UK Orthodox Rabbis Must Recognise the Limits of their Imagination

Fri, 06/28/2013 - 12:34pm -- JOFA

By Lindsay Simmonds

Lindsay Simmonds

It is absolutely necessary that United Synagogue rabbis engage in contemporary halachic debate, as did Rabbi Schochet in last week’s article in The Jewish Chronicle, “Orthodox Feminism Must Know its Limits,” which ostensibly grappled with the halachic issues raised by the recent Partnership Minyan (PM). Unfortunately, rigorous halachic debate was replaced by personal fear expressed through social platitudes clothed as religious impartiality. 

Rabbi Schochet took the lazy and spurious route of perpetuating the “motive” and “women’s role” discourses which render any genuine halachic debate obsolete. Like others, he must raise halachic concerns regarding these minyanim (prayer groups)–that is the beauty of the Jewish legal system – its ongoing vibrancy through its veneration of “an argument for the sake of heaven.” However, to suggest that Orthodox Jewish women ought to be questioned as to whether their motive to participate in religious rituals which have previously only been practiced by men is “coming from a place of genuine spiritual yearning or from a feminist desire for equality” is outrageous. As indeed is his presumption of a “unique role within the Jewish faith” for Jewish women. There was, and has never been, any one role for Orthodox Jewish women, just as there is no one role for men. Rachel was a shepherdess, whilst Hannah prayed. Deborah was a judge, whilst Miriam was a prophetess. The antediluvian rhetoric of a monolithic “women’s role” must surely be put to rest. 

Furthermore, there is no question that the secular-isms of the day inform halachic debate; Aristotle’s rationality did it for Rambam; as did the field of psychology in the rabbis’ shift in halachic response to stillborn infants’ burial, highlighted in last week’s Jewish Chronicle. This is what halachah does – it reveres past texts and decisions, and addresses the particular issue of the day – whilst always being sensitive to those asking the question, and those beholden by the decision.

Indeed, Moses responded fairly to healthy halachic debate when he was confronted by Tzelafchad’s daughters with their plea for the right to a portion of the land of Israel:

“A petition was presented by the daughters of Tzelafchad… and they stood before Moses... with the following petition, ‘Our father died in the desert…without leaving any sons. Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he had no son? Give to us a portion of land along with our father’s brothers.’ Moses brought their case before God. God spoke to Moses saying, ‘The daughters of Tzelafchad have a just claim. Give them a hereditary portion of the land alongside their father’s brothers.’” (Numbers 27:1-9)

Moreover, Yalkut Shimoni (Pinchas 27) states: “They were wise, they were interpreters of the law, and they were righteous.” And poignantly remarks that when they gathered together before bringing their plea to Moses, said: “God is not like human beings; human beings judge men more favourably than women; but God is not like that – rather God judges everyone equally, as it says ‘God is good to everyone, and merciful on all creatures.’”

The Gemara (Bava Batra 119b) specifies that they were wise because “they spoke at the appropriate time.” As Susan Schneider comments, “we derive an essential principle of social action: one must wait until the moment when an injustice or wrong attitude actually impacts upon the physical plane and blocks the path of truth for someone who is ready, now, to travel that path.” (Torah of the Mothers, p.157) Sarah Shneirer and the rabbis who supported her waited until the Orthodox world was ready for girls’ religious education in the early 1900’s; in all aspects of religious law, timing is essential. Similarly, perhaps Rabbi Schochet’s response is indicative that the time is right in the UK to explore the halachic challenges of PMs.

What is most remarkable about the daughters of Tzelafchad is that, “… conspicuously absent is any sign that the rabbis felt personally threatened by their assertiveness or intellectual prowess.” (ibid, 163) Tzelafchad’s daughters were not motivated by a “yearning from a feminist desire for equality” or an insistence that “if men can do it, we can too” – their motive isn’t mentioned. They grappled with the issue at hand, arrived at a decision (mishpat) and offered their judgment to Moses. As it turns out, God agreed with them.

It may be true that many UK rabbis will not support PMs, but it is extreme to assume that PMs will find “no support within mainstream Orthodoxy.” Just as there is no one “religious stance” or any one “feminism” – there will be no one answer to this question. It will, as it should, become a continuous halachic conversation, because engaging in halachic debate is what Jews do. But the patronising prosaicisms with which Rabbi Schochet engages merely undermine rabbinic authority and leadership. I hope therefore, that Rabbi Schochet, amongst other Orthodox rabbis, is able to move beyond the limits of his own imagination.

Lindsay Simmonds has a degree in Speech and Language Pathology and an MSc in Gender Studies from the LSE, where she is now working towards her PhD. She studied at Nishmat, was a Bruria Scholar at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, and is a graduate of the LSJS Susi Bradfield Women Educators’ Fellowships, UK. Lindsay is a member of the Cambridge Co-Exist Leadership Programme which promotes respectful, deep and long-lasting friendship and collegiality between faith leaders in the Christian, Jewish and Moslem communities in the UK. She lectures widely on Judaism and Gender.

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