Women and Judaism: Challenges of modernity

  • by: Peta Pellach, Sydney, Australia

It seems to be common knowledge that the challenges of modernity for Judaism arise from two factors of contemporary life:

  1. ease of communication, and the fact that we have wide availability of information about lives quite different from our own and
  2. the fact that we have been taught to ask questions and are sceptical about the answers, having lost our automatic respect for authority

These reasons suggest that modernity presents new challenges, borne out of increased freedoms and choices.
That may be true for many things, but it is my contention that the issues for Orthodox Jewish women are different. Let me say at the outset that I do not accept that women find fulfilment through “enabling” their husbands. I have never accepted that line – and I don’t believe that Jewish women have throughout history.
I prefer to think like the imahot – like Sarah, who listened at the tent door when the men were engaged in conversation and who later told her husband in no uncertain terms what he ought to do. Not that she wasn’t a wonderful support for Avraham – support which was mutual – after all, he continued to love her deeply even when she did not provide him with the children he so wanted. Being supportive, however, does not mean that one finds one’s own fulfilment vicariously through the achievements of another – even if the other is one’s spouse. Most of the pious women I know are a lot more like Sarah or even Rebecca, who truly manipulated her husband’s household and his destiny, than they are like the ideal facilitator of their husband’s dreams that some would pretend we ought to be.
It is the pretence that is being challenged in the modern world. Women have always sought their own identities and their own achievements but today they are not willing to pretend any more that these things are not important to them. The male voice of Judaism suggests that women who assert themselves – like Sarah or Rivkah, like Devorah, Yael or Esther, or even like Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, are behaving in an unfeminine way and do not properly understand the role of a Jewish woman. Beruriah, who was a role-model for women wanting to excel in scholarship, felt the scorn of men who could not accept her achievements. Women of great learning in modern times, including my late beloved teacher, Nechama Leibowitz, have remained wary of being too demonstrative of their intellectual greatness. But it is not going to be possible to suppress the achievements of the generation of female Torah scholars who are emerging.
I believe that education is the key – my own as well as that of others. And then I am reminded that it is because of the line in the Shema – v’shinantam l’vanecha – that some have insisted that boys and not girls need an education. It is amazing that some still hold this view – about Jewish education, even while not accepting it for secular studies. Nevertheless, women’s learning is flourishing like never before.
The challenge for Judaism today is to take advantage of the intellectual resources these women will provide. Let us hope that none of them ever has to pretend to know less than her husband or her Rabbi just in order to avoid the charge of abandoning the role of a good Jewish woman. I don’t think this generation will be easily silenced.
One of the problems with learning is that it leads to knowledge and a problem with knowledge is that it either leads to power or to frustration. In the case of women, it has often been the latter. In Sydney, only one Rabbi, Rabbi Apple, has devoted as much time to learning about the duties, obligations, possibilities and spiritual needs of one half of the community as he has about the other half. Of course, I’m talking about men and women. Most Rabbis have assumed that knowing about the halacha for men and from a male perspective is enough. They assume that there are general principles that differentiate between men’s and women’s obligations under halacha, and therefore by focusing on one, the other half will just fall into line. Of course, that is not true. The issue of halacha pertaining to women is a whole field of study – and a whole field needing development. It is frustrating in the extreme to hear a Rabbi espouse an opinion which is clearly based on a limited study of the sources and an even scantier knowledge of their contexts and histories. Several cases in point are women and kaddish, women and mezuman, women and kahal or minyan and the field of kol isha.
