To what degree, if at all, should Halacha change to reflect the change in women’s status in society? My approach to the subject has fluctuated over the years as I was exposed to a range of opinions and perspectives. It has been one of those “thought journeys” that have accompanied me for many years and in the (not too short) following piece, I will attempt to formalize it.
I will start with what is, for me, an important foundation to the discussion. I have tremendous trust in our tradition, in our history and in our communal identity, three things I believe to be one in the same. I do not believe that one can separate between who we are as a people – our communal identity – and the traditions, laws, customs, practices and even methodologies that have been part of our communal life for so long. Because of this great respect and trust I have for our tradition, my base assumption is that tremendous care needs to be taken when considering changes that represent, or can cause, changes to this identity. This means that my fundamental approach to formalized, communal change in these matters is, from the onset, one of extreme care and the default is – and should remain – the situation as it has been for centuries. I trust that if a norm or standard have been part of our national/communal identity for so long, there is a good reason for it and that it is very risky to fiddle with it. In other words, I like thinking of myself as an extreme traditionalist. By no means does this always result in an approach of saying “no” or always being more stringent. Many examples exist throughout Halachic literature demonstrating that “keeping things as they are”, can result in leniency; Eruv, Hash’haya on Shabbat and making Kiddush on a shot-glass, to name some better known examples. A good example, from my own personal life, can be found here (chapter 1) and there are many such examples in Halachic literature.
Based on this introduction, I’d suggest that when discussing the question of institutionalized Halachic change, the Halachic question is only one of several which needs to be considered, namely:
- Can it change?
- Should it change?
- What will be the price of the change?
‘Can it change’ is a purely Halachic question. e.g: when discussing women reading publicly from the Torah – What is the obligation of reading the Torah in public? Are women included in that obligation? Is there an issue with hearing a woman’s voice in religious matters? what is the definition of a צבור (community)? what defines כבוד הציבור (the community’s honor) – is it an objective, static, criteria defined by Chazal or is it subject to change as the concept of community changes? is there possibly a third option? etc… Similarly, other issues have their own questions that need consideration and discussion.
I believe that answering this category of questions is actually fairly easy. Not necessarily easy to come to a definitive conclusion but easy to answer, none the less. Utilizing the traditional approaches to sources, precedents and Halachic methodology, Poskim discuss, analyze, deduce and argue the different points of these and other such questions, and apply them accordingly. They won’t always agree, obviously, but it is clear enough to understand how they reached their respective conclusions and follow accordingly.
Let’s say, for a moment, that we’ve reached the conclusion that a certain change in Halachic norm is not against Hlacha – one way or another. At this point, I think we need to consider question number 2 – ‘should Halacha change?’ Meaning, just because something isn’t forbidden, or just because something is permissible, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done. Halacha isn’t just a list of does and don’ts.
This is a much harder question to answer than the first one, as I don’t believe there are clear sources to draw clear answers from. It is not simply a question of which sources should and shouldn’t be included and the different ways to interpret and apply them. As previously stated, I am a big believer in “כל המשנה-ידו על התחתונה” (“He who wants to make a change- has a lower hand”. I believe that things that have to do with the identity of The Jewish People as it has formed over millennia- among other things, through Halachic norms – should remain the same. The only reason I can see for making institutional changes – in the norms themselves – is in order to maintain that same core identity of what and who we are. I realize, of course, this may seem like a very amorphous question – what are the core values and identity of The Jewish People? – and I am ok with that. Let us have it out, discuss and argue what are the values and ideals most consistent with Jewish identity throughout the ages. But as far as the question of changing Halachic norms, I’d suggest using the following consideration to ascertain whether the change is or isn’t consistent with Communal Jewish Identity. Is the change in the Halachic system (or even in a specific community) a response to the needs of individuals or a response to the need of the system/community itself? Meaning, there are a lot of factors that contribute to individuals wanting Halachic norms to change. Some of them are rooted in real issues and pains while others may stem from personal weaknesses, persuasions and even cultural influences. Either way, it does not seem logical to make institutionalized changes to such a large, complex and important institution just because a certain person – or group of people – happen to think/feel at a certain point in time they have an issue with it. It makes far more sense to say that the community does not need to change for the sake of the individual rather the community only needs to change for the sake of the community itself.
A few examples to illustrate the distinction I am trying to make.
- When wealthy individuals weren’t lending money to poor people before Shmita, it was a problem for individuals, which Halacha dealt with locally by threatening and sanctioning such behavior. But when many, if not most, people stopped lending money to the poor before Shmita, it became a problem of the system itself, where the effort to keep Halacha (שמיטת כספים) for the sake of the poor, was causing the exact opposite – no one was lending money to the poor for years beforehand. Enter Pruzbul, one of the most radical changes in Halacha in history.
