Egalitarian. You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means…

This is a guest post by Aurora Mendelsohn of Rainbow Tallit Baby.

Has feminism run its course in Jewish liturgy and ritual practice? Jay Michaelson (“Rethinking Egalitarianism: Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”, Forward, Nov. 5, 2010) described how young Jews, who grew up in progressive shuls, when moving to places with fewer synagogue options, end up choosing vibrant, engaged, child-friendly, non-egalitarian communities over spiritually empty, formal, egalitarian ones.

Danya Ruttenberg suggested (Sh’ma Magazine, “Messy Complexity: On God, Language, and Metaphor”, April 2011) that the goals of feminists over the 40 years—proposing alternative, less male-centric language, allowing people who value feminism to be at home in Judaism, and allowing everyone to explore the female aspects of the divine terms—have been achieved. Ruttenberg writes that the time has come to “stop thinking about language and God” because this focus becomes the totality of experiencing the divine. In a similar vein, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser argues (“Do We Still Need Jewish Feminism?”, Zeek) that within American practice, “egalitarianism has become the baseline practice for the majority of American Jews” and that in non-Orthodox Judaism, egalitarian religious practice and liturgy, the dreams of Jewish feminists have been achieved.

Kaiser also describes the great strides in the modern Orthodox world, as it “edges toward Egalitarianism” with women’s Tfillah (prayer) groups, women offering divrei Torah (sermons) and being ordained as quasi-rabbis. This is a better description of the modern Orthodox world than an op-ed in a major Canadian paper by prominent Reform Rabbi Dow Marmur, which said modern Orthodox groups now make women “full and equal participants in worship” because women were allowed to read from the Torah. He was describing an international modern Orthodox movement in which women are indeed accorded significant access to ritual participation. However, this movement deliberately uses the term ‘partnership minyan’ to describe itself to acknowledge that according to their reading of Jewish law, equal access or status is not possible. (Though one partnership minyan in Israel refers to itself as “an egalitarian Orthodox community”). Neither Kaiser nor Marmur note the strong rejection of these innovations from the large majority of Orthodoxy, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, to the extent that these congregations are considered “non-Orthodox” by the Orthodox leadership and are denied membership in the Orthodox Union.

Recently, I saw a brochure for a local Orthodox synagogue touting its egalitarian advances. I scanned it, intrigued, looking for a women’s prayer group or Simchat Torah celebration, but found that it was referring to their new policy of allowing women to sit on the board. I could not help channeling Inigo Montoya; “Egalitarian…You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” It began to dawn on me that egalitarianism in Jewish practice might be in the eye of the beholder. This uncertainty about what egalitarianism means reminded me of when I attended a college minyan, called “the Egalitarian minyan”. In terms of service leading, what people did, it was totally egalitarian. But to me, who grew up with an egalitarian liturgy, what people said, its use of traditional liturgy was most certainly not.

There are myriad ways for women to enter into public religious practices that were once dominated by men (which shows just how few there once were reserved for women). It is clear women’s roles in public ritual have evolved considerably over the past century. In the timeline of Jewish history, this is quite a short time. It seems equally clear they will also evolve during the next century. Some practices that were heretical a hundred years ago are commonplace and normative now across denominations from Orthodox to Renewal (like a public acknowledgement of a bat mitzvah). To have any meaningful discussion about whether egalitarianism has been successful, how much it may have achieved (as noted by Ruttenberg and Kaiser) or what future directions should be pursued, or how weight should be given to it when it conflicts with other values (as raised by Michaelson), one must first know what egalitarianism is, even if there are multiple answers. Towards this end I have compiled a taxonomy of egalitarianism in Jewish practice (inspired by BZ’s Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism), which looks at four areas of Jewish practice: participation (what we do), liturgy (what we say about ourselves, our ancestors, and God), identity (who we are), and legal status. To assess the merits of egalitarianism, to determine whether its goals have been achieved, or to progress, we must first know where we have come from and where we now stand.

Egalitarianism In Jewish Practice

Part 1: Egalitarianism in participation. Historically (and in some parts of Orthodox Judaism today), this simply meant the non-religious aspects of synagogue life like the right to be a voting member of a synagogue or to sit on the board. This is in part why Sisterhoods and Ladies’ Auxiliaries were formed. Women were excluded from the main areas of synagogue governance and active membership. Having female board members and presidents is still controversial in the Orthodox world. The National Council of Young Israel, founded a century ago as a “modern” Orthodox movement, expelled a synagogue in Syracuse, NY for having a female president, an action that included claiming ownership of their building and other assets when the synagogue switched to another Orthodox affiliation.

But for most of the Jewish world concerned with egalitarianism, participation now means performing ritual acts in public and leading the congregation: leading the service, reading from the Torah, having an aliyah (being called to the Torah), being counted in a minyan (quorum of 10 required for public prayer), writing a Torah as a scribe, wearing a talit (prayer shawl) and tfillin (phylacteries) or leading the grace after meals.

