of R. Yoel Bin-Nun, who argues contemporary women, unlike their medieval ancestors, are maximally obligated in mitzvot no differently than men.

There are political, sociological and other ways to analyze why, in many of the world’s religions, women are excluded from leadership roles and participation in certain rituals. The authors of “Gender Equality And Prayer In Jewish Law” are Torah-driven. Their religious analysis and response to the modern world is totally framed by Halakha. The book is an excellent analysis about how certain halakhic values and conceptions related to gender have been constructed.

Unfortunately, no matter how much Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg play by halakhic rules, much of the Haredi world will not engage them. For example, speaking in Jerusalem in October, Haredi businessman Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz called liberal Orthodoxy “the greatest threat to Klal Yisrael today.” Rechnitz added liberal Orthodoxy is a “new religion,” comprised of “fake Jews.”

How do pronouncements like these, devoid of any tact or understanding, address theological differences at the ethical level? How does this reflect b’tselem Elohim? Where’s the open and loving halakhic conversation? Where’s the basic understanding that the same idea in Halakha might be formulated differently by two scholars?

When it comes to what is real and what it fake, let the reader decide: Is one’s conception of religious truth rigid and exclusive, or is it flexible and open to change?”

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