The debate reignited by SAR’s decision to allow female students to wrap Tefilin goes to the heart of the issue whether this is a portent of a split in the Orthodox Jewish world between the Liberal Modern-Orthodox and the hardline conservative Modern and Ultra-Orthodox branches.  According to Uriel Heilman in his TOI blog (January 24, 2014) The tefillin controversy is, “helping expose an increasingly sharp fault line within Orthodoxy.”

It is fascinating to take a step back and examine historical precedent. There are numerous examples of women participating in the communal life of the Jewish people from biblical times through to the end of the Second Temple period (1200 BCE-70 CE). Sometime in the post-destruction period of the reconstituted Sanhedrin in Yavneh and those that followed, until that institutions’ dissolution during the fifth century CE, in other words, the period that the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud were being compiled, edited and canonized, there was a distinct reduction in the role of women in public aspects of communal worship.

In their 1997 study “Rethinking Youth Identities” Rattansi and Phoenix claim that:

The divisions of class, gender and “race” continue to be of profound significance in imposing constraints which are themselves reinforced by the officially sanctioned production of identities thorough a variety of regulatory agencies

The “regulatory agency” par excellence in the Jewish world is the synagogue. A close examination of the physical remains of ancient synagogues in the Land of Israel from this period do not show clear evidence of an “Ezrat Nashim” (women’s section) in their architectural plans. Either the women;

1)    Prayed with the men

2)    Prayed at different times

3)    Prayed in private and not in the public domain

The synagogue in this early period of national reorganization in a post-destruction world became the central institution for each Jewish community, fulfilling certain functions of the Temple. It served as a center of meeting and of prayer. This institution became the spiritual, social and educational focal point for the Jews. The large quantity of magnificent synagogues from the period of the Mishna and Talmud uncovered in Israel are a testament to the importance of this institution.  It is, therefore, difficult to imagine that women had no role in this key establishment.

Today’s Orthodox synagogue is instantly recognizable precisely because there is a “Mechitza,” a physical separation of the men from the women. This Mechitza might be subtle, in the form of plants or, as is usually the case a physical wall, in some cases obstructing vision and sound from the much larger men’s section.

Norma Baumel Joseph in her article “Mechitzah: Halachic Requirements and Political Consequences” (1992) notes that:

As clouded as the archeological and historical records are, the Halakhic issues are equally ambiguous. Questions remain about the requirement of sexes to be separated for prayer (with or without the “Mechitzah”) as well as for all public occasions. The wording of the Talmudic texts is unclear, and the codes nowhere explicitly require a “Mechitzah”. There is neither a direct prohibition nor a direct requirement; there are merely a few references to the “Ezrat Nashim,” indicating that there was such a thing.

I once attended a Vishnitz “tisch” in Mea Shearim and the women’s section was literally twenty meters in the air with iron lattice work in front, so that the women would have to place their eye next to a small hole the size of a finger tip in order to witness the proceedings. They were quite literally caged up in a separate environment both physically and socially.

The women attendees have absolutely no public role whatsoever in the Orthodox service. The whole spectacle is viewed as if one is at a play or at the opera, that is – passively. The women can watch as men receive honours and lead the service and read from the Torah. Women in most Orthodox synagogues are not even allowed to deliver a “D’var Torah” (Torah lesson), even if the women have a PhD in Talmud, or open the Holy Ark, which is a non-vocal honour.

One rarely finds women in lay leadership roles even in the Modern-Orthodox world. There seems to be a dissonance between Modern-Orthodoxy’s claims and its actual practices and attitudes. Tova Hartman in her study “Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism: Resistance and Accommodation” (2007) recalled:

I began to see vividly the gaps between Modern-Orthodoxy’s claims of integration and its actual treatment of, and discourse about women.

This is clearly at variance with the rise of the professional woman in the Modern-Orthodox world. Women are now astronauts, doctors, lawyers, Talmud Scholars, even Israeli Supreme Court Presidents and Foreign Secretaries, but once they set foot inside a traditional Orthodox Synagogue there is no active role for them to fill. Whatever their role and identity in the secular modern world, these women seem to loose their dignity upon entrance to the sanctuary. This clearly has to change, and is changing among segments of the liberal Modern-Orthodox world.  “Renew our days as of old.” (Lamentations 5:21)

DSC_0450 “Shrine of the Book.”

(c) Tuvia Book, 2014