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Orthodox women could enjoy greater equality if rabbis were ready to pursue it

A new book takes a fresh look at rabbinic sources on women's prayer

    Megillah reading for Purim at the Women’s Tefillah in Ahuza, Haifa earlier this year (Facebook)
    Megillah reading for Purim at the Women’s Tefillah in Ahuza, Haifa earlier this year (Facebook)

    The expressions “gender equality” and “Jewish law” rarely appear in the same sentence and many would expect a book on the subject to be a short one. Gender equality is the language of today’s equal rights movement, while Jewish law contains features that are conspicuously unequal: a woman’s testimony is invalid in a Jewish court and she is categorised with slaves and children for many halachic purposes.

    But the true picture is more complex. The equal rights movement is rooted, via Jefferson, Paine and Milton, in biblical and rabbinic thinking. And the rabbis, in a famous midrash, envision the first human as an androgynous, bi-gendered being, a physical embodiment of the gender-equal words, “When God created mankind, male and female He created them”. 

    Some might find this bi-gendered fantasy startling in rabbinic literature, but rabbinic writing is distinguished by the multiplicity and diversity of its thinking; it contains many voices that today would be considered “feminist” or “inclusive”.

    Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Rabbi Michael Rosenberg, ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel but currently working in the United States, have drawn on some of these voices to examine the question of whether the halachic tradition contains sufficient flexibility to establish a gender-equal synagogue.

    Their book, Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law, is not a feminist manifesto, but, rather, a source-guide, translating and presenting the rabbinic texts so that they can speak for themselves. It shows that the tradition already contains significant elements of gender equality which lie unrecognised and carry potential for change that might surprise many readers of the JC.

    For example, the authors show that the core of synagogue life — the obligation to recite the Amidah twice or three times daily — was originally constructed in gender-neutral terms: falling equally on men and women. Only in the 17th century, in the writing of the Magen Avraham, did the halachah begin to adapt itself to the reality of female non-participation (Orach Chayim 106:2). His apologetic entered the mainstream and emerged in the 20th century in the idea that women are exempt because they are busy with childcare and housewifery, a rationale perhaps old-fashioned to the modern ear but, in the Jewish context, a recent arrival.

    If halachah can adapt to social change by releasing women from their twice or thrice-daily obligation to recite the Amidah, could it create a more gender-neutral synagogue? The authors bring a conversation spanning four centuries between Rabbi Yair Bacharach in 16th-century Germany and Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik in 20th-century New York. 

    Both are asked whether a woman may recite Kaddish in the synagogue for a deceased relative; both agree it is permissible in principle. But they reach opposite conclusions; Rabbi Bacharach forbids it because it would disturb existing customs, while Rabbi Soloveitchik promotes it to retain the allegiance of women who might otherwise be attracted by synagogues which allowed them to be called to the Torah.

    These opposing conclusions both express loyalty to the status quo and rabbis’ reluctance today to expand women’s participation in the synagogue probably stems more from this general conservatism or the conservatism of their congregants than from any specific halachic reasoning. For example, when considering the question of women’s Torah reading — where the Talmud is ambivalent, declaring that a woman’s reading is valid while also warning that it infringes public dignity — Rabbi Yehuda Henkin describes the practice as “outside the consensus”, “too much too soon” and “not Orthodox” rather than claiming any intrinsic halachic bar.

    But rabbinic conservatism, in protecting the community from too-rapid change, might also endanger it. The authors point out that all-male clubs, today, are more often caricatured and ridiculed than respected. Professor Vered Noam, of Tel Aviv University, argues similarly that today, when women enjoy equal status across society, gender bias in our synagogues turns them into museums, relics of the past, disconnected from their members’ ideals and irrelevant to their lives.

    These threats — of ridicule, alienation and irrelevance — call for a public conversation on gender bias in the synagogue: is a more gender-equal synagogue consistent with core Jewish values is it or antithetic to them? And is it desirable or is it to be resisted? These questions are urgent.

    Under the leadership of the previous Chief Rabbi, women’s status in the United Synagogue progressed significantly. The current Chief Rabbi has continued on this path. However, some religious leaders have chosen to avoid a conversation about gender bias in the synagogue, either descending into polemic or claiming that change is not possible and therefore not worth discussing. Tucker and Rosenberg’s book shows that more change may be possible if rabbinic leaders choose to pursue it. Every community leader should buy their book and should press their rabbis to teach its sources.

    Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law, Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Rabbi Michael Rosenberg is published by Urim