A Talit is Not an Accessory

As someone who walks the fine line between the Conservative movement and Modern Orthodoxy while defying labels, egalitarianism is a hot bed topic. *

Post by Melissa

I can understand the rationalle behind egalitarianism, even though I don’t currently buy into it on a broad spectrum personally.  However, I am a part of a traditional Conservative community and at this time, that influences my choice to remain semi-egalitarian.  I will allow myself to be counted in a minyan and accept an aliyah.  As a part of an egalitarian community, I do not want to put them in an awkward or uncomfortable place by limiting their ability to have a minyan (ie at Shabbat mincha where there are often only 10 people) or be rude to the gabbai.  I will no longer be shaliach tzibur or leyn torah/haftorah though as that is an honor and action which is typically planned in advance.  However, if the opportunity arose to lead a woman’s minyan or read megillah in a women’s reading – I would be happy to do so.  I do not think that doing any of these things takes away from a man being able to do them, it is just baby steps on working my way to a different way of life.  Meanwhile, I totally support my sisters who make the choice to be fully egalitarian, and those who do not.

I also fully support a woman’s right to take on additional mitzvot, such as wearing talit and tefilin.  What I don’t support is doing it to make a statement or as an accessory.  It is a mitzvah which by engaging in, you obligate yourself to – so unless you feel ready to take on additional obligations, I do not encourage it.  There are plenty of mitvot for women which are not embraced as widely (*cough* mikvah *cough*) and are somehow “less than” as mitzvot because they are specifically for women.  That is where I see the downfall in egalitarianism.

We drape Bat Mitzvah girls in a talit (with or without any sort of head covering) and teach them that to be a strong Jewish woman is to do these things just like their fathers and brothers.  I recall very precisely  my own experience of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and feeling like I was on the cusp of Jewish womanhood by leading more of the service and reading more from the Torah.  After my brother left for the US Army, I  took his tefillin and the Talit he had decoarted in USY as my own, and wore them in the synogauge minyan every Sunday before I taught Religious School.  I didn’t know why I was doing these things, just that it felt right to do it because the men did.  Last time I was at my parents home I reread my Bat Mitzvah speech (the content of which I should really post for you all someday as it my parsha was Pinchas and I spoke of women’s rights, D jokes that it will be the intro to my book) and could not help but be amused at how much my understanding of Jewish feminism has changed in the past 17 years.  I am still standing strong on the sentiments of my youth, just with very different actions and a more mature understanding of my place in the religious history, alongsde my modern sensibilites.

I now know that being a woman in Judaism is its own very special thing! We have our own obligations (even to daily prayer!) which are distinctively different because women are different.  We are not men and we do not have to be men to be successful or religiously observant.  If we embrace the power of being Jewish women – we have only the world to gain.

What is your take on egalitarianism, feminism, and being a Jewish woman?

*What I am writing will surely offend some people – that is not my intention.  It is also not meant to be a stance that represents anything or anyone other than myself at this point in time. I reserve the right to change my mind at any point in time.  I could also write endlessly on this, but need to keep blog posts shorter than the whole book in my head.  There will be more to come I’m sure.


51 thoughts on “A Talit is Not an Accessory

  1. what on earth do you think people will find offensive? here is what I read (and correct me if I’m wrong): you fully support women’s right to take on mitzvot as obligations . . . you just don’t choose to take some of them on yourself. you enjoy fulfilling the mitzvot that are specifically for women. i’m pretty sure that is the very definition of egalitarianism.

  2. i wouldn’t encourage anyone to do something “just because the men do” or simply as a social thing (like wearing a talis b/c it goes with your outfit or b/c everyone else is). mitzvot should be taken seriously. that is not offensive, it’s responsible leadership, imho.

  3. I also fully support a woman’s right to take on additional mitzvot, such as wearing talit and tefilin. What I don’t support is doing it to make a statement or as an accessory. It is a mitzvah which by engaging in, you obligate yourself to – so unless you feel ready to take on additional obligations, I do not encourage it. There are plenty of mitvot for women which are not embraced as widely (*cough* mikvah *cough*) and are somehow “less than” as mitzvot because they are specifically for women. That is where I see the downfall in egalitarianism.

    I totally agree with you! Although I couldn’t really tell you which men were wearing a tallit (for example) only because everyone else was doing it. But, of course, I also think that’s a fairly strong argument against restricting women from doing so on grounds of “appearing improperly ostentatious” (as is Rema’s concern in Orach Chayim 17:2). What I don’t like is the assumption by others that all women are simply making a statement! (Not by you personally, but by anyone who doesn’t take time to think that maybe some aren’t just trying to make a statement.

    Anyway, the point is that I agree that women should do what is required before they start expecting extra rights or privileges.

    • Thank you Laura.
      I definitely know women who have made a conscious choice to wear a talit for personally meaningful reasons, as well as women who wear it to make a statement or because everyone else is – so I can whole-heartedly agree with the dislike of the broad assumption that everyone is in the latter categories.

