Thursday, 27 November 2014

On the Role of Women - An Executive Summary

Dear Friends,

With one eye looking back to the classes on the role of women and one looking forward to the meeting, this Wednesday 3rd December, a number of members have asked for an ‘executive summary’ of the Jewish law relating to the three areas under discussion; women reading from the Torah, women leading prayer services and separate seating. This is that summary. It is, of course, selective and reductive. The full source sheets and recordings from those classes are available on-line.

What, I believe, the Halachah does NOT say is that various options are acceptable and one may choose, as one wishes, between different options. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone with an interest in Jewish law. The phrase ‘and each person did what was good in their own eyes’ is a leitmotif of several biblical books and the phrase denotes a failing, it’s not good. Rather what one should expect is an ‘if X then Y’ approach, and, I believe, that is what we find in this case. Jewish practice is not about seeking comfort and self-satisfaction, but rather an exercise in seeking what is just and good in the eyes of an all-seeing Other.

The central text regarding reading from the Torah is from the Talmud;
All receive an Aliyah among the seven who receive Aliyot on Shabbat, even a minor and even a woman. But the Wise said don’t call a woman to read from the Torah because of cavod hatzibur, the honour of the congregation.
In this foundational statement women are initially counted in, but immediately counted out because of this key term; cavod hatzibur. A survey of the appearances of this term in Talmudic and post-Talmudic discourse suggests it should be understood to reflect the social realities of the community in the time and place in which they find themselves. i.e. it does not describe a timeless absolute immune to the changing tides of history and society. That is to say the reason women were excluded from receiving Aliyot was because it would have been embarrassing for a community to have to turn to a woman to read from the Torah (bearing in mind that in Talmudic times there was no ‘Reader,’ rather the Aliyah involved reading one’s own portion). I believe that a decision to exclude women from receiving Aliyot, today, has to be based on a continued sense that when the Torah is being read ‘the honour of a community’ can only be vouchsafed by giving Aliyot to men only.

There are two key issues to consider when it comes to the question of women leading prayer services; one technical, one, again, sociological.

The technical issue is connected to a basic principals in Jewish law that one person can only fulfill the obligations of another if they are themselves obligated to perform that obligation in the same way. In other words if a room of people sit down to eat together and a Jew makes HaMotzi that exempts the other Jews from having to make the blessing themselves. But if a non-Jew utters the same words it doesn’t exempt the Jews because the non-Jew is not, themselves, obliged to use these words. That is not to suggest superiority of one over the other, it is rather to do with the nature of obligation. Since a key element of the role of a prayer leader is exempting the community from their obligation to recite the Amidah themselves the question, ‘are women obligated to recite the Amidah in the way men are?’ needs to be raised. There is another principle in Jewish law that women are exempt from ‘positive time-bound obligations,’ but it is clear that this second principle is not determinative. For example fasting on Yom Kippur sounds like a positive time-bound obligation – and women are obligated to fast. Similarly saying the Amidah sounds positive and time-bound, but the Talmud and every major legal code are clear that women are obliged to say the Amidah in the same way as men. There are elements of Jewish prayer that women are exempted from having to perform, but the leader of a prayer service is not, when it comes to these other elements, fulfilling the role of the members of the community when they lead those parts of the service.

The sociological issue is this connected to this question – who do you want to represent you before God in prayer? There is, of course there is, discussion of the appropriate character for a prayer leader. They should, the Talmud states, an appropriate prayer leader is one of unblemished reputation, meek and desired by the community. Later legal codes suggest prayer leaders should be chosen only from those who are ‘without sin, about whom no-one has ever had a bad word to say, even in their youth.’ But goes on to say, ‘if you can’t find one with all these qualities [and I’ve abbreviated the full list] choose the best of the community in matters of wisdom and good deeds.’ The question, ‘can a women be the best representative of a community?’ is a valid one – and I am aware of a number of members who feel that they cannot accept being represented by a woman in this way, but my reading of the tradition is that we are encouraged to select our prayer leaders as reflection of our contemporary values – who is the best of our community here and now. The question of whether gender should trump all other considerations in selecting prayer leaders, i.e. whether we as a community should consider no woman regardless of her qualities able to lead services, is, I believe the central question in the consideration of whether to make what indeed be a substantive change in the practice of the Synagogue.

I have not in this summary, considered questions of the possibly licentious nature of a women’s voice, or the question of women counting in the Minyan. Both issues receive attention in the sources on women leading prayer services available here.

There will be material on the question of mixed seating pasted into this blog posting shortly

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