For many, change is a very frightening word and rightly so. Change, especially substantial change, can have many unintended consequences and for many years the world of traditional Judaism has been very wary of it. The slippery slope argument has been made to support this reticence. It goes something like this: If we start making changes, where will we draw the line? — in the end the entire tradition may be compromised. In addition it is argued that because the Reform Movement made such radical changes, those holding the tradition have to do so more steadfastly.
There is much legitimacy in these arguments. However, we are beginning to see a softening of tone. Ynetnews reported that Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, presented a plan at a conference that would allow women greater participation in the synagogue services within the confines of Jewish law. The inevitable objections notwithstanding, the fact that this is now being seriously discussed in respected rabbinic circles is important.
To be sure, synagogues have changed over the years. At one point the ladies section would always be either upstairs or in the back of the synagogue today it is often side by side with the men’s section. These changes have happened quietly without any fanfare and were not precipitated by any major policy speeches. But they have happened nonetheless.
Women worship differently
There is clearly a powerful argument, one that I myself often make, that women are different than men and therefore worship differently. As a part of their unique masculine nature men have the need to be leaders in the synagogue service whilst the feminine character serves God in a more humble and quieter fashion. Women need to master their unique approach to prayer and men theirs. In fact most traditional women I encounter have no desire to lead synagogue services and are comfortable with their place within Orthodox synagogue services.
But there are some who are not. Some women want a more active role in the synagogue—not because they are feminists but simply because they have a spiritual yearning for it. We in the West live in a society that has dispelled negative sexist and chauvinistic attitudes towards women. Whilst men and women are different, we now clearly recognize that men and women are equal.
Even within traditional Judaism the role of women has changed. Since the early 1900s Orthodox girls receive a full religious education that sometimes rivals that given to the boys. In many Orthodox communities women have powerful communal roles as well.
But there is another issue. Outside of the Orthodox enclaves found in major centers of Jewish life assimilation is rife. There is a constant tension between the need to preserve tradition and the need to demonstrate how traditional Judaism is relevant to the lives of the assimilated American or European Jew. Synagogue life is one of the most obvious points of stress in this regard.
Ultimately religious Jews who are committed to the traditional interpretation of Judaism must be guided in their spiritual worship by Jewish law as found in the Talmud and codified in the Shulchan Aruch. If there is room within the confines of Jewish law to allow greater female participation in the synagogue, women should not only be allowed to participate in that way they should be encouraged to do so.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts