From a political perspective, I defend the rights of people to be able to express themselves religiously without having government interfering with the way they worship. Yet even as I support a woman’s right to express themselves religiously, there is a larger issue at play
Which worldviews are we trying to conform to?
It is clear to me that Judaism sees the genders, male and female, differently. This is seen from the very first story in the Torah about Adam and Eve, where the Torah tells us that God created Eve as a “helpmate opposite” Adam (Genesis, 2:18). In addition, when God tells Moses to explain His desire to give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He says “So you should say to the House of Jacob and Tell the Children of Israel,” (Exodus 19:3). The commentators explain that the “House of Jacob” refers to the women, and the “Children of Israel” refers to the men (Rashi).
God wanted the message told to the women in a way that differed to the manner in which it was told to the men. The reason is clear, men and women are inherently different and should be respected as such. In fact, there was a famous book which expressed this view by analogizing that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
Yet, the view that men and women are to be completely segregated from each other in everyday societal interactions is also foreign to native Judaism. In fact for centuries, even in the Temple, women would enter the sanctuary to pray (See Samuel 1, 1:9) – until people ceased to behave in a manner that was appropriate for the Temple, and eventually a woman's gallery was created (Sukkah, 51b). In addition, King Saul, for example, as a young man, had no problem interacting with young women (Samuel1, 9:11-12).
In addition, one of the most joyous days in the Jewish calendar in ancient times was the 15th of Av when young men and women would come out in the vineyards of Jerusalem to meet potential suitors (Taanit 26b). Throughout the Bible we find heroines such as Hannah, Deborah and Ruth who were prominent female figures interacting freely with men and were respected by the entire community – men and women alike.
Focus must be what the Torah saysClearly, the view that states that women should sit at the back of the bus or that women should be kept hidden from view is a result of a zeitgeist from the Dark Ages and is influenced by modern-day Islamic norms and is not native to Judaism. Yet, the idea that women should feel a desire to compete on a level playing field with men is similarly the result of the zeitgeist of feminism.
This does not mean that I am in any way opposed to feminism or any of its goals. I support all the gains women have made and would like to see them have full equality to men should they seek it.
Yet it seems to me that when we are talking about Judaism and worship of God in the Jewish way, the focus must be what the Torah says on this issue. This does not mean we should try and find how we can bend the Torah to fit our world view, but rather to seek what the Torah says about it authentically.
It seems to me that this is what is missing in the entire saga of the Women of the Wall, and other issues by extension. The moment one side stands up and sincerely shows that their perspective is based on what the Torah says and not the mores of an era – whether that epoch be the 1700’s or the 1960’s – the shouting and knee jerk reactions will stop and the real discussion will begin.
Until that happens this is a debate that no side will win, and in the end will just make Judaism and Jews much worse off.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life