Sisterhood Blog

Orthodoxy's Troubling Double Standards for Women

By Elana Sztokman

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I had a jarring conversation with a young woman last week. In a discussion about the challenges women face in Orthodoxy, she turned to me with a cheeky smile and declared, “I am not a feminist.”

She described her perceptions of Shira Hadasha, the pioneering partnership synagogue in Jerusalem where men and women share certain roles in leading services and reading from Torah, mechitzah [partition] and all.

“I went there once and I was not impressed with the women,” she said, by way of explaining her aversion to feminism. “I came on time, but the other women came whenever they felt like it. They just weren’t committed. That’s why I’m not a feminist – because the women are not serious.”

“Serious” and “committed” are of course euphemisms for “Orthodox.” The ones who may come late to shul are “the feminists,” and obviously not Orthodox.

I’ve heard this argument before. The idea that women must be more ritually punctilious than the Chief Rabbi in order to “deserve” equal rights has been echoed in many corners of Orthodoxy – even in some feminist circles.

At Darchei Noam, for example, the partnership synagogue in Modi’in, the women were asked several years to give up all their roles one Shabbat to accommodate a man – the uncle of a family making a bar mitzvah – who refused to hear a woman’s voice.

“Women don’t come on time anyway,” went one of the arguments, “so why should we be so insistent on maintaining women’s right to lead services in the morning?” As if to say that tardiness disqualifies women from equal rights. The misogynist uncle, on the other hand, is more serious in his religious commitment and thus his rights are firmly in place. (In the end, the request was cancelled, but left enormous communal tension in its wake.)

In another conversation, a man who sat on the halakha [Jewish law] committee of Shira Hadasha told me that while he believes it is technically permissible for women to count in a minyan, he wouldn’t support it because in his view women are not committed enough. “Women come when they feel like it, and walk in and out during services,” he complained. “Women must internalize commitment before we can give them equal rights.”

Nobody demands that men demonstrate commitment before counting in a minyan. On the contrary, a group of nine men waiting to pray will grab any Jewish man off the street – whether a murderer, a rapist or Bernie Madoff – as long as he is circumcised and capable of saying amen.

How hurtful this practice is to a woman, standing in the presence of those nine men. She is completely invisible as men look right past her to seek out The Male.

The idea that basic human dignity is automatically granted to some people but must be earned by others runs against the Torah’s foundations. We are all created in God’s image, and all of us deserve to be seen, heard and counted. Yet, this idea that women are undeserving continues to be invoked as rationale against change. The rationale is in fact more powerful than halakha.

Rabbi Harry Maryles, for example, an Orthodox blogger who also happens to be my cousin, argues against women’s ordination despite the fact that it is halakhically permissible, because of what he perceives as the women’s lack of religious sincerity. Responding to the opening of the Maharat Yeshiva for women, he wrote:

I do not believe any halacha was violated here. …But I still object to the idea of conferring semicha [ordination] upon a woman…I believe that much of the source motivation is based in social feminism…. In my mind that is an illegitimate reason to pursue the role of rabbi….

[A] female rabbi (or Maharat) smacks too much of the feminist equality motive rather than a sincere desire to serve… If she starts studying for semicha one must ask why she is doing that?…Behavior that is sourced in an ideology that is anathema to Judaism is suspect and should be avoided – even if it is technically permitted…especially when the primary motivation is feminist….

Rabbi Maryles presents women with a Catch-22: a woman who wants a greater role is by definition outside of Orthodoxy and therefore undeserving. The pseudo-logic according to which women must somehow demonstrate some kind of obscure purity of thought and motivation (i.e., lacking a desire to count and serve equally) is unfair and disingenuous. It dismisses women’s spiritual quests, ignores Torah values of social justice and compassion, and expresses a horrifying distrust of women.

Moreover, this presumption of being able to be sure of a woman’s motivation reflects an infuriating double standard. Do we ever do that to men? Do we poke and judge every thought they may have and then decide whether they should count for a minyan?

