Sunday, October 28, 2012

Men, Women and the Synagogue

The problem of equal participation in the synagogue has come up a lot recently, in part stemming from the annual Simchas Torah question of whether to hold women's hakafos, and Torah-readings or simulated Torah-readings by and for women.

I am troubled by my own conservative stance on this issue. I believe it's the right stance for the synagogue as it was meant to be, but not for the synagogue as most people perceive it today.

As I understand it, the synagogue, in its origins, was a space for the Jew to express his/her full relationship with Gd. The synagogue was meant to be the site of particular rituals, a mini-Beit haMikdash as it was classically called. Nothing more.

To me, the Jew's relationship with Gd was meant to be expressed and developed in personal life, in private existence, in a grateful modeh ani upon rising and a pensive hamapil upon retiring to bed, in a berachah before eating and a dvar torah at the meal and birkat hamazon at the close, in giving tzedakah and speaking positively of others and giving terumah to the kohanim and maaser to the leviyyim, in planting trees and harvesting crops, in remembering yetziat mitzrayim and developing the land of Israel.

The synagogue was not meant to define my religious experience; it was a place for me to go for krias hatorah, for a minyan to do what a minyan does. And yes, it was male-dominated.

But this viewpoint is hard to swallow today, in a world which generally supports an ahistorical understanding of the synagogue: a community center (beit haknesset) and focal point for all manner of social organization.

Today, the synagogue has become the sum of so much of our Jewish life, and so it makes perfect sense that everyone would see it as part of their religious bailiwick. Of course everyone wants an equal role in synagogue ritual; I believe that many if not most are sincerely seeking inspiration and connection and a substantive role in building a strong religious community.

For the synagogue as people view it today, our current system is an offense to serious women, and the initiatives which my part of the Orthodox community offers to level the playing field only highlight the inequality and deepen the offense. Even the most "avant garde" - taking the Torah through the women's section, having women deliver divrei torah and so on - only underscore the fact that men are the ones to lein, receive aliyos and lead davening.

But to return to my view, the true synagogue is to Judaism what the showroom floor is to automobile manufacturing - an important element, but not where the car is made. It's a shiny space very much on display, but the production, the sale, the driving and the servicing take place elsewhere. And the result of the modern, altered perception of the synagogue is a disaster far beyond the issue of male/female; the result is a Jewish world which often leaves its religion at the door of the synagogue.

Or to use Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's words, from Dayyan Grunfeld's introduction to Horeb (full credit to Rabbi Ezra Goldschmiedt for reminding me of this passage):

If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them - to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.

Imagine if we would do that... but I think it's really too late. Genies don't like to return to their bottles, and synagogues are not apt to lose their centrality. Further, such a move would likely have devastating results, certainly in North America; quite a few 20th century North American communities tried to create "Jewish Community Center"s which did not host religious ritual, and in many of those communities the experiment failed. Further, in my pulpit days I would not have wanted our synagogue to have lost its centrality; we accomplished a great deal of good for a great many people. Should I ever return to the pulpit, it would be to a community synagogue, not a dedicated prayer space.

So we have a synagogue that tries to be old-school mini-Temple as well as community center in a modern world, and it can't really do both without alienating people.

So I don't know what happens now.


  1. I gave up on shuls a long time ago. But yeshivas are a different story. I have always felt a great holiness in places where the Torah and Talmud are studied in a serious way.

  2. I am not convinced you are correct about the source of women's desire for more participation. In Israel, where the shul is far less the focus of Jewish life than in North America, there is similar tension. I think it comes from women not feeling respected as members of the religious community. Certainly that is the case in my own family. I am thinking of issues such as the Rav hamachshir of a mikveh being unwillling to speak to women about how they are treated by the mikveh lady and instead wanting to speak to their husbands, or men unwilling to leave the women's section during weekday davening, or opposition to women's learning, or sermons making it clear that the rabbi believes a woman's only role in the community is to support her husband and sons.

  3. First of all, the big lie is that orthodox feminists want equal participation in the synagogue. It's a straw man argument. Since obviously that's halachically impossible, orthodox feminisism is dismissed as halachically impossible.

