Sacrifice, Egalitarianism, and Sociology: A Response to Gottlieb & Liben

Two recently published articles highlight opposing but related frustrations with the Conservative Movement. Micah Gottlieb attributes his disaffection to lack of communal support for his growing observance and an excessive focus on internal politics and larger political concerns rather than religious issues, his primary example being gender egalitarianism in ritual. Partly in response, Sara Miriam Liben argues compellingly that it is morally problematic for men who claim to be committed Conservative (read: egalitarian) Jews to take advantage of their male privilege to join Orthodox prayer communities when that shift is much harder for (and on) their female compatriots who were raised as equal participants in Jewish ritual life. I am sympathetic to both sides, and I’d like to offer a proposal for a strong halakhic, egalitarian Judaism that might be able to draw back the Gottliebs and address the concern of the Libens.

The first step is to fully understand the challenge. Liben’s article starts to but does not fully acknowledge the costs and challenges of being halakhically observant in a non-Orthodox context. I write here as someone who essentially made made the opposite choice of Gottlieb and the men Liben describes. After two years at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, I realized that my intellectual, communal, moral, and halakhic commitments could not be maintained as an Orthodox rabbi. After returning to Jerusalem, I decided to wholeheartedly throw my lot in with the small but growing Torah observant (“frum”) egalitarian community. (For the purposes of this essay, I am going to conflate this community with the Conservative Movement; despite their significant differences and challenges, the suggestions I will offer below could profitably be applied by both.) I am not “asking for a cookie,” to borrow Chris Rock’s felicitous phrase describing those who expect to be rewarded for merely doing what should be reasonably expected of them. But the personal sacrifices this choice has entailed should not be dismissed out of hand, especially if we want others to replicate it.

Newly recommitted to only pursuing Torah learning opportunities also available to women, I faced the challenge of continuing halakhically-focused semikhah (rabbinic ordination) studies of an intensity that is not available in non-Orthodox rabbinical schools. Although I did find a teacher who would, at least in theory, teach and ordain women, I had no cohort with which to share my struggles or successes, no support network, precious few folks who had trodden anything resembling the path, and no clear professional road. If the frum egalitarian world wants to retain folks who are serious about Torah learning and halakhah, it needs to create an infrastructure to support the training of rabbis who can teach and lead those people.

Another ongoing challenge is feeling like an oddity even in supposedly supportive communities. It is trying, and lonely, to be the only one who steps out to daven minha in a corner as sunset approaches. Even when hanging out with a group of supposedly like-minded friends, suggesting that we form a minyan (or even a zimmun) is often seen as an imposition and even religiously judgmental. Being observant in the traditional egalitarian world means constantly being “on” – knowing that minyan won’t happen unless you, personally, always show up. (To be fair, this is often true in smaller Orthodox communities as well, but in those communities there is often a unified sense of joint purpose that helps mitigate the exhaustion.) It is simply not reasonable to expect such sacrifices on a large scale, as Liben does, and certainly not without a compelling ideology to support them. And all of this only touches on prayer; solidarity in other areas of observance tends to be better, but is still not perfect. (Where, e.g., are the frum egal mikva’ot that have men’s and women’s hours?)

To make frum egalitarianism vibrant, it needs what sociologists call a plausibility structure, a compelling ideology that will nurture observant communal life. Gottlieb makes the important observation that advocacy of egalitarianism as a political value undermined his religious commitments; nothing in Liben’s account alters that picture. Pitting egalitarianism against traditional halakhic norms results in egalitarianism being felt as a betrayal of halakhah, and is likely to erode halakhic seriousness. Nor is it enough to simply sweep away non-egalitarian halakhic precedent with generic appeals to ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha (love your neighbor as yourself) or kevod ha-beriyot doheh lo ta`aseh min ha-torah (human dignity supersedes [even] Biblical prohibitions).

Gender egalitarianism in ritual matters must not be viewed as a halakhic compromise. It is, rather, the fulfillment of halakhah‘s demands in our current circumstances. Women must not be permitted to read from the Torah because kevod ha-beriyot supersedes kevod ha-tzibur (communal dignity), as some Orthodox defenders of partnership minyanim maintain; they read alongside men because that is kevod ha-tzibur in a world in which women and men are equally educated and valued members of the community! Women count in a minyan because a minyan – solely as defined in halakhic sources – is comprised of ten Jews who are intellectually mature, dignified, full political members of the community, and nowadays both adult men and women (but still not, e.g., children) fall into that category. Full political membership, however, means not just rights, but responsibilities. In both halakhic and sociological terms, that means that women are now fully obligated in what are often termed mitzvot aseh she-ha-zeman geraman (obligations activated by specific times), tzitzit and tefillin being that category’s most obvious daily manifestations. (Daily prayer has always been a gender-blind obligation – see Mishnah Berakhot 3:3 and the extensive literature thereon.) Owning up to this means that frum egalitarianism is mahmir (stringent), not meikeil (lenient). This would be a set of religious demands that can generate passionate commitment.

Given the challenges, why do I bother – either to be frum, or to be egalitarian? The answer is that I am compelled to be so by the all-encompassing wisdom of Torah – ki hi hokhmatkhem uvinatkhem le-einei ha-amim (“for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations” – Devarim 4:6). The multivocality of Torah learning gives me a wider perspective on the world, and pushes me to be a better, more understanding human being. It is from our Sages’ insights on the point of public prayer that I find egalitarianism compelling and necessary. I situate myself within the frum egalitarian community because I think it has the greatest potential to live out the values encoded by halakhah, to provide the content and substance that Daniel Gordis recently opined is so crucial to a healthy Judaism.

I truly empathize with both Gottlieb and Liben. I flirted with the same choices that Gottlieb made, and I refuse to judge him for joining a community that nurtures his religious commitments. After all, what is the point of recognizing equal obligation if one lacks the fundamental concept of obligation to begin with? At the same time, I too experience the feeling of abandonment that Liben describes when my fellow men (and not a few women as well) choose the benefits of the more communally supported religious path, even in the face of all of its costs. But instead of casting blame, I accept that it is, in part, my responsibility to create a religious culture that is compelling and serious. Hayom katzar ve-ha-melakhah merubah . . . ve-lo atah ben horin libatel mimenah (“the day is short and the task is great . . . but you are not free to desist from it” – M. Avot 2:15-16). If all of us who are similarly committed prioritized creating such communities, we’d have more than a minyan by anyone’s standards.

About the Author
William Friedman is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the founding director and former Rosh Yeshivah of Nishma: A Summer of Torah Study in the JTS Beit Midrash. He has studied at The Conservative Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, JTS, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, and has semikhah (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Daniel Landes.