- A woman not getting a Get (Halachik divorce document) because her husband is a jerk – a problem of an individual, which Halacha must do its best to solve. Thousands of women not getting Gittin over decades of years – because the system that was put in place to address the issue is no longer effective – a problem of the system itself, as instead of strengthening the institution of marriage, it is in danger of weakening it.
- An individual who is not Halachically Jewish wants to marry someone Jewish without converting and is not allowed to – a problem for that individual and their Jewish partner. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jews already marrying Jews while remaining part of the Jewish Community, is already a problem for the system itself, as the mechanism aimed at preventing intermarriage is the one causing it to happen on a massive scale.
All three of the above cases illustrate well the difference between individuals having issues with the Halachic system and the system itself having an issue. It is important to emphasize that I am by no means saying that Halacha does not or should not have solutions for individuals who are suffering due to Halachic restrictions or regulations. Halacha has always known how to be extremely flexible in order to try and spare individuals injustices, suffering and harm. But that is not the issue at hand, which is that of changing Halachic norms, institutionally. One has to do with changing the lives of individuals while the other has to do with changing the life of the Jewish People. That should be a much more serious and complicated matter.
One could argue that if indeed there isn’t a prohibition on a certain thing, or that it could be permissible – why not do it, even if just for the sake of those individuals who are interested, or in actual need? Let alone if an issue seems to be heading in the direction of becoming a communal/institutional problem?
This is where the 3rd question comes in – “what is the price of the change?” Halacha is a highly complex system comprised of hundreds of thousands of details, ideas, concepts, arguments and customs. It has been evolving and taking shape slowly for thousands of years, sustaining (and sustained by) millions of individuals and communities across the world. It is both an expression of, and a contributor to, so much of who we are. It has contributed to some of the greatest moral and societal transformations not only within The Jewish People but in all of humanity as well, throughout history. And one of the most amazing things about it is that there is no actual institution enforcing it. It is sustained by the millions of people who, throughout our history, chose – and continue to choose – to be committed to it. That is really the only thing that sustains it. The notion of fiddling with it – on an institutional level – to better fit with momentary sensitivities of individual people, I find to be foolish and irresponsible. Most importantly, it ignores the price that is paid when making institutional changes. One needs to think carefully – what is being gained by the change and what is being lost.
The fact that there is a price to pay, that something will be lost doesn’t automatically mean that the change should not be made, just that it needs to be acknowledged and evaluated to decide whether the gain outweighs, or is worth, the loss.
A few examples of how the above questions and considerations would be applied:
1. Woman’s Torah study:
‘Could it change?’ without going into the details and sources at the moment- yes, there was the Halachic possibility of permitting women to formally study and be taught Torah, including the Oral Law, something that had not been done traditionally.
‘Should it have changed?’ using the criteria we set above – was this a need of individuals or of the community – I think it was a communal need. The first Jewish schools for girls opened, among other things, as a response to growing poverty in the Jewish Community as well as growing exposure to the non-Jewish world. Without starting to educate women formally the community would suffer economically and socially as women would not be equipped to face the challenges of a growing secular society, especially as they began entering the workforce.
‘What was the price of the change?’ there was definitely a price to the change – changing the spousal and family dynamic, as women became more knowledgeable, capable and confident in many areas they were not previously. These included finances, religious matters and eventually also politics. Even so, I would argue that none of these were areas in which women were not involved at all, rather, they were less involved. Women had their own financial rights and standings and were always heavily involved in religious matters within the home. So, one could argue that though there was a price to pay for this change – a possible destabilization of the traditional balance within families due to women’s education – it was far outweighed by the financial stability and religious fortitude gained by it.
2. Women joining a Minyan
‘Can it change?’ The short answer is, no, it cannot. Based on studying the Sugiyot and relevant sources, it is my opinion that women cannot be counted as part of a Minyan for דברים שבקדושה (“things to be said in holiness”- Kadish, Kdusha and others) and as far as I am concerned, the discussion on that topic ends there and therefore: ‘Should it change?’ – irrelevant, ‘What is the price of the change’ – irrelevant.
3. Women becoming rabbis
‘Can it change?’ Yes, I hold that it can. Based on what I have learned and read I do not think there is a Halachic issue with women becoming rabbis. This is mainly due to the fact that the roles filled by rabbis today are no longer roles of coercive authority and therefore there is no issue for women to serve as Halachic advisers, spiritual guides and teachers (A.K.A rabbis today).
