'Vayechi': On modesty and hypocrisy

Whoever chooses to label removal of women from public spaces with term 'modesty' is attempting to appropriate modest and beautiful word for offensive, cultural process of exclusion

A summary of the past few chapters: Rabbi Ariel adjudicated that according to his understanding of Halacha, or Jewish Law, a praying male Jew at a house of prayer where women deliver Torah sermons during the prayer service should search out another house of prayer for himself.


Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, another prominent leader of the Tzohar rabbis' organization, endorsed and defended the halachic adjudication of Rabbi Ariel. We and other rabbis criticized Rabbi Ariel's halachic opinion for the way it excludes women from communal religious life. Feuerstein described us and other advocates for women's rights as being superficial and playing dumb.


As neither of these definitions flattered us, we decided to challenge them and offered a detailed halachic and cultural response that will refute Feuerstein's claims point by point and clarify why this is a classic case of exclusion of women.


Connection between modesty, excluding women

Feuerstein claims that Rabbi Ariel does not, God forbid, exclude women, but is worried about modesty in the house of prayer: "The mode in which he (Ariel) envisions the house of prayer obligates him to considerations of modesty, as is envisioned in Jewish Law. While it is possible to disagree about different approaches to Jewish Law, it is even possible to heretically reject it, but it cannot be that for reasons of liberalism men and women who want to pray in a gender-separated house of prayer should be attacked? What has happened?!?"


Perhaps nothing really has happened and perhaps Rabbi Feuerstein is correct that we should replace the term "hadarat nashim" (exclusion of women) with the term "tzniut" (modesty), and thus all our problems will be miraculously solved. In order to test this possibility seriously, we have referred back to the original source for the meaning of the term "tzniut," back to the Bible.


The biblical modesty

Indeed, the term "modesty" has a very modest number of appearances in the Bible. The term only appears twice in the entire Bible, and it does not refer to external appearance, all the more so does it not refer to women appearing in public or to mixing of the sexes.


A beautiful and modest usage of biblical modesty is in the book of Micah (6:8): "It has been told to you, humanity, what is good, and what The Lord does require of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk modestly with your God."


There are several conclusions that can be deduced from this beautiful verse's usage of the term "modesty":

  1. "Modesty" is a character trait (like "loving mercy").
  2. "Modesty" is applicable to all people, not specifically to women.
  3. "Modesty" deals with the intimate connection between God and each individual person, and not to the public relations between men and women.


How 'modesty' was ruined for us

In rabbinic literature, wherein the root word for "modesty" is widely used, we find the verb form of "modesty" taking on the meaning "to conceal." From here it is possible to understand why concealing and excluding women from public spaces gets confused with "modesty." However, even in rabbinic literature there is no connection between "modesty" and separation between the sexes or the covering of women's bodies.


Whoever chooses to label the removal of women from public spaces with the term "modesty" is attempting to appropriate a modest and beautiful word for an offensive, cultural process of exclusion. Furthermore, "modesty" demands that people behave with gentleness and concealment in their relationships with God, not to proudly spread and display their 'servant of God' peacock feathers.


As opposed to this, the rabbis that occupy themselves with "modesty" are busy concealing the "other," women, and with enlarging men's piece of the "serving God cake." It seems to me that, as the saying goes, this is not what the poet intended.


Connection between separation, exclusion

Rabbi Feuerstein carefully chooses his words and makes sure to address only "the issue of separation between men and women in the house of prayer," as if this were a "separate but equal" division for which both sides paid the same price.


Rabbi Feuerstein fails to mention at all the fact that he and Rabbi Ariel are discussing a division that only makes possible male leadership of religious worship while only the women silently in the back. This is what makes what they are doing not separation, but exclusion. And yes... there is no small number of religious leaders excluding women, and it is precisely this phenomenon that we are protesting.


It is impossible to hurt people in the name of "multiculturalism" and expect them to smile a liberal smile and turn the other cheek. At least the leaders in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, who seek to split streets by gender and sit women at the back of the bus, are honest in their intentions and do so in the name of religion.


So where does your claim of "multiculturalism" end? Exactly at the point in which it harms the basic rights of other people. Exactly at the point in which the basic religious truth is forgotten according to which all people are created in "God's image."


Truth on mixing sexes in houses of prayer

Rabbi Feuerstein claims that the demand to distance women from leadership roles in prayer and the religious activities that accompany it, is a halachic demand and this is why his hands are tied. Exactly because of this we are here, and we are happy to help show that also from the halachic perspective, the situation is not as you have complained.


We will open with a famous source that deals with Simchat Beit Hashoeivah, a joyous water libation ceremony held in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This source describes at length the public celebrations for this ceremony at the Temple.