Currently, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, and the vast majority of the Conservative movement are fully egalitarian in terms of participation. ‘Traditional’ Conservative synagogues and the modern-Orthodox partnership groups, allow women to lead introductory parts of the service, have aliyot, and read from the Torah, but not to be counted in a minyan or lead the main parts. Partnership minyanim are more egalitarian than many traditional Conservative shuls (especially in Canada) in that they require 10 men and 10 women for a public service and allow more public roles. However, in most groups, if the last possible time for the service approaches, they will begin with 10 men, regardless of the number of women.

Some Orthodox synagogues have women-only prayer groups in which women lead parts of the service and read Torah, usually without the traditional blessings which would indicate their ritual obligation. Some have women-only celebrations of Simchat Torah and Purim Megillah readings, but all of these practices are seen as controversial most Orthodox circles.

Even congregations that consider themselves “fully” egalitarian in terms of participation have some ritual practices that differ for men and women. In my shul, men, but not women, are required to wear a talit when they are called to the Torah. Usually, men, but not women, are required to cover their heads in the sanctuary. In many synagogues girls, but not boys, may be called to the Torah (become bar or bat mitzvah) at age 12. Traditionally boys became ritually responsible at 13, girls at 12. Pure egalitarianism would be the same age for both.

Others may be more subtle practices. When bestowing honors at a simcha or at a luncheon, are men asked to lead the prayer for wine and women to lead the prayer for bread? When there is a discussion of a text, are men called on to respond first or more often? Are only men asked to lift the Torah (hagbah), but not women whom we see lifting weights at the gym or swinging their toddlers overhead? In communal (or even home-based) Shabbat dinners, how often do men light the candles? Are boys and girls equally exposed to gifts of tfillin and training in their use?

Part 2: Egalitarianism in Liturgy. A: Female worshipers. The first level of egalitarianism in liturgy is simply acknowledging female participants in the words of prayer. Some prayers implicitly state that the congregation is all male. The traditional prayer after the Torah reading asks for a blessing on “them, their wives, and their children”. It is unlikely that lesbian couples were being considered. Similarly, another prayer asks to “preserve among us the sages of Israel, them, their wives” assuming no female sages, which may come as a shock to the disciples of Nechama Leibowitz. The word “wives” was dropped by the Conservative movement in the 1980s, but only from the English “translation”. It remains in the Aramaic. These prayers are not in the Reform liturgy.

Beyond language that assumes a male-only congregation, the traditional morning blessing specifically thanks God for “not making me a woman.” Looking at reactions to this blessing over time demonstrates how attitudes towards women in prayer evolved. Early prayerbooks truly assumed few female readers, so this blessing was not seen as problematic. In the middle ages, women developed the custom of saying an alternative blessing, “for making me as God wished”, which rabbinic commentators of the time viewed as a resignation to their lower status. During this time many variants existed, including thanking God “for making me a woman” and “for not making me an animal”. These alternative blessings first appeared in the notes of rabbis describing what women said and then, much later, in prayerbooks intended for women’s use.

In 20th century, “for making me as God wished”, which became the main Orthodox option, appeared as a selection in smaller type in the main prayerbook with “women say” printed above it. Current Orthodox prayerbooks have this blessings presented side-by-side with “for not making me a woman”.

In the 1850s, the Reform movement issued a prayerbook with a positive blessing to be recited by both men and women thanking God, “Who has created me to worship Him”. In the 1940s, the Reconstructionist and then the Conservative movements introduced the blessing “who has made me in God’s image”, for both men and women. Using this single, positively-phrased blessing is the current practice in all non-Orthodox synagogues.

This egalitarianism has not reached all areas of daily prayer, as seen with the prayer said upon waking, Modeh Ani (I am thankful for my soul). As Hebrew is gendered, a woman says Modah Ani (the female form of thank). The first Orthodox, translated prayerbook to include this form came out in 2009 (Koren Sacks). The majority of day schools, camps, and junior congregations, even in progressive synagogues, still have everyone sing the male form.

Another example is the ubiquitous Grace After Meals which includes the line, “We thank You for the covenant which You sealed into our flesh”, which refers to circumcision and seems an odd phrase for women to recite. An alternative phrase, “sealed in our hearts” was introduced by the Reconstructionist and Reform movements in the early 1990s (Kol Haneshamah: Shirim Uvrahot, 1991, On the Doorposts of Your House, 1993, and Birkon Mikdash M’at, 2005; Previous Reform prayerbooks omitted the whole paragraph).

