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Some Questions and Answers on Egalitarianism
Prepared by Rabbi Jarrod Grover, Beth Tikvah Synagogue
Updated - November 17, 2016
What are practical consequences of adopting egalitarianism?
When it comes to participation in public ritual acts, women and men over the age of Bar/Bat
Mitzvah will be treated equally. A public ritual act includes, among other categories, leading services
and counting in the minyan. We are already Torah-egalitarian, meaning that women are already eligible
to have aliyot and read from the Torah at Beth Tikvah.
All minyanim under the auspices of Beth Tikvah will count women equally with men, and women
will be permitted to lead all parts of the prayer service.
There are certain other halakhic innovations which are related to egalitarianism, but upon which
I have not consented to any change. These include changes to our liturgy (i.e. adding the matriarchs to
the amidah), identity status (i.e. patrilineal descent, bat kohen/levi), and legal matters (i.e. women serving
as judges, witnesses, or giving a get).
Under what halakhic basis are we becoming egalitarian?
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which issues responsa on matters of law
for the Conservative Movement, first issued a responsum permitting women to be counted in the minyan
in 1973. Since then, nearly all synagogues in the Conservative Movement have become egalitarian.
However, in 2014, Rabbi Pamela Barmash authored a responsum which sought to clarify questions of
egalitarianism and the equality of women in the observance of the mitzvot. (This responsum is available
Rabbi Barmash challenged the way earlier Jewish sources which dealt with women's obligations
have been read. It submitted that the only reason women were exempted from certain mitzvot was because
women were of a lower social standing than men in the early Rabbinic period. If we no longer view
women as having a lower social standing than men, it would be incoherent for us today to allow them to
be exempted from the mitzvot. Her responsum was submitted and approved by the CJLS by a vote of 15 in
favor, 3 opposed, 3 abstentions. Addenda to the Barmash teshuva were also issued by several rabbis, and
are available online.
I found Rabbi Pamela Barmash's responsum to be persuasive in that she frames the discussion on
gender to be about mitzvot, and women's obligation in them. She gives examples of laws adapting to
changes in custom and social reality throughout Jewish history, which can serve as models for the
changes she is suggesting in her paper. In two areas I found her proposal to be lacking. Firstly, she
assumes that women's freedoms, rights and equality are universal values held across different Jewish
communities. Second, she asserts that we can obligate women in the mitzvot without the consent of the
community. I believe that the halakhah requires the men and women in a particular community to affirm
these principles, rather than having them imposed upon them. Because of this requirement to consult the
membership, I have ruled that adopting egalitarianism is a permissible change for the Synagogue, but not
a required change.
Does this mean that women will have to wear tallit and tefillin?
If women at Beth Tikvah are equal in standing and equal in obligation to men, then women are
responsible for the mitzvot of reciting the Shema and the Shemoneh Esreh, wearing tzizit and donning
tefillin, residing in a sukkah, taking up the lulav, hearing the shofar, counting the omer, and studying
Torah. In our synagogue, this will be our educational principle and model.
That said, I am not prepared to permit the congregation to become egalitarian if such a change is
not implemented with the values of pluralism, respect, and tolerance. Men have been obligated in the
mitzvoth for centuries. Women are just now starting to begin the process of learning about the mitzvoth
and how to observe them. Many women in our community may be hesitant, and others may even reject the
idea that they are obligated like men in the first place. The changes we are speaking of will not happen
overnight. It is my halakhic determination that even if the congregation becomes egalitarian, no woman
at Beth Tikvah shall be forced to immediately begin observing a mitzvah from which she was previously
exempted. Perhaps this position will change some time in the future when we will see the fruits yielded by
our egalitarian approach to the mitzvoth. But for now, we are just beginning to take our first steps. Let us
be understanding and inclusive.
Doesn't Judaism forbid counting women in the minyan?
While the Talmud (B. Berakhot 47b) considers and rejects the possible inclusion of a child or a
slave for a minyan, it does not consider or reject the inclusion of a woman. Later commentaries on the
Talmud (the Rishonim) discuss whether a woman may count, and for various reasons rule to exclude.
This exclusion is most often based upon women's different level of obligation when it comes to prayer.
This is why I believe that only when men and women see themselves as equally commanded in the mitzvot
are women eligible to be counted in the minyan just like men.
What if a woman does not want to be counted in the minyan? Or does not want to observe a
mitzvah? Is she sinning?
If the community affirms that women are equal in standing and in obligation, then our ritual
policies must follow these principles. Just as all adult Jewish males are counted to be part of the minyan,
and have no choice in the matter, so will all adult Jewish females be counted as part of the minyan.
As was said above, my ruling on egalitarianism is dependant upon policy changes incorporating
the values of pluralism, respect, and tolerance. No woman shall be forced to immediately begin
observing a mitzvah from which she was previously exempted.
