Aug. 18th, 2017

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As I mentioned a while ago, after much anticipation, Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Rabbi Micha'el Rosenberg's book Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law came out earlier this year. This book, in draft electronic form, has been much circulated among Open Orthodox connected people, so I've been hearing people talking about it for years. I read it and digested it slowly, because it's dense and thematically challenging, but finished it sometime during my travels last week.

The book is not prescriptive at all- it's not p'sak, an authoritative ruling on the questions it asks. It's a review of the halachic questions involved in a)Can women lead a prayer service? and b)Can women be counted as part of a minyan prayer quorum according to Orthodox Jewish law? It's not a simple question, and Tucker and Rosenberg write carefully to force the reader to think through all of the implications of the question.

In particular, Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg take care to make sure halachic decisors do not reach the right end (which for them is clearly a reformulation of Jewish ritual practice that creates more space for women to participate equally) for the wrong reasons. For example, some prominent halachic decisors offer rulings that appear sympathetic to the egalitarian position, but which emerge from sexist understandings of a woman's capabilities and role in the community. One might be tempted to say "Oh, the Ran says this is okay, he's a Torah gadol, we have support to do what we're doing," but if holding by the Ran's position means affirming a sexist idea about women, that may undermine the egalitarian effort altogether.

Or a leniency on letting women participate may implicate other unintended consequences we wish to avoid. For example, such a leniency may exist in a statement about the participation of both women and minors in a service- we may wish to let women participate but continue to limit the participation of minors, and using this particular leniency would not allow us to do this.

A third set of such cautions applies because many of the restrictions Rabbinically applied on female participation in prayer services are in the name of kavod tzibbur- the honor of the synagogue community. This is a general sense the medieval Rabbis had that allowing women to lead services diminished the honor of the synagogue for some reason- there are various post-hoc theories about what the reason is, whether it's because it makes the men of the congregation seem uneducated, or because women are seen as inherently sexualized and impure, or something else. There is also a long body of Rabbinic literature that says that a community can waive a restriction about kavod tzibbur because of some other conflicting communal need... i.e. if a community only has nine men, some Rabbis say that they can waive kavod tzibbur in order to fulfill the minyan with a woman as the tenth. But, point out Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg, waiving kavod tzibbur involves acknowledging the dishonor inherent in the act you're allowing. Thus to an egalitarian it's much preferable, though halachically more difficult, to establish that the act involves no breach of kavod tzibbur at all rather than waiving concern for kavod tzibbur. They offer some suggestions toward this end, arguing for example that women in the secular modern world are expected to participate equally in social institutions so that actually excluding them is a greater desecration of kavod tzibbur. This answer is not responsive to the medieval commentators who seem to think that the status of women as violating kavod tzibbur is not dependent on community context but is inherent in the shape of God's universe, but this position is clearly not uncontested.

I think I emerge from the book no more certain how the halacha should play out, but more certain that Orthodoxy needs to work harder to involve women in ritual. And I appreciated the way Rabbis Tucker and Rosenberg challenged me to think about the halacha in new ways and in deeper, subtler contexts. It's an unquestionably brilliant and important work.

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