January 22, 2019

Response to Rabbi Fine

Less than half a century ago, the vast majority of Conservative congregations in the US were non-egalitarian. There were no rabbis who were women. Lots of synagogues refused to allow a woman even to step onto the bimah. Baby girls got a cursory naming at which they were rarely present, while boys were celebrated with the entire community. What a difference 40 years makes.

In a recent piece in the Jewish Journal, Rabbi Jeremy Fine laments the loss of the (non-egalitarian) Stein minyan at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He claims that this is a sign that the Conservative movement has lost its way. That by getting rid of this prayer space the movement is saying to people who otherwise are philosophically aligned with Conservative Judaism that there is no place for them at JTS. That we will lose them to Modern Orthodoxy.

Our response is this. Change is hard. As feminists we are well aware of the massive changes for which we have worked and of which we are the beneficiaries. As religious feminists it is our nature to be skeptical before reacting to every shift in the wind. But the idea that women are the social and intellectual and LEGAL equals of men is here to stay. 

If you believe in the idea that Jewish law, halakhah, has developed over thousands of years and will continue to do so, then there is no single project more worthy of our religious attention than the full inclusion of women. Historically, within Jewish law, women were placed in the same legal category as children, and slaves. But our society is no longer constructed that way. Though our grandmothers were born before women had the right to vote, women in contemporary western culture would never tolerate being compared to chattel. Or children.

Rabbi Fine seems to insist that to be ‘traditional,’ is to change nothing. That no community can be deeply concerned with the complexities of Jewish law, read the full Torah reading each week, walk to shul, keep 25 hours of Shabbat and at the same time count women to the minyan. As moderators of Hagbah, a Facebook group for observant egalitarian feminists, we strongly disagree. In just a few months our group has nearly 500 members, many of whom live that challenging existence each day. 

Where we think Rabbi Fine has gone wrong is in confusing the subordinate clause with the main one, the tafel for the ikar. In the short term, just as in the battle over the Confederate flag, there will be those who claim that their heritage is being discounted, violated. And that may be true, to a point. But when your celebration of heritage comes at the expense of my right to be treated like a full human being, I don’t have an obligation to go out of my way to cater to your needs. The ikar of Torah is not misogyny. What we call Torah grew up in societies that failed to recognize the humanity of half of the human race. Now that we know better, should we still be deeply committed to these conceptions of women? 

Last year, to Rabbi Fine’s apparent regret, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, (CJLS) issued a significant tshuva (legal responsum)  entitled “Women and Mitzvot”. It concluded that: “Women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot, with the exception of those mitzvot that are determined by sexual anatomy.”  The teshuvah was overwhelmingly approved.  So it seems, the most authoritative body of the Conservative movement has spoken, and has charted the path of religious equality mandated in today’s society, where in all respects, men and women should be equal. 

Rabbi Fine expresses the concern that  “[t]here are rabbis who would like this Tshuva to stand for the entire Movement. I suggest that we are at risk of losing what is so powerful about Conservative Judaism, the power of different interpretations of Jewish law. In fact, I would claim that we are not just alienating traditional men, but a whole segment of women who want to become rabbis or committed lay leaders but might not want to be fully obligated in ritual.” In fact, though the CJLS renders opinions on legal issues for Conservative rabbis, each rabbi retains the option to accept or reject those rulings. Rather, his apparent concern is that rabbis and lay people might be persuaded by the reasoning and sources of this tshuva, to agree with its conclusion. 

And we might ask, is the set of Conservative women pursuing the rabbinate but refusing to be fully obligated really so large? Does it even exist? 

Judaism has evolved over thousands of years alongside civilization. We no longer allow slavery, or polygamy. We established legal fictions to deal with interest in a modern economy and chametz which magically leaves our hands and returns at the end of Passover, lest the holiday cause too much financial hardship. We don’t kill adulterers, or rebellious children – lucky for some of ours – and we don’t take these legal fictions lightly. 

As religious people, we see the beauty in gently bending a religious tradition from the inside, keeping it from breaking. Only someone who loves Torah, and the entire halakhic system, can appreciate that these fictions, these reimaginings, contain beauty within.

As feminists, we say, “What about us? Why are we not worthy of a touch of loving reimagining as well? The Stein minyan at JTS was a relic of an earlier time and preserving it as such might be acceptable, if it didn’t impact the living breathing women and men who attend JTS right now.

Because even as we want to always be as inclusive as possible, inclusiveness can’t come at the expense of asserting who we are. If JTS had an exalted minyan which didn’t allow participation by redheads or bald men or people of color, we would be up in arms, protesting. Petitioning. Singing songs of solidarity. 

But when women are left out in the cold, it is so often met with silence. Maybe it’s time to make a little noise. Maybe it’s time, thirty years after the first Conservative woman was ordained, for the Conservative movement to decide what it stands for, and, when push comes to shove, what values it deems acceptable or unacceptable.

Aurora Mendelsohn blogs at rainbowtallitbaby.wordpress.com.

Iris Richman is a Conservative rabbi and founder of Jewish Voices Together, which advocates religious tolerance and pluralism in the U.S. and Israel.

Leah Bieler is a freelance writer and teacher. She has an M.A. in Talmud and Rabbinics from JTS.