Women’s painful struggle within Orthodoxy is not just about “rights” but about changing the way society judges, admonishes, and punishes women. It’s about building a religious society based instead on kindness and compassion.

On Yom Kippur, as we stand before the Holy One, Blessed Be He, pleading for compassion, I pray that mortals find a way to express that very same compassion towards one another as well.

Shmuel Tue. Sep 22, 2009

"The misogynist uncle" - c'mon Elana, you really go too far on this. Because a Jew decides to keep halacha as it is normatively practiced does NOT make him (or her) a misogynist.

You do NO service to your cause by bashing Jews who keep whatever traditions they keep.

as you so aptly put it at the end of your article: "I pray that mortals find a way to express that very same compassion towards one another as well".

I hope that your compassion doesn't only apply to people you agree with. You found place in your heart to be excited about gay life in Modi'in. I hope you can find a way to find a place for the traditional uncle.

Yonitdm Tue. Sep 22, 2009

Well said Shmuel, well said.

Sephardiman Tue. Sep 22, 2009

You know what? Elana knows what she is talking about here.

Lillian Tue. Sep 22, 2009

There are two sides to this coin. I have a friend who is a recent convert to Judaism. She converted with a reform/female/lesbian rabbi as her guide. This rabbi then performed ceremony for my friends wedding to a Jewish man. This man is uncircumsized for medical reasons (totally legitimate ones) but if this Rabbi had known that, she wouldn't have performed the ceremony. This Rabbi wears Tallit and Phylacteries and referes to her partner as "Rebbetzin." I find it off-putting to say the least. In this case I feel that its 20% religious dedication and 80% feminist zelotry. On the other side, if anyone tried to tell me that domestic violence was a "pre-existing condition" or any of that other hooey, they'd probably find themselves on the receiving end of some domestic violence.

Rivkah Wed. Sep 23, 2009

Here here Elana!

Thanks for addressing the catch22 issue. So much of Judaism is not about an ideal standard (how many of us spend ALL our free time only engaged in torah studies and mitzvot, for example?) but about juxtaposing values and finding a true, correct balance for a given person in a given situation. Yes, it is a mitzvah for a man not to listen to a female voice sing secular songs and many men are makpid also for shirei kodesh, but it is also a mitzvah to behave like a mentch when you are a guest. A compromise between two sides is different than the anullment of one side's perspective.

Why is it that we are taught by Judaism that true cherut requires uncovering ones God-given, inner truth, but if a woman gets too uppity it must be feminism and not her heart? Shabbat morning sees different expressions of Jewish femininity. For one woman, that might mean being at the tefillah from before the baruchu till after the aleinu. For another, it might mean getting there for mussaf after she get's her children dressed up and food on the platta. Another might read to her toddlers or stay in the house for the whole tefilla for a different reason, providing necessary nofesh l'nafsha.

When it comes to the issue of women's role in the synagogue, how can we as a Jewish community possibly dismiss the discussion out of hand by delegitimizing every group of good Jewish women for different reasons - some are too feminist and some aren't serious enough. The content of the question must be addressed within a context that we, as a community (women too!) are brave enough to hear about other people's dreams of cherut and to trust each other's binah.

Just for the record, this discussion will be even more comprehensive when the community also acknowledges the prices men pay for keviut b'tefillah: getting to minyan every day even without enough sleep, or sometimes infringing on work. The catch22 my husband feels (and other men, too) when I really, really need him at home but he will lose standing in the tzibbur if he doesn't go to shul. The resentment that people necessarily feel if someone is going to enjoy all their privileges but not be required by the same obligations...

"How can my 'Ol be your Cherut?" could introduce a dialog I'd really be interested to hear. Two great tastes that taste great together!

David Wed. Sep 23, 2009

This writer is on the ball!

As a religious man I have heard many people (usually men)claim that they 'have no problem with women being counted as part of a minyan or becoming long as their intentions are pure' which they doubt. For some reason men can't handle women wanting to be part of a minyan, doing a job that is reserved for men only, so they claim that their desire/motivation is false or a feminist plot of some sort! This is ofcourse a double standard because men are not scrutinized for what they are thinking or their motivation, only women.

