Many of us who fall under the label ‘modern liberal Jew’ view women’s role (or lack thereof) in traditional Judaism to be a serious affront to our notions of egalitarianism. ‘How can it be’ we ask, ‘that anyone could live in a Western democracy in the 21st century and subject women to secondary-citizen status in religious matters, especially the most public ones, those that occur in shul (synagogue)?’ I now think that this line of argument does a disservice to all involved in the discussion.
There are many substantial divides between the most and least traditionally observant Jews in the world today, prime among them being the notion that halacha — Jewish law — is either normative and binding on many (or all) aspects of one’s life or is an antiquated, misogynist system of law that, if useful at all, needs a major overhaul before exerting an obligation on a modern Jew. While taking a firm stance on this issue myself, I truly do not see either of these sides as being prima facie wrong. As such, any critique mounted against another Jew based on their Jewish practices must take into account what role halacha plays for them. In the case under discussion, Orthodox Jews dating back to the Mishna (Bavli Kiddushin 1:7) have made a distinction between men’s and women’s roles in public ritual observance based on the language of chiyyuv — obligation. Men are obligated to, for example, pray three times a day, while women are not, and therefore men count towards a minyan (quorum) in shul while women do not. Among the many arguments brought for furthering women’s equality is that women ought to either be allowed to take on the chiyyuv of davenning (prayer) in line with men, or ought to be obligated in the same way, given the status women occupy in secular society today in contrast to the role of women in daily life 1,500 years ago.
While this line of argument at least does all concerned the service of trying to speak in the language that Orthodox Jews structure their lives by, it is still deeply lacking in an understanding of practical issues. For instance, to have all adult Jews halachically obligated to davven leaves open the glaring hole of what to do with children each and every day while both parents spend 1-2 hours praying, and longer during Shabbat and holidays. This concern is not to be scoffed at as merely a problem with Orthodox society and its focus on prayer, but rather to be valued and taken into account if the goal is truly to bring important modern values to Judaism, and not just to demonize the Other. One potential creative solution would be to find the halakhic language to mandate one parent of every family, regardless of gender, to be praying during each of the three daily services. This is, admittedly, very radical and unlikely to ever even be considered by the communities in question. However, this suggestion as least begins from a place of accepting and trying to understand where the community is coming from in being bound by halacha.
While it is destructive, the lack of understanding on the part of the above mentioned ‘modern Jews’ is not surprising. For such Jews, the idea of having both parents count equally comes naturally from the wider society with which they identify, and the child problem is a non-issue, given that for most Jews under such a label, davenning is an activity engaged in once a week plus holidays, not three times every day. It is only through bridging those gaps in knowledge and experience that we can hope to build a Judaism attuned to all of the various needs of its adherents.