“What? There’s Jewish feminism?” asked a young hitchhiker I gave a lift to. “Of course,” I told her. She didn’t let up. “Where’s the feminism?! If there’s feminism, why can’t women write mezuzot?” I smiled.
There was no point in my trying to answer that question (not that I have an answer to it) when we were just two minutes from the Nir Etzion Hotel and when she hadn’t even heard of Kolech (Religious Women’s Forum). “How great it would be,” she went on, “if women could write mezuzot. They could earn piles of money.” When we got to the top of the mountain, the other young woman sitting in the backseat volunteered her opinion about the matter: “No way the rabbinate is going to let women write mezuzot. They have to hold on to their seats.”
It could be that these young women who had graduated from a religious high school, didn’t know how to formulate their complaint against the religious establishment as well as women who have been exposed to gender studies, and maybe they grasped the subject from a somewhat materialistic perspective, but they certainly knew that women were excluded from the world of mitzvot.
Indeed, looking at the Torah mitzvot from the outside may create the impression that the Torah was given to a nation of men. It’s not that women weren’t counted at Mount Sinai, but rather that it sometimes seems that they just don’t count. Notice that there’s not a single mitzvah that men can’t fulfill without women (except for being fruitful and multiplying, which is a purely technical matter).
A world without women lacks for nothing in the religious sense. The proof is the yeshiva world that gets on just fine without women. On the other hand, there are many mitzvot that women cannot fulfill without men (and I’m not talking about setting the Shabbat timer). A world without men cannot exist as a religious Jewish world. Such a world is a world without public prayer, without Torah scrolls, without mezuzot, and a world in which it isn’t possible to bury the dead or to say kaddish for them.
But let’s not be petty. Even if the Torah told men before they got the Sinai: “Don’t go near a woman,” (Exodus 19:15) and even if Zelophad’s daughters had to demand what they were entitled to according to the law (Numbers 27:1-11), we know, after all, that it’s all a question of consciousness. In recent generations women have been taking a greater role in religious life. Women learn, teach, write and reach Torah milestones that were unheard of in previous generations. Women are ascribing Sinai to themselves. They were there too.
But it’s not that simple. The question of whether women were or weren’t at Sinai, or the question of whether women are an integral part of Judaism or not, doesn’t depend just on what women think. It depends on the consensus of the entire religious community. In effect, it’s not enough that I think that I was at Sinai – he also needs to know that I was there.
Lately the question of whether or not women should be ordained as Orthodox rabbis has been raised in the States. In spite of the fact that the women have passed exams comparable to those given to male rabbinic aspirants, the Rabbinical Council of America has decided not to allow women into the rabbinate. The RCA has ruled unabashedly that women could not be ordained as Orthodox rabbis.
The subject of women’s ordination has not yet been broached in Israel but at some point it certainly will. It could be that it will be brought up after we address the question of women dayanot (rabbinic court judges). The rabbinic court can’t ignore women forever. It’s not conceivable that women should appear before the court as litigants and rabbinic pleaders but not as dayanot.
The halacha on this subject is clear and there is no reason the public shouldn’t accept a woman as a dayan. The day will come when women will demand their rights from this hallowed institution. And maybe after women become poskot, dayanot and rabbis we will be able to confidently say that we too stood at Sinai, in accordance with every possible interpretive permutation.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinic pleader who works at the Center for Women’s Justice, tel. 02-5664390