Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Limits of the Halachic Approach


A few of weeks ago, I wrote a snarky response to Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt’s deeply misogynistic letter to Sarah Silverman for Jewcy. At the time, I hesitated at writing it, worried about drawing even more attention to his poorly argued views. (Then I realized I’m not that important.) But even if his piece was far too easy to ridicule, his arguments—that motherhood is integral to the female experience—is not really laughable when you consider the mainstream debates about women’s reproductive rights and abortion that have been front and center during the recently ended election season.

After all, at the core of conservative views about women’s reproductive rights is the essential belief that by virtue of our genitalia, we should want to be mothers under any and all circumstances. That’s what Rosenblatt argued in his essay. Men, however, despite playing a role in the procreative process, don’t encounter debates about their prophylactics or access to vasectomies. Why not? Because even though they’re commanded to “be fruitful and multiply,” they’re not essentialized as fathers.

And even if no rabbis, at least to my knowledge, have been so grotesque as to stand up and describe rape as “method of conception” or characterize babies born from this violent act as part of “God’s plan,” mainstream Jewish thought still creates space for these views by insisting on motherhood for all women. Traditional Jewish law still regards all women as “potential mothers” and legislates them accordingly.

(I don’t even wish to talk about ultra-Orthodox Jews. Frankly, their views about women’s roles are so extreme and outmoded that they’re practically punch lines. Lets leave them alone just this once.)

Studying in yeshiva as a young girl, I learned that women were not obligated in “time bound” positive commandments, such as praying with a minyan. The reason my teachers gave for this exemption was that women were expected to care for children, a job that didn’t have regular hours and so couldn’t be forced to do mitzvoth that were time and place specific. “After all,” as one rabbi explained, “what happens if a baby was sick? Would the mom just say, ‘Sorry but I’ve got to go to minyan?’” he asked rhetorically. His tone suggested that this question was utterly ridiculous.

(A note on this “exemption.” This is not akin to a “get out of jail free” card. Women’s lack of halachic obligations in certain domains is used against them, to keep them from participating. The same misogynistic rabbi from the previous paragraph used to question the motives of women who expressed a desire for greater public ritual involvement, accusing them of being “feminists”—some Orthodox Jews’ version of the “f-word”—who were simply using public prayer to make a point. According to this teacher, these women’s motives weren’t pure. Thus, women’s lack of “obligation” is used against them. As for men—they didn’t need sincere motives. They were obligated, which is the beginning and end of the story for them. And so even if they fail to attend services on most days, they are not questioned on the occasions that they do come to daven. Coming and going without explanation is part of the male privilege within Orthodoxy.)

At the time, I didn’t think to ask about the fathers. I didn’t ask why it was ridiculous for a woman to want to participate in a public ritual when there are young children to care for but not so for a father? I didn’t think to ask about why women who weren’t yet mothers were not obligated in time bound commandments? Or to inquire what happened to women who were beyond child bearing and rearing? And what of women who never become mothers at all?

The existence of women like Silverman (and many of my accomplished friends who’ve expressed a desire to remain “child-free) is deeply problematic for the halachic system. If there are women out there who never have children then one of the reasons for excluding females from certain rituals and public roles falls apart. This is why Rosenblatt chose this point of attacking Silverman. Her supposed “vulgarity” doesn’t destabilize his worldview, but her decision not to become a mother does.

The primacy of motherhood in Jewish law has done more than bar them from certain rituals. It has defined their whole mode of operating in the world. If they’re mothers, their realm is at home, out of public view. While in more moderate sectors of the Orthodox community, women have been able to escape full-time wife and motherhood and pursue demanding careers, they are still relegated to the “private” sphere in the Jewish world. In the National Council of Young Israel, there are still debates as to whether women can be synagogue presidents at member establishments, a position that has no ritual import. While there is no legal reason from barring them, the same sort of logic used to keep women from performing certain public religious rituals has been deployed here--namely discussions of modesty and propriety.

Yet we’re not even talking about her dress or even behavior. In this instance, we’re talking about her role. If her ultimate destiny is motherhood and if her realm is behind closed doors at home, then why is she also seeking a public leadership role? Motherhood is supposed to be the beginning and end of the story for her.

Let us pretend for a moment that Jewish law did have something to say about female synagogue presidents. Should we care? Should we continue to negotiate with what are clearly unfair restrictions on women’s activities and roles when we’ve evolved beyond these views in every other sector of our lives?

And here’s where I quarrel even with more liberal and progressive Orthodox rabbis. Their fallback position is always halacha. They’re in dialogue with a system that at its core is deeply unjust. It was created by men who didn’t exactly have expansive views of women and their possibilities. How can we expect such a system to reflect the views of women that we, by and large, agree upon? We can argue and reimagine certain ideas in halacha. But at some point, we will confront the limits of this approach.

So will more modern Orthodox Jews start to make real, structural changes or will they simply say their hands are tied by a legalistic tradition?

Recently, one Orthodox rabbi wrote a post about the most recent arrest of Anat Hoffman, founder of Women of the Wall, a group that has been using civil disobedience to win greater rights for women’s abilities to pray openly at the Western Wall. In her defense, he cites that the rights and permissions that Hoffman and her ilk are agitating are completely within the realm of halacha and therefore should be granted.

As I was reading this, I wasn’t struck by gratitude that an Orthodox rabbi was supporting a Reform Jewish feminist. I was upset by how little he was willing to concede to his female coreligionists. He is only willing to grant them the rights that a framework that takes a dim view of women allows. It’s a crumb at best.

I feel for him and others like him. They seem to understand that there are definite inequalities in the halachic system. This same rabbi, in fact, admits in a different post that women face a litany of obstacles within this framework. But no matter what his personal views are, he and others are beholden to halacha, which like all other systems, is primarily concerned with perpetuating itself.  If it can do that and remain fair, it will. But justice is hardly its main goal. Systems, like living creatures, have very strong survival instincts. And truly equalizing the status of women would be a radical shift for the halachic system. Simply put, it couldn’t continue to exist in its present form.

Does this mean I think that all Orthodox Jewish males are misogynists? No. I know many observant Jewish males who feel the same way I do about women’s status in Judaism. Furthermore, I’m capable of distinguishing between the individual and the system.

But for adherents and defenders of the system—a little honesty would be appreciated. No more apologetics. No more discussions of women’s essential natures that “exempt” them from certain mitzvot, as if 51% percent of the population was some sort of monolith. Let us finally start being honest about traditional Judaism. Within Orthodoxy, women do not enjoy anything resembling “equality” as we have come to understand the term.

Does that mean that women in the Orthodox world are necessarily unhappy? Not at all. Then again, equality and happiness are not synonymous. But you know what are synonymous terms in the world of traditional Judaism and halacha? Woman and mother--whether you’re a rebbetzin or Sarah Silverman.

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