If a woman chooses to rely on an opinion from a valid halakhic authority that contradicts my
halakhic opinion and exempts her from the mitzvot, then she is certainly not committing any sin by failing
to perform them. However, if a woman accepts my logic, and the logic of Rabbi Barmash's teshuva, and
believes that she is equally obligated in the mitzvot with men, then just like men, when she does not
perform a mitzvah, she has committed a transgression.
Why is the congregation being consulted when this is a matter of halakhah (Jewish law)?
Indeed, there are certain matters of halakhah which do not require congregational consultation.
These apply when there are instances of Jewish law being violated, or Jewish law not being upheld.
Neither applies to this case. It is permissible for Beth Tikvah to remain Torah-egalitarian. And it is also
permissible for Beth Tikvah to become egalitarian - so long as it affirms the equality of women in socialstatus and in obligation. Therefore, a process of consultation, and a formal vote, is required in order to
sanction any change.
How can we accept the equality of men and women when in so many areas of Jewish law, men
and women are treated differently?
The intention of my ruling is not to make Judaism into an androgynous religion. Such a position
would take us in very radical directions, inconsistent with the message of the Torah, which asserts many
differences between the sexes. Whether each “gendered” matter in Jewish law has halakhic basis today
deserves critical evaluation on a case by case basis. Sometimes, the basis for these differences are
biological or legalistic, and overturning them is without basis or biologically impossible. However, on the
specific matter of women's participation in ritual acts, Rabbi Barmash has determined that the primary
basis for differences between the genders is the lower social standing of women in society. It is this
fundamental assumption which has been challenged in our day, and it is why these specific exemptions
need to be revisited.
Is there not a prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice?
Rav Yaakov Yehiel Weinberg (1884-1966) addresses this issue in his collection of responsa called
Sridei Esh. The context for his ruling is a youth group that often had boys and girls together singing
Shabbat songs at their gatherings. It is a lengthy essay where he points out that “those who sing holy
songs do this for the sake of heaven, in order to awaken religious feelings among the girls…”. He also
quotes the Tosafot saying “better to uproot one letter from the Torah, that the Torah not be forgotten
from Israel.” He cautions that only the Sages can determine when this is appropriate, but states that the
situation of women’s participation is one such time. He writes, “In this matter, in which there is no real
prohibition, but only a custom of the pious and instance of special modesty, it is permitted to look for
supporters…”. In his following paragraph, he adds one last plank in the platform, saying that these girls
“have a certain level of self-respect, and would regard it as a disgrace and an exile from the community,
were they forbidden to participate in singing Shabbat songs.” His responsum has been the basis for many
groups, both Orthodox and Conservative, to allow women’s voices to be heard in prayer.
What about women wearing a kippah?
Covering one’s head is not a commandment found in the Torah or the Talmud. Instead, it’s a sign
of reverence for God, a custom that became popular in the Middle Ages, and has stuck around since. The
spirit of egalitarianism is about encouraging both men and women to wear a kippah. In fact, Beth Tikvah
already has certain policies with regards to men and women covering their heads at certain times and
places. For the time-being, there are no changes being proposed with regards to these policies, in line
with the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness which animate my ruling.
Why is the implication of the congregation vote at the special meeting?
The Constitution of the Synagogue mandates that any change to the "mode of worship" be
affirmed through a general meeting by at least two-thirds of those in attendance. The Board has
determined that becoming egalitarian constitutes a change in the "mode of worship," and therefore
requires a vote. This vote does not affect the practice of the Synagogue, which may only be changed by
Rabbinic approval. It is my intention, however, to immediately issue a halakhic rulings following a
successful vote. Women would immediately begin to count in the minyan, and be eligible to lead all parts
of the service.
Isn't changing Jewish law a "slippery-slope?"
As Conservative Jews we believe in legal development. But we do not do so recklessly. We affirm
that our tradition evolved as a result of the careful balancing between tradition and change. It was never
intended to be frozen, and it was never intended to be reformed without respect for the chain of tradition.
I do not see grounds to permit changes to Jewish law because certain observances are "outdated" and
"inconvenient." That is a sure path to a weakened and impoverished Judaism, doomed to irrelevancy.
However, I will continue to argue for halakhic change when I believe that a Jewish law diminishes the
humanity or dignity of another person, for example in matters of gender or sexuality. I will do so when I
believe that the presence of a tradition impedes Jews and would-be Jews from engaging in Jewish life and
living - this motivates my decision to marry a Kohen with a divorcee, and do outreach for those seeking to
enter our faith. And I will do so when advances in science prompt us to rethink long-standing beliefs,
such as the permissibility of organ transplantation, in-vitro fertilization, or for that matter, eating
swordfish. If this is a "slippery-slope," then it is the slippery-slope upon which Judaism has rested for
millenia, and upon which Conservative Judaism has staked its fate.
Please note that I am interested in further comments and questions to assure that all matters of concern
related to egalitarianism have been addressed. Always feel free to send me e-mails with those requests.