Part 2: Egalitarianism in Liturgy. B: Female ancestors. The next level of egalitarianism in liturgy is acknowledging that some of our ancestors were women. This is most commonly seen in the addition of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, to their husbands in the Amidah, which is done to varying extents in all non-Orthodox movements. However, this inclusion of female ancestors can enrich other prayers as well. The Reconstructionist prayerbook adds the phrase ‘our mothers’ to the many places where ‘our fathers’ appears in the liturgy, since our patriarchs appear in many more places than just the Amidah such as in the blessing on Hanuka (who performed miracles for our fathers). Matriarchs can also be added by name, as in mentioning Miriam alongside Moses in the prayers about singing at the sea. Various female ancestors are added to the Ushpizin, the biblical guests we invite into the sukah (as in the Conservative prayerbook, Sim Shalom). Some congregations, like Havurat Shalom in Boston, extend this idea, adding in the biblical word for female slave every time the word slave is mentioned in the liturgy (which is quite a lot) as well as many similar changes.

Our immediate ancestors, our parents, also play a liturgical role. Traditionally people were called to the Torah by their Hebrew name and their father’s Hebrew name. Since the late 1970s progressive movements have used both parents’ names in calling people to the Torah. However, the mother’s name is still seen as optional in a majority of “egalitarian” synagogues and almost always follows the father’s name.

Conversely, when we pray for the recovery of the sick in the Mi shebeirach l’cholim, we use the person’s Hebrew name and only their mother’s Hebrew name. The Zohar describes this as an appeal to God’s compassionate side, as mothers are more compassionate than fathers, which is not a very egalitarian concept! So far, even in most progressive circles, there has been no campaign to add the father’s name to the blessing for the sick. This reflects a common misconception about egalitarianism, which is that it is only about giving women rights and roles that were traditionally held by men alone and not about giving men rights and roles that were previously reserved for women.

Part 2: Egalitarianism in Liturgy. C: Female or Feminine God. The third and most contentious level of egalitarianism in liturgy is acknowledging that God may be female or have female aspects. This can be done as simply as directly translating prayers that already have female imagery. The “V’hi sheamdah” section of the Haggadah is usually translated as “That which sustained our ancestors and us”. Because Hebrew is gendered, the word “that” in this sentence is the same word as “She”. Tradition defines the unspoken antecedent of “that” as the promise God made to us. Rabbi Kalischer, in the 19th century, wrote that the female pronoun refers to the feminine aspect of God. Following this interpretation, feminist Haggadot today use the translation “She who sustained our ancestors and us”..

The most far-reaching step is to change not just occasional prayers, but the most common and frequent references to God. In the Hebrew of the prayerbook, and in older English translations, God is primarily referred to as male, as King, Lord, and the-Holy-One-Blessed-be-He. The basic formula of all blessings begins “Blessed are you, God, King of the universe”. More liberal branches of Judaism have created alternatives, using female gender for the formula with Elah (God), Shechina (Presence). Some also replace the word Melech (king) with Ruach, which means wind or spirit; others use Malkah (queen) in Hebrew and Sovereign in English.

Some prayerbooks use these exclusively female blessing formulas (Ma’ayan Haggadah, Kohenet, Siddur Nashim). Others (like the Reform and Reconstructionist) present them as an option in one section with the idea that they could be used for all blessings, but leave most blessings in the text in the traditional formula. There are few prayerbooks that use both male and female God language in close to equal measure (e.g. Or Chadash).

Some have tried gender-neutral terms or gender-ambiguous terms such as Yah for God, popular in the Renewal movement, but this still raises difficulties in Hebrew, a gendered language. Marcia Falk introduced an avoidance of the third person (and thus of gender in English and in Hebrew), beginning her blessings with “Let us bless the source of life”.

Part 3: Egalitarianism in identity. The obvious debate in identity issues is over patrilineal descent. Some liberal movements affirm the rights of fathers to independently pass on Jewishness to their children in the absence of a Jewish spouse. The Orthodox and Conservative do not, based on the rabbinic rulings that paternity can be questioned, but not maternity. Less discussed is the hereditary nature of being a Cohen (priest) or a Levi (member of the biblical tribe who served in the temple), which is passed on only through the father. Some synagogues allow women to inherit the state of being a Cohen or Levi as a bat-Cohen or bat-Levi (daughter of a cohen or Levi) and thus be eligible for the first two Torah readings traditionally set aside for them. This move does not afford full ritual equality, though, as a bat-Cohen is often not permitted to perform the priestly blessing of the congregation (duchanen) (though there is a Conservative opinion permitting this) nor is she permitted to pass on her status to her children. More liberal synagogues have simply dispensed with the public honours associated with Cohen and Levi (for other reasons), which is egalitarian as neither gender performs them.

