Assessing and Re-assessing the Roles of Women in our Communities

I have spoken to a number of rabbinic colleagues and many of them have told me that one of the most challenging issues with which they have dealt is the evolving role of women in the Jewish community. Depending on the community, the issue may revolve around the type of Torah that they are encouraged to study, certain ritual issues like women’s hakafot and women’s megillah readings, or the role of women as lay or spiritual leaders of communities. Perhaps the more interesting issue when these topics are discussed is whether any particular practice or role is sanctioned halachically or whether it is consistent with Torah values, what some may call meta-halacha. Different rabbis may come to different conclusions on these issues based on their analyses, intuition and/or guidance from their poskim.  However, what’s not often discussed but also important is the impact that such practices may have on a community and the likelihood that these practices will unify or splinter the community.

Some colleagues and mentors have taken the approach that when it comes to women’s issues, we should only advocate making changes if there is a very strong push by a significant portion of the community to make these changes.  They caution that if only a few members of the community advocate for a change, it may be unwise to make this change.  They argue that sometimes we tend to think that those who are the loudest are representative of the entire community when, in fact, they are not.  It is also true that in a world where people are often passionate about hot-button issues like women’s issues, sometimes the status quo seems to be the best way to maintain peace within the community.  At the end of the day, I have found that even if in the abstract people might choose option A over option B, most people are averse to confrontation and therefore would rather stick with option B if that is the current practice.  The thinking, therefore, is that unless there is a strong push for change by a significant percentage of the community, maintaining status quo is the way to go.  Indeed, I have heard of stories where in some communities, large segments of a shul community left the shul when certain more “progressive” stances were adopted in a particular shul.

Even though I sympathize with this approach and, on some level, it is the “easier” approach, I don’t think that it is the correct approach for a shul to take on these issues or any issues, for that matter.  First of all, if the only time a shul will adopt a change is when there is significant pressure from significant members of the community, then that creates an adversarial climate between different factions of the shul.  In essence, this approach tells members that the only way they will be heard is if they make a lot of noise.  In this “squeaky wheel gets the grease” approach, women are encouraged to become activists, but then they are likely to be viewed as complainers when they do speak out loudly.  Many women frankly might want change but don’t want to be labeled as complainers so they remain quiet and frustration builds.  Additionally, adopting an approach that we will only make changes if enough people complain frames the desire for women who want to have a more active role in the shul as complainers, agitators and rabble rousers and may call into question their motivations for advocating change.  Again, every rabbi and every community should have standards by which they evaluate whether adopting certain changes are sanctioned halachically and are consistent with Torah values (however they determine that), but shul leadership must create opportunities to periodically assess and re-assess their shul practices to maximize the engagement of all segments of their community, men, women, children, singles, senior citizens, etc., in avodat Hashem in the synagogue.

A number of years ago, Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein, Academic Dean of Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary and College, spoke at our shul about the founding of the Bais Yaakov movement for women’s education.  She remarked that many of the gedolim who supported the movement initially viewed it as a necessary evil, that if we don’t provide women with an advanced Jewish education, they will be drawn away from Torah and mitzvot to the outside world which appears more sophisticated than their current Jewish education.  However, many of the women who advocated for advanced Torah study for women argued that the goal was not simply to “save” the women from the outside world.  Rather, because of greater educational opportunities for women in the broader world, providing them with greater educational opportunities in Torah study will only enhance their avodat Hashem.

Hopefully, shul communities are having conversations on how to engage millennials, singles, teenagers and senior citizens, not as a response to complaints by large segments of the community, but because it is their mission to do this.  Similarly, shul communities should do the same when it comes to women’s roles in their community.  It is a very delicate and sensitive topic, but it is a topic that must proactively be discussed nonetheless in our shul communities.  Not simply because we feel that we have no choice but to do so, but because we are eager to explore the ways that all of our members can benefit in our shul communities if we do so.


About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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