As much rancor and disagreement as there is in the Modern Orthodox world about women in the ritual sphere or leadership roles, there are many places where women’s participation is universally accepted and indeed welcomed, and where attempts to foster it would be generally agreed-upon and uncontroversial. By focusing the conversation on the most hot-button issues, we ensure a maximum of heat without proportionate light. There are, however, many points of agreement on which progress could be made regarding women’s participation and public roles, before we go back to fighting about the tough ones. Here are a few among many examples:
- In many Centrist and Modern Orthodox shuls, a woman arriving to daven shacharit on a weekday morning is not assured of finding a place in shul. That is no metaphor: there is no mechitzah, physically no space for her to be. The message of unbelonging, uninvitedness is clear. No one defends this on principle, and if we pushed on it, many more congregations, their consciousness raised, would ensure that any woman coming to shacharit on a Tuesday morning has a place to pray. In our shuls, there is no principle implicated here. (Often, it is simply that tefillah on weekday mornings is carried out not in the main sanctuary, but in a smaller auxiliary space.) Our communities should commit–we should nudge and push and demand our communities to commit–to never holding tefillah b’tzibbur without a place for women to daven. This is true not only in shul, but in the impromptu tefillot that happen at weddings, conferences, and other events. When we gather as a community to daven, if we do not always ensure that there is a place for women to daven, we are communicating to women that they are not part of normal Orthodoxy, but a special category of people for whom special accommodations can be made–if they ask. The barrier for participation for women is thus raised much higher. In order to participate, a woman has to be comfortable entering that unwelcoming space, and asking.
(A number of years ago, I was at the North American Jewish Day Schools Conference–a gathering, it hardly need be said, of Jewish educators. At the appointed time, I went to the designated room for mincha. A man approached and very respectfully asked if I wouldn’t mind leaving the room, as they were about to daven mincha there. Mustering my toothiest smile, I replied, “I know. That’s why I’m here.” A mechitza was rustled up forthwith. [Well, between the response and the mustering I might have expressed myself forcefully to one of the conference organizers, which might also have had something to do with it.])
- Too many of our rosters of speakers, panels, or scholar-in-residence lineups could comfortably meet on the men’s side of the mechitzah. That’s not being defended as a matter of principle–it’s being defended with a series of mealy-mouthed and thoroughly uncompelling excuses. If we pushed on it, not in ugly internet flaming, but in a reasoned and reasonable calls to the organizing parties, we could effect meaningful change. (Organizers: answers like “we asked the women and they said no”, “there are no women who speak on this topic”, “we couldn’t offer any provisions for child care” are so much hogwash. And if the questions you’re asking can only be answered by men, you’re asking the wrong questions.) We can insist that women be on the education committees that engage communal scholars, and that the people whom we put up in front of our shuls, schools, and communities as roles models and teachers are representative of the entirety of our communities, not just half of them.
- The language used in settings from rabbis’ sermons to our communal publications often presupposes, however, unwittingly, that all Orthodox Jews are men. “The reason why Orthodox Jews wear tzitzit” ignores the fact that 50% of Orthodox Jews will never wear tzitzit, however scrupulous they are in observance. Again, this is a lack-of-thinking, not a principle, and it is amenable to change if we are persistent and insistent in asking for it. There are some who may tell you not to be so politically correct; that language doesn’t matter. Inevitably, they will be people in the centered, not the marginalized, position in these language divides. But many rabbis, or writers, or shul presidents making announcements, will hear the reasoned argument, and adjust. (All Orthodox men everywhere: stop saying, “We need N more people for a minyan.” You do not need people. I am people, and my presence doesn’t help you. If you need N more men for a minyan, say so. I can handle not being counted in a minyan. I have a little bit of a harder time not counting as people.)
These examples are not exhaustive. They are a place for us to start; surely there are many others. Making progress on them will be helpful in its own right, in redefining who is a default member of the Orthodox community, a default participant in tefilla, a default teacher/scholar. And it will be helpful in marking a communal approach of constructively engaging toward shared goals, rather than lobbing artillery.
Rivka Press Schwartz, “Climbing Out of Our Trenches: Towards a Different Conversation”, Tacit Knowledge (21 December 2016) [https://rpschwartz.com/2016/12/21/climbing-out-of-our-trenches-towards-a-different-conversation-about-women-and-orthodoxy/]