By Janet Dolgin
The shift in the Orthodox Jewish world toward greater stringency in halakhic interpretation and observance is obvious. The effect of this shift on Orthodox Jewish women is not obvious, and merits attention.
Increasingly, stringency in religious observance has been equated with stringency regarding women. Increasingly, Orthodox communities have chosen to measure their religiosity by how strictly they regulate the self-definitions, habits, clothing, and experiences of their women. Increasingly, Orthodox communities have proven how pious they are by showing how narrowly they restrict their women.
The communities in the three stories below are Orthodox, and are attempting to increase their level of observance. What they are doing constitutes a warning that must not be ignored.
Several years ago, a community established an Orthodox synagogue in a suburb of New York. Its founders are religious centrists and professionals comfortable in the secular world — accountants, lawyers, health care providers, computer programmers and teachers. Many of the women work outside their homes. Their school-age children attend yeshivot and day schools. The men wear knitted kipot, and most of the women do not cover their hair. They are, in short, a typical modern Orthodox community. When designing their new synagogue, they originally built a mehitza close to the bima that allowed women to see (through tinted glass) and hear the services. A respected communal rabbi unaffiliated with the new synagogue approved the design and placement of the mehitza and declared it “kosher.”
Yet, after a few months, the members of the synagogue decided that the mehitza did not suit their needs. They replaced it with a much higher one located to the side of the synagogue. The new mehitza reached from floor to ceiling, and was covered with a curtain. Soon after, when renovation of the synagogue began, yet another mehitza was designed. The women now sit towards the back of the synagogue, cordoned off by two walls, and blocked by curtains. They can neither see the bima clearly, nor listen with ease to the services. The “women’s section” would be at home in Mea Shearim.
Recently, a Rosh Yeshiva in New York decided that at the wedding of his first daughter men and women would sit separately. At his own wedding men and women had sat together, at his insistence. His Rebbe had had a “mixed” wedding; and surely, what was good for his Rebbe was good for him. Why then, he was asked, would the seating at his daughter’s wedding be separate? “Because,” he said, “I’m afraid of them.” He did not identify “them.” He did not have to.
In a shiur given in a modern Orthodox synagogue recently, the speaker — a rabbi ordained at Yeshiva University and a practicing lawyer, asserted that a woman cannot make kiddush for her husband. When told that she could, he responded in a loud and angry voice, “That’s wrong!” Shown the relevant passage in the Shulhan Arukh, he admitted that the halakha does permit a wife to make kiddush for her husband. “But,” he asked, “Would any man here let his wife make kiddush?” And several dozen men laughed.
All three of the stories are true. All three show the same danger. And all three demand it be opposed.
The danger is that as stringencies take hold, Orthodox Jewish women will be increasingly marginalized, supposedly in the name of halakha, but in fact frequently despite halakha. And often they will be intentionally marginalized. The original mehitza in the community’s new synagogue was kosher. The men and women at the wedding of the Rosh Yeshiva’s daughter could have sat together. A woman can make kiddush for her husband. And the people who opted for stringencies knew they were not demanded by halakha. The community that opposed the original mehitza knew it was kosher. The Rosh Yeshiva knew men and women could sit together. The rabbi knew a woman can make kiddush for her husband.
Acting as though halakha demanded stringency in these cases debars women from the duties and pleasures authorized by halakha. Worse, they mis-educate, disempower, and trivialize women.
This is oppression. And oppression must be opposed. Because if it is not opposed our self respect is diminished. And the halakha is diminished. And the Orthodox Jewish community is diminished. If nothing is done, more than should be endured will be lost.
Janet Dolgin is an anthropologist and a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University. She and her family reside in West Hempstead, NY.