Corinne Berzon

A seat at the table

The gents should pull up a chair and hear out their women in matters of Orthodox Judaism

It is a very strange feeling to be the subject of heated debate without ever being truly included in the conversation. I feel like a seven year old whose bad behavior is being discussed by sagacious adults. This is because I am an Orthodox Jewish girl, I mean woman, who would like to understand why women’s participation is so threatening to the character of Orthodoxy.

Am I allowed to be a witness in court? Am I allowed to be called to the Torah? Am I permitted to don phylacteries and a prayer shawl? May I address the congregation of my synagogue from the pulpit? May I study the Talmud at all? Can I divorce my husband without being blackmailed, tortured or held hostage?

Apparently these are questions for men to discuss amongst themselves, much like the sagacious parental figures choosing appropriate correctives for the above-mentioned seven year old. When the leaders of our religious world convene, women’s voices are decidedly absent.

Isn’t that convenient? For millenia women were excluded from Jewish education, not even taught to read with the excuse that educating women is ‘tiflut’ (or for those who are tired of swallowing this strategic euphemism: insipid/vapid/useless). Orthodox women, indeed most women, have only had access to the most basic texts upon which the laws of our religion are based since the 1920’s. Even in this age of reason and equality, a significant portion of the Orthodox world forbids women from learning Talmud or participating in any public aspect of Judaism.

Our religion is entirely based on the interpretations of men who seem to have believed that females are flighty, empty-headed, distracted temptresses who needed to be entirely excluded from the public realm and focus on breeding. Our voices, our minds, our bodies, our souls all necessarily suppressed to preserve the so-called sanctity of tradition. To question this catch-all automatically places one outside of the tall walls of Orthodoxy.

We may not sing in public. We may not speak in public. We may occupy no positions of authority. We may not pray the way we choose to. We may not learn what or how we want. We may not demand a divorce. We may not provide testimony. We are judged by our modesty, our humility, our gratitude, our servitude.

Orthodox women are starting to ask questions (again). They are starting to make their forbidden voices heard over the din of the Beit Din. Women are coming to the table, and they are coming prepared. We are not flighty. We are intellectual. We are reasonable. We are creative problem-solvers. We are Orthodox, despite accusations to the contrary.

I have been told on numerous occasions that the issues facing women in Orthodoxy are not ‘women’s issues’ but are ‘Torah issues’. What this translates to is the excuse of perpetuating the complete exclusion of women under the guise of preserving ‘mesorah’, or ‘tradition’, using texts that women are traditionally not taught and precedent from an era when women in every society were systematically marginalized.

Coming from a background of academic debate, the vicious circularity of this argument is astonishing: the proof that women are not permitted to do x,y,z is that they have never been permitted to do so in the past. Furthermore, unless a person has learned the texts and has applied them from a position of rabbinic authority (which once again women are excluded from) they are not permitted to offer an alternative interpretation. QED.

Instead of tossing out the water from the poisoned well, we are expected to continue drinking it in the name of tradition. To do otherwise, to question or to look for a different direction is rebellion and heresy. Because it goes against tradition. Because it undermines the rabbinic hierarchy. So the existing hegemony continues debating these matters among themselves while maligning female voices in the conversation and patronizingly throwing texts around which women were never permitted to read, study or interpret.

Orthodox women today are more educated than ever before. Most mainstream Modern Orthodox schools permit girls to learn and analyze texts at a level comparable to boys. Women can receive degrees in Talmud. They just cannot be ordained or interpret normative halacha. Their voices, no matter how astute and articulate, are silenced by tradition.

I know that I am not knowledgeable enough to bring anything to this conversation, but there are many women who are. Why can’t we hear them? I am tired of being spoken about as if I am a child. I respect our Rabbis, our schools, our yeshivas and our laws. I love being Orthodox. I am not looking for permission to rewrite Judaism, but I am not prepared to swallow the bitter pill of tradition blindly. A spoon full of sugar might help it go down: just give women a seat at the table. At the very least let their voices be heard.

Let those women who have pursued knowledge of Torah share their wisdom and insights. Be open to the possibility that Orthodox Judaism may permit women to actively participate in the public religious sphere without self-destructing. This is not the end of Orthodoxy, but the beginning of an Orthodoxy that does not ignore the needs, desires and aspirations of women in the name of tradition. To continue patronizing women with platitudes is creating a public relations nightmare and has caused many of us to wonder what our Rabbis are so afraid of.

So give us a seat at the table. Let’s talk, debate, discuss and try to find a way to work within the boundaries of Orthodoxy while making room for women to express their deep love and inherent connection to this religion, its past and its future. We don’t want to roar, but we want to be heard. Let us pull up a chair.

About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.