When Jewish 'Tradition’ Means Injustice Against Women

If you, Modern Orthodox Jew, live near a synagogue striving to limit the affront to women in prayer but insist on going to an old-style shul that insults women, you are making an immoral choice.

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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vered kellner
Vered Kellner

When I was a teenage girl growing up in Jerusalem’s Religious Zionist community in the 1980s, I knew that there were two things that one could only get in America: white Reebok Hi Tops and sane religiosity. This is what people all around were saying as they watched Religious Zionism, born and bred in Israel, being swept toward the extreme end of the religious and political spectrum.

We pinned our hopes on American Modern Orthodoxy, where Jewish boys and girls shared the same classroom, where Jewish women were feminists and wore pants, and where everyone quoted Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik before going off to study Talmud in pairs.

Several years have elapsed since then. White Reebok Hi Tops have become a collector’s item, but I still maintained a reasonable degree of belief in the moderate approach of Modern Orthodox Judaism in America. When I came to New York with my family a year ago I was delighted by the prospect that my children would be exposed to a Jewish education with a broad horizon, and that I would be able to take a break from the frenetic, often militant, Religious Zionist discourse in Israel.

The above is still correct, but a little less so today. Because, as I begin a new school year today with a little more experience and with less of a mental jet lag, suddenly I am becoming painfully aware of the limitations and internal contradictions of American Modern Orthodoxy, which could once be freely described as ostensibly sane and progressively-minded.

My disenchantment began when my eldest daughter came home from school with a look of disappointment on her face. The previous year, when she was in grade 6, she discovered, much to our surprise, that she loved to pray. She had never been a spiritual type. Whenever I stubbornly insisted on mentioning something to do with Jewish tradition she would quietly and patiently wait until I was finished so that she could continue to tell me about yet another book in the Hunger Games series. However, prayer services with her female classmates, the melodies and the tone of the services touched a religious nerve in her heart, a religious nerve of whose existence we had been previously been unaware.

All this came to an abrupt halt this year, the 7th grade, as the all-girl prayer services were replaced by a prayer service with the boys in her class, who were — a year after the girls had celebrated their bat mitzvahs — gradually entering their bar mitzvah year, when they would be obligated as adults in Jewish religious law. A profound change now took place: Whereas the girls had fulfilled all the roles in their single-sex prayer group, including leading prayers, they were now shunted to the sidelines as the “congregation,” or observers of prayers led solely by the boys of the class.

These girls, considered as adults in terms of Jewish obligations and in the classroom, were suddenly pushed aside to the margins. And I mean “pushed,” because the time has come to take off the mask of habitual custom behind which these routines hide and to expose the them for what they really are: An act that is violent and which constitutes a profound insult. With a sweep of the hand, the religious Jewish community is saying to its young female members that they have permission to begin their inspiring career as sexual objects and as the incidental extras to religious practice, and their role is to be passive spectators and professional amen-sayers.

A short while after my daughter’s frustrated confession, a girlfriend of mine told me about the last-minute plans for the celebration of her daughter’s bat mitzvah. The girl would recite the Haftarah (the selection from the Prophets that traditionally is recited after the Torah reading in the synagogue on a Sabbath morning) in a women’s prayer service that would be held in a small room in the synagogue. When I asked whether the girl’s father would attend, my friend said yes, he would be there. He and a few men were given special permission by the rabbi of the congregation to attend, but only on condition that they previously attend an early-morning Sabbath service where they would hear the entire Torah reading according to the requirements of Orthodox Judaism. Of course, the reading of the weekly Torah portion at that early-morning Sabbath service would have to be performed by a Jewish male adult.

On any other day, and, if I had been in a different mood, my friend’s words would have just glided by me, as I would say to myself, “What is so bad about this arrangement, after all? Here we have a rabbi who is trying to bend the usual Orthodox practice a little to the right and a little to the left in order to make everyone in the bat mitzvah girl’s family happy. It is a case of having your cake, eating it too and not gaining any weight.” However, the accumulative effect of my daughter’s experience and my girlfriend’s news proved overwhelming. My friend’s words pierced me to the heart.

“How could such a thing be done?” I asked myself. “How can I allow myself to be part of this apologetic chatter? To be part of this anachronistic, ridiculous remnant of the erasure of half of the human race? How is it possible that people around me — most of whom are couples who, in their private lives, are busy trying to balance two careers with their family obligations — are collaborating with such an injustice?”

Then the High Holy Days arrived, and I looked up from my prayer book as I sat in my synagogue, Darkhei Noam, which belongs to the group of synagogues known as partnership minyanim, which are based on the principle of gender partnership and where women can fulfill certain roles within the strictures of Modern Orthodox practice. I looked around me and noticed that none of the nice people I meet at parents’ meetings in the wonderful Modern Orthodox school that my older children attend is there with me in the synagogue. This is a fact that I simply overlooked last year. The conclusion to be drawn from that fact was writing on the wall — in big letters. The critical mass of Modern Orthodoxy continues to attend the old-style synagogues.