‘Should it change?’ using my criteria of ‘needs of individuals’ vs. ‘needs of the community’, I think the answer is ‘no, it shouldn’t change’. I do not think there is a national situation which requires such a drastic change. I don’t think there is a national or communal problem that this change addresses. To my knowledge, there is no lack of rabbis in the Jewish World and not even a lack of liberal, women’s-issues-oriented-rabbis. The main reason it is being discussed is because there are individuals, maybe even groups, who feel excluded and think it would allow them to better connect to Torah, Hashem and tradition. I’m not saying I disagree with their sincerity or with the fact that it very well may allow those individuals to truly be more engaged in Torah and Mitzvot. What I am claiming is that I don’t think that is a good enough reason for society to change.
‘What is the price of the change?’ Beyond the ‘classic’ claims such as ‘the unity of the Jewish People (today and throughout history)’ I think there is a much bigger issue and danger – changing the balance of a male dominated public sphere. I am fully aware of how objectionable this may sound to many people today. But, there is no denying that Torah does not see men and women equally, especially when it comes to the public sphere. One can like or dislike the Torah’s fundamental presentation of the balance between the sexes but it is there, none the less. On the one hand, Torah does not ignore women but women appear in it as the ‘other’ and, mostly, as (consistent) supporting figures.
One could try and explain it away as a result of just being a reflection of the power structure that existed during the times being described and that seeing as the power balance has changed (has it?) so should Torah’s take on it but then we are right back where we started from.
Personally, I would argue that the Torah’s approach is not just the result of old fashioned patriarchal structure, rather something far deeper that goes to the core of how Torah sees society. (see * at the end of this page for a more in depth explanation on this)
Regardless of whether you accept my specific explanation, or dismiss it as apologetics, one cannot deny that the Torah establishes a very certain social paradigm. Whether it be a result of theology, anthropology or evolution, the Torah does not view men and women as equal when it comes to their place in society and having men as the spiritual and legal leaders of the Jewish Community maintains that structure. I am sure that many people reading this are thinking – ‘yes! That is exactly what we want to change!’ I understand that but fundamentally disagree with the sentiment. It may be worth looking carefully at western countries in which the more drastic changes have taken place in these areas and see whether it has strengthened or weakened society as a whole.
Even so, what happens if and when the issue goes from being that of individuals to that of the community? For instance, if there is a lack of male rabbis, or that there is a large-scale issue with the ability of rabbis to address the needs of their communities? (Good examples of this are the ‘family purity advisers’ and the female rabbinical advocates, both of whom are dealing with large scale problematic phenomena that just happen to also effect a lot of women.)
If and when that happens I believe the change should be made, and chances are, it would be well on its way to happening already. I’d like to believe, though, that it would happen in a far more organic way, one which would preserve those ideals of Torah regarding society’s structure. As I have stated previously, I have tremendous trust in the system of Halacha as an embodiment of the collective identity of the Jewish People and that, as it has for the past 3500 years, it – eventually – knows what it is doing.
Some final thoughts:
1. Assuming my distinction, of “the needs of the community not the needs of individuals” is correct, the question then becomes – how do we know what is an individual need vs. a communal one? Is it just a matter of numbers? Is it just a matter of time, until the problem gets bigger and prevalent enough? Also, who decides when an issue if big or deep enough to justify an institutional change?
I must admit I do not have a definitive answer to these questions but I know that it isn’t any one person or one community within the Jewish People. It needs to be something or someone who represents and expresses the will of the collective of the Jewish People. Maybe it is the Government of Israel or its Rabbinic arm, the Chief Rabbinate (as an institution, not necessarily as Rabbi X or Rabbi Y…). Part of me wonders if it is only through the perspective of history that the Jewish People pass judgment on such things – that which has been accepted by the nation and that which has not.
2. The last question which I think needs to be addressed is what about those individuals who feel they can’t wait until the rest of the Jewish People “catch up” or figure out what they are certain is correct? What about those people who have difficulty feeling connected to, and inspired towards, a committed life of Torah because of a very real feeling of personal or ideological injustice?
As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want”. As someone who works with kids and youth, I often wonder if we do as good a job as them in accepting authority. This might sound very counter-intuitive but, as adults, how often do we do things that we actually do not wish to do, or don’t believe we have/need to do, just because an authority figure told us to? (“so I don’t get fired/caught”, obviously, doesn’t count. Neither does “I don’t feel like it but I know it is the right thing to do”). Meaning, do we still have a sense of קבלת עול towards anything or anyone? Among them – towards Chachamim, towards our tradition, towards Hashem? That is what I think might be required in some of these cases. Accepting that as long as they choose to be part of this system of a committed life to Halachic Torah and Mitzvot they may have to “suffer” for the sake of the community, its time-frame and processes.
