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In your place: An open letter to the front of the shul

Orthodox men should wield their power and influence to ensure that the women who accept 'separate' are truly equal

If you’re an Orthodox Jew on social media, there’s a rather slim chance that you haven’t read about the uproar surrounding a recent article in Mishpacha Magazine regarding men, women, graduations and cookies. That article has already generated several response pieces, some directly addressing the merits of the original argument, others looking at recent changes in our frum society that have led to the situation described. As yet, however, there is one particular response that I have looked for in vain, a hole in this conversation that I’m waiting to be filled.

Fun Fact: No one is obligated in 613 mitzvos. Oh, we’re obligated in mitzvos, many mitzvos, but no single person can perform all 613. Some mitzvos can be performed only by people living in the Land of Israel. Some only by Kohanim. Some by only men and others by only women. There are mitzvos that can only be performed when the Beis HaMikdash is standing, and mitzvos that can only be performed by a male direct descendant of King David, who is the anointed king.

And yet we rarely say, “Women are obligated in X number of mitzvos, a “Yisroel” (Israelite) in Y number and a judge in Z.” Instead, we tend to view an observant lifestyle as a 613-commandment contract. We feel this way because Judaism is a collective community in which each individual contributes to the whole. Together, we work to fulfill all the mitzvos, each person doing his part. Kohanim help Israelites by offering sacrifices in the Temple. Wives help their husbands by going to the mikveh at the right time, in the prescribed way. Each person according to his or her obligation, each person according to his or her responsibility.

I use the word “responsibility” deliberately, for that is another core element of Yiddishkeit/Judaism. Hashem exhorts us numerous times throughout the Bible to be responsible. Be responsible for the widow, for the orphan, for the convert. Be responsible for the poor person. For the person whose donkey has collapsed, even though he may be your enemy. Be responsible for your wife and provide for her; be responsible for your constituents and judge them without prejudice.

Not too long ago we read Parshas Korach. “We are all holy people,” Korach challenged Moshe. “Why should some of you be higher than the rest?” I remember as a child a teacher explaining to us that there is no such concept of “higher” or “lower” in Judaism, just degrees of responsibility. For taking on — or at times, being born with — certain responsibilities for the sake of the klal, the whole Jewish people, a person often receives remuneration commensurate to the time, energy and resources used to fulfill that responsibility. So while it may seem that a person may be receiving preferential treatment, in reality, we are only providing them with the means to carry out their task (a task which, often, is being undertaken on our behalf). Someone has to slaughter all those Korban Pesachs (paschal sacrifices), and because he’s taking care of it for me, I happily give a part of my portion to the Kohen.

Over the last week, Yisroel Besser’s article, In Her Place, has popped up repeatedly on my Facebook feed, along with his responses to the controversy over the piece and Alexandra Fleksher’s honest examination of the brouhaha. Since then, other women have also added their voices by writing articles and starting Facebook groups/conversations. Each addition has generated reactions ranging from enthusiastic approval to serious disapproval. Social media has exploded in discussion: discussions about the mesorah — tradition (or lack thereof), leading to the situation Rabbi Besser describes, discussions about the halachic basis (or, again, lack thereof) behind current norms in frum society, and, of course, discussions about whether or not women mind being “in the back.”

Personally, I applaud Rabbi Besser for bravely bringing such an important topic into the open. By writing how he felt like an “outsider” and “second-class citizen,” when faced with being seated behind a partition at his daughter’s graduation, he touched a nerve among many frum women, myself included. He articulated what a large segment of women have experienced: a slow, quiet shift of cultural norms that results in a two-tier, hierarchical society, Enough women (frum, content-with-our-roles-but-concerned-with-current-trends women) have since spoken up, and far too many to be dismissed as anomalies. Women who are perfectly content praying behind a mechitza are upset about the lack of air conditioning, siddurim, space or grape juice to make kiddush. About the lack of dignity. They’ve shared stories of trying to speak up and repeatedly being shut down.

The idea of having classes in our society is antithetical to Judaism. Man and woman were created as one being, which Hashem then split. Why start with one when the plan was always to have two? One answer is because we are meant to view ourselves as two parts of one whole. Different, yes. But always equal.

Yisroel Besser did us a great service. A window has been opened and pressure released. We’re talking openly. We’re discovering that there are those who have been relegated to the back when, as ezer kenegdo, we were meant to be beside. This is important. This needs to be addressed.

And here’s where I would like to return to the issue of responsibility. If someone is in a position that allows him (or her) more latitude to act than other people, I believe that the Torah wants that person to take responsibility and speak up. To help effect change. In the last few days, many women have written eloquently on this subject and have begun looking at concrete steps to foster appropriate, respectful change. But it is hard for our voices to be heard when we’re still in the back.

So while I certainly encourage frum women to continue moving towards restoring an equilibrium where we are all working together, with dignity, to create a better community and world, I would like to now officially invite the men to join us. Speak up. The way things stand in the Orthodox world, you are the ones who wield more power and influence. Which means that you have a greater responsibility than ever. Shoulder it. Take up what Rabbi Besser began and add your own voices and actions. You are in the the front of the shul. You have the floor. Please use it.

About the Author
Chana Chava Perton is a Bais Yaakov English and Jewish History teacher in Denver, Colorado.
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