Conservadox feminism

David Golinkin would like to see his and other non-Orthodox halachic decisions impact Orthodoxy as well

A Women of the Wall Torah reading (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A Women of the Wall Torah reading
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

The Status of Women in Jewish Law

By David Golinkin
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
413 pages; $25

Can women wear tefillin? Can they recite Kaddish, lead prayers and sing in front of men? How about serving as rabbis and ruling on halachic matters? If you ask Rabbi David Golinkin – who, as one of the leading halachic authorities of the Conservative (Masorti) Movement in Israel, has heard these questions many times and included them in his book The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa – the answer is a thoroughly researched “yes.” Admittedly, coming from a Conservative rabbi, this is not a terribly surprising revelation. After all, the Conservative Movement has gradually been equalizing the religious roles performed by men and women both inside and outside the synagogue for decades. By 1947, according to Golinkin’s own account, 99 percent of Conservative congregations belonging to the movement’s United Synagogue had abolished the mehitza, or partition that separates men’s and women’s sections. By 1988, 64% allowed women to be counted in a minyan. By 1995, 88% allowed women to be called up for the Torah reading. In May 1985 – after much internal strife and after several leading Talmud professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary defected in protest – the first woman, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, was ordained. It took a little longer for the more conventional Israeli branch of the movement to ordain women, but in November 1993, the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem ordained Rabbi Valerie Stessin. Indeed, most of the battles for gender equality have already been fought and won in the Conservative Movement. However, Golinkin, who originally published 10 of the book’s 15 responsa in Hebrew – the lingua franca of halachic discourse – would like to see his and other non-Orthodox halachic decisions impact not just non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, but Orthodoxy as well. Notwithstanding the tremendous animosity that much of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment and many of the stream’s members express toward their non-Orthodox brothers and sisters, Golinkin’s rulings – and those of other non-Orthodox rabbis – have had some impact on Orthodox Jews. Orthodox women – as opposed to the male-dominated Orthodox rabbinic establishment – are much more willing to cross denominational lines. Women of the Wall, which is made up of a multi-denominational coalition, is a good example of this. Also, in a correspondence with this reporter, Golinkin noted that three Orthodox congregations in Jerusalem used the Hebrew version of his book to set their halachic policies. And Yedidya, a self-described Orthodox congregation, was founded to a large extent by Conservative Jews, which helps explain its pioneering feminism. In contrast, Orthodox rabbis are loath to quote the responsa of non-Orthodox rabbis like Golinkin. In the first of two introductory essays to his book, Golinkin laments that Orthodox rabbis tend not only to ignore non-Orthodox rulings on women in Judaism, but actually go out of their way to distance themselves from precedents that non-Orthodox rabbis have set. The author notes wryly that had Orthodox halachic authorities known in the 1970s that a Conservative rabbi, David Aronson, had instituted separate women’s prayer groups back in 1949, “chances are they would have forbidden the practice.” Golinkin wishes Orthodox rabbis would adhere to what he says Maimonides and many other rabbis heralded as an important principle in epistemology: “Accept the truth from he who says it.” “Ignoring non-Orthodox responsa or looking for alternative approaches entails a lot of wasted effort and leads to unnecessary or even mistaken halachic results,” argues Golinkin. Essentially he is arguing for a free market of ideas in the field of Halacha: Let halachic decisions be judged according to the rigor of their internal logic and their hermeneutics, and not by the affiliation of the rabbis who write them. Indeed, as he notes, there are cases in which Orthodox rabbis actually predate their Reform and Conservative brethren in halachic innovation. Though Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan is usually credited with inventing the bat mitzva ceremony in 1922, Orthodox rabbis such as Yosef Haim of Baghdad, author of the Ben Ish Hai, had already recommended celebrating the day a girl turns 12 years and one day as early as the 19th century. In 1947, Orthodox Rabbi Eliyahu Henkin ruled that women could recite Kaddish, as long as they did so from the women’s section. This seems to predate the practice in the Conservative movement. The Orthodox were also innovative in initiating advanced Torah studies for women. In 1972, for instance, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik delivered the inaugural lecture on Talmud at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women to show that it was