I literally just put down On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and I felt an overwhelming urge to blog about it. I’ve been reading it for the past week or two, and it’s completely unique from any other piece of Jewish feminist literature I have read. Unlike a lot of pieces I have read, Blu Greenberg, the author, is not willing to simply write off Halacha as outdated and sexist and replace it with newer ideas without reason, but is also unwilling to give up on the idea that equality for men and women is an inherent Jewish value. I’m probably going to write a couple of posts on various topics that she writes about because there is just so much to say.
For this first post, I want to write about what Greenberg has to say about women’s exemption from positive time-bound commandments, and the implication of that exemption on their observance of Judaism and role in the community, specifically with prayer. She explains that there is a principle in Judaism that every commandment that must be preformed within a specific time frame is not binding on women, such as daytime commandments or commandments that must be performed at a certain hour. There is no rationale mentioned for this exemption in the Talmud, but many scholars have tried to explain the meaning of the exemption. She cites several theories.
The first, a fourteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are in the subservient position, women should not be bound to commandments at a specific time because it might prevent them from serving their husbands. The second, a nineteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are actually superior to men, they do not need to observe the commandments because they have a special fervor and love for God that men do not have because of their special role, raising a family. The third is a thirteenth century theory that says that like children and slaves, women do not have the mental control to observe the commandments, and the fourth is a twentieth century theory that says that women do not need the commandments because they are naturally more in tune to the passing of time because of their biological clocks, and do not need the commandments to remind them of it like men do. The fifth and final one is a twentieth century theory created by Saul Berman. He says that the commandments from which women are exempted are mainly ones that would lead them into the public eye: lack of status in a Minyan, not being allowed to be called to the Torah, not being allowed to be witnesses in Jewish courts, etc. If you mix all these theories together, the reason for the exemption probably has to do with a desire for women to be able to perform their domestic duties, as well as desire for women to maintain their roles inside the home and outside of the public eye.
She then goes onto explain how because for years women have not been obligated to pray in a Minyan (a group of at least ten) because of this exemption, doing so has become a mainly male thing. While personal prayer is seen as an important thing, praying in a larger group is regarded in Judaism as the better option—people are encouraged to pray in a Minyan rather than by themselves, to the point where there are certain prayers that can only be said in a Minyan. And women, because they are not required, end up losing out on that. She says,
And what about the spiral effect of release? Without actually assuming full and equal responsibility, will it ever be possible to have full and equal access—especially in a system that defines access in terms of responsibility? Can a woman ever hope to qualify for religious leadership if she has not met equal tests as a layperson? Indeed, is there not an inseverable link between release and restrain, between unaccountability and public invisibility, between ascribed junior status and reduced self-esteem? If we have learned anything at all from feminism, is it not that rights and responsibilities must come together?
I find that quote to be really powerful, because it counters the argument that women should not complain about being exempted from commandments because they can take their own initiative and perform them. It is not as simple as that—exempting an entire sex from something sends a message, whether that message is that these women are not full members of the community, or that they are incapable of fixed responsibility.
I will end this incredibly long post with Greenberg’s suggestion for dealing with the issue of exemption. She suggests that the exemption from time-bound commandment for all women be lifted, and instead only be relevant for women who are raising children (lasting until perhaps Bar/Bat Mitzvah age). She believes that doing so will encourage women to pray throughout their entire lives and turn to prayer as a means of expression, while also making a statement about “the holiness of raising a family,” exhibited by the fact that it can take precedent over other commandments. She also believes that in the long run, women will have to be included in a Minyan in order for them to be seen as full members of a community; she does not criticize the Mechitzah (division between the two sexes), but rather believes that women should be entrusted with the same responsibility that men are, the responsibility to show up for a Minyan and pray.
I love the fact that she ends this chapter, a chapter called “Women and Liturgy,” with an idea for the future but also with an emphasis on the power of Jewish law, Halacha, to influence people’s lives. She describes Halacha as a powerful, beautiful thing, one that binds Jews to laws and customs, but also to an ancient history and tradition. She describes it as a dynamic, fluid system of law that should naturally adapt to include women—she does not try to over-criticize Halacha, but rather work together with it to show how Judaism’s moral code calls for an inclusion of women. And although I personally may not be as observant as Greenberg or in agreement with all of her views, I think that something that we should all strive for is to look at Jewish feminism as a way of bettering Judaism, not as a way of tearing it apart.