Part 4: Egalitarianism in legal status. In the Orthodox and Conservative movements, women cannot initiate Jewish divorce. Other movements have egalitarian divorces, but they are not widely used and participants are often counseled to get an Orthodox divorce as well. Similarly, women traditionally cannot serve as valid legal witnesses. Though status in a Jewish court is not something we think of as relevant on a daily basis, a witness is required to sign a ketubah (marriage contract), witness the giving of a get (divorce contract), or approve a conversion. This is a right that most movements of Judaism have denied women (because the Talmud specifically bans women from this role). So even though for 20 years female Conservative rabbis have been able to lead services, teach conversion classes, perform circumcisions, officiate at funerals and weddings, and serve on and author papers for the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, they were only counted as legal witnesses in 2001, in a ruling many do not accept.

*

Why is this delineation important? Because naming is powerful. The generic term ‘egalitarian’ allows us to take where we have come as the end product and to become complacent. Engaging and wrestling with our ritual practice keeps it alive and relevant and meaningful. If we are already ‘egalitarian’ than we do not need to engage with what it means; we do not have to ask ourselves, what does egalitarianism mean now? In what ways is our observance egalitarian and it what ways is it not? How do women’s roles in ritual life relate to their roles in the larger society? What in the past motivated us to pursue ritual changes? What does now? The way forward is through answering these questions.

I do believe that we are not done and that there is a way forward. I was raised in an egalitarian synagogue, the dream my feminist parents’ generation worked hard on and created for themselves and their children. For much of my youth I saw little of other forms of Judaism. It is the nature of feminism and all progressive movements that what was a dream come true for one generation, what was pushing the envelope, is what is expected as a minimum without question for the next. Just like my parents, the world I try to create for my children demands more of the concept ‘egalitarian’ than the one I was raised with. The native-born children always expect more from their home country than their immigrant parents.

42 Responses to “Egalitarian. You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means…”

  1. Fascinating tidbit about “Vehi She’Amda” and Rabbi Kalischer! Can you point us to where R’ Kalischer makes this comment? Does he have a commentary on the haggadah?


    Ezra · July 26th, 2011 at 8:48 am
  2. “But for most of the Jewish world concerned with egalitarianism, participation now means…writing a Torah as a scribe”

    Sorry, but female sofrot writing sifrei torah is still a very fringe fraction of the egalitarian world. I’m not aware of any Conservative shul allowing a woman to work on writing a Torah, and I don’t think it’s common in Reform shuls either. In fact, I think there are only a handful of women who even know how to write a torah and they are very careful who they write a torah for.


    Avi · July 26th, 2011 at 8:58 am
  3. I’m not aware of any Conservative shul allowing a woman to work on writing a Torah
    There has been at least one Conservative shul to have purchased a sefer torah from a scribe who is a woman.


    Justin · July 26th, 2011 at 9:21 am
  4. [...] Crossposted at Jewschool [...]


    Egalitarian. You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means… « Rainbow Tallit Baby · July 26th, 2011 at 9:26 am
  5. How common is it in Reform and Conservative shuls for anyone to be writing a Torah?


    BZ · July 26th, 2011 at 10:26 am
  6. The “V’hi sheamdah” section of the Haggadah is usually translated as “That which sustained our ancestors and us”. Because Hebrew is gendered, the word “that” in this sentence is the same word as “She”. Tradition defines the unspoken antecedent of “that” as the promise God made to us. Rabbi Kalischer, in the 19th century, wrote that the female pronoun refers to the feminine aspect of God. Following this interpretation, feminist Haggadot today use the translation “She who sustained our ancestors and us”..

    Why would feminists consider it acceptable to refer to God with any gendered pronoun in English? Using “He” for God would be unthinkable (and rightly so), so “She” should be equally out of bounds. If you’re going to interpret the feminine pronoun in Hebrew to refer to God (rather than referring to the promise), why not translate it into English as something like “the One who sustained our ancestors and us” (the same thing you’d do with a masculine Hebrew pronoun referring to God)?


    BZ · July 26th, 2011 at 10:33 am
  7. While I have a very different view of Egalitarianism, I must commend your comprehensive research on this. Allow me to fill in just a few gaps: (1) Blessing Children: Every friday night I bless my daughter that G-d should give her the traits of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (2) Kaddish: There is a lot of discussion amongst Orthodox scholars about the permisssibility of Women saying kaddish. Many Orthodox synagogues allow it. (3) Leading grace after meals: there is a discussion amongst Orthodox scholars if Women can lead the grace after meals in the presence of men.


    Avraham · July 26th, 2011 at 10:36 am
  8. (1) Blessing Children: Every friday night I bless my daughter that G-d should give her the traits of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah

    This gender-dimorphic practice seems egalitarian on the surface, but actually isn’t so much. The original version from the Torah (Genesis 48:20) is “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” Why can’t girls be like Ephraim and Menasheh? And why can’t boys be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah?