We live in a time of extreme privatization and entrepreneurship of Torah and Mitzvot. If a person feels that this issue is impeding their ability to live a committed and meaningful life of Torah and Mitzvot (which I believe could indeed be the case for some people) they are welcome to start their own Minyan, or to practice however they see fit. To put it in a Mei Hashiloach language – if you are convinced it is coming from a place of yearning to do Hashem’s will and you have eliminated other influences – laziness, pride, lust, etc… then go ahead and do it. That is your “Cheshbon” with Hashem. Just don’t expect us, the community, to give it our seal of approval or like it. Be prepared to do it alone, or with other likeminded people without expecting the community to change to fit with your individual, subjective convictions.
3. I know how tensions run high in these discussions and hope that even if no one is convinced by what I wrote, people will at least realize that there is a very good case to be made for a more traditional, conservative (small ‘C’) approach to changes in Halacha due to changes in societal norms, including in the question of women and Halacha.
* So many of these discussions seem to revolve around the ‘rights’ argument. That women, in general, or a specific woman should have the right to participate, share, express “just like men”, or to express themselves “to the fullest”. These types of arguments have a fundamental assumption which I find to be incorrect and extremely problematic. By no means is it exclusive for the discussion about women’s role in Halacha but it is one of the areas it is the most present. I recently completed a separate post on this exact topic, so will just summarize it as follows: I don’t believe the Torah believes in the concept of rights. The Torah believes in obligations, not rights. For instance, as a non-Kohen, I’m not being denied the right to serve on the Mizbe’ach in Beit Hamikdash, rather, I am not obligated to do so. Because I lack that status of obligation, I cannot enter certain places in Beit Hamikdash, even if being there would allow me a closeness to Hashem I would not attain elsewhere. I cannot eat certain foods, even if their holiness would significantly enhance my religious engagement and fulfillment. I would not be permitted to go up to the Duchan and bless the community (with a Bracha) during the priestly prayer just because I (honestly!) feel the love of Hashem to The Jewish People flow through me. This is all true, even if because of them Kohanim have more influence on the religious sphere within Am Yisrael. Whether it is supposed to be part of the result or just an indirect result is a worthy but separate question. I use this example, of a non-Kohen vs. Kohen, as it is easier to accept the distinction between ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’ in it. Most of us would look very strangely at the request of a non-Kohen to be permitted to practice as much of the Kohanic obligations as very, very odd. Torah teaches us to look first and foremost at “what does Hashem your God ask from you” and practically every single time Hashem speaks to someone in the Torah it is to command and relay expectations. And Torah’s expectations from men and women are different. That much is crystal clear. Why is that the case?
Answer 1 – don’t know, don’t care. It’s about fulfilling your obligations and different people have different obligations. Some of those different jobs can be categorized along the male-female line, others along the Kohen-non Kohen line, others along the single-married line and others along the Israel-outside of Israel line.
Answer 2 – The approach I personally identify with the most is the theological one, which sees the different roles Torah designates men and women as part of how Hashem created the world. In the first creation story man and woman are described as being created together, as one entity – “ויקרא שמם אדם” (“and he named them Adam”). Later, in the second creation story, man is described as being created first and women being created second, from him and as his counterpart. In these very different descriptions, I think Torah is saying it all.
Often, people like referencing the first creation story to prove that Torah’s fundamental approach and its original ideal is that of total equality between man and woman. But that is not the picture the Torah is depicting. It doesn’t describe them as equals, rather as one and the same. One whole creation which has two components to it, two aspects to it. The Torah’s topic is that complete unit. It is to that 2-aspected, single unit, that Hashem commands “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth”. The single man and the single woman are not really the main focus of the Torah, as it sees it as an incomplete state of being. Its topic is the “duo which is one”.
In chapter two we discover what role each component plays in the whole. Just as a body has internal organs and external organs, it seems the Torah designates the “man-component” of the complete unit to be the dominant force when it comes to the outside world – the external organs – while Torah designates the “woman-component” of the unit to be dominant when it comes to the internal world.
(I’m not even going to go the route of “which is more important internal or external organs?” to try and emphasize the importance of women, as – although I don’t necessarily disagree with it – I find it reeks too much of apologetics for most people’s pallets today and it doesn’t really fit with the analogy I am using. One is irrelevant without the other. A person cannot live without internal organs and a person cannot live without external organs.)
I would argue that the biological differences evolutionists identify as the cause of all the social differences between men and women are the exact opposite – the result of the different roles God designated for them as part of a complete, unified, entity.