The issue of gender equality has been getting a great deal of attention in Israel recently, as I have written in some of my previous blog articles. What has become quite apparent is that the views that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men have of women and their capabilities are not confined to the religious sphere. As Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner wrote in the New York Times on January 14, 2012, the clash between the values of equality and Halakha (Jewish law) has created a growing rift in Israeli society. The New York Times article portrays the issue primarily as one between Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) and secular Jews. But the issue is much broader. It is a clash between traditionalist views of gender roles that begin in the religious sphere and modern conceptions of equality. It is not confined to Orthodox Judaism or to Israel. It affects Western countries around the world struggling with the tension between the tolerance of minority religious practices and gender equality.
To focus on one area, in Conservative Judaism, the issue has been one that has polarized practising Conservative Jews. Since the 1970s and the advent of the Ezrat Nashim movement, Conservative Judaism has wrestled with the line between traditional Halakha and religious gender equality. Different rabbis have weighed in with a range of responsa (rabbinic opinions) outlining their views on issues such as whether women should be permitted to read from the Torah and have Aliyot; whether women should be counted in a Minyan; and whether a woman can be a Shlicha Tzibur (a prayer leader). Some rabbis have found ways to reinterpret the Halakha in permissive ways while others have called for a “tikkun” – a correction to the law. There has not been unanimity in the rabbinical opinions.
The vast majority of American Conservative synagogues have adopted a fully or mostly egalitarian approach to these issues, based on some of the rabbinical responsa that have been issued. In Israel, most of the Conservative synagogues (including the one I attend) have also become partially or fully egalitarian. Ultimately, an egalitarian synagogue sends a message that no person is limited by their gender from fulfilling an equal religious role in the synagogue or an equal role in society outside of the religious sphere. How can a modern society in which women have an equal opportunity to be doctors, lawyers, pilots or any other profession or career continue to insist that in a synagogue, the women must be relegated to the balcony or behind the curtain or even just prevented from participating in the religious service? How can one expect that a social environment in which women’s voices are not heard and women do not participate in or lead the religious services will see women as equals in other areas of life?
Though largely settled in many areas of the world among Conservative Jews, this issue, which has generated so much recent controversy in Israel, is still very much alive in Toronto. Toronto’s Conservative synagogues are generally not egalitarian. But over the past few years, this has begun to change. Some of the smaller Conservative synagogues have become fully egalitarian, with women able to participate in all aspects of the service equally, including the Torah service. Other Conservative synagogues, such as Beth Emeth and Shaar Shalom have very stringent limitations on the role of women. Still others have been having ongoing and sometimes heated debates about the matter. The issue has divided the city’s Conservative rabbis as well as the congregants.
One of Canada’s largest synagogues, which is in fact one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the world, Beth Tzedek, has been “Torah egalitarian” for a number of years. This has meant that women can be called up to the Torah to read or to have an Aliyah. But women have not been able to lead most prayer services. This same approach has been taken at Beth David Synagogue, while some synagogues like Beth Tikvah and Adath Israel have had some opportunities for women to participate, but to a more limited extent.
In March of 2011, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedek issued a responsum that women would now be counted in the Minyan at Beth Tzedek. Although this did not move the synagogue to complete gender equality, it put Beth Tzedek at the forefront of the group of large Conservative synagogues in Toronto in moving towards religious equality.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl’s responsum has been attacked by Conservative Rabbi Wayne Allen in the 2nd volume of his book Perspectives on Jewish Laws and Contemporary Issues, who argues that Frydman-Kohl has essentially abandoned Halakha by issuing that ruling. Before setting out his specific arguments to address Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, Rabbi Allen includes an introductory chapter in his book in which he describes a range of differences between men and women. Picking up on a book by Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate, Rabbi Allen staunchly defends traditional gender roles as mandated, in his view, by Halakha. But his support for this Halakhic view of the world is based on his conclusion that these observations about the capabilities of women apply much more generally than just in the religious sphere, even in today’s world. Women are best suited for the "task of caring for children." Judaism leaves men free to "tend to other worldly concerns" he concludes.
Recently, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, a 1,000 family synagogue in Toronto, has opened up the issue of the increased religious participation of women. Beth Tikvah is likely to put the issue to a vote shortly and may well join Beth Tzedek and Beth David as a Torah egalitarian Conservative synagogue. In doing so, it would reject the conclusions of its former rabbi, who vehemently opposed religious egalitarianism throughout his tenure at Beth Tikvah. The move will not make Beth Tikvah a fully egalitarian Synagogue – that is still likely to take a few more years. But it may spark other Toronto Conservative synagogues to reassess their positions and policies.
From this discussion of what is happening in the Conservative synagogues in one limited geographic location, it is easy to understand the tension in some parts of Israel. It is quite evident that those who would use the “traditional” view of Halakha as their guide towards how to deal with gender equality issues do not limit themselves to the religious sphere even though they often purport to do so. Hence the recent efforts by ultra-religious Jews to bar women from singing in public; to keep women at the back of the bus; and to prevent men from having to listen to women delivery speeches in public. Of course, the issue is more challenging in Israel because religious groups receive state funding and because the line between synagogue and state is blurred. However, where some of these religious groups have the opportunity to extend their views of the role of women to areas outside of the synagogue, the effect becomes clear.
It seems to me that if these Haredim were able to see women as equal in the synagogue, only then would they be able to respect the ability of women to function in any other social or professional capacity in society at large. As evident from what has been happening in Israel in Haredi areas and even in the written works of some conservative rabbis, the exclusion of women in the synagogue spills over and affects views of gender equality more generally.
This issue is not limited to Haredim, to Israel or to the Jewish community. It applies much more broadly. It is a issue facing Catholicism and Islam and other religious denominations. The line between religious freedom and tradition and gender equality is a core issue at the very heart of every contemporary liberal democracy.
Postscript: Added on February 8, 2012: It was just announced that the membership of Beth Tikvah Synagogue, held a "Special General Meeting" on February 7, 2012. More than 80% of the members at the meeting voted in favour of the Board's proposal. Beth Tikvah Synagogue is now officially "Torah Egalitarian."