  4. i think you made a really astute observation about women seeming to elect observance of men’s mitzvot because they’re somehow “more legitimate” than women’s mitzvot [challah, taharat hamishpacha, candles].

    i’m not sure women who take on tefillin or wear a tallis even are aware that they are, in some ways, downplaying the importance of women’s mitzvot.

    really good discussion, ladies.

  5. It makes good sense to only encourage those who are willing to take on additional Mitzvot as ‘Chiyuv’. That’s certainly how my wife looks upon her Tefilling wearing – she puts them on daily, as her obligation. There’s nothing offensive about that idea in the least.

    Where you might end up offending is those who are not egalitarian. The idea that it’s up to the woman to decide if she wants to take on these Mitzvot is offensive to some; for many in certain parts of the Orthodox world, no matter how much a woman desires to take upon herself certain mitzvot, she still isn’t allowed to…and doing so would get her ostracized from her community.

  6. I struggle with egalitarianism (and how much I want to participate) but I love being in a shul where women can fully participate. I guess it’s kind of complicated!

    I love how at my shul I look around and see women who are wearing long skirts and hats, women who don’t cover their heads, women who wear tallit and/or kippot, and whatever in between. I love how where I am now I can experiment with covering my head in shul without getting any intrusive questions!

    I love being in an environment where women can choose their level of participation, where they take their obligations seriously and aren’t just doing it because the men are doing it – as if whatever men are doing, no matter what, is somehow better. I don’t know a lot (or any?) women who use tallit as a fashion statement, which I guess is lucky for me because I think that would irritate me, too.

  7. It’s interesting to me which things you will do and not do at your shul. For example, the “prohibition” against women leyning is actually a minchag. Women used to leyn, but it was considered an “embarrassment” for the community if it seemed like there were not enough educated men to leyn (someone posted a great link about Kol Isha in the comments section of this blog awhile ago, and it discusses other reasons why women leyning should not be prohibited like it is today in most Orthodox communities). However, counting oneself in a minyan is something that has always been a man’s obligation (and a prohibition for women), and it comes directly from the Torah and Talmud as halacha. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m criticizing you; I always find it interesting which things egalitarian women choose to do–including myself! I’m always reevaluating what I choose to do, wondering if it’s right for me and right for my relationship with Hashem. Spirituality and our relationship with Hashem are always evolving and changing. 🙂

    One of the reasons I think many egalitarian women are unwilling to take on Taharat Mishpacha is that they don’t understand it as a mitzvah for women. They think of it as “Oh, the men think I’m ‘unclean, and I have to go dunk in some pool of water in order to get ‘clean’?”, and that turns them off–or they just don’t even know about it. From the outside, it looks entirely like the men imposing their will on women. My ideas about Taharat Mishpacha and mikvah were totally turned around after I learned about it with my rebbetzin, and I now understand it as something that empowers women, not something that makes them less than men. However, like you said, wearing a tallis is something the men do, so women feel empowered when they do it too (I am, of course, not speaking for all women who do not observe Taharat Mishpacha or who do wear a tallis :D).

    So, after that long comment, thank you for this post! I feel like egalitarianism is not really addressed on both ends of the spectrum: it’s either implemented completely or prohibited entirely. It’s those communities in the middle (like Shira Hadasha) that are really talking about the issue and broadening our understand of the roles (historical and contemporary) of women in Judaism. 🙂

      • Even more interesting, and perhaps slightly problematic (in my opinion). If I’m in charge of making sure we have 10 in a minyan, I am very careful to make sure to count people who both our minyan would consider able to be counted (Jewish men and women over bar/bat mitzvah age) and people who would count themselves. If someone doesn’t think he/she makes the community “complete” (in the sense of being able daven as a minyan, say Kaddish, etc.), then I don’t consider him/her making the community “complete”. Being part of the minyan is not just being Jewish body for someone to count.

        This has come up, actually, a few times. We had a person (Jewish and over 13) that liked being in our minyan during services but didn’t actually count him/herself as part of the minyan. Thus, if that person was there, I would make sure we had at least 11.

        However, to each their own, and you’re right, there is definitely a difference. Thank you for clarifying :).

    • Thank you for reiterating that it is a Torah prohibition for women to count in a minyan. There are a lot of gray areas; this is not one of them.

      • Having studied the verse from the Torah a little with my chavruta, I am not entirely convinced that’s what that verse was intending to say. That’s how it was interpreted by chazal, and as I am not nearly as learned about Torah as they were, I don’t think it’s my place to offer a different interpretation. However, it’s still unsettling, and I hope that I will become more learned so I can understand it fully and make a decision about the interpretation.

      • Cheryl, agreed it’s not our place to offer a different interpretation than Chazal. An achron can’t even argue on a rishon, a rishon can’t argue on an amora, an amora can’t argue on a tana etc. How much more so can we, who aren’t even close to the level of today’s great sages, be able to differ from the sages of the Talmud?