    BZ · July 26th, 2011 at 10:48 am
  9. Let the record indicate that I never, ever said that feminism had achieved everything it meant to. Rather, I said that, thanks to all the hard feminist work on 2a, b and c above, a feminist theology of liturgy could now include engagement with text (both traditional and 2c-style) that was less concerned with language and metaphor and more with the experience of the Divine, which transcends gender and sex. Which says nothing about what else could/would/should happen in Jewish life, ritual, practice, etc. I recognize that that’s (mostly) how my piece is being used here, but I am uncomfortable with my work being used to bolster any kind of “gee, are we post-feminist, now?” movement, real or imagined.


    Danya · July 26th, 2011 at 12:04 pm
  10. @BZ “Why can’t girls be like Ephraim and Menasheh? And why can’t boys be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah?”

    Word.


    Danya · July 26th, 2011 at 12:07 pm
  11. I would like to be post-feminist now. Eagerly awaiting the transition to a sex-positive, Dionysian, nature worshiping Judaism. Take me now, Ishtar! (Whoops! I meant Esther….)


    Jew Guevara · July 26th, 2011 at 12:08 pm
  12. We have two daughters and I bless them every week both to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and to be like Ephraim and Menashe. Been going on for 23 years.


    Jeff Marker · July 26th, 2011 at 12:32 pm
  13. ” Why can’t girls be like Ephraim and Menasheh? And why can’t boys be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah?”
    I will concede to you that this practice is not egalitarian. My point was to highlight an Orthodox mention of the matriarch’s in liturgy. I believe that both genders have unique and worthwhile spiritual qualities, and I therefore bless my daughter that she should inherit the feminine qualities of the Matriarch’s. If that runs counter to Egalitarian thought, then perhaps we can agree to disagree.


    Avraham · July 26th, 2011 at 2:01 pm
  14. Danya wrote:
    word

    To the resident thugs (Danya, DAMW, and their crew):

    ” “Word” is the shortened form of the phrase: “my word is my bond” which was originated by inmates in U.S. prisons. The longer phrase was shortened to “word is bond” before becoming “word,” which is most commonly used. It basically means “truth.” Or “to speak the truth.” ”

    Were some of you inside for a while?


    Jonathan1 · July 26th, 2011 at 3:38 pm
  15. Thank you for organizing egalitarianism into its various manifestations. At my Conservative, egalitarian congregation on Long Island, benot kohen perform the priestly blessing (dukhenen) on festivals.

    Also, you state incorrectly that the Conservative movement does not allow women to initiate divorce. Beginning in the 1950s with the introduction of the “Lieberman clause” to ketubot, we have in fact allowed women to do just that.

    Just a few weeks ago, prompted by the daughters of Zelophehad, I discussed the ongoing relevance of egalitarianism, including some important historical notes:

    themodernrabbi.blogspot.com/2011/07/pinehas-5771-why-egalitarianism-still.html

    Enjoy!


    RavHaz · July 26th, 2011 at 4:11 pm
  16. young Jews, who grew up in progressive shuls, when moving to places with fewer synagogue options, end up choosing vibrant, engaged, child-friendly, non-egalitarian communities over spiritually empty, formal, egalitarian ones

    This is the most mine-laden statement to ever be published on Jewschool, even if in quotation. I’m surprised it didn’t get more treatment, either in the article or in comments.

    Personally, I only know of one community that went egal, in that they opened up the minyan to all sexes. It was a conservative synagogue in Appleton, Wisconsin – an area which twenty or thirty years ago had a significant Jewish presence, but which is now almost deserted. Anyway, and this is according to the cantor and two board members, soon after the decision to open up the minyan, well… except for the first week, the women never came, and the men stopped coming. Not right away, of course, it took several months before enough guys peeled off that they could no longer make minyan. And then it was that. Ten years later they’ve sold the building – all their kids either left or intermarried and none were interested in an active Jewish life. The Torah scrolls are now often loaned out to local chassidic families (there is a big kosher meat company nearby and a growing chassidic community associated with it).

    I asked the cantor, a really thoughtful guy who spent his entire life in the conservative movement in various positions, “If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?” “We did everything right,” he said quickly, almost responsively. We were sitting at the Rosh Hashanah table of a chassidic family. I drove up from Milwaukee with a couple of guys to help them make the minyan. The only Rosh Hashanah service, held at a private home, in a town that 30 years ago had a half dozen shuls, day schools, etc. I didn’t press the issue.


    Victor · July 26th, 2011 at 5:06 pm
  17. Interesting piece.

    On the issue of Orthodox women saying kaddish aloud in shul, note that a very long, comprehensive halakhic work on the permissibility of women reciting kaddish aloud in Orthodox shuls will be forthcoming from JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) sometime in the next few months.


    AbacaxiMamao · July 26th, 2011 at 7:11 pm
  18. Personally, I only know of one community that went egal, in that they opened up the minyan to all sexes. It was a conservative synagogue in Appleton, Wisconsin – an area which twenty or thirty years ago had a significant Jewish presence, but which is now almost deserted.

