Editors’ Note: The Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding professional roles for women in Orthodox synagogues has sparked heated debate for the sake of heaven. In the hopes of contributing to that ongoing conversation, Lehrhaus has convened a symposium to reflect upon the statement. Over the course of the next week we will post further installments, so please check back frequently. Each contribution will contain links to the other pieces in the symposium.
Symposium Contributions: Sara Wolkenfeld, Tzvi Sinensky, Shmuel Winiarz, Leah Sarna, Rivka Press Schwartz,Matt Reingold, Laura Shaw Frank, Chaim Twerski, Chaim Trachtman, Shayna Goldberg, Shaul Robinson, Todd Berman, Jeffrey Fox, Elli Fischer, Jeffrey Woolf, Zev Eleff & Ari Lamm
It is not easy living with tension, but to deny the tensions we feel is to simplify things, to erase the complexity of human experience and to wish away the conflicting values that pull us in competing directions. For example, since making aliyah, I have faced the tension that comes from balancing trust in God with taking human initiative, and the tension that crescendos when you must be cautious, vigilant, and suspicious without losing your humanity and your belief that most people are good.
Tensions of Women’s Torah Study
There are tensions with which I live that are specific to Orthodox women. Some of the tensions in my religious life are a result of my embracing an ambitious vision for avodat Hashem while also wanting to remain solidly rooted in a community that has not always been uniformly receptive of those ambitions.
I love studying Torah on an advanced level because it connects me to the Almighty and is religiously inspiring. It was frustrating when, at different points in my younger years, others suspected that this pursuit was driven by an “agenda.” I experienced tension as I challenged myself to continue trusting and respecting people I had been raised my whole life to look up to, even as they didn’t always trust me.
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to contribute to Jewish communal life through different professional roles. In accepting these roles, I am motivated by Torah ideals to try to offer what I can, not because I seek recognition, adulation, or self-aggrandizement. There is certainly no desire to overpower or undermine. I felt that I was doing my best to help increase yir’at shamayim in our community, even as my own yir’at shamayim would sometimes be probed or questioned.
Tensions of Prayer
I enjoy a meaningful tefilah experience where, even from the women’s section, I feel welcome, wanted, and integrated in the synagogue. It means a lot to me when I can see, hear, and sing along; when the sermon is addressed to me as part and parcel of the audience; and when I am not made to feel like a spectator. My experience of tefilah is not as fulfilling in synagogues where I feel distanced, not a part of the tzibur. But davening with a minyan remains very important to me, and so I still choose to participate.
At the same time, I strongly identify with Rabbi Saul Berman’s description of the “protected but not mandated” role that the Torah makes available for women. As the mother of young children, I appreciate that going to minyan each morning is a choice and not an obligation. I also understand and accept that, in Rabbi Berman’s words:
the exemption of women from obligations of participation in communal worship results in their disqualification from being counted to the quorum necessary to engage in such worship. For each member of the minyan must stand equal in obligation and capable of fulfilling the obligation on behalf of the entire minyan. The absence of such mutuality, of equality of obligation, prevents the constitution of an edah, or community, and prevents the individual with lesser obligation from fulfilling the mitzvah on behalf of one with a different and greater degree of obligation.
It is understandable and yet difficult that we can’t have it both ways.
Many women share these tensions; I am not alone. I see myself as a part of a continuum of religious Jews that includes women and men from many and varied communities. It means a lot to me that, at the end of the day, we share much in common. Our lives are guided by the same detailed halakhot, the same experiences of keeping Shabbat and celebrating hagim, and the same overarching belief in submitting to a Higher Authority. It means a lot to me that we be able to pray in each other’s synagogues despite our differences.
I have worked with and learned from excellent and deeply sensitive rabbis who care about helping women find fulfillment in their religious lives and work hard day in and day out to be inclusive and to develop solutions to their frustrations that will stand strong halachically and therefore will endure.
I identify with the desire to hold on tightly to our traditions. I understand the need to tread slowly and carefully as we take what seem to be important and necessary steps, and I try to maintain the humility that reminds us that change can bring uncertain, unknowable, far-reaching consequences.
And I am not alone.
Joy in Tension
Sometimes I envy women who seem to live with less of this tension—the woman who finds complete religious fulfillment in mothering and feels no need or desire to engage in a more ritualized observance of Judaism, or the woman who can easily participate in rituals and embrace roles that I do not and is not burdened by the specific questions that swirl in my mind even as she faces other ones.
Ultimately, though, I find meaning and joy in living with tension. It means that I am always evaluating and balancing different values and deeply held beliefs. It is a challenge for religious women of our time to walk that line.
In response to this challenge, we must refocus our efforts. In addition to delineating the boundaries of halakhically appropriate activity, we must ensure that our young men and women care about boundaries, even as they explore and test them with the same blend of courage and reverence that previous generations have.
Our educational efforts must address the values of commitment, kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim, and serving God willingly and joyfully, even in the face of egalitarianism, pluralism, and personal autonomy. We need to light up young people’s eyes with passion—for halakhic observance and for rootedness in our rich traditions—even as we embrace opportunities to think about current issues with fresh perspectives and nuance.
We must instill a sense of gravitas, patience, and humility as we tackle the challenges of our day. We must demonstrate respect for authority and expertise, even as we gently question, when necessary, the tone and approach with which things are sometimes said. And we need to trust that many women are genuinely thirsting for engagement with Torah, mitzvot, and Hashem Himself, even as we continue to explore the most appropriate and halakhically legitimate ways to do so.
It is possible to be both progressive and traditional, forward thinking and rooted, open-minded and committed, intellectually curious and submissive, frustrated and deeply fulfilled. Sometimes I feel as if I am being told that I must choose one side or the other, but I feel all of these things.
And I am not alone.