  8. I appreciate everyone’s thoughtful replies! This is exactly what I hoped to accomplish – insightful and respectful sharing of opinions on a topic, which Cheryl noted, is far too often ignored.
    Much like I have committed to bringing discussions about mikvah to the public, I am now making a commitment to bring discussions about egalitarianism. There are clearly many things which need to be expressed!
    Keep it coming!!!

    (I’m also trying-on a new tactic of not actively responding to each post as it happens to see what sort of conversation can be communally created first.)

  9. Rightly or wrongly, I have an immediate negative reaction upon encountering women in tallis/tefillin. I say that descriptively, not necessarily proudly.

    Your post got me thinking why exactly that might be, something I’ve never really explored. Maybe it’s because when I see a woman in tallis/tefillin I assume (again, rightly or wrongly but probably wrongly since we’re supposed to judge favorably) it’s for the primary purpose of making a public statement, be it a feminist or egalitarian one, or it merely serving as an accessory, as you put it.

    There’s an Orthodox rabbi in town who told me when his chassidic grandmother passed away it was discovered she wore tzitzis, a tallis-kattan concealed under her garments! It was apparently a mitzva she took on in her lifetime though she made sure know no one knew about it, probably out of reasons of modesty and walking privately with her G-d… so that her wearing of tzitzis could always remain fully lishma, to serve Hashem… having nothing to do with a public statement. Who needed to know?

    I don’t relate the story as a judgement of those women who DO decide don tzitzis publicly but I believe it adds an interesting perspective.

    I love your ::cough cough::, an encouragement of keeping mikva, something so pivotal to Jewish family life and continuity. When I go to the mikva every week it’s a meaningful experience but I do so knowing I’ll never be able to make a bracha upon my immersion, that it’s not a Biblical commandment like it is for a woman, that it means something infinitely different to her.

    Forgive me if it comes off insensitive to you or your readers but I humbly think it’s challenging enough (and a lifetime’s work unto itself) to keep the mitzvos we ARE commanded, before taking on the additional responsibility of mitzvos we’re not. For the record, and to briefly steer the discussion away from gender, I’d say the same thing applies to taking on certain chumras. Halevai I wish I were keeping basic halacha well enough before taking on chumras.

    Thanks for another great post.


  10. Very interesting post and comments!

    My shul is egalitarian – women have the opportunity to lead services, leyn, wear a kippah and tallit – but it is their choice. In addition, our (female) rabbi encourages us to understand why we each make our choices, whatever they may be. As a convert, I guess I am lucky enough to have fully chosen my path, and as an adult have understood the meaning for the tallit – generally, and more specifically for me.

    At the end of the day, I respect everyone’s choices – especially so if they have been made with proper, considered thought behind them.

    • Out of curiosity, does your rabbi herself lead services, wear tallis/tefillin?

      Interestingly, my family’s congregation is a member of the OU but its main Shabbos morning service is mixed seating, putting several of its rabbis, including the current one, in the interestingly position of not leading services in their own congregation and davening privately beforehand.

  11. I second many of the statements of A Yid! Kudos! He summurized my entire thoguht process in the paragraph:

    “Forgive me if it comes off insensitive to you or your readers but I humbly think it’s challenging enough (and a lifetime’s work unto itself) to keep the mitzvos we ARE commanded, before taking on the additional responsibility of mitzvos we’re not. For the record, and to briefly steer the discussion away from gender, I’d say the same thing applies to taking on certain chumras. Halevai I wish I were keeping basic halacha well enough before taking on chumras.”

    That is my point, ladies and gents. Gendered mitvot were given to us for a reason, and if we want to defy those are we not defying Torah? And choosing mens mitzvot over those we have to do is putting down womens mitvzvot as unworthy and building up mens mitzvot as “better than ours.”

    And then if we do go that route, by aspiring to have fulfilled our mitzvot just so I can maybe take on teffilin is belittling my mitvot and building up “mens mitzvot” as something we need to strive to. I strive to be the best woman I can be! There is no teffilin needed to fulfill womanhood.

    This is a very recent concept. There are 3 women in the entire history of the Jewish people who put on teffilin, and forgive me for saying so but I don’t think we are anywhere close to their spiritual levels.

    • Put that way, Sara, noting how only a handful of exceptional women throughout history put on tefillin, spiritual lightyears beyond our generation, makes any widespread contemporary public practice among women to do so appear extraordinarily presumptuous, in my mind.

      I just realized that’s one long sentence! 🙂

      • But is it not worth trying? Please don’t think I am being disrespectful – just looking at ‘doing Jewish’ from a different perspective!

      • For some reason there’s no reply button to Rachel below but this is in response to her anyway.

        No disrespect felt… I think it’s great how M and her blog have enabled us to openly discuss and debate the topic.

        I’m not sure if it’s worth trying.

        Behold the cynic in me: When I see a woman in a tallis, I wonder if she’s keeping some other critical mitzvos she IS commanded, and it often seems not. Pardon my skepticism, but to see women not dressed b’tznius wearing talitot, something is off here.