permissible to teach the subject to women. In 1976, Rabbi Chaim Brovender and Malka Bina founded Michlelet Bruria, the first Orthodox women’s yeshiva in Israel. CLEARLY, IN many respects, there is not much distance between modern Orthodoxy and the more traditional members of Conservative Judaism – whom Golinkin clearly represents. Samuel Freedman, in his 2000 book Jew vs Jew, even coined the phrase “Conservadox” to describe this phenomenon. And Golinkin quotes Freedman at length. Nevertheless, it is premature to expect Orthodox rabbis to be influenced – at least directly – by the halachic writings of non-Orthodox rabbis like Golinkin. And this is true even though in many of his responsa, Golinkin uses precisely the same halachic sources as Orthodox rabbis have used. The first and most basic problem is that mainstream Orthodoxy harbors a tremendous amount of antipathy for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. A recent incident 41 The Status of Women in Jewish Law By David Golinkin Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies 413 pages; $25 illustrates the extent of that animosity. In June, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett met in the Knesset with between 250 and 300 Conservative rabbis – from Israel and abroad – who were attending the annual Rabbinical Assembly Convention in Jerusalem this year. Bennett, who holds the Religious Services portfolio, extended a warm welcome, expressing his respect for the Conservative Movement and referring repeatedly to the rabbis present – male and female – as his “brothers and sisters.” He went on to call for dialogue in which “neither side is superior, neither side is better.” This was apparently the first time that the State of Israel’s religious affairs minister had met with a large and official group of Conservative rabbis. Bennett was summarily attacked. Responding in his popular column for B’Sheva, a weekly that caters to a more conservative- minded Orthodox crowd – particularly settlers in Judea and Samaria – publicist Yedidia Meir accused Bennett of engaging in “self-deprecation” before the Conservatives. It was self-explanatory, in Meir’s eyes, that a movement that “permits men and women to sit together,” “ordains women as rabbis” and “allows women to be called to the Torah” during public readings, was utterly illegitimate. Meir went on to quote extensively from an article that Rabbi Benjamin Lau, rabbi of Jerusalem’s Ramban Synagogue and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, had written a decade ago after an intellectual exchange with Golinkin. In the article, Lau was highly critical of the changes the Conservative Movement had made, including the abolition of separate seating for men and women in synagogues. Lau later took issue with Meir on his Facebook page for using an article he had written a decade earlier to criticize Bennett. He did so mainly because Meir had failed to make a distinction between an article written on matters of Halacha, and Bennett’s obligation as a representative of the State of Israel to reach out to all Zionist Jews regardless of religious affiliation. Nowhere in Lau’s response to Meir does he retract his criticism of Conservative Judaism’s method of ruling on halachic matters. In his aforementioned article, Lau’s main claim against Conservative Judaism’s halachic rulings was that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha to the same extent as Orthodox Jews were. As a result, their “ritual instinct” was unreliable. Halachic innovations developed by Conservative rabbis to accommodate this ritual instinct are, therefore, inevitably distorted, he said. For instance, Conservative rabbis – Golinkin included – have reached the conclusion that today it is no longer necessary to enforce separate seating, because behavior and attitudes of their congregants regarding the mingling of the sexes have changed. But to what extent does this changing attitude reflect a genuine belief that it is possible to worship God without distraction while sitting next to a member of the opposite sex, and to what extent is it a product of secular influences? As Lau puts it, “Does the community that so naturally abolished the mehitza keep kosher in the house and outside of it? Is it committed to tefillin, tzitzit and family purity? Is this a community that serves God and functions as a religious body?” Regardless of whether one views Lau’s comments as condescending and a gross generalization, or as an accurate appraisal of Conservative Jewry’s lower level of commitment to Judaism’s strictures, his position reflects the critical attitudes of even the more liberal-minded Orthodox rabbis toward Conservative halachic rulings. LAU’S CRITICISM hints at the radically different perspectives that separate Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism when it comes to women’s sexuality. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the crucial factor differentiating the Orthodox and Conservative movements – more than theology or historicism – is the level of preoccupation with the female’s magnetic hold on the male’s libido. While Orthodoxy devotes a considerable amount of energy to avoiding female sexuality by covering it up and banishing it from men’s range of vision, Conservative Judaism tends to downplay its effects on men. “In other words,” writes Golinkin in a responsum titled “The Mechitza in the Synagogue,” “sinful thoughts arise from not being used to something, and a person who is used to seeing a young woman with uncovered hair or to hear her voice will not be adversely affected by these things.” He discounts the potential dangers of sexual arousal, citing the halachic concept of regilut, or habituation – the idea that since the sexes come into contact on a regular basis in their professional and social lives, men are not so easily aroused. Admittedly he did not simply make up the idea of habituation. It has been used throughout the ages by numerous Orthodox halachic authorities before him, such as Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel Halevi of Bonn (1140- 1225), Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1530-1612) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), in matters such as praying in front of a woman whose hair is not covered. However, Golinkin is willing to apply the same principle to allowing mixed seating in a synagogue setting – a move no Orthodox rabbi has dared to make thus far. Compare Golinkin’s dismissal of the potential spiritual dangers a woman’s voice and uncovered hair present, with the halachic analysis that Eliezer Melamed, a popular religious- Zionist rabbi, makes in his book Pninei Halacha. “Because a singing voice reveals the depths of the soul far more than speech,” writes Melamed, “modesty requires that women not sing in the presence of men…. There is a fear that if she sings in the presence of strange men, this will create an exaggerated intimacy that might lead to an undesirable relationship.” So much of practical Halacha – particularly laws dealing with gender-related issues – is formulated not solely by a rational, objective analysis of the relevant rabbinic texts. And one of the central considerations that dominate Orthodox discourse is the potential for spiritual damage to men as a result of sexual arousal. Interestingly Golinkin seems willing to admit that if in fact men were sexually aroused by a woman’s voice or by seeing her hair, this would indeed present a problem from a halachic point of view. Unlike some feminists, Golinkin does not make more radical claims. He does not argue, for instance, that a certain amount of sexual tension between men and women can be tolerated – even in a synagogue setting. Nor does he argue, like those feminists influenced by post-modernist thinker Michel Foucault, that the societal pressures placed on women to regulate their sexuality are in reality an attempt by males to perpetuate their power and dominance in society. His goals are less ambitious. He searches for solutions within the framework of Halacha. Even so, from the point of view of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis, his rulings remain outside the pale of Orthodoxy – at least for the time being. Another factor that distinguishes him is his willingness to dissent from the majority opinion of Orthodox rabbis living in the modern era. For instance, in his analysis of whether it is permitted to listen to a woman sing (he concludes that it is), he disagrees with nearly all of the major halachic authorities of the past century or so – from Feinstein, who forbade listening to girls older than 11; to Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, a Holocaust survivor, who prohibited listening to girls sing alone but was willing to allow boys and girls to sing together; to Shas’s Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who makes a distinction between taped singing and live singing; to Rabbi David Bigman of the religious kibbutz movement’s yeshiva, who prohibited music and lyrics that are liable to sexually arouse as opposed to those that are not. Notably, Orthodox women are increasingly unwilling to accept the dissonance between their professional lives as doctors, lawyers, judges and university professors, and a religious world dominated by men. And frameworks are being created to accommodate these women, with or without rabbinic permission. Indeed, many of these trends toward gender- egalitarianism within Orthodox communities are taking place against the backdrop of a declining religious authority. The Shira Hadasha synagogue in Jerusalem, which defines itself as Orthodox, provides a more gender- egalitarian service in which women can read from the Torah, lead some of the prayers and teach Torah. Women-only yeshivot have been created to encourage women to pursue advanced Torah scholarship. Women are no longer forced to choose between a career as a singer and remaining faithful to an Orthodox lifestyle. And a strict adherence to codes of modesty – such as a hair-covering, long sleeves and a long skirt – are not a precondition for being considered Orthodox. Some might dismiss these developments as nothing more than “flexidoxy” or picking and choosing according to tastes and desires. But these trends, which arguably reflect fairly reliably Orthodoxy’s “ritual instincts,” have impacted and will continue to impact Orthodox rabbis. And one cannot discount the influence – both indirect and direct – that the rulings of Conservative rabbis like Golinkin have had in helping shape the sensibilities and expectations of Orthodox women.