The constraints on women’s roles in Orthodoxy are a fundamental issue in the Jewish world today. Many of these restrictions stem directly from halacha; these should be respected, since halacha is the core of Judaism. However, concerns rooted in habit rather than halacha do not merit the same consideration. The fact that something has been done a particular way, or that people are used to it, is not a persuasive argument against change.
Unfortunately, many commentators invoke these extra-halachic considerations as a valid reason to limit women’s roles. For example, many rabbis acknowledge that women’s tefillah groups are halachically acceptable (when the groups follow certain guidelines), but still reject them for other reasons. Respected rabbis in the Orthodox community have concluded that, “the purely halachic points raised by the ‘stringent school’ do not seem adequate grounds upon which to prohibit women’s prayer groups,” and yet raise non-halachic concerns instead, such as, “Are women’s tefillah groups good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?” (Frimer, Aryeh, and Dov Frimer. “Women, Keri’at Ha-Torah, and Aliyyot.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 46, no. 4, 2013, pp. 67–238.)
Most male rabbis have never had the experience of sitting on the other side of the mechitza, a 180-degree shift from their shul experience.
Although I understand the concern that rapid change could be detrimental to Orthodoxy, the argument that change is inherently and always dangerous is fundamentally flawed; sometimes, lack of change can cause more damage. Arguably, the dangers of changing women’s roles in Orthodoxy are less severe than the dangers of not changing them. In cases like this, if an idea is halachically sound, it should be embraced, even if it is innovative and contrary to certain extra-halachic considerations.
It is important to avoid an automatic bias toward the status quo which can prolong existing problems. After all, before 1920, women weren’t allowed to vote, and there were rampant disagreements about whether or not this should be changed. Today, no one would argue that we should have kept the status quo; in hindsight, it is clear that change was the correct choice.
Rechabam didn’t understand the problems with the status quo, and this led to the kingdom splitting, a horrific consequence that still affects us today.
Tanach offers powerful examples showing that failure to change can be catastrophic. In Sefer Melachim, the northern kingdom of Israel collapsed because of the king’s failure to understand the issues posed by the status quo. When Shlomo died, his son Rechabam became king, and the people came and begged Rechabam to lower taxes. Rechabam’s advisors told him to listen to the people, because if he listened to them this once, they would respect and love him forever. However, Rechabam ends up listening to “his friends who grew up with him” (Melachim 12:8).
…sometimes, lack of change can cause more damage.
Rechabam and his friends grew up in a bubble in the palace and didn’t understand the issues in the outside world since they weren’t affected by them growing up. Rechabam didn’t understand the problems with the status quo, and this led to the kingdom splitting, a horrific consequence that still affects us today. Because Rechabam was personally content with the status quo, he didn’t understand the issues it caused for others, and thus resisted change, causing greater issues. Rechabam took advice from his friends inside the bubble instead of his advisors who understood the bigger picture.
Ultimately, it is important to stop shying away from other-side-of-the-mechitza issues before this conflict leads to a quite literal split in our kingdom, right down the mechitza.
This situation is parallel to a sort of mechitza bubble. Most male rabbis have never had the experience of sitting on the other side of the mechitza, a 180-degree shift from their shul experience. Women are relegated behind the mechitza to sit quietly and watch the proceedings rather than being active participants in the davening. When women ask rabbis about possible changes, it is challenging for the rabbis to identify with the issues, having grown up in their male mechitza bubble. Those who have acknowledged these issues and are grappling with how to solve them are taking the important first step. Ultimately, it is important to stop shying away from other-side-of-the-mechitza issues before this conflict leads to a quite literal split in our kingdom, right down the mechitza.
Josephine Schizer is a student at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. She helps coordinate a women’s tefillah group at her synagogue, Congregation Ramath Orah.
Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.