        Further, does she have certain garments checked for shatnez before wearing them? Does she separate challah when baking? Does she, if married, go to the mikveh? Does she refrain from eating in non-kosher restaurants, even vegetarian? Does she not drive on Shabbos? Does she make a “borei-nefashos” bracha after eating an apple?

        Of course, none of these questions are any of my business but they’re a drop of a drop of the things women ARE commanded, so it seems to me these essential basics should be fully observed before taken on mitzvos one is not commanded. To wear tallis and tefillin, without keeping some basics she IS commanded, strikes me as presumptuous.

        Whether Hashem made us male or female, or a Kohen, Levi, or Yisroel, each has its vital role with its own mitzvos to achieve one’s unique soul purpose.

        I’m not sure if it’s worth trying, as you raise, for women to put on tefillin, at least on a public communal level, because I strongly believe it’s a life’s work unto itself to try and keep the mitzvos we are commanded before taking on ones we’re not…. I think I’m being repetitive, sorry.

        Respectfully submitted

      • To your post at #20 (I guess the comments can’t be branched off anymore). I agree with a good majority of what you say, and I believe that all women really should accept their own responsibilities before they start trying to take on extra “more interesting” things (whether the reasons for women’s exemption are any good is another story).

        But let’s look at the other side, too. There are men who, for example, decide to immerse in the mikveh for certain occasions though it’s not necessarily required that they do so. Do we check for how observant they are in their everyday lives? What about the tallit gadol? A tallit katan is perfectly suited for the mitzvah of tzitzit.

        Just my opinion. I do admit that I have a hard time with the division of mitzvot into “men’s” and “women’s”, at least with where the line is drawn right now.

      • This seems statement seems contradictory to your thoughts in a later post:

        “I feel that time old minhagim, and gender associated mitzvos, should not be easily reconsidered.”

        That’s essentially how I feel about this and many other recent adaptations to practice. Putting on teffilin/tallit is a perfect example of an old minhag/gender associated mitzva that has very recently (relatively speaking) been reconsidered. It’s not something mainstream. That was my point by saying only 3 women in history did it to whatever degree; they are (and should still be) the exception.

  12. I don’t know if it’s a fair analogy because men immersing in the mikveh isn’t a recent innovation but a longstanding practice going back to the days of tevilas-Ezra. It’s even codified in Shulchan Aruch that men should go erev-Yom Kippur, a nearly universal practice. Chassidim try to go every morning before davening, or, at the very minimum, on Friday afternoon before Shabbos. Granted, men don’t make a brocha but mikvah is still an important part of a man’s purification, especially if he emitted seed wastefully, either non-intentionally during sleep or otherwise, G-d forbid.

    If there were similar sources encouraging the masses of women to adopt tallis or tefillin, I’d reconsider.

    Two points of self-disclosure. I don’t know when/if I’m going to get married… but I truly yearn to wear a tallis gadol while davening. Alas I refrain because I’m ashkenazic and it’s the minhag for most ashkenazim (German Jews excluded) to wait until marriage to wear a tallis.

    It’s sorta too bad for me, but what can I do?

    I feel that time old minhagim, and gender associated mitzvos, should not be easily reconsidered.

    • Here’s an interesting personal update pertinent to this posting and an earlier comment of mine (#28).

      Last week I called a world renowned posek in New York. He sits by his phone for a few hours two evenings a week fielding halachic questions from all over the world. After several busy signals, I got through. (Sometimes it feels like it’s easier to get through calling a nationally syndicated radio show than this man.) I told him I’m of non-German Ashkenazic background, unmarried, and strongly desire to wear a tallis, and a little more information. After listening to my circumstances, he told me it’s muttar for me to take on, bli neder, the wearing of a tallis.

      So I’m not waiting until marriage to wear a tallis! I started this week.

      Now, if I were a WOMAN wanting to wear a tallis calling this posek for the green light, admittedly, it might have been a different outcome 🙂

      Good Shabbos

  13. Wow, great conversation. I don’t know what else to say other than well said, A Yid! You cited what I was going to write regarding men and mikvah. Also, sorry you have not yet found your bashert, I am sure she is out there waiting for you….I have a number of wonderful single friends. Is this the forum for making a shidduch? Maybe not…That said, I also don’t know you officially 😛

    Rachel, as mentioned, it’s so far beyond us today to try — and to me trying to put on tefilin is just another way of striving for something unnecessary, and in all likelihood sacrificing something else. It’s like if a doctor told us to eat X to make us healthy, and all we really wanted to eat was J. Is it because we like J? Is it because Joe Shmo has J and we like Joe Shmo? Well, who cares. The Doctor said we should eat X to be healthy.

    Laura, I understand what you mean to a degree. There are some gray areas in Judaism that really results in the differences between so many Jewish groups! Still, what is halacha and what is the bending of halacha? So many practices have come up in the last 150 years or so that are suddenly accepted as normal, but we’ve lost sight of what is true (generalizing here, I realize this is not everyone). I recently spoke a Chassedish rebbitzon who is a wonderful teacher. She said she always tries to emphasize to the girls what these differences are (between halacha and chumra), which at times can be even more important to recognize in a narrower community, where things sometimes get muddled.

