The following are excerpts from an essay titled “Female Orthodox Rabbis” by Maia Lamdany, a sophmore at Washington University in St. Louis. She is double-majoring in Jewish, Islamic, and Near-Eastern Studies and History. (She also happens to be my sister.)
There is no longer a thriving community of committed secularists, whose Jewish identity is based on being culturally Jewish, on reading Jewish literature and attending Jewish plays, on keeping Yiddish alive and maintaining ties to their heritage in this manner. Instead, the Orthodox model of being a ‘good Jew’ through religious observance has triumphed. Kashrut and Shabbat observance are now considered to be two of the primary litmus tests for who is a committed Jew, and the number of day schools, both Orthodox and others, has drastically increased. This is all part of the increasing polarization between the various Jewish factions in contemporary America: ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, humanist, secular, etc. There is no unity, and even though that has historically been the case among Jewish movements in America, today’s disunity is unique in that even the formerly strong movements are splintering. For example, the Conservative are grappling with the issue of gays and Judaism, and have only arrived at an uneasy compromise which may not hold. The Orthodox have to deal with the role of women in Judaism, for as more women become knowledgeable about all aspects of halakha, study Talmud just as men do, commit to davening, and become interested in taking on greater public roles in religious life, the question arises as to whether the role of women should be reevaluated, and whether Orthodoxy can survive either way.
Women, who have traditionally nurtured and guided the next generation, are being neglected in many ways since in Orthodoxy the attention tends to be on the men, for it is men who count for a minyan and men who have the obligation of saying kaddish for the deceased. Since women do not have these roles, their religious observance is separate and potentially unequal. According to the Talmud, women are exempted from most time-bound mitzvot, such as counting the omer, donning tefillin, lighting the Hanukkah candles, and praying at specific times (it should be noted that women do have an obligation to pray, just not all the prayers or at specific times). Therefore, one who does not have the obligation to do something cannot help another fulfill his obligation, so women cannot count for a minyan when they are not fully obligated to pray. Thus, most observant Jewish women, who have extremely busy lives, would certainly not take the time to daven when they do not even consider themselves required to do so. And these are women who are committed to living as observant Jews, yet when even many men do not pray three times a day, why should equally busy women? Questions then arise of whether these rules should be adapted, bearing in mind the context in which they were enacted, whether women can take on the responsibilities, and whether it is even desirable that they should do so.
Blu Greenberg, an Orthodox Jewish woman who has tried to reconcile traditional Judaism with modern feminist values and advocates for a greater role for women in Orthodoxy while staying within the bounds of halakha, has suggested that since women were likely excluded from these time-bound mitzvot either because they were not supposed to have a public role in Judaism, or so they could be free to serve their husbands and not be torn between the mitzvah of family harmony (shalom bayit) and their religious obligations, perhaps the exemptions should be reevaluated since women’s role in society has drastically changed since the exemptions were first enacted. She has suggested that perhaps women should still be exempted while they have young children who would need constant attention, since fulfilling one mitzvah can override the obligation to fulfill another mitzvah at the same time. Then women could have the time for both their family and their religious obligations. Also, with changing family dynamics in modern America, women now split the responsibility of raising their children with their husbands, so families could structure taking care of the children so that both spouses could find the time to discharge their religious responsibilities.
Perhaps many women may prefer that they not be obligated in so many more commandments, yet in light of the way that society has changed, and how Jewish women are being cut off from an important aspect of their faith, and being treated like second-class citizens by default in response (women without families often do not really have a role in Orthodox Jewish life), the time has definitely come to consider these issues. Moreover, since many Jews are now losing their connection to observant Judaism, can Orthodox Judaism afford to ignore half the population?