    Right, but you know what else happened about 20 years ago? The Milli Vanilli lip-syncing scandal. So let’s place the blame for Appleton’s shrinking Jewish community where it belongs. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.


    BZ · July 26th, 2011 at 7:56 pm
  19. Can someone help me understand where mikvah, taharas hamishpokhe & bris milah fit into this kind of egalitarianism? I am really curious about this and have never seen it articulated in relation to the desired erasure of gender distinctions in ritual life, prayer, etc.


    T is for Tomato · July 26th, 2011 at 8:33 pm
  20. RavHaz said: tag you state incorrectly that the Conservative movement does not allow women to initiate divorce. Beginning in the 1950s with the introduction of the “Lieberman clause” to ketubot, we have in fact allowed women to do just that. tag

    This is one huge misconception about marriage and divorce in the Conservative movement. The Lieberman clause only provides that the couple agrees to submit to mandatory arbitration through the Conservative Movement rabbinical boards. It does not allow a woman to divorce her husband, nor does it have any real power to compel a husband to submit to arbitration. And, may I add, until recently (ie. well post Lieberman), women were not allowed to be on the Beit Din granting the divorce. I am still not sure how well represented women are as judges in these proceedings (anyone want to jump in?). In short, this provides women with just as many legal rights as Orthodox marriages done with a pre-nupt, just a different arbitration forum.

    This area of Jewish law is one that really highlights the thesis of this post. Most conservative rabbis and practitioners I meet will say that their marriage ceremonies are egalitarian (usually because women can officiate, say blessings, and they signed this Lieberman clause). However, in practice, this type of marriage contract leaves women with no fundamental rights to get out of a failed marriage. And yet people dont address it because they are told that the Conservative movement or the rabbi is “egalitarian.” Shanda.


    MS · July 26th, 2011 at 8:45 pm
  21. T is for Tomato-
    Those are linked to sex, not gender.


    BZ · July 26th, 2011 at 8:48 pm
  22. This feminist justifies using female pronouns for God based on the fact that neuter, when speaking about God, is still masculine – because the overwhelming cultural and religious language, images etc, are male. Using female pronouns is the way, for me, to really shake that loose and to begin to feel like I could be in God’s image.

    Maybe in a different cultural setting it would be possible for gender neutral pronouns for God to not just be stealthily masculine, but to be honest as long as the pronouns for God and the pronouns for male people in Hebrew stay the same while the pronoun for female people stays different,, I’m not so confident about that.

    I’m waiting for the liturgical egalitarianism where we can pray about b’not Israel keeping the Sabbath and the zeydot being uprooted – in an inclusive way – but I think I’ll probably be waiting a while.


    Tara · July 26th, 2011 at 10:26 pm
  23. BZ, I certainly wasn’t implying causation, but I see how you may have interpreted it that way. In this case, I think the turn towards egal minyan was a symptom and consequence of decline. As the community experienced lower and lower rates of participation, they were willing to entertain more “out of the box” thinking to draw in more members. However, going egal merely broke the back of the minyan, which was the final stroke. No, egal minyan wasn’t what led that particular community down the drain.


    Victor · July 26th, 2011 at 10:31 pm
  24. Rabbi Shais Taub recently wrote a piece on HuffPo about G-d and Gender.


    Victor · July 26th, 2011 at 10:36 pm
  25. My Responses- though late:
    Ezra- I found this reference in the Ma’ayan Haggadah- I don’t have the original citation

    Torah scribe- non non-Orthodox movement has a majority opinion forbidding this

    BZ- I am not against gendered references to God, I even like the father imagery- I think we need a bit of anthropomorphic metaphor. I am just against _unbalanced_ gender references. Referring to God sometimes as He and sometimes as She is fine with me and I think is egalitarian. Further gender is impossible to avoid in Hebrew so a gender neutral approach has problems

    BZ- blessing the children. I left this out, never thinking of it and even though I have been doing this for a decade, you have made me seriously reconsider this practice. So thank you! (though I think I’d just drop the names as at least the matriarchs have interesting roles and speaking parts in the Torah- Ephraim and Menasheh less so).

    The quote from Jay Michelson’s article is a quotation and yes I realize it it problematic- I am not saying I agree with his whole article. He makes a valid point that people will give up their standards of egalitarianism for other values like vibrancy and kid-friendliness.


    Aurora · July 26th, 2011 at 10:41 pm
  26. More responses-
    Dayna: I am sorry if I misrepresented your article by conflating it with Jo Ellen Green Kaiser’s but I do feel that you are saying that feminists have don their work on liturgy to the point that we can let go of language issues and move on to metaphor. I don’t agree on that front. Growing up with an egalitarian-ish liturgy means the traditional liturgy stands out when you hear it. Of course that does not mean we cannot work on both fronts at the same time.