    Sorry for the really long post — oy!

    • I am loving this conversation!!!

      And I’d be happy to have this forum be a space for shidduch-ing. I do know “A Yid” in real life, so if you want to email me, we can discuss this further.

  14. How did I forget that announcing my single status in a room of kind Jewish women would be to acquire several concerned shadchans on my case! lol, thanks. For personal reasons I probably shouldn’t divulge in the public forum of the internet, I’m not in the shidduch parsha. Maybe that’ll change; I wouldn’t put anything past the Good Lord. 🙂

  15. I tend to come at egalitarianism from a different perspective than the taking-on-mitzvot angle. From my study of various texts, including written Torah, Gemarrah, and contemporary teshuvot, it seems like women were not obligated in certain mitzvot because they were not masters of their own time. Rabbis determined that their primary obligation was to their husbands, and they didn’t want to put women in a place where they had to choose between following their husbands and following Hashem. Though, it’s worthwhile to note that there’s a lot of picking and choosing in terms of what mitzvot are considered time-bound, and I think that there’s a clearer division between public and private mitzvot.

    OK, so now we’re in 2011, and I didn’t get married until I was 24. That’s 11 years where I was a halachic adult, and not accountable to a husband. I was master of my own time, at least as much as anyone. It seems presumptuous to assume that I’m as exempt from mitzvot as a full-time mother of many children living in 1011, who, because of the time period she lives in, is accountable to her husband.

    Now I have a husband. But we don’t have children. We won’t have children for another 3 years at least, while I finish my graduate program in chemistry. I’m not accountable to him any more than he is accountable to me. So why should I be exempt from obligation?

    When we have children, God willing, we will both be equally responsible for their upbringing and well-being. If my husband is sharing equally in their upbringing, then why should I be exempt from mitzvot? The original reasoning just doesn’t seem to apply anymore.

    Now, you could argue that maybe we shouldn’t share equally in raising our children. But that’s a whole other ball game.

    So, while I’m not perfect in my observance of the mitzvot (though I constantly work at it), I do where Tallit and Tefilin. Because I see myself as obligated. And, as any other obligated individual, when I am publicly praying, I wear that appropriate ritual garments: kippah, tallit, and tefillin.

    And, sorry for writing an essay here, but I wanted to touch on the idea of tallit and tefilin to make a statement. When I first started wearing them, I was the only girl in my 100 person class to wrap teffilin. A few girls wore tallit. Definitely one motivation for wearing teffilin was to make a statement about women being able to do things that men could do. It was easy to have that statement become central, since I was the only woman wearing tefillin. If I forgot a kippah in the morning, or lost it during recess (pesky wind), I had to fight to get one from the front office. I realized that I was making a statement, because I wasn’t allowed to just wear kippah, tallit, and tefillin without it being a statement.

    These days, I belong to a wonderful egalitarian shul. There are many women who cover their heads and who where tallit and teffilin. I don’t stand out. So, when I put on these ritual garments, I don’t feel like I’m making a statement. I’m just performing mitzvot for kiddush HaShem, to strengthen my connection with HaShem, and to remind myself of the mitzvot. Which, of course, is their stated intention.

    Again, I’m sorry to write such a long comment, but I’ve thought a ton about these issues. And I think there’s a lot of misconceptions of women who practice mitzvot that were traditionally reserved for men.

    • It is great to have comments which show different perspective respectfully, and sometimes it takes a bit of length to make the desired point. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. (Truthfully, it reminds me of myself as a teen.)

    • I’m sorry if my response is as long as yours, but there is as much to say about the points you bring up.

      First and foremost, I will quote A Yid’s comments to a previous comment:
      “It’s not our place to offer a different interpretation than Chazal. An achron can’t even argue on a rishon, a rishon can’t argue on an amora, an amora can’t argue on a tana etc. How much more so can we, who aren’t even close to the level of today’s great sages, be able to differ from the sages of the Talmud?”
      – If we’re going to argue with them about this then what’s next? God forbid someone should argue first the points of teffilah, then that we should not keep kosher, taharash hamishpacha, and more, because the ideas might not fit with our time. Why have we survived this long? Becuase of Hashem, the Torah, and minhagim and halachot that are timeless.

      You say that you studied Talmud so you must already know this. Do you think we should differ with the chazal?

      When you write “it seems like women were not obligated in certain mitzvot because they were not masters of their own time…I was master of my own time [in the years before my marriage], at least as much as anyone.”
      -You are simplifying the point, as well as the major role women have always had in Judaism. And do you think the women of 300 years ago were so much more similar to the women of 2000 (or more) years ago? I am sure if they were here today they would beg to differ.

      You also write “I’m not accountable to him any more than he is accountable to me. So why should I be exempt from obligation?”
      – This is the saddest statement of all. I hope that all couples feel accountable to and for their spouses. Yes, I’m married too, though I think I would have said the same if I were still single. What do we become if we are not accountable? Roommates with benefits?

      “Now, you could argue that maybe we shouldn’t share equally in raising our children. But that’s a whole other ball game. ”
      – Does this statement belong here? I hope you know that almost nobody would argue with you. Traditional, Egalitarian, Orthodox, Reform or otherwise. That said, in my favorite social psych study from the feminism course I took last year at a secular university, researchers observed duties of hundreds (I want to say 200 I might be off) of households and they could not find one that was completely split 50/50 — women always ended up doing more. The “best” they could find was 51/49 in one home only. That said, I am excited to be a homemaker and working woman; what a bracha! Still amazed when I hear women complain about it all…but that is another topic for another time.

      I only write this with the best of intentions and hope that I have not offended you. I’d definitely like to see your thoughts on this!


      • Hi Sara,

        Don’t worry, you haven’t offended me! I know that my opinions are somewhat radical, and most people, even in the Conservative community, don’t agree with me.

        I don’t see egalitarianism as differing with Chazal, per say. But coming from a different perspective and trying to build and interpret halacha under much changed circumstances. Does having a woman leyn imply, these days, that our male community is uneducated? I don’t see how it does, in a time when women are, or at least should be, educated as well as men. So I think it’s important to look at what the sages have said, and continue to build halacha from there. But I think it’s detrimental to Judaism to refuse to acknowledge that circumstances change. Torah is living and growing because we live and grow.

        And I don’t think that your analogies fit particularly well. Egalitarians often gets lumped in with leniency in observance, but I don’t think that’s fair. Egalitarian is pushing for MORE engagement with halacha, MORE observance, MORE connections with HaShem, not less.

        When I wrote that my husband and I are not accountable to each other, I miswrote. I mean that my husband can’t demand that I do such and so because he is the master of the house and whatnot. We are partners. So, although we are accountable to each other, we are EQUALLY accountable. That is what I meant. And that IS an important change that deeply influences the circumstances of women’s role in Jewish life.

        And I’ve definitely seen that study too. But shouldn’t we be working towards both parents have an equal share in raising children? What a blessing that would be for everyone!

      • Shoshie, I very much see egalitarianism differing from Chazal, dramatically so.

        If the sages of the Gemara were incarnated to 21st century America, do you think they’d feel comfortable davening in a shul next to women, much less those in talis and tefillin? I’m not seein’ it. Do you think they’d be at home with the liturgy? So much for the “ee’shei Yisroel” phrase of “r’tzei”.

        You mention building and interpreting halacha. So we look at what the Sages said, and then who gets to build and interpret halacha from there?



        Every congregation for itself?

        I sure hope it’s no to all the above.

        I leave the interpreting of halacha in ever-changing circumstances to the poskei-hador, the leading authorities of the generation, including our own. We have a living Torah and living Torah sages.

        Yes, I do tend to lump egalitarianism with leniency in observance. In my experience, individuals like this blog’s author (hair covering, Shabbos observant, mikvah observant etc.) are the exception, not the rule, in conservative Jewish life. The other individuals I know within the conservative movement who lead similar lifestyles happen to be conservative rabbis and their rebbitzens, the ranks of whom M and D plan to join, IY”H.

        Sorry to sound cynical, but it leads me to assume egalitarianism has not caused a widespread strengthening of halacha among the bulk of the movement’s practitioners.

        Am I off base in lumping egalitarianism with the conservative movement? They strike me as one and the same, or at least deeply overlapping.

        If you’re saying egalitarianism means stricter adherence to halacha, I think that’s great, but it doesn’t ring true in my experiences.

        A gutten Shabbos holy Yidden!

  16. A Yid-

    I think that if Chazal were reincarnated to 21st century Jews, there would be much heated debate among them regarding egalitarianism and the role of women in Judaism. There’s simply a different batch of information to work with in this century. Also, though it’s kind of unrelated to the topic at hand, liturgy has always changed. This is not new. And, for the record, I say ee’shei Yisrael in my davening, since I see no reason to change it…

    The ideas that I’m proposing here are not my own. They are legitimate rulings proposed by several brilliant Conservative rabbis, who are quite more learned in Torah and halacha than I am. I take the idea to find myself a rabbi very seriously, and I am happy to follow the halachic rulings of the brilliant rabbi of my community.

    I think that, in many ways, rabbis have always paskened to the needs of their community. It saddens me to see that this is becoming less and less the case. Rabbis pasken so as to seem as frum as possible, and not in consideration of the allowances of halacha and the needs of their community.

    It’s fine of you see observant egalitarianism as the exception, rather than the rule. In fact, you are correct. But we’re growing. At my awesome Conservative shul in Seattle, there are a number of shomer Shabbos and shomer kashrut Jews. Most people live walking distance, though people who drive are not shunned. Admittedly, there are only a handful of couples who make use of the mikvah. But this, too, is seeing revitalization, and we’re a growing number, especially since a few years ago, the RA’s law committee published 3 teshuvot on niddah and use of a mikvah.

    As far as egalitarianism strengthening the observance of halacha…well, I know that it’s the case for me and several of my friends. I would have long gone off the derech if I were forced to choose between Orthodox Judaism and non-observance. But, instead, I find myself constantly striving to increase my observance. And, to be fair, Conservative Judaism, at it’s heart, is pro-observance and pro-halacha. I think the problem is that affiliation with a Conservative shul is the default for a lot of secular Jews. But I’ve ALWAYS known observant Conservative Jews, and not just clergy. And they tend to have the best understanding of what Conservative Judaism is.

    • To Shoshie, thanks for your response. Though we differ on some things…. to this growing halacha observant community you describe, my heart is warmed and all I can say is “kein yirbu”, may it only increase.

    • Well, if you acnowledge a conservative rabbinate alltogether, there you go, let’s just take what chazal say and break it down, one branch at a time. Yes, it differs, not a little bit but greatly. I don’t think chazal would come into todays societys and say “oh wow, human nature is so different from what it used to be” or “wow, the Torah has really changed.” I think looking beyond men’s mitzvot as being something for men and assessing halachos on col isha (sp?) would easily lead to the conclusion that certianally women should not lein, especilaly in front of a mixed crowd. But with the lack of tznius on the billboards and in the plain old grocery store (can you imagine their reactions to that?), it is easy to see how such a simple mitzva can get left by the wayside.

      There is a middle ground. Though still controversial, have you heard of seminaries such as Nishmat? I think that such “middle ground” as well as “dati” Judaisim is lacking in America, but with the easier reform and conservative options I suppose this is to be expected.

      I come from, well, not from the U.S. In my country, and I think most others, there is not “Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative.” What I grew up with is “you’re Jewish!” We were Orthodox, if you want to call it that. We went to shul but drove, and we were never shunned. And that’s just how it was. The divisions here are almost intolerable; why do we not just do what we can of Judaism instead of trying to change it to fit our new-and-improved lifestyles? I don’t think there is one brand of Judasim, but I think the integrity of it, especially in America, is being lost faster than you can say Moshiach.

      • Hi Sara,

        I don’t think the issue is that people are fundamentally different today than they were 2000 years ago. But I think the context has changed. We have highly educated and capably women. We have men and women getting married and starting families far later in life. Chazal built halacha based on the realities of their day, which are not the same as the realities of our day. So I think there is room to reinterpret in this area. We always have. This is not new.

        I am familiar with Nishmat, and I think it’s an awesome step in the right direction. But it still relegates women to a subordinate role. We only have the capability to understand halachot that are specifically women’s halachot. That is unacceptable to me. There are many brilliant halachic minds that belong to women. Why can’t they ever be considered learned enough to pasken or lead a kahal? Even if you follow kol isha, a rabbi doesn’t have to leyn or serve as shaliach tzibor. Mine doesn’t.

        I agree with you on one point…the hatred and divisions between Jews is terrible. Unity is so important, but frequently when people talk about unity, they mean that everyone should start following their type of Judaism. And that is even more harmful to us all. There’s plenty of room for disagreement.

  17. Melissa, I was wondering if you could expand (maybe in a later post) on your reasons for not leyning Torah or Haftaroh in a mixed setting anymore,since I assume you grew up doing so.

    I find it interesting to learn how and why we all draw the line where we do. I know observant women who are fully egalitarian and pray 3x/day and wrap tefillin and read Torah, as well as women who feel uncomfortable being counted in a minyan but are willing to lead Kabbalat Shabbat or read Haftorah in front of men. I also know women who read Torah but don’t wear tefillin, etc.

    As someone who grew up Egalitarian (and still consider myself to be, although I respect all forms of observance, and I do not lead a “halakhic” lifestyle), I find leyning in front of my community to be one of the most meaningful mitzvot that I perform.

    I also find women’s leyning quite beautiful in non-egalitarian settings, particularly feel quite at home at self-described “Orthodox” partnership minyanim with mechitzot do indeed allow (and encourage) women to leyn Torah or Haftorah in front of men–I’m thinking here, specifically, of Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem, where I attended a spiritual, moving Bat Mitzvah, in which the girl read Torah in front of the whole community.

    • I think for me its more about context and the approach to the leyning, more than the leyning itself. I will be happy to expand on it in a later post. (I need to work on how to phrase it to communicate it clearly.)

  18. Hi Shoshie,

    ( I can’t reply to the reply so I am just writing here…) To assume that women were uneducated in the times of chazal is to put the women of the time down, as there were many, many well educated women. Now I realize that there were many, many uneducated women, and that is unfortunate and also something we struggle with today among all Jews. Part of what makes Judaism meaningful is actually knowing about it.