    But orthodox feminists (not that it's a monolithic entity) do not want equaility. Because although they are are feminist, they are orthodox. What they want is enhanced opportunities for participation in synagogue ritual and for their voices to be heard and their needs to be addressed within the halachic envelope.

    As for lamenting what the syangogue has become now that women want in as well, that reminds me of the unfortunate position of Rabbi Joshua Maroof who things we should de-emphasize the synagogue since it supports outwards signs of ritual at the expense of substance of true knowledge of God.

    Fine, but the reality is Jewish social structures are what they are and the community synagogue has emerged as the mikdash me'at and the focus of observance. It's nice to say people should be Jews everywhere, in the home and workplace, and it's fine to lament those whose Judaism only takes place in the synagogue. But it seems to me that what's really going on is now that synagogue ritual is seen to be unfair to women, the solution is not to enhance women's participation, but to de-emphasize the syangogue and then turn around and say to women, why do you want a part of synagogue life which is unimportant in the grand scheme of Judaism?

    Because the synagogue, for better or for worse, is indeed a focus of Jewish life today. And when women are marginalized and disenfranchised and silenced in the synagogue, it's not just the synagogue marginalizing women, it's Judaism.

    You want to create an ideal Judaism in which the synagogue is a minor player in Jewish life? Great, when that happens, come back. But in the meantime, while the synagogue is indeed a major player in Jewish life, the marginalization of women whose presence is at best tolerated needs to be addressed.

  4. And orthodox feminists are not asking for the moon. Sometimes it's as simple as being heard. And for the decisions on behalf of women not to be made by men. Women was to be part of the conversation, a conversation they have been excluded from for far too long.

    That point was made here in the recent panel discussion at Stern
    Panel on Halacha & Feminism

    that women need to be part of the conversation. What I hear from rabbis and read on their blogs is men declaring what women want and what they should want.

    And the hurdles are very often not halachic. They are sociological. Because women challenge synagogue as a boys' club. Men don't want women around because the synagogue is their sacred sanctuary away from women.

    We can argue about what the syangogue was meant to be, and if it should be more than four walls and roof in which men say barchu and kaddish. But we can't argue about what North American synagogues are. Those are facts on the ground. And theorizing about what should have been doesn't change what they are. And what they are are focal point of Jewish life and lightning rod for the exclusion of women who are prevented from actualizing their sincere avodah.

    The solution to de-emphazie the synagogue in order to minimize the affront to women is not going to fly. Why not accept synagogue for what they are, and try minimizing the affronts to orthodox women?

    Orthodox feminists aren't kvetching that they can't do that which is halachically unacceptable (again, for the most part...I'm not getting into extremes). And it is a specious argument that some advance that no matter what you give them, they won't be satisfied, so therefore don't give them anything at all which is the implicit approach of R. Maryles

    Maybe the Jew's relationship with Gd was meant to be expressed and developed in personal life. Maybe it would be better if synagogues were some imaginary makom tefillah and nothing else. Maybe it would also be better if women didn't vote or have an education.

  5. I agree that "the initiatives which my part of the Orthodox community offers to level the playing field only highlight the inequality and deepen the offense" but because for the most part bones are being thrown to the women, and then the men throwing the bones are shocked the women aren't genuflecting in gratitude.

    As for RSRH, I would suggest that the attempt to de-emphasize the synagogue and to emphasize the place of the Jewish home was a polemic that addressed the circumstances of his time and place.

    As the Rebbetzin's Husband says, you can't put the genie back in the bottle, and synagogue life today is an affront to women. So let's move towards ameliorating the affronts. That begins by including women in the discussions in things like who can speak at, and who can attend, synagogue events. And it requires a culture shift of recognizing that half of Jewry has been silenced but want their voices heard.

    The Rebbetzin's Husband asks what happens now. I'd suggest making women part of the conversation. What's happened up to now, at best, is asking women what they want, but it's still men deciding if they should get what they want. Men, with their cultural and psychosocial anti-women biases ingrained from centuries of being the power structure within Orthodoxy, remain the gatekeepers.

  6. Mike S.:
    Agreed. Much has been written about the differences between North American and Israeli cultures and why there is more of an emphasis on women's tefillah participation in North America (Shira Chadasha notwithstanding) and women's higher torah learning in Israel (Stern's Torah She-be'al Peh program notwithstanding).

    By and large, in North America the emphasis is on synagogue life, and in Israel it's more things like yoatzot halacha and to'anot.

    And I'd note your comments reflect what I said: that the issue is women being silenced and not being heard. That's the fundamental issue.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. This reminds me of my own take on this:

  9. Indeed. Which is why I linked that blog piece in my comments above. The similarities are striking: the attempt to pull the carpet out from under the feet of orthodox feminists by negating the importance of synagogue and synagogue ritual and thereby saying that they shouldn't want increased ritual participation in shul.

    But the Rebbetzin's Husband recognizes that you can't put the genie back in the bottle, and you can't unilaterally redefine the place of synagogue life in North American communities. The Rebbetzin's Husband also realizes that his views necessitate some introspection because it is an untenable position to keep barriers erected against the tide of the sincere avodah of Orthodox feminists. And therefore the Rebbetzin's Husband is musing aloud and wondering what can be done, surely within the halachic envelope, to allow women at least some of what they want and need while maintaining the inevitable tension that not all their needs can be met. Even if the Rebbetzin's Husband laments the direction synagogue has taken, it is what it is, and he recognizes that, without trying to let's say get rid of bar mitzvah show cases so we don't have to have a desire for bat mitzvah show cases.

  10. Mike-
    I agree that what you describe is also a major cause, and not only in Israel. I was thinking of communities where the examples you give do not exist, but I know that does exist in places. I think it's outrageous.

    Two corrections, and a question:
    1. You described my post as "lamenting what the syangogue has become now that women want in as well." But I wrote, "the result of the modern, altered perception of the synagogue is a disaster far beyond the issue of male/female; the result is a Jewish world which often leaves its religion at the door of the synagogue." I believe the problem relates to the frustration women experience, but it is a far broader problem.

    2. I appreciate your pointing me to R' Maroof's post (and thank you, R' Maroof, as well), but we differ on a key point: I don't think the issue is a desire for the limelight. As I wrote, "I believe that many if not most are sincerely seeking inspiration and connection and a substantive role in building a strong religious community."

    3. And my question: What does "give women a voice" mean? Do not women already have a presence in institutions of higher learning, venues to publish serious Torah scholarship, and positions on shul boards? Where are they barred from speaking on the issue, and being taken seriously?

  11. Thinking back to the earlier days of modern Orthodoxy, when women having a clear view of the bima, wearing modern (while modest) dress, learning Torah, often uncovering their hair, working professionally -- were all innovations, I think modern Orthodox women at that time truly felt that they had the best of all worlds. They had the comfort and security of tradition and an newly free space for learning and exploration. They were just as modern as most of the modern women around them.

    The problem is that what is "modern" has changed drastically from the early 1960s. And modern Orthodoxy cannot keep up with modern as currently defined. This leaves modern Orthodox women without the completely separate space that ultra-Orthodox women enjoy -- their own community that has almost nothing to do with men -- and also without the equality in men's space that non-Orthodox Jewish women enjoy. In other words, the worst of both worlds.

    I agree with the other posters that most modern Orthodox women do not want full equality in tefillah -- if nothing else, because they are so well-educated that they truly understand the halachic issues. What they want is nahat ruah -- spiritual satisfaction. What form will that take is a question that only MO women can answer. As long as the form is halachic, I don't think frum men should fear those ideas. Instead, they should welcome them.

    As a Conservative Jew who has the same public privileges as Jewish men, I often reflect on how much we (non-Orthodox Jews) have lost and gained. I love leading tefillah -- indeed, I have my best kavvanah when doing so -- but I struggle to daaven regularly in my private life. I would not feel qualified to lead in an Orthodox shul, even if it were allowed, because my level of personal prayer is so low.

    I am glad to have missed the struggle for egalitarianism in Conservative shuls almost entirely. My tallis not a political or feminist expression -- it's a religious expression. It is a Jewish action, not a feminist action.

