The day will come, perhaps not quickly in our days and perhaps not in our days at all, in which women's prayer in public spaces will be something obvious, clear, and taken for granted just as men's prayer is. The day will come when the prayers of the two sexes will be what they once were, before the Orthodox hierarchy separated them – joint worship without prohibitions and without the exclusion that is entirely intended to keep women out of institutionalized ritual.
On our way to this day, we are witness to the budding struggle as well as the shock, criticism, and mockery it arouses. How is it possible that women want this and how is it possible that women are demanding equal rights of worship for themselves? It cannot be that they are doing this out of religious considerations. They want to defy; they want to be such feminists at all costs. And this, say they people who want to keep women in their "proper" place, will never happen.
In order to understand why women are insisting on equal rights of worship, it is worthwhile to broaden out perspective a bit and to understand that this phenomenon does not have any single pronouncedly Jewish characteristic. Unfortunately, the exclusion of women from worship is common to all the monotheistic religions at various stages of their development, just as the exclusion of women from public life and the revocation of their basic human rights was characteristic of all the societies out of which these religions grew.
For a religious person – Jewish, Christian, or Muslim – at the beginning of the 20th century, the thought that women deserved the right to vote because they are human beings was horrifying, ludicrous, and repugnant. One hundred years prior to this, one could be shaken up just from the thought that women were entitled to an inheritance, with or without mentioning the daughter of Tslofhad who were forced to marry within the tribe in order to protect its assets.
Economically and politically, civilly and religiously, the place of women was obvious, known, and resolved: not to be in the public arena, not to be in the workforce, not to be in school, not to be in the church choir, not to be in the halachic hierarchy, not to be imams at the mosque. No one thought the day would come when women in different countries and religions would rise up and demand change.
Going the distance
As Jewish women still have not dared to dream of change, Episcopalians have beat them to the punch and have demanded the right to serve in the church as priests. Forty years ago, there was no such thing. Today, there are more than 2,000. Wonder of all wonders, there are also women bishops.
The Anglican Church opened its doors to worship led by women. Many other Protestant denominations followed their precedent, leaving Catholicism holed up with its view that only men can. The demonstrations of women in front of the Vatican did not affect change in the Church's worldview, but the demonstrations themselves were inconceivable 50 years ago.
Women worship leaders can be found in Buddhism, Shinto, and even in Sunni Muslim theology. For Muslims, it is clear that this is meant for women's worship exclusively, but in our small backyard, this is not even clear to the wise men of Jewish Orthodoxy. Reform and Conservative female rabbis, joint community prayers in a growing number of synagogues have not helped in the meantime to pull the rabbinical institution from its entrenched position, but no one is perfect.
If there is any sort of genuine revolution of fundamental change in worldview within Judaism, it is the quiet, slow, and well-mannered revolution women are waging against their marginalized position in public worship. They are not doing it because they urgently want to wrap themselves in a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) when there are much prettier accessories on the market, and they are not doing it to be confrontational, but rather in order to say that their right of worship is not derived from a long history of oppression, but from the very fact that they are believing women.
Just as was said before them by women in other relgions: We, too, each and every one of us, were created in God's image. From here and nowhere else stems our right to public worship like every other person.
Women who insist on their equal status in Jewish worship are slated for many more long years of misunderstanding from communities outside those that already accept their stance. In the foreseeable future, the Orthodox institution is expected to stand on its hind legs and wage an all-out war against women's attempts to take the monopoly over public worship out of men's hands. That's not so bad. Judaism is a religion that excels in long-term hope.
Whoever can wait patiently for the coming of the Messiah can also wait for joint public worship. Perhaps, in the end, the Messiah will be a woman.