To Shmuel, I think you missed the writers point that the minyan in question was operating in a certain egalitarian way for some time and the kehilla was asked to quash rights given to women of the kehila for the uncle who was not part of the kehilla to attend tefilla. When you give rights to a certain group they can not be taken away. Blacks would not be too happy if someone asked them not to vote during an election because it offends someone...

Jennifer Wed. Sep 23, 2009

One problem I have with the complaint that women don't come to shul on time (whether or not that's used as "evidence" of their intentions) is that, aside from the logistical problems of someone having to get the kids ready, etc., some shuls make it difficult for women to do this by not unlocking the doors to the women's section on time, or by setting the timers for the lights in the women's section to go on later than in the men's section (to save energy!), etc. In addition to the feeling of being unwanted, there seems little point in showing up at the beginning of davening if you're not going to be able to get in, or if you must climb steps to the balcony in the pitch dark and then not be able to see the sefer in your hand. It reminds me of the argument against women's tefilah groups that "it keeps the family from going to shul together." What "together" when there's a mechitzah? Walking from the house together? Doesn't always happen even when they're going to the same shul because, again, he's rushing to get there in time for barchu and she's organizing kids and lunch.

Steve Wed. Sep 23, 2009

Ahem, I'm fairly sympathetic to women's issues in Orthodoxy. Really, I am known for this. But I would be remiss here if I didnt point out that it is simply *not true* that it is technically permissible to count women for a minyan, its just that some backward types are uncomfortable with it. Since when is it technically permissible? Which Rishonim allow this? Which responsa? The Talmud here is pretty clear cut. Really.

Whereas I mostly agree with you about other issues like women's ordination or women in leadership positions, the fact of that matter is that there is little or no technical case to be made for counting women in a prayer minyan against all the mainstream sources. I am not the only one to say that. If memory serves me correctly, Saul Lieberman of JTS said the same thing back in the 70s. But no one wanted to hear that...



Sara Thu. Sep 24, 2009

Actually, from what I understand, the sources are quite blurry on this. There seems to be very weak backing for the entire idea of ten men to begin with. Take for example the Rema, Orach Hayim 690 (16th C Poland)"There is room to question [safek] whether or not women are included in the ten." Similarly, Magen Avraham, on this bit, "Regarding the issue of Torah reading, some say that a minor can be included in the ten since he considered among the seven…There is room to question the issue."

IN any case, the point that Dr. Sztokman is making is that regardless of the halakhic history, Judaism has some very hurtful practices that we really ought to consider setting aside. After all, we have set aside slavery, and corporal punishment. We no longer execute homosexuals or those who break the Shabbat in public. These are actually written explicitly in the Torah. So practices that seem to be nothing more than societal conventions barely grounded in Torah --practices that hurt 50% of our population -- shouldn't we be reconsidering these practices as well?

Avi Thu. Sep 24, 2009

Elana is right in theory but in practice women won't get equal treatment unless enough of them demonstrate that they are better than the men. It's unfair but that's how it is. Just like a black man has to be twice as good as a white man in the US to get a job that both are competing for. Even the presidency. :-) Berachot 19b says that human dignity overrides all Rabbinic enactments. Only men counting for a minyan for a "davar shebikdushah" is Rabbinic. So women (ought to) count for a minyan too.

Shalom Thu. Sep 24, 2009

In order to clarify your point of view, I'd like to ask what your position is on the terrible injustice that I feel in not being a Kohen, and thereby being automatically disqualified from performing the priestly functions. After all, I can no more change my involuntary status as a non Kohen than a black or asian can become white (Michael Jackson's efforts notwithstanding).

Of course, we recall what happened when Aharon's sons brought offerings when clearly warned not to, but justice is justice. The Torah is clear on this issue--so I'd be interested in Elana's (or anyone else's) take on this. Is this different than women's issues regarding smicha, minyan, and why or why not? Does the fact that the Torah is more explicit in this issue than the role of a woman make a difference to you?