    This is why I ultimately left Orthodoxy after attempting to become ba'alat teshuvah. It wasn't the limitations, although the limitations were difficult for me. It was fighting about those limitations and having the lines constantly change. You can sing at one shabbat table but not at another. Your desire for more is treated with compassion by one rabbi and denounced as arrogance by another. It was tiring. I didn't fit into the women's box but I also didn't want to fight about it. I just wanted to be a Jew. So, I, personally, had to be a Jew elsewhere.

    I think clarity and transparency and openness to discussion are helpful. Most Orthodox rabbis have good reasons for the things they restrict and allow. And most MO women have enough halachic knowledge to understand those rulings and sometimes, to disagree with them. It is difficult for the community rabbi to experience such challenges, since they are rare in other areas. But ruling on one half of the Jewish community and their spiritual needs is a unique case. It needs to be treated with the sensitivity that any ruling affecting so many Jews and their relationship to G-d and their community would require.

  12. Rebbetzin's Husband:

    3. Yes, women increasingly have a voice. The question is if it's heard. And yes, they have a presence in institutions of higher learning, but not leadership among those who actually make the decisions. Men remain the gatekeepers for the spiritual quests of women.

    Yes, women are increasingly on shul boards. The question is if they are taken seriously, or if it's men deciding which concerns of the women to take seriously. And women may not all be confrontational enough to take on the male power structure of a shul.

    Imagine a shul where there are women on the board. And where well over 100 women go to a megillah leining off-site every year and 40-60 to an off-site women's hakafot on simchat torah. Women may be on the Board, but the question is if the men making the decisions are taking their concerns seriously. It is still men sitting in judgment about how to address these needs. Can women on the Board yell and scream and force the issue in a confrontational way at a Board meeting? Yes. Alternatively, women can be invited to participate in the discussions about how to meet the spiritual needs of women. Nobody is doing that. Or take for example a shul policy to exclude women from certain shiurim, and where the culture of the shul is such that only men are involved in the discussion if women should be allowed to attend, and where the women aren't even informed of the outcome of those discussions among men. It just wouldn't occur to men to actually include women in the discussions about their own destiny. That's a cultural problem in shuls that has nothing to do with women being on the Board or not. Women can speak all they want, but if nobody is listening, and men remain the gatekeepers and power brokers, it really doesn't matter.

    Women on the Board is certainly helpful and a necessary and essential first step. Women on the Board is a start, not a solution.

    Women don't always want to have to fight and to be activists for a cause. Especially not in a shul where shalom is a very important concept. So what happens very often is disconent and non-participation, lost opportunities, and for many, seeking spiritual fulfillment elsewhere, such as off-site venues.

    Here's a practical suggestion:
    A rabbi can invite women to participate in a ritual committee discussion about what ways the shul can better accommodate the spiritual needs of women, and where women are part of the decision making process that ensues.

  13. SDK-
    Thanks for writing. I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph - transparency and sensitivity are a must.

    My only note of challenge would be regarding your distaste for the variety in Orthodox approaches, so that a woman may sing at the Shabbos table in one home and not another. While I can see the difficulty it creates - and this type of variety exists in many areas of halachic observance - is it not a sign of health?

  14. I don't think SDK is lamenting diversity and the range of practices that are acceptable within Orthodoxy. That is indeed a sign of health.

    I think what SDK is lamenting is that many practices are not allowed, and for no good reason. If these practices were truly problematic, then you wouldn't find them in Orthodox practices.

    That is to say, if singing at the table is such a terrible sin, why do we find it being done in many kosher homes? It would seem that it's not really a halachic problem. Rather, it's a socialogical and made up problem. That's the optics when it's ok in some places. It belies the claims by the naysayers that it's some sort of sin. It appears as if arbitrary and appears as if to support the optics that if there is a rabbinic will there is a halachic way.

  15. SDK:
    Your observation a lot that MO women are left with the worst of both worlds is very interesting. And I agree the issue is nachat ru'ach, for which there is precedent to push the envelope. And yes, men fear those ideas (also many women). It is outside their comfort zones, and religion offers comfort and stability. Start tinkering, and you've lost the comfort and stability that religion offers in a world that is often so unpredictable.

    Rebbetzin's Husband: Thank you for the clarification, that the focus of the blog post is the issue of the disconnect between synagogue life and outside-synagogue life.