So you can ask: Well, what does she expect? That everyone will think just like her? (Actually, that is precisely what I expect but let us leave that point for the moment.) The truth is that I can forgive the substantial group of Jews who are not prepared to participate in the process of giving women an active role in the synagogue. I can comprehend why many of the members of the previous generation find it difficult to taste a new dish. And I can comprehend the fact that those who live in a monolithic conceptual ghetto have not really been exposed to feminist thinking. I also comprehend the fact that not everyone is cut out for being a revolutionary and that, if there is no synagogue with egalitarian (gender-wise) aspirations in the neighborhood, not everyone was born to be a founding mother or father. What is more, I am even prepared to concede a little to those whose livelihood depends on the old establishment and who are therefore forced to blur the understanding that the status quo must be changed.

After I have forgiven all these individuals, I can now vent my anger at all the others in the Orthodox Jewish community. Unlike the members of the previous generation, they cannot argue that they have no choice — because, over the past 10 years, modern Orthodox Judaism has been given alternatives that do not go against the grain of its principles. I am talking about alternative solutions that are being promulgated by highly learned rabbinical authorities that are more meticulous about the points of Jewish religious law than most Modern Orthodox Jews; Prof. Rabbi Daniel Sperber is one of the most prominent of these rabbis.

If they are living in a neighborhood that has a synagogue striving to limit as much as possible the affront to women, Modern Orthodox Jews who nonetheless insist on attending an old-style synagogue that insults women are making an immoral choice. They have chosen to regard women in the corridors of their workplace as equal colleagues but to spit on them the next day in the synagogue. The choice is theirs. These Modern Orthodox Jews have been given the privilege of being born into a generation that can erase a centuries-old injustice, yet they are turning their backs on this opportunity. Perhaps they are claiming that they simply want to follow the same kind of lifestyle they saw in their parents’ home, that this is the kind of lifestyle with which they are familiar. “We are not narrow-minded or arbitrarily obstinate,” they argue. “We just love tradition.” This is the same kind of thinking displayed by plantation owners in the American South on the eve of the American Civil War who desperately clung to antiquated racial doctrines simply because they knew of no other approach.

Yes, change is frightening. However, the alternative is even more so. Modern Orthodox Judaism is well aware of this fact. More than a century ago, it struggled to juxtapose “modern” and “Orthodox” although the combination had previously been regarded as an oxymoron. It argued then that Jewish religious law is compatible with modern civilization, that religious Jews need not be ignorant regarding secular knowledge. Thanks to this tension between the two terms, Orthodox Judaism built itself up and made major achievements. However, its message has gradually become eroded; Modern Orthodoxy must urgently move on to the next phase.

Last summer, an article in the Makor Rishon daily sent waves through the Israeli public. The article described the phenomenon of religious Jews who are not daunted by the prohibitions of Jewish religious law. Some of them send text messages on their cell phones on the Sabbath. Others turn on the air conditioner or press the elevator button on the Sabbath with a slight change (in order to distinguish that act from their usual weekday behavior). Whether they have adopted this course of action because they are tired or because they have chosen to distinguish between substance and the meticulous attention to the minute details of Jewish religious law, they want to follow the laid-back, comfortable approach that is common among tradition-minded Sephardi Jews.

The response to the showcasing of this phenomenon was mixed. One particular response hit a nerve, in my opinion. In an article that also appeared in Makor Rishon, Yehuda Yifrah talks about what he terms “lightweight” religious Jews, who, he says, suffer from a “low level of religious eros.” To a certain extent, he is right. After all, how much libido is there in moderation? How much of a spiritual uplift can one derive from a middle-of-the-road compromise? Therefore, Yifrah claims, the "flexodox" community has ultimately come to a crossroads where its members have two choices: “Either they must abandon religious Judaism altogether, thereby ending the built-in dissonance of every Jew who lives in secular Western society, or else they must choose the path of true religious renewal — in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) channel (with the Chabad and Breslov hasidic sects given top billing) or, at least, in one of the yeshivas identified with the “hardal” mode of Judaism [which combines a Haredi orientation with a Zionist outlook]."

However, Yifrah has overlooked an additional alternative that is highly accessible and which can save Modern Orthodoxy from itself, while still preserving its identity. If Yifrah wants religious eros, he can stop looking for it at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, or on the south Hebron Hills. Religious eros can be found much closer to home, beyond the partition separating male from female worshippers in an Orthodox synagogue. It can be found within those congregations which are all aspiring — each in its own unique way — to augment egalitarianism in the world. It is within these congregations where you can find the spirit of change burning brightly, where you can find the initial enthusiasm of the new female immigrants for whom the doors of the synagogue are finally opening after a foreplay of thousands of years. These are the women who, when they recite the traditional “Shehecheyanu” blessing of gratitude — for granting us life, sustaining us and enabling us to reach this occasion — can hear generations of women who were forced to remain silent but whose voices ring down from the corridors of history with a hearty “Amen.”

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.

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