The changing role of women

Two women recently received rabbinic ordination - smicha - from well-known Orthodox rabbis in Israel.

woman in tallit 88 (photo credit: )
woman in tallit 88
(photo credit: )
Two women recently received rabbinic ordination - smicha - from well-known Orthodox rabbis in Israel. Although female rabbis have become commonplace in other movements, this is really quite unusual for the Orthodox scene and is another indication that things are changing regarding women's roles in Judaism in practically all circles - with the possible exception of those ultra Orthodox, who as a matter of principle divorce themselves as much as possible from the world at large. Women are now serving as advocates in rabbinical courts and many women are serving Orthodox congregations in roles that resemble that of rabbis without the title. I recently had occasion to attend a bar mitzva on a Shabbat morning in an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, and was somewhat surprised but also pleased to see that there were a number of women there wearing tallitot. There are also minyanim in Jerusalem where women play a major role in conducting the service itself. Where all these changes will lead, no one can say. What has brought this about? For one thing, the revolution that has taken place in the last hundred years and especially in the last several decades concerning women in Western society in general has had its impact on Jews as well. With women serving as heads of state, judges, heads of corporations and so forth, it seems increasingly discordant that their role in the synagogue and its life should be so inferior. The second cause is the increased Jewish education that women are receiving. Even within the ultra Orthodox community women are studying Judaism in a way that is unprecedented. And that is certainly true for the general Orthodox and religious community. Talmud, once totally off limits for women, is now taught to women in many Jewish schools. When women like the late Nehama Leibowitz are viewed as authorities on Torah who can teach men and women alike, and when women are increasingly knowledgeable of Jewish texts and practices, there is a natural tendency for women to want a more active - if not equal and identical - place within synagogue life. Specifically in regard to the tallit, although it is clear that it has not been the practice for women to wear them, there is a certain precedent for this in Jewish law. In the Talmud, Menahot 43a, it is recorded that "All must observe the law of tzitzit: Priests, Levites, Israelites, converts, women and slaves." This did not become the law since Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (second century) ruled that women were exempt. The same source states that Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, a second century Tanna from Usha, insisted that women in his household attach tzitzit to their garments. It is important to remember that there are three categories regarding mitzvot: those who are required to perform them, those who are forbidden and those who are permitted to perform a mitzva. Just because women are not required to perform certain mitzvot does not mean that they are forbidden to do so. Sitting in the succa is one good example. The Halacha does not require women to "sit in the succa," but it permits them to do so and most women do. The tallit is the same. Although the Halacha did not adopt the position that women are required to wear tzitzit, it did not forbid them to do so. Therefore there can really be no objection to this practice if women feel that they wish to fulfill it and that they receive religious satisfaction from being able to don this garment. After all, do they, too, not have to "remember all My mitzvot" - the purpose of the tzitzit? The only possible objection can be "it's not the practice." In my mind that is not a sufficient answer. There are many practices that should not be continued, that should, on the contrary, be changed. The position "anything new is forbidden by the Torah" is one that leads to a moribund religion, unable to meet the needs of the time. There are two ways of looking at Jewish law. One is to say that everything is forbidden unless it is specifically permitted. The other is to say that everything is permitted unless it is specifically forbidden. Neither is exactly correct, since there are always things that everyone knows are forbidden by common sense and accepted morally, even if not explicitly stated. But that aside, it seems to me that there is no need to look for extra strictures. I am always amused when I recall the case of the turkey. When this bird was first discovered, there was a question as to its kashrut since it is not specifically mentioned in the Torah - neither is it specifically forbidden there. In Hungary, there were those who insisted that it be written in ketubot that the wife would not serve turkey. Fortunately - for those who like turkey but not for the turkey itself - this point of view did not prevail. Nor should it on other matters as well. Change is always difficult. Getting used to new things is not easy, but only those who know how to change and who can differentiate between constructive and destructive change will survive. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.