Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk: A Conversation on the Role of Women in the Jewish Tradition.

March 13, 2018
Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left), Associate Rabbi Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg (right), Director of The Shalhevet Institute Judaic Studies Faculty

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Our previous discussions have been peripheral to the most significant reason I am a Reform Jew: my gender. For all of the strengths I admire in Orthodoxy, I could not in good conscience identify with a community that makes the claim that I literally do not count — in a minyan, as a witness or as a rabbi.

It pains me that a halachic Orthodox marriage is a legal acquisition of a woman as the property of a man. The family purity laws, which render a woman impure and untouchable for half of her fertile life, seem demeaning. I know the claims that separation is good for a married couple’s sex life. I know the apologetics that my communal participation is less essential because my spiritual essence as a woman is holier than a man’s. But to me, it’s all a thin veil that justifies male supremacy and perpetuates the exclusion of women from power.

I give credit to Modern Orthodoxy, which has taken on some of the most toxic elements of misogyny, such as the matter of agunot, women whose ex-husbands refuse them a Jewish divorce. I appreciate how your movement is expanding women’s learning, participation and leadership. But that work remains at the margins.

I know that you see women as capable of being your intellectual, professional and human equal. How are you able to tolerate these fundamental inequalities?

“To me, it’s all a thin veil that justifies male supremacy and perpetuates the exclusion of women from power.” — Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

I agree that this is a problem. To women who feel that counting in a minyan is their Jewish right, I can offer no great “Orthodox” response. Gender and halachah is our community’s foremost issue, and discourse on it is potentially reshaping Orthodoxy’s contours. I work for an institution and attend a shul that care deeply about women’s empowerment and leadership, and my female colleagues and peers are incredible scholars and professionals. So, I’m with you.

But we also need to consider this: Judaism has never been a religion of complete clarity. Living Jewishly often requires living with values that are not always harmonious. While it seems anathema to Judaism if (some) women feel like second-class citizens, it’s also unwise to dismiss years of tradition and halachic practice. The power dynamics may be off-kilter, but the Orthodox community is working to rectify this imbalance. It may be too little, too late for some, but I am pleased by the boom in women’s Torah study, and women in leadership roles and as Torah scholars.

Our community also has seen tremendous creativity — within the confines of halachah. Advanced-degree programs for women’s Torah study are on the rise. Yeshivat Maharat in New York is ordaining female rabbis, women in many communities are yoatzot halachah (experts in family purity law) and more halachic egalitarian minyanim are appearing. Many of these “innovations” are still controversial among Orthodox leaders, but their rise shows a willingness to progress within the boundaries of the halachic system.

Admittedly, a latent fear hovers over these discussions: If we adopt new gender policies, are conversations about intermarriage, patrilineal descent and conversion standards far behind? Those structures are definitional to who we are. I wonder whether you feel that religious progress should have checks and balances. Does Judaism have any particular shape or do universal values always trump the norms of the Jewish past?

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

I hear what you’re saying, but my fundamental concern remains that this empowerment of women still occurs within the confines of a second-class status. Men, not women, have the sole power to define these boundaries. The integration of women’s input is at best a courtesy, not a requirement. Sure, a woman can offer advice on purity laws, but she is deemed unfit to be a posek (decisor) on any other issue. To an outsider, the lines seem arbitrary and designed more to address the comfort level of men in adapting to change than the need to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of women.

I understand your concern that changing one thing creates a fear that doing so will open a floodgate of unstoppable change. Part of me sympathizes with that slippery-slope logic. But God endowed us with the unique blessing of conscience and discernment. It seems a chilul HaShem (a desecration of God’s name) to keep doing things the way we have always done them even though we know that something is not quite right. We insult God when we fail to use all of the God-given tools at our disposal to be the best version of ourselves.

My fear is that when we conflate the trappings of some religious observances that we have inherited with Judaism’s purpose, we are practicing a form of idolatry. Borrowing a line from my Reconstructionist friends: The past gets a vote, not a veto.

You refer to “universal values” trumping “the norms of the Jewish past.” But human dignity and equality are ethical truths central to our tradition. We may disagree about how to balance them with competing values, but why does continuity get labeled as Jewish when dignity doesn’t?

Writing this, I anticipate a letter to the editor from an Orthodox woman who challenges my analysis and takes pride in her allotted empowerment. To her, I say: You are more patient than I am. I don’t have the patience to wait for someone else to validate me. I believe that my tradition owes me a seat at the decision-making table by virtue of my humanity and education, not in spite of my gender.

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

The optimal word here, as you said, may be “patience.” A number of the leading individuals and governing bodies of Orthodoxy recognize that gender and Judaism is an issue that must be on the table. They’re just unsure how it should all play out. How does it work itself through the halachic system? To what extent will it create division in our community? Part of the calculus is whether ritual and halachic shifts are worth driving a wedge between different segments of the Orthodox community. You and others will say that it is, but others — even those who see gender as an existential issue — remain bound to a way of life that holds Torah as paramount. This tension pervades the religious experience of many Orthodox Jews, but they’re willing to live with it.

“Living Jewishly often requires living with values that are not always harmonious.” — Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg

As to your comment that Orthodox women don’t have a seat at the table, I don’t think the facts bear that out. I’m not convinced that the Orthodox community has fewer women involved in high-level Torah study, teaching and lay leadership than its denominational counterparts. Are there still impediments to maximizing women’s leadership in Orthodoxy? Yes. Must we join many parts of society to think about power imbalances in our community? Absolutely. There is work to be done. But, are women on the periphery of Orthodoxy? Are they treated in an undignified manner? I think not.

I can’t tell you how to feel. Orthodoxy will never satisfy everyone’s needs. But in my view, the idea that the movement is misogynistic — with women on the fringes and men maintaining power is — is a non-Orthodox canard.

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