The Whole Shebang: Rabbinical Assembly Embraces Egalitarian Jewish Law

By: Yori Yanover on May 20, 2014. · 2 Comments · Share this Post

Filed under Headline, News Briefs, Politics, Religion, U.S., US

Women and men praying together, as part of a WOW Kotel event. Based on photo by Zuzana Janku/FLASH90

Women and men praying together, as part of a WOW Kotel event. Based on photo by Zuzana Janku/FLASH90

Responding to an inquiry last month, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association of Conservative rabbis officially embraced an egalitarian approach to Jewish Law. The difference between this ruling, dated April 29 this year, and what has been to norm for movements like the Reform, is that the RA ruling followed a remarkably thorough and intelligent examination of halachic sources, rather than the Reform movement’s open rebellion against halacha.

The ruling, voted 15 in favor, 3 against and 3 abstaining, began with the following inquiry:

Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted?

The response came following a 34-page dissertation that is both insightful and a joy to behold. The authors’ own description of their work offers a bit of an insight as to its important place in the history of Jewish law:

This [responsa] is both retrospective and prospective. It is breathtaking to see the vast advances in the participation of women in the Conservative movement in the past century, especially accelerated in recent decades. Who would have imagined the developments that have occurred since the first declarations and decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on the role of women in 1955? At the same time, we must take a prospective view toward the future: how do we envision the spiritual life of the communities we are aspiring to build and nurture? Egalitarianism, the equality of women in the observance of mitzvot, is not just about the participation of women: it is about fostering the fulfillment of mitzvot by all Jews.

Not to keep you in suspense, the ruling states: “Women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot, with the exception of those mitzvot that are determined by sexual anatomy.”

Presumably, the sexual anatomy reference covers cleansing after one’s menstrual cycle, and the obligation of male circumcision.

I heartily recommend reading this work, even if you’ll end up objecting both to its occasionally very creative reading of Jewish sources and to its conclusion. Personally, I enjoyed it because of its respect to halacha, which, as far as I’m concerned, means the Conservative movement deserves a seat at the table as part of the Jewish mainstream.

And it’s a very good read. Print it out and take it to the beach this summer. You could do worse.

The summary, which I edited down, says as follows (the original text is longer):

The general exclusion of women from many mitzvot is based on the characterization of those mitzvot as positive and time-bound. However, it turns out that this category is applied in an inconsistent fashion.

The real reason women were excluded was because of their subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jewish men are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year in order to keep them in their subordinate place.

Women were endowed with ritual responsibilities for others inside the home because the rabbis thought that women had the intellect and reliability to do so. It was social status alone that determined whether women were exempted from certain other mitzvot. Women were also not involved in public ritual ceremonies because of their position in the social hierarchy.

The involvement of women in Jewish religious and liturgical life has changed significantly in the past century and even more in the past few decades. Jewish women are aspiring to the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by Jewish men through the millennia. The halacha has recognized that when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halachic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative. The Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot.

In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot. We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.

Yes, that means women count in a minyan, it means women can go up to lead communal prayer, and it means they’re welcome to partake of herring and crackers at the third meal on Shabbat.

The Jewish Independent welcomes articles that would both support and oppose this move. Personally, I’m delighted with this work even though I will continue to attend prayers at my Orthodox shul, where women must remain behind the curtains during prayer.

I wonder, though, if removing the sexual barriers will bolster the Conservative movement. I suspect the number of Conservative congregations maintaining a full, 7-day program with three daily prayers (4 on Shabbat) will continue to be negligible.

I’m only mentioning this because, on the face of it, the inclusion of women should make it easier to assemble a minyan for Mincha-Ma’ariv. It’s just that very few men are interested to begin with. Fact is, you can’t really find a picture online of men and women praying together with tallit and tefillin without the Kotel in the background…

H/T larry Yudelson

What do you think? (Select your preferred commenting platform):

2 Responses to The Whole Shebang: Rabbinical Assembly Embraces Egalitarian Jewish Law

  1. David Fish May 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    We all want to be seen as “Progressive” and “Modern” but this is but a further dissolution of HALACHA in order to stave off massive yet unavoidable assimilation.
    It may be seen as intelligent adaptation but it really means Galut Jewry is reaching it’s nadir. It’s all over…

    • Yori Yanover May 20, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      That’s the emotional response, which, I must admit, I share with you.

      But, having actually read their ruling, I have to say it is well anchored in halachic tradition, asking and answering logical questions. The gemorah admits there are serious inconsistencies when it comes to the different treatments of the sexes. Answering these questions from within the Rabbinic context is both legitimate and interesting.

      I won’t be so quick to call it galut Jewry. If they could interest their rank and file in halachic thinking, they would be offering a valid, liberal wing of traditional, religious Judaism. The problem is that outside the intellectual elite, few Conservative Jews give a damn.

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