Because of the extra joyous nature of these celebrations, exclusively with this holiday, there was a separation made between men and women (Tosefta Sukkah 4:1): "At first, when they witnessed the Water-Drawing Festivities, the men would see it from the inside and the women from the outside. When the rabbinic courts observed that they engaged in frivolous behavior, they made three balconies in the court, in which sat on three sides, and saw the Water-Drawing Festivities without mingling (with the men)."


If this is the case, then once a year, because of the excessive outbursts of joy, men and women were separated in the Temple. The rest of the year, women and men prayed together in the house of prayer. Historians and archeologists of the Mishna and the Talmud are in total agreement that in these periods, there was no women's section, seating was mixed, and the proof for this is considerable.


'Respect for public' as replacement for 'modesty'

From the next source we will learn that not only did women attend the house of prayer and sit in the same space as men, they were also called up to read the Torah (Babylonian Talmud Megilah, 23A): "Our Rabbis taught: 'All are qualified to be among the seven (who read), even a woman and a minor, but the Sages said a woman should not read from the Torah out of 'kvod hatzibur', 'respect for the public.'"


From this we learn women went up to read the Torah, but did not read from it in public. According to this source, the term "kvod hatzibur" is the determining factor that sets a women's status in worship and not the term "modesty."


And what exactly is 'respect for the public'? Apparently there were once those who were of the opinion that if a woman were to demonstrate her learning and read from the Torah in public, it would embarrass the men who do not know how to read from the Torah. Many halachic adjudicators have interpreted this source and determined that "respect for the public" is a relative term whose meaning is dependent on the respective "public."


We have no doubt in our heart that in the 21st century, when women function in the most esteemed professions, such as judges, scientists, and doctors, their ability to read from the Torah should magnify the "public's honor" and not harm it.


Beautiful women of Dura-Europos

In the third Century CE, at the height of the period of the Oral Torah, a famous synagogue was completed in the city of Dura-Europos. It would be hard to believe that the Jewish inhabitants of Dura were not exposed to the world of the Sages of the Oral Torah, as their city was located on the banks of the Euphrates River, at a point of passage between the land of Israel and Babylon, its two centers.


On the walls of the magnificent synagogue of Dura-Europos, a variety of paintings of biblical scenes were painted, among them pictures of women. Among the pictures found at the ancient synagogue is one where Pharaoh's daughter can be seen, naked and drawing baby Moses from the waters of the Nile.


And if from this evidence before us Rabbi Feuerstein will claim that this house of prayer belonged to a group of Jews who deviated from traditional rabbinic authority, we can learn from this that the Israelite communities have not always (even thousands of years before the birth of the Reform Movement) submitted to the authority of the rabbis.


A permanent negotiation exists in the Jewish world between the rabbis and the communities. Maybe we, in our day, are witnessing another layer in this healthy struggle.


This is 'tzohar'? This isn't even a crack

Tzohar rabbis claim to lead liberal, halachic Judaism, and even claim to offer a friendly halachic face to non-halachic Jews. It seems to us that in the halachic ruling regarding women giving Torah sermons in the house of prayer, they are not only not offering a "tzohar" ("a small window that lets in light and air," as on Noah's Ark – Genesis 6:16), but are not even offering a small crack for liberalism to breathe.


Tzohar rabbis, as we claimed we would demonstrate, Halacha in this instance – as in many others – is very flexible. It is a shame that you are sealing shut the window, the "tzohar." We had great expectations from you.


The best articulation of our approach has been stated by Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg, who declared: "Where there is a rabbinic will - There is a halachic way." Therefore do not shirk your responsibility and do not hang your choice to exclude women on the coat hanger of Jewish Law. It is not so rigid, and is likely to backfire, breaking in your face.


As a side note, did you notice that both Rabbi Ariel and Rabbi Feuerstein did not support their halachic claims with even one legal source? So how is it that specifically us, who scrupulously rely on and cite traditional Jewish legal sources, deserve to be called "superficial"?


Connection to weekly Torah portion

Truth be said, this discussion is not really connected to the weekly Torah portion, "Vayechi," that concludes the Book of Genesis. However, we didn't want to be let off the hook so easily. Therefore we will note that on the night of Jacob's death, he blessed Joseph "with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that coucheth beneath, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb" (Genesis 49:25).


And we will bless ourselves, will bless the rabbis of Tzohar, together with all the rabbis of Israel, especially the Israeli ones, not to be scared of "breasts" and "wombs," not to be frightened by the bodies, voices, speech and Torah of women.


May we not exclude, nor be excluded, and may we always find a place of honor for women and men for all communal activities.


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew



פרסום ראשון: 12.15.13, 07:51
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