Eryn London
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Let’s Do This Together: My Presence Doesn’t Mean You Need to Leave

Studying for smicha ordination because women's voices should be heard in the Jewish conversation

Recently there have been many articles written by men about how they feel upset by women either wanting more “power” or a place in Jewish life. These writers feel like they are being pushed out of the Jewish community, that if women are part of the space, they will no longer have a place to be. Others think that they themselves are doing a wonderful job “allowing” the women in their lives to learn, and do what they need to do within Judaism.

Let’s Acknowledge the Issues

I am not against men. I am not against men in Judaism. I do feel like I am struggling to find my place as an observant woman. Unfortunately, I do feel like my presence means nothing. I do feel like no one wants to hear my voice, and if they do, it is only for show. I do feel that when talking to men about these issues, they think that I want to be a man, and they are not actually listening to the fact that I want to be treated as a person and as an actual part of the community and Jewish conversation.

It is great that there are some men who feel like they are “allowing” for women to have a voice. I obviously say this sarcastically. They shouldn’t have to allow it to happen, it should just be. As an Orthodox woman studying for Orthodox smicha, I have come up against a lot when dealing with this issue. In order to get anywhere in the religious world, only a man has the right to say what you can or cannot do. Men, such as the directors of most female learning institutions, decide who we are, what we can learn and what jobs we can do. Men decide whether we are right or wrong halachically. Women are given no agency over their own lives.

An argument in one of the recent articles stated that by allowing egalitarian aspects in davening, there will be nothing left that men can do that women cannot. What things in Judaism can a woman do that a man can’t? The only thing that I can think of is do bedikot for Hilchot Nida, but that is because men do not menstruate. Men can (and should if they are not married) light Shabbat candles. Men can (and should if they are baking challah) take challah. So the complaint is that they don’t get to do internal examinations twice a day for a week every month? What happens in the world when we flip the question? What are we doing with the issue of women not having a space? Why is it acceptable for men to have their own spaces, but it is totally fine for women to have no space for participation, or worse, no space at all?

My reasons for wanting smicha and to be interacting on a halachic level have nothing to do with wanting to be a man. It has nothing to do with wanting to take away power of men. It has to do with the fact that I think that my voice (and of other women as well) should be heard in the Jewish conversation. I think that the question should always be asked in our communities of what are we doing to make sure that our women feel part of the community, being that we are choosing to be halachic, but also recognizing that women can and should have a voice and a place. We should be wondering what can be done in our synagogue space to make sure that women are able to participate as fully as Halacha allows – there is no reason at all for someone not to be able to see or hear from the women’s section.

Making more space for women does not necessarily mean egalitarian davening. I myself am conflicted on the issue. On the one hand, I have not yet found a way for it to fully work halachically for myself (I personally have just not come to accept certain tshuvot at this point in time). And on the other hand, I feel like communal davening is about the representation of community, and I want to be part of the community. I feel like my voice and my presence should count as much as a man, because our communities (at least in the Modern Orthodox world) say that women are part of them. There has to be a balance between both the feelings of being part of the community but also how Halacha is actualized, at least in my opinion.

Let’s Start Working towards a Solution

With that being said, I have changes that I would like to happen in the Modern Orthodox world, which in my opinion are not issues of Halacha and are not ways of pushing out men, but rather means of allowing for women to actually have a voice.

I would like to have a space where my voice counts, and not just because I’m a woman. I’m a person who has been studying Halacha now for 5 years. I don’t need or want someone to make the motions of asking me questions or for my opinion and then blatantly push it away. I think that both men and women need to be on the boards of shuls and Jewish community centers and schools, and together make the decisions. And it shouldn’t be that there is a token woman there; they should be real contributing forces.

I would like to have a space where I can say what I want to say, and I don’t need to fear that someone will change what I said. I have experienced too much in the past few years, of having men request things to be written from my opinion, and then come back around and want me to change it to theirs. I am able to have my own opinions and thoughts, and I can also back them up, and I’m okay with people disagreeing with them.

In a shul context, I would ask for the women’s section to actually be there. It should be clean, well lit, have the air conditioning on in the summer and heat in the winter, with siddurim, a place that one can hear the chazzan and Torah reading, and most importantly ready any time there is a minyan. It is uncomfortable enough to be the only woman at minyan; it makes it even more so when you have to ask for the mechitza, or a siddur, or if the men will turn on the light.

I would ask that if there are people other than the rabbi who give d’vrei Torah or shiurim, that women are included in that rotation too. At this point in time, we are lucky to have many women who have gone through countless years of higher level Jewish studies – give them a chance to teach and speak.

I would ask that if you are missing a man or two for minyan, please don’t say, “We need another person”; rather, say “we need another man.” Going to shul, at least for me, is very difficult. I’m trying to figure out what my presence there means, if anything at all. And if I hear that they are looking for “another person,” my question back is – “what am I then?” I know that a minyan is an Orthodox community is men, I might question it, it might trouble me, but at the same time I accept that as my reality – but don’t think of me as less than a person, because that’s what it sounds like.

For me, this is not a fight to get rid of men.  It is also not a fight to get rid of the men’s club. There is a time and a place for single gender bonding. I just don’t think that the shul sanctuary forum is it. For me, this is a fight to get a woman’s voice heard. We have thousands of years of writing and commentary in which women have been spoken about or spoken to. We are now in a generation of women learning and able to learn, so they now can and must be part of the conversation. We should be finding ways to include women, both as women and simply as people into necessary members of the community. We should be looking at Halacha with actual women in mind, and hear what they have to say. We should be finding space in our shuls to change it from the boys’ club to a place of community.

About the Author
Rabbi Eryn London lives in London. She is a freelance Jewish educator, chaplain, and rabbi living in London. She is involved with a number of projects within the UK and the global Jewish community.