The most contentious issue in this regard is the issue of women and the Sefer Torah. The fact remains that Rabbis continue to uphold that there is something treif in a woman touching the Sefer or that somehow the Sefer itself could be contaminated by a woman’s touch. This is based on prejudice and ignorance but not on learning. Many men are blind to the symbolism of their own touching, holding and lifting of the Sefer. It gives them closeness not to the parchment and ink but to the very words of the Torah etched therein. What makes them think that women, too, will not be moved by the physical contact with the scroll that contains the elixir of life? What makes them think that watching from afar is as powerful as participating?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating the removal of the mechitza for tefilla – I recognise its importance and even value its role in particular settings. What I am suggesting is that women have always wanted a sense of closeness to the Torah. When the community was close-knit and the sofer a respected member of it, women must have felt the presence of the sefer amongst them – sometimes in their homes. I suspect, although I don’t know, that women in many places and in many times held Sifrei Torah and rejoiced with them, in the way that Miriam led the women in song. And if that is not so, isn’t it time for us all – men and women – to examine the symbolism of the scroll and work at ways of elevating its contents to draw clal Yisrael closer to them.
Women are said to pray differently from men and to have different spiritual needs and aspirations. I can’t really say – I’ve never been a man – but I have seen a variety of spiritual approaches and attitudes to prayer in men and women – it seems to be a very individual thing. On the whole, there probably are some generalisations that can be made – but the brilliance of our tefilla is that in every service there is a variety of prayers, so that each individual can find something to which he or she relates within the service.
Nevertheless, Rabbis continue to hold that women’s needs are different from men’s – and then not invest the time to examine the needs of the half of the community whom they’ve defined as “different”. If women have different needs, who is writing the siddur for them? The answer must, of course, be women – as they have done historically. But in order to do that, women need to gather together for prayer. That is their sacred need and their duty. Men should be encouraging such enterprises, not decrying them.
And, of course, there are serious questions about the content of the tefillah. I have never asked this question in a public forum before, although I did have the courage to raise it with a woman scholar in Jerusalem earlier this year. By the way, she didn’t have an answer. Here is a huge dilemma for me: We are supposed to have absolute kavannahwhen we recite the Shema – but I often find myself breaking my concentration, not purposely, but because I am genuinely perplexed. I say the words and you shall bind them for a sign on your arms and they shall be frontlets between your eyes  – and I know it doesn’t mean me. When I reach the third paragraph, the siddur tells me to kiss my tsitsit – and I know it doesn’t mean me.
Last week I was teaching a class about the Shalosh Regalim, in preparation for Pesach. One of the students, a bright young woman, didn’t repeat the silly question “why only the men?” That one is obvious. She asked a deeper question: “What does it say about Judaism that it put at the centre of its observance, practices which could only be properly accomplished by men?”  Yes, she may have made a mistake in defining the Temple as the centre of Jewish life, but her point was as valid for today as it was in Temple times.
When we think of Judaism, we do think of the Synagogue, or at least the Sefer Torah. We do think of Tefillin and Tsitsit, as well as mezuzah and candles. And if we want to move away from the ritual to the community and the home, we must grapple with laws restricting a married woman’s right to give tsedakah in her own name – this comes from Rambam, of course, who reflected Greek and Islamic thought about the status (and abilities) of women.
Or the most important of all. Simply put, the issue of the Agunah is blight on Judaism.
Blu Greenberg said that “where there is a Rabbinic will there is a Halachic way”. She has been widely criticised for this statement, but the context in which it was made, discussion about the agunah, does cause one to ask why we know all the laws of electricity on Shabbat and Yomtov, we have permission to charge interest on business loans despite an apparent Torah prohibition, we know the halacha regarding air-travel and tefillah times and so many innovations – all these male activities have been examined and adjudicated upon. But we can’t admit something very simple: The Torah proscribed the way for a man to give his wife a divorce, but it failed to proscribe the way for a woman to give her husband a divorce. It is up to halachic authorities to fill the gap. It must be done.
In the past, women exerted social pressure within close-knit communities, where it was absolutely effective. Today they need to use public forums such as this to raise their questions. The challenge for Judaism is to recognise that the concerns and questions of women are not new – they are just being aired internationally and publicly more loudly than ever before. Perhaps the time has come for reality to be recognised – half the Jewish population has reason to believe that halacha doesn’t relate to their issues – and this is half of the Orthodox world, not the far larger proportion who have abandoned it.