    MS I agree about the Liberman clause – it does not allow a woman to initiate divorce.

    Brit Milah, Tahart hamishpacha and mikvah- I agree with BZ’s intuition, but not wording, that these are not in the same categories. That being said tahrat hamishpacha is often considered the sociological dividing line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. I admit also that including them was a bit daunting. But they should be discussed in this context.


    Aurora · July 26th, 2011 at 10:57 pm
  27. That being said tahrat hamishpacha is often considered the sociological dividing line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

    Really? But it’s so private!


    BZ · July 26th, 2011 at 11:07 pm
  28. That being said tahrat hamishpacha is often considered the sociological dividing line between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

    Really? But it’s so private!

    I refer you to the works of sociologist Samuel Heilman


    Aurora · July 26th, 2011 at 11:22 pm
  29. @MS, there is no requirement regarding what Conservative rabbis do or do not use for ketubot. My wedding was officiated by a Conservative rabbi and we used a text by Aryeh Cohen that allows for either spouse to initiate divorce and is fairly egal. See: artketubah.com/Ketubah/ketubah_text_conservative.shtml#aramaic


    Dan Ab · July 27th, 2011 at 12:16 am
  30. I’m really glad people are acknowledging that egalitarianism is in the eye of the beholder. I’m tired of going to shuls/indie minyanim that espouse feminism and/or egalitarianism, but still have the model of men doing the talking/women holding the babies/kiddush being a meat market. My solution has been to stop going to shul altogether, for various reasons, but it would be a shame if everyone came to the same conclusion.


    Chanel · July 27th, 2011 at 1:04 am
  31. @Chanel,
    Yeah, that’s what I most hate about sisterhood/men’s club, too… why do sisterhoods get wine and cheese parties and men get to play sports and barbeque. I’d rather barbeque and play sports, and sitting around daintily sipping chardonnay (feh) is tedious as hell. Not to mention, why would I want to socialize with just women in a club? And I bet that’s why neither are doing well.
    Sorry that your solution was to stop going to shul… come to mine, we have quite a few men in the kitchen setting up for kiddush.


    KRG · July 27th, 2011 at 12:33 pm
  32. Aurora–

    You are allowed to disagree with me. And yes, I am saying that there’s room for a more sophisticated conversation now, when perhaps there didn’t used to be. But don’t ever think that that means I think that we are “done” with feminism.


    Danya · July 27th, 2011 at 1:05 pm
  33. @Dan Ab: I don’t think MS was saying that no Conservative weddings are egalitarian. Rather I think the point was that because most Conservative synagogues bill themselves as egalitarian, because the movement offers the option of this thing called the Lieberman clause (which, let’s be honest, a lot of people about to get married don’t read), and because women can officiate at the ceremony, that many well-meaning Jews naively assume that any wedding performed by a Conservative rabbi must be egalitarian in every way that might matter (particularly with regards to divorce). Sadly, this assumption is not true, and I think that many non-Orthodox rabbis do their constituents a significant disservice by not informing them of the non-egalitarian implications of the traditional ketubah and modified versions thereof.


    NB · July 27th, 2011 at 2:16 pm
  34. Regarding Jewish marriage/divorce it seems to me that the ketubah is a small issue compared to the bigger problem in the ceremony itself. Most C Rabbis I know still perform kiddushin, the acquisition of the woman by the husband. From my research and studies both from planning my own wedding and in some classes, this is the thing that gives or does not give a woman power regarding divorce. Perhaps a fuller expression of egalitarian values in a Jewish wedding would be to not have kiddushin at all.
    See here for more alternativestokiddushin.wordpress.com/
    (thanks danya)


    Uri Allen · July 27th, 2011 at 3:29 pm
  35. Perhaps a fuller expression of egalitarian values in a Jewish wedding would be to not have kiddushin at all.

    Or to do egalitarian/bilateral kiddushin. See this series.


    BZ · July 27th, 2011 at 3:55 pm
  36. @Avi: The only Psak on the issue of women writing a Sefer Torah, of which I am aware (permitting), was written by Rabbi Simchah Roth, a Masorti (formerly Orthodox) rabbi in Herzaliyah. He not only OKs it – he put his money where his mouth was. He had Rabbi Hanna Klebansky (Masorti Rabba and Soferet in Israel, write new sections for his Tefilin).
    Hanna has served as a Soferet for several Masorti shuls including the Great Synagogue in Stockholm.
    For the Psak see: www.bmv.org.il/shiurim/hashkafah/h-soferet.html

    @MS: Masorti rabbis in Israel are requested to ask all couples to sign a pre-nup and have it notarized(the validity of the Leiberman clause in the court system has been questioned over the years). This pre-nup agreement makes Agunah VERY unlikely.It is not within the Ketubba but a separate legal agreement.