Aurora Mendelsohn Fri. Sep 25, 2009

It is hard for women to come on time or "be serious" when they take on religious obligation because, even in the most liberal of Orthodox communities, they still do way more than half of the childcare, cooking, appoint-making and social planning. For women to be "serious" about public ritual, men have to get "serious" about their obligations to childcare and running of Jewish households. They want to be seen as caring, involved fathers, but also to not miss the Torah reading because their kid is crying--- they also "want to have it both ways".

Elana Sat. Sep 26, 2009

Rabbi Harry Maryles wrote a response to this article

B'vracha, Elana

Charlie Hall Sat. Sep 26, 2009

I write as a strong Orthodox supporter of offering some kind of ordination to women similar if not identical to that given men in our times when they have completed a certain amount of learning and are considered to have be trustworthy carriers of our mesorah.

That said, I have difficulty with the idea of "rights" being used in an Orthodox context. Judaism doesn't pay a lot of attention to rights, it pays a lot of attention to our responsibilities -- to HaShem and to our fellows. For example, the real reason why I have a right to my property is not that it is inherently mine, but because HaShem prohibits you from taking it from me. Indeed, it isn't really mine at all but HaShem's! Similarly, I have no right to walk into shul and demand to daven from the amud, or get an aliyah; there is a halachic precedence that is there not to protect my rights but to allow the congregation to avoid disputes. And that uncle had no right to walk into a congregation and demand that they change their minhagim any more than I have a right to walk into a congregation and demand that it raise or lower its mechitzah. I don't know whether he was misogynist or not, but he certainly displayed bad midot.

Regarding minyan for women, I've actually been taught (by a well known Orthodox rabbi whose name I'll not give because he hasn't published this opinion AFAIK) that if all Jewish women (or at least a substantial majority) were to accept upon themselves the obligation to pray three times a day with a minyan and to hear all the public readings of the Torah, they would then have the same status as men regarding minyan and aliyot. Proof is that there was a time when blind men were not counted for a minyan and not given aliyot -- but most blind men took on these responsibilities. This differs from, say, the temple avodah which is restricted to male kohanim by the Torah.

That said, some of the ways Judaism treats women today is absolutely outrageous. One of the best arguments (the only really good one I've ever heard) against women's tefillah groups is the idea that it is better to pray with a minyan than without a minyan. Indeed the sources that describe the benefits of praying with a minyan list reasons that all apply to women as well as to men. Yet I've been in many, many situations where women are *prohibited* from davening with a minyan. My wife and I went to one synagogue where the men wouldn't leave the women's section and she had to pray outside the building, on the sidewalk! And unfortunately this is not unique; I've seen way too many places that simply will not permit women to participate in tefillah b'tzibbur. That there is no effort to eliminate these outrages yet we take seriously the argument against women's tefillah groups indicates a certain amount of disingenuosity. Another example is an oft-repeated argument about the sanctity of minhagim, particularly when suggestions are made to make liturgical changes consistent with halachah that might allow women greater participation. I've seen statements that we can't make innovations in the prayer service for this reason. Yet when I look at my siddur, I see huge numbers of post-Chazal innovations, some as recent as the 20th century! Nobody today uses the siddur of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon. But these arguments seem to be selectively brought out disproportionately against suggestions to allow greater participation of women. That is, pure and simply, wrong.

Ten Jew Very Much Sat. Sep 26, 2009

Charlie Hall: "I've actually been taught (by a well known Orthodox rabbi whose name I'll not give because he hasn't published this opinion AFAIK) that if all Jewish women (or at least a substantial majority) were to accept upon themselves the obligation to pray three times a day with a minyan and to hear all the public readings of the Torah, they would then have the same status as men regarding minyan and aliyot."

Does he mean all (or a majority of) women in a particular community (e.g., individual synagogue) or does he mean all the women in that city (or perhaps worldwide), including non-OJ women? If the latter, it is tantamount to saying no.

Also, in many OJ synagogues, if a majority of the women davened with the minyan thrice daily, they would outnumber the men.

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