Sunday, January 12, 2014

Feminism as a Moral Necessity: Open Orthodoxy's Failure

In the past thirty years, the liberal Modern Orthodox community has made great strides in the area of women's ritual inclusion. Many shuls now have women's tefillah groups, where women have intimate access to the order and liturgy of the service. Girls have their bat mitzvahs in such groups, making it more and more normative for girls to learn to read the Torah with cantillation as a rite of passage, giving them a layer of Jewish literacy beyond what they would gain from simply having a party and delivering a speech. Partnership minyanim have increasingly become accepted, and in these settings mothers as well as fathers are honored with aliyot at the bar and bat mitzvahs of their children. In both of these prayer spaces, which self-define as Orthodox, women have numerous opportunities to participate in and have access to the service. So what could be the problem with this?
Women of the Wall conduct a women's tefillah service at the Kotel.

The issue is twofold. Firstly, Orthodox feminist prayer spaces of both styles are primarily defined by "women can't." Women's tefillah is carefully designed to avoid having women lead certain prayers; since women are not considered full halakhic adults, no matter how large the group of women, they cannot say Kaddish, Kedusha, or Barchu, and many groups do not recite the blessings for the reading of the Torah. A great number of these prayer communities rely on a rabbi for halakhic advice; his primary role is to dictate what women may not do in their services. Partnership minyanim allow women to lead certain parts of the service, but not Shacharit or Musaf, the primary components of Shabbat morning tefillah. Women cannot receive the first three aliyot, and while some partnership minyanim wait for ten women and ten men before beginning prayer, women cannot count as part of the ten adults who must be present.

Secondly, Open Orthodoxy is very tentative about the issue of "women must." There is no language of obligation surrounding women's ritual practice; women are permitted and often encouraged to "take on" mitzvot that they are considered exempt from, but the exemption itself is not evaluated. Liberal Orthodox women, as a group, do not wear tallitot or tzitzit or lay tefillin, and are not communally encouraged to. Girls are offered lulavim and etrogim on Succot, but are not required to carry them like their male peers are. This lack of obligation results in a group of committed Jews who are much more inclined to skip a day of shaking lulav, or show up to shul only for kiddush.

The root of these two problems is the failure of Open Orthodoxy to engage with feminism as an absolute moral imperative. When feminism is viewed as a value that can add to a community, that will enhance women's religious and spiritual lives, its key message is weakened. Instead of seeing feminism as a critique of the absolute injustice of treating half of the Jewish people as less than full halakhic adults, feminism is seen as a favor to the female half of the community. As long as feminism is ignored as a moral demand, the Open Orthodox community will not analyze halakha in such a way so as to fully enfranchise women. As long as feminism is viewed as a bonus instead of a basic necessity, Open Orthodoxy is not a truly movement towards women's equality.

8 comments:

  1. You make a great case for obligating women in all mitzvot from a logical perspective, but I don't see the halachic case here. The point of consulting a rabbi isn't specifically to find boundaries women can't cross, but to make sure whatever happens is consistent with halacha; throwing around obligations all willy nilly certainly isn't a good move, especially with no basis in tradition.

    If a woman takes upon herself certain mitzvot, she can actually become obligated. For example, a woman davening maariv who doesn't normally daven should have in mind that she isn't taking the obligation upon herself, as otherwise she may become obligated. What we should be doing is encouraging women to voluntarily perform certain mitzvot, rather than throwing a blanket obligation at them with neither choice nor basis.

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  2. Kinda seems like Leah Sarna's speech at JOFA just in different words

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    1. I think there's definitely a lot of overlap in our ideas; the primary difference is that she didn't frame her ideas as being in a context of halakhic obligation.

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  3. I agree with you about the emphasis on what women can and cannot do. Why can we (women) not partake in the same activities as men, but still lead observant lives? Great post. Kol Hakavod.

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  4. Been really impressed with your writing, but as noted above, how do you defend your position halachically, or is it purely from a fairness perspective (and any claim by a chareidi that Moses at Sinai was told that time-based mitzvot etc. arent applicable to women cannot overcome this basic fairness)? I dont think the latter argument is wrong, i just wonder what the crux of the argument is since i have never been exposed to it as a normal ortho jew. Is there an element of the Rabbis interpreted based on their times (just an extension of the rabbis being wrong about science, so too affected by norms and ruled accordingly, though subject to later change for fairer society)? Just grasping at straws, though these could all be part of your argument, but i'd like to understand.

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    1. The basis of my position is the idea that "woman" as a halakhic creature who is exempt from mitzvot is not the same woman who I and other modern women are, socially and educationally, and I am therefore obligated. There is precedent for changes in group status like this; see, for example, the concept of "ishah chashuva" and the drastic changes in the halakhic status of deaf people within the last two hundred years.

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  5. I hear that, and respect your opinion. good luck!

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