    @Dan Ab: You write “there is no requirement regarding what Conservative rabbis do or do not use for ketubot. ” This is just not the case. There are indeed requirements. It would be more accurate to say that not all Conservative rabbis hold to those requirements and that there are no sanctions for rabbis who do not. But there are, from the Law Committee, specific elements that must be included for it to be considered a valid Ketubba and not just a nice Jewish certificate of Marriage.


    Meir Eynaim · July 28th, 2011 at 4:50 am
  37. So the whole Cohen/Levi inheritance thing brings me to this question: Are we only concerned with GENDER equality here? How far are we willing to egalitarianism?

    In a pure egalitarian Judaism, what room is there for Cohanim or Leviim getting special ancestral priveleges, regardless of gender?

    Also, the rabbinate. Is it necessary to have the institution as a formal clergy, rather than have these roles assumed by lay teachers (A hakham is someone who knows more than you, which of course, is relative)?

    Oh, and because this is the internet, no this isn’t satire, yes I’m serious.


    shmuel · July 31st, 2011 at 11:49 pm
  38. @shmuel,
    I agree with you on the kohen/levi thing; but rabbis, i think, are different for a few reasons. 1) any Jew can become a rabbi, 2) it’s not just ‘knowing more,’ it’s knowing the halakhic process and halakhic norms, 3) lay teachers without indepth talmudic training simply aren’t as qualified to make legal decisions for a community, 4) kohanim and leviim are not practical statuses unless we have a Temple; rabbis, however, gained in prominence precisely because of a lack of a Temple.

    In a truly egalitarian community where services are lay led, and the torah is chanted by lay members and so on and so forth, the question, to my mind, isn’t whether or not there should be rabbis, but should it be a paid position; perhaps it should be a volunteer position in the shul like gabbaim, president, secretary, et al…


    Justin · August 1st, 2011 at 8:06 am
  39. Kohanim and leviim ARE practical statuses when it’s time to decide who gets the first aliyah. Or do they not make such distinctions at your shul? Maybe not, I don’t know. 1.) Any Jew cannot become a rabbi. There’s geographical and financial barriers to this for a lot of people. 2.) Yeah, there’s halachic norms, but depending on what you decide is halacha, women don’t read from the Torah. In liberal Jewish halacha, there’s precedent for changing traditions based on the spirit of egalitarianism. 3.) Most rabbis aren’t qualified to make legal decisions for their communities, and generally will consult other rabbis in order to do so. What I’m saying is we restructure Jewish education so that we empower individuals to make halachic decisions FOR THEMSELVES. That way, yes, they can consult with someone with more life experience or Torah study than themselves, but without the rigid hierarchy of clergy/layperson. Fund programs to teach teenagers Talmudic Aramaic and lets open the thing back up. End the rabbinate as a formal clergy. Empower laypeople to perform halachic weddings, shecht their own meat, sit on batei din. Horizontal Judaism. That to me, is the way forward. Compeletely impossible TODAY, but so is ending war forever. Yet, this is still a goal we (supposedly, at least) work toward. I’m saying gender equality is a priority, but lets raise the bar on egalitarianism. Let’s work toward something way better. Liberal Judaism needs a new goal, a new vision for itself. That is what I propose.


    shmuel · August 1st, 2011 at 4:41 pm
  40. I am confused by the discussion of “Vehi she’amdah” because it is simply incorrect to say that the pronoun here, “Ve’hi” even refers to God. The reason that Haggadot translate it as “That which…” is because in the context of the Hagaddah “Vehi” refers to the promise or the covenant that is under discussion at the moment. Immediately after saying “Baruch shomer havtachato”, BLessed be God who keeps His promise…”, i.e. the everlasting promise/covenant with the Jewish people, the Hagaddah says “Vehi…”, meaning it is THAT, that covenant, which has stood for us and protected us throughout the threats of the generation. Havtacha is a feminine noun, hence the feminine pronoun “Hi”. Kalisher may have taken a mystical message from it, but it is certainly not the pshat.

    I appreciate this article. As a member of the part of the modern Orthodox world that is pushing the envelope as much as is possible within Orthodox halachic bounds, it is true that egalitarianism is multi-faceted and while we make strides in some areas (ex. women presidents) we remain rather limited in other areas (ritual and legal status). One should not throw the term around so carelessly.


    rachel · August 3rd, 2011 at 11:12 am
  41. [...] was just reading some of this, and it’s opening up a Pandora’s box for [...]


    Does this mean I have to be egalitarian? « Crystal Decadenz · October 11th, 2011 at 11:22 pm
  42. I agree with you but I would see G-d has given us light (wisdon) as a community we should sit and make goals and vision so we could teach who do not know and are suffering the same issues.


    M. Alam · November 17th, 2013 at 4:50 pm

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