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
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.