Why I Put Up With Orthodox Judaism's Women Problem

Why don't I just join a Conservative congregation? It's complicated.

I knew it would happen eventually, but I never imagined the occasion would be a birthday party for one of my daughter's kindergarten friends. "I read your opinion piece" ["When Jewish 'tradition' means injustice against women"], an agreeable-looking father told me. "It was very interesting, but I do have a question." I sat up straight to face it: "You claim that the choice of the Modern Orthodox to keep attending their old synagogues [where women have no formal role in services] is immoral, but anyone who prays in a completely egalitarian – maybe Conservative - synagogue could turn the same argument at you, and at the decision to pray in a partnership minyan, which, for example, doesn't allow women to be cantors in the Shabbat Musaf service."

He was right, of course, and I told him so. That was the weak point in my piece, the op-ed that tried to shake up the Modern Orthodox communities from their continuing support of humiliating discrimination against women. The partnership minyans, those that insist on and are proud of being termed Orthodox, still erect a mehitzah, or partition, between male and female worshippers; they keep the discourse within the boundaries of halakha, Jewish religious law, and therefore cannot be seen as fully egalitarian. In most of them, women are still prohibited from leading all the prayers. In that sense, they continue to discriminate against women.

So how do I justify my flawed choice? First I must say that personally, I've never had any issues with Conservative or Reform prayer or congregations. In fact, in some periods of my life I attended synagogues belonging to these streams. On that count, I might not be the best, or purest, ambassador for partnership minyans. Saying that, I do believe that partnership minyans have an important role, despite not being an example of cosmic equality. I will try to explain.

Let's begin with my personal excuse: Since I have no urge to take on public roles, neither as a cantor nor as a reader from the Torah, I view my choice of partnership minyans first and foremost as an educational statement. Or, in other words, it's for the kids. I don't know if my shying away from public reading and leading the singing has something to do with being raised in an Orthodox community and thus internalizing some of its codes, or simply due to the fact that I can't carry a tune. In any case, it seems important to me that my children's experiences will include memories of women being an integral part of religious life. That their ear will be used to hearing female voices. That they will be used to seeing women with prayer shawls and Torah scrolls.

True, they might yet notice that the Musaf cantor is always a man, but they haven't so far, for the simple reason that in regular Orthodox service, discrimination against women is present in every twist and turn, in contrast to partnership minyans, where one must be familiar with halakha to notice the discrimination. So, yes, I temporarily rely on my children's ignorance, hoping that by the time they grow up, things will have changed for the better.

The second reason is solidarity. This has two facets. On the one hand, when you grow up in an Orthodox community, it can be hard to cross the denominational line. Someone in my Tel Aviv congregation once said to me: "I want a synagogue liberal enough for me, and traditional enough so I can invite my parents." This thin line isn't purely cosmetic; it is sometimes the barely visible, keenly felt border of authenticity that stems from familiarity.

The other facet of solidarity, the more important one, is the feeling of responsibility to my brothers and sisters who still are part of Orthodox communities. Sometimes it is easier to stick with your own kind: To establish schools for gifted children, neighborhoods exclusively for the upper middle class and gluten-free restaurants. But where does that leave our responsibility to others?

True, for the sake of my children, it would be better to turn my back on Orthodox Judaism, with all its obvious flaws, and instead to fine-tune some sweetly utopian, egalitarian community. But the moment all the progressive elements at the margins of the Orthodox community turn their backs on their communities, the masses will be left behind, without the diesel engines of the revolutionaries. This in-court maneuver, despite its price and limitations, enables one to keep in contact with the mainstream and hopefully pull it over to a better place eventually.

If the readers detect a somewhat patronizing argument, they're correct. In order to make it easier to swallow, I must add that Orthodox Judaism has many good elements, especially concerning the commitment of its members. In contrast to most members of Conservative and Reform communities, in Orthodox communities it isn't only the rabbis and scholars for whom halakha is part of their daily lives, but rather all community members.

Unfortunately, this often is expressed in strict observance of ridiculous trifles, and often the means become the end. Still, I believe this strictness is not essential to orthodoxy, but rather a genetic mutation. If Orthodox Judaism evolves and works hard to fulfill its potential, as the report cards say, then it is possible that the commitment of its community members will be used for better purposes than determining the correct degree of opaqueness for a 3-year-old girl's tights.

The last argument is more tactical than ideological. True, the Conservative movement could have been the obvious solution for those uncomfortable with the discrimination of women in Orthodox communities. But if one is to believe the Pew survey findings, it would seem unwise not to harness the bubbling energies in the Orthodox communities to an ailing horse, when only one-third of those raised Conservative choose to bring up their kids within the same framework.

The liberal forces in the Orthodox communities, those establishing more and more partnership minyans around the globe, now enjoy the momentum that animates a huge drama in their lives. Men and women suddenly feel they are part of an important change, a positive historic shift which places them in the center of the action. It might sound ungrateful, but swapping this for the sleepy coziness of our Conservative friends seems like a waste of religious fervor.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York a year ago.

Yeshivat Maharat graduates, June 16, 2013.
Joe Winkler / JTA Photo Service