    I read a heartbreaking story about a girl and her two grandmothers who raised in 1920s Europe. Both were _incredibly_ well educated. Her grandfathers sister, however, was poorly educated in Judaism, and unsurprisingly found little to connect to in the practice and theology of it all. Education should be important for both, but unlike you I think it always has been. I know many Rabbi’s who, especially on some issues such as kashrut, will tell someone to ask their (the Rabbi’s) wife.

    Seeing our position as women as subordinate is one way of looking at it. I guess if that suits a communnity and Jewish women want to become activist Jewish women that is fine. But I don’t know what the price is for what we’re changing. In this respect clear halacha and the Chazal are being challenged. Frankly, I just don’t think we’re worthy of arguing. Now trying to understand something and looking for more answers is one thing, but changing the answers is what seems to be happening. I am sure the Rabbis you know, like the Rabbis I know, are very learned. While certain halachot etc. have to be adapted (ie chazal did not have freezers), I know that my Rabbi will not challenge the greats that came before him. I guess to each their own.

    Women are not subordinate or oppressed; it’s a matter of perspective. I believe in equal pay for equal work and equal participation in the home and I also believe in a mechitza for my privacy and his, and I believe that the closer to Sinai the closer to the Source….I think that last one is rather crucial.

    Note: I am not saying that women are never oppressed or subordinate, I’m just saying that they aren’t any more so in a traditional Orthodox setting than in any other setting.


    • Sara,

      I think to say that women are more educated these days is not demeaning the women of millenia ago, it is simply fact. I’m not speaking of all women, and clearly there were exceptions. But you cannot deny that there has been a radical shift in the role of women in our society.

      But, at the end of the day, I feel like we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this. You don’t see women being oppressed or demeaned in Orthodox settings– I see it all the time. It saddens and frustrates me. I see women shoved in the back for davening. I see less priority given to women’s education, fewer shiurim, fewer educators, fewer sefarim. I see women standing up and saying they feel ashamed that they have no husband to speak for them. I see people asking for a minyan and saying, not that there aren’t ten men, but that there aren’t ten PEOPLE, as if women aren’t people. I’m sorry, but I can’t see the wisdom in this way of thinking. I don’t think it’s true to Torah and I don’t see it in the tradition of the compassionate rabbis and leaders who came before us.

      And, sure, there are problems with subordination of women in other sects of Judaism. I can’t speak to Reform Judaism, but I do know that there is less focus on women’s education in the Conservative world. I know that Conservative rabbis are less respected, on the whole, and are taken less seriously. I know that women’s mitzvot, like taharat hamishpacha, are not taken seriously, and I think that part of the reason is that women are not taken as seriously. But, from what I’ve seen, liberal branches of Judaism do a much better job at acknowledging how important its women are and how insightful and halachically-minded they, we, can be, if given the right resources.

      • Happily, I will agree to disagree. If I look for unhappy women in conservative circles I am sure that I will find them. If I look for unhappy women in Orthodox circiles I am sure I will find them. We’re bot ha bit biased.

        As an aside, I see far fewer groups making Torah the focus of their lives, and acnowledgeing it and Hashem as much as Orthodox Jews. To each their own but I think if the point is to connect with Hashem, many groups are missing the point in politics.

        I don’t think that the Orthodox braches demean women’s knowledge in the slightest, and I would only say that it is women’s roles that tend to be in question by some Orthodox and many non-Orthodox men and women, rather than their intelligence.

        Do you know how the minyan origionaited? One of the reasons were the spies coming back with a bad report. They were all men. The other part is Adam, and that whole issue I won’t get into, but if we understood why men and women were differnet rather than fighting for them to be the same then I think many men and women would be more content, not less.

        But okay, I disagree, we can leave it that. Thanks for the interesting discussion. I hope you have a good Shabbos!

  19. Oh, you won’t find any disagreement from me that there are fewer people in liberal Judaism who make Torah the center of their lives. I think it’s one of the major problems with liberal Judaism. I tend to ID as Conservative because I mostly agree with the theology and the halachic process the Conservative Judaism says that it’s about. But a way small percentage of people who go to Conservative schuls actually follow the ideology of the Conservative Movement. I, fortunately, belong to a community where a much higher percentage do, but it’s still a pretty small segment.

    And, yes, we’re just going to have to disagree, I think. You believe that men and women are inherently cut out for different things, and I do not. And I don’t think either of us are going to change our minds on this.

    Thanks for the discussion, and good Shabbos!

    • Hi Shoshie

      I don’t think men and women are inherently cut out for different things. I think our differences are that I am seeking to learn about halachah and live within it, while you seek to redefine it in many ways, and if not you directly then certainly the conservative movement as a whole, though I realize that even that varies based on location/level of traditionalism within a community. And I have seen far more egalitarian play/children/roles in the more observant communities than I have in the conservative/reform communities that I have visited. The more secular the community, the more they seem to ascribe to gender roles that are still dictated by society, and the more they seem to buy into those stereotypes. While I do think that men might lean towards certian things and women towards others, I think that there is a bit